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Home » People » Joe Braunwarth » POSC 150 » Marxism


Marxism is a body of social, political, and economic thought derived from the writings of Karl Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels. Various schools of Marxism have emerged since Marx's death in 1883. Many of these remain influential today.

At the center of Marx's work is his analysis of capitalism (a system of economics based on the control of production by forces of popular a ppeal and buying capacity in which the flow of revenue from such sale would be a cyclical process of profit and reinvestment): how it arose, how it works (for whom it works better and for whom worse), and where it is likely to lead. Concentrating on the social and economic relations in which people earn their livings, Marx saw behind capitalism's legal facade a struggle of two main classes (or distinct social divisions, based on economic differences in this case): the capitalist classwho owns the productive resources, and the workers' class, or proletariatwho must work for wages in order to survive.

The main theories that make up this analysis--the theory of alienation, the labor theory of value, and the materialist conception of history--must all be understood with this focus in mind. Even Marx's vision of socialism emerges from his study of capitalism , for socialism is the unrealized potential inherent in capitalism itself for a more rational and egalitarian social order in which people can develop more fully their distinctively human qualities.

Some socialist ideas can be traced as far back as the Bible, but Marxism has its main intellectual origins in German philosophy , English political economy , and French utopian socialism . It is from G. W. F. Hegel that Marx learned a way of thinking about the world, in all its fluid complexity, that is called "dialectics." Adam Smith's and David Ricardo's view that the values of commodities express the amount of labor time that go into their production underlay Marx's own labor theory of value. From the French utopians, especially Charles Fourier and the Comte de Saint-SimonMarx caught a glimpse of a happier future that lay beyond capitalism. With the paradox of an Industrial Revolution that produced as much poverty as it did wealth, these were the main ingredients that went into the formation of Marxism.


Marx's study of capitalism was grounded in a philosophy that was both dialectical and materialist. With dialectics, the changes and interactions that anything undergoes are brought into focus and emphasized, and special attention is devoted to whatever patterns emerge. This method enabled Marx, when examining a particular problem within capitalism, to keep in view both the broader interactions that made up the whole and the past and future development of present phenomena. In this way, capitalism as it unfolded as a system in history becomes the main object of his study. The uneasy tension between the historical forces promoting change and the systemic ones promoting equilibrium were captured in the idea of "contradiction," understood as a progressive pulling apart of what is functionally united.

Unlike Hegel's dialectic, which moved in a world of pure ideas, Marx's dialectic was materialist. Marx was primarily concerned with capitalism as lived rather than as thought about, but people's lives also involve consciousness. Marx's materialism puts ideas back into the heads of living people and treats both as parts of a world that is forever being remade through human activities, particularly in production. In this dialectical process, ideas also affect the social conditions and behavior that more generally shape them.


Marx's theories about capitalism are best understood as answers to his pointed questions about its nature, effects, and development. How do the ways and conditions in which people earn their living affect their bodies, minds, and daily lives? In the theory of alienationMarx gives his answer. The people who do the work in capitalism own none of the means (machines and raw materials, for example) that they use in their work. These are owned by the capitalists, to whom workers must sell their "labor power," or ability to do work, in return for a wage. This system of labor displays four relations that lie at the core of Marx's theory of alienation. The worker is alienated from his or her productive activity, playing no part in deciding what to do or how to do it. The worker is alienated from the product of that activity, having no control over what is made or what becomes of it. The worker is alienated from other human beings, with competition and mutual indifference replacing most forms of cooperation. Finally, the worker is alienated from the distinctive potential inherent in the notion of human being.

The severing of these relationships leaves on one side a seriously diminished individual--physically weakened, mentally confused and mystified, isolated and virtually powerless. On the other side of this separation are products and ties with other people, outside the control and lost to the understanding of the worker. In the marketplace, the worker's products pass from one hand to another, changing names and form along the way--value, commodity, capital, profit, interest, rent, wage--eventually reentering the worker's daily life as the landlord's house, the grocer's food, the boss's factory, and the various laws and customs that prescribe relations with other people. The world that the worker has made and lost reappears in the misunderstood form of private property to serve as the necessary conditions for reproducing his or her own alienation.

Theory of Value

What is the effect of the worker's alienated labor on its products, both on what they do and on what can be done with them? Smith and Ricardo used the labor theory of value to explain broad price ratios. Marx took this explanation more or less for granted; his labor theory of value is primarily concerned with the more basic problem of why goods have prices at all. The slave owner takes by force what slaves produce. The feudal lord claims as a right some part of what is produced by the serfs. Only in capitalism is the distribution of what is produced a function of markets and prices. Marx's explanation of this anomaly concentrates on the separation of the worker from his or her means of production and the sale of his or her labor power that this separation makes necessary. As a result of this separation, all the things that workers produce become available for exchange, indeed are produced with this exchange in mind. "Value" is the general social form taken by all products of alienated labor (labor to which the four relations of alienated labor apply). Such products could only sell ("exchange values") and serve ("use values") in ways that express and contribute to this alienation.

