History of Marxism Research Paper

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Marxism is an economic, social, and political theory or system based upon the philosophies of the nineteenth-century Germans Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Socialism and communism are particularly prominent strains of Marxist thought. Central to Marxism is the aim of achieving revolutionary social change through an ongoing class struggle between labor (the proletariat) and the owners of capital.

It has been said that the three most important ideas that shaped the twentieth century came from the English naturalist Charles Darwin, the Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud, and the German philosopher Karl Marx. Darwin’s theory of evolution and Freudian psychoanalysis both fundamentally altered humanity’s understanding of itself. Marx, his ideas, and what his followers did with his ideas were among the most significant factors shaping the political and economic course of the twentieth century. While some have declared Marxism a flawed analysis and a failed ideology, the proclamation of the death of Marxism may yet be premature, as witnessed by the burgeoning antiglobalization movement.

Marx’s ideas influenced not only the rise of unionized labor and the welfare state, but also the Russian Revolution, communism, socialism, and Zionism; even the ethic of the kibbutz owes a debt to Marx. The political consequences have been immense. Fascism arose as a reaction to communism, and millions of people died in World War II (1939–1945) because of it (estimates vary widely, from 50 to over 80 million, of which only about 25 million were military casualties. Following the war, the geopolitical competition between capitalism and socialism—the Cold War roughly dividing East and West—defined the contours of world politics for the best part of half a century. The formation of the State of Israel in 1948 continues to shape the politics of the Middle East to this day. The Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 still affects the lives of over a billion people. Worldwide, postwar anticolonial struggles for independence were often cast in the Marxist rhetoric of anti-imperialism, class analysis, and socialist revolution. But the failures of the Soviet Union either to deliver goods or to fulfill Marx’s vision of a humanistic society led to its implosion in 1991. Still, Soviet Communists managed to transform a backward, rural society into a major industrial power, despite external pressures that strained its budgets and sustained dictatorships.

Despite having considerable intellectual, political, and even commercial appeal, the term “Marxist” is resistant to precise definition and is somewhat obscured by the range of interpretations laying claim to the title of “true” Marxism. Broadly speaking, Marxism refers to any form of idea that demonstrates its fidelity to the thought and influence of Marx’s literary-philosophical heritage. A Marxist belief “is one held by anyone, academician or political stalwart, who thinks or can persuade others that the belief in question is in accordance with Marx’s intellectual or political legacy” (Carver 1991, 23–24). Some prefer a more strict interpretation of Marxism that refuses to allow for any perceived deviations from Marx’s own writings (the term “Marxian” is sometimes used to designate ideas that can be traced back directly to Marx). For our purposes, we will be content to use “Marxist” or “Marxism” to describe the general trajectory and impact of Marx’s influence through his writings and his later interpreters.

Few thinkers have enjoyed the influence, polarizing appeal, and notoriety of Karl Marx. Marxist thought has affected every aspect of the social sciences, including religion, history, sociology, and politics, and has permeated discussions of the individual and society for almost two hundred years. Important Marxist themes include “historical materialism” (the concept that events in history are driven by economic concerns and class conflict), and the dialectic between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Karl Marx: Background and Philosophy

Marx was born in 1818 in Trier, Germany, and educated in Prussia. After studying law in Bonn, he attended the University of Berlin and earned his doctorate in philosophy at Jena in 1843. Like most philosophy students at that time, he was much influenced by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770–1831), the German idealist philosopher who stressed the primacy of ideas—that consciousness precedes the objects of consciousness. Encompassing theories of alienation, domination, and historical change, Hegel argued that through reason people could overcome domination and find freedom. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–1872), Marx’s teacher, argued for a more materialistic interpretation of Hegel, rooted in human sensory experience.

Marx became a member of a group of radical students, the antireligious Young Hegelians. As a radical, he was unable to find a teaching position so, turning to journalism, he became the editor of Rheinische Zeitung and also served as a correspondent for the New York Tribune. At about this time, he met the political philosopher Friedrich Engels (1820–1895), who became his lifelong companion, colleague, and often patron. Marx’s early work consisted of critiques of Hegel’s idealist philosophy as removed from people’s lives, and of the materialism of Feuerbach’s elaborations of Hegel. Marx offered commentaries on religion and politics. One of his important early writings concerned how labor under capitalism led to alienation: how one becomes estranged from one’s work and the products of that work, estranged from others, and, indeed, estranged from one’s very humanity.

Marx’s work proceeded to offer materialist interpretations of history and of then-contemporary French politics, such as its civil wars and the 1851 coup d’etat of Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew Louis Bonaparte (who then took the reign name Napoleon III). Most important, Marx began his studies of the capitalist political economy. In 1848, he penned the Communist Manifesto, which would become the foundational document for Communist parties. In it, Marx offered a critique of capitalism: while he praised its power to liberate people from feudalism, he pointed to the inherent injustices of its class system and called for workers to revolt and overthrow the forces of capital. He soon moved to London where he wrote on French history, class struggle, and political economy, arguing that the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories of the British economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo, among others, were in fact ideologies that merely served to legitimate the activities of the bourgeoisie.

Marx observed the human species in terms of Darwinian evolution, asserting that humans are primarily “workers” (Homo faber) who interact with their created tools in order to survive. For Marx, competition is not the natural state of being but rather an artificial byproduct of the capitalist system, thus producing an ongoing imbalance of materials and wealth. Within this very material struggle are the seeds of “class struggle”; certain individuals will inevitably elevate themselves above their fellow humans via their domination of the profit from their labor, creating an imbalance of power and the roots of discontent for those who are deprived of the surplus. The “privileged class” must therefore mold “consciousness itself” (i.e., human ideas about what is right/wrong or attractive/unattractive and what it is that humans should have and should want) in such a way as to benefit their unending pursuit of and mastery over surplus capital.

In 1864, socialists and communists formed the International Working Men’s Association. Its world congress in Geneva was the first Internationale, or organization of socialist groups. Marx assumed leadership of the organization and devoted a great deal of effort on behalf of workers. Marx proceeded to research and write his magnum opus, Das kapital (Capital), a book that is still widely studied and debated. If Marx had become a professor of philosophy who approached debate academically, he might have been regarded as merely the most important post- Hegelian philosopher. But the power of his intellect, the passion of his politics, and his vision of overcoming capitalism and its adversities would attract many followers seeking to change the face of politics and social life the world over. Timing is also important: at certain moments, social conditions enable certain ideas to flourish, and a leader’s influence is magnified. Such was the case with Marx.

Marxism as Theory and Praxis

Marx began writing as industrialization was rapidly changing the social fabric of Europe. While new forms of production, transportation, and finance created enormous wealth for the owners of capital, such as factories, banks, railroads, and steamships (and profited others such as wholesalers), for the great masses of peasants who came to cities in search of jobs the working and living conditions were harsh and inhumane. Their jobs paid little, their hours were long, tenement conditions were unhealthy and dangerous—indeed, brutal. It was in this context that Marx began to criticize capitalism as not only economically exploitative but also morally bankrupt, dehumanizing, and alienating to workers. When people sell their labor on the market, said Marx, labor becomes a commodity. When people sell themselves as commodities, when they own neither the tools nor the raw materials nor the fruits of their labor, they become powerless, devoid of their humanity and shorn of community. Such people often turn to prayer, which Marx saw as the expression of “real suffering.” But religion, controlled by elites, cannot ameliorate the economic basis of that suffering, said Marx. Rather, it acts as the “opiate of the people,” promising relief in the next life and sustaining classbased oppression in this one.

In his most accessible work, The Communist Manifesto, Marx presented his theory of history as class conflict, his critique of domination under capital, his analysis of why capitalism should and will be overcome, and the concrete measures that would be instated upon the overthrow. The agents of history are classes and class interests, Marx argued, not individual kings, generals, or presidents, and surely not religion, political ideas, or cultural factors, all of which merely disguise ruling-class interests