Surplus valuethe third aspect of value, is the difference between the amount of exchange and use value created by workers and the amount of value returned to them as wages. The capitalist's control over this surplus is the basis of their power over the workers and the rest of society. Marx's labor theory of value also provides a detailed account of the struggle between capitalists and workers over the size of the surplus value. Because of competition among capitalists, workers are constantly being replaced by machinery, enabling and requiring capitalists to extract ever-greater amounts of surplus value from workers remaining.

Paradoxically, the amount of surplus value is also the source of capitalism's greatest weakness. Because only part of their product is returned to them as wages, the workers, as consumers, cannot buy a large portion of what they produce. Under pressure from the constant growth of the total product, the capitalists periodically fail to find new markets to take up the slack. This leads to crises of "overproduction," capitalism's classic contradiction, in which people are forced to live on too little because they have produced too much.

Historical Tendencies

How did capitalism originate, and where is it leading? In the materialist conception of historyMarx answered this question with an account of the transformation of feudalism intocapitalism. He focused on the contradictions that arose through the growth of towns, population, technology, and trade, which at a certain point burst asunder the feudal social and political forms in which production had been organized. Relations of lord to serf based on feudal rights and obligations had become a hindrance to the further development of these productive forces; they were replaced by the contractual relations of capitalists to workers. With capitalists free to pursue profits wherever they might take them and workers equally "free" to sell their labor power to capitalists however they might use it, the productive potential inherent in the new forces of production, especially technology and science, was freed. If profit maximization leads to rapid growth when rapid growth maximizes profits, however, profit maximization restricts growth when growth proves unprofitable. According to Marx, the periodic and worsening crises of overproduction that began about 1830 attest to capitalism's growing inability to take full advantage of the potential for producing wealth that has grown up with it.

Within this framework the actual course of history is determined by class struggle. According to Marx, each class is defined chiefly by its relation to the productive process and has objective interests rooted in that relation. The capitalists' interests lie in securing their power and expanding profits. Workers, on the other hand, have interests in higher wages, safer working conditions, shorter hours, job security, and--because it is required to realize other interests--a new distribution of power. The class struggle involves everything that these two major classes do to promote their incompatible interests at each other's expense. In this battle, which rages throughout society, the capitalists are aided by their wealth, their control of the state, and their domination over other institutions--schools, media, churches--that guide and distort people's thinking. On the workers' side are their sheer numbers, their experience of cooperation--however alienated--while at work, trade unions, working-class political parties (where they exist), and the growing contradictions within capitalism that make present conditions increasingly irrational.

Marx believed that once most workers recognized their interests and became "class conscious," the overthrow of capitalism would proceed as quickly and democratically as the nature of capitalist opposition allowed. The socialist society that would emerge out of the revolution would develop the full productive potential inherited from capitalism through democratic planning on behalf of social needs. The final goal, toward which socialist society would constantly build, is the human one of abolishing alienation. Marx called the attainment of this goal communism.


The theories of Karl Marx have had a tremendous impact on the way we live today. It is because of this revolutionary thinking that many social reforms in the Western World have been enacted, including welfare benefits and greater access to such things as health care. Marxist doctrine is what perpetuated the worker movements and call for social and political change in the late nineteenth century, and was the primary force behind the growth of communism all throughout the twentieth century. Just about every philosophical work published after the time ofMarx has been in some way or other been affected by his profound and deeply affecting thought. Almost all of the many communist and socialist states which have existed in recent times owe their existence to the ideas and beliefs of Karl Marx. Furthermore, Marxian thought is still a very popular subject among academic circles, and will without a doubt have a major imprint on the political and social changes of the future.

Marxism, as with any other line of thought, isn't without it's detractors. From its beginnings, Marxian theory has been under strong attack by critics, often for claims that Marx himself never made. For example, some have viewed Marx's materialism as evidence that he ignored the role of ideas in history and in people's lives. Others have claimed wrongly that Marx's labor theory of value ignored the effect of competition on prices.

Many argue that with the advent of the welfare state and the relative prosperity of workers in much of the Western world, Marxism is no longer relevant. Marxists answer that the basic structures that set capitalism apart from other social forms--private ownership of industrial wealth and alienated wage labor--have changed little in the past 100 years. Some, finally, cite the antidemocratic practices of many communist countries and claim that authoritarianism is inherent in Marxist doctrine. Marxists respond that Marx concentrated on advanced industrialcapitalism and never supposed that socialism could achieve its full promise in relatively poor nations.

The recent collapse of the USSR has led many to wonder whether Marxism too may have come to the end of its tether. But Marxism, as we have seen, is essentially an interpretation ofcapitalism in which socialism and its final stage, communism, emerge as the still-unrealized potential within capitalism itself, as a way of resolving the main problems created by capitalism using means that have themselves come into existence during the capitalist era. What failed in the Soviet Union, then, Marxists will argue, is not Marxism but an effort to build socialism without any of the preconditions, such as developed industry, material plenty, democratic institutions, and a literate public, that arise with capitalism and which Marx considered absolutely necessary to the success of this effort.

Last Updated: 06/16/2015
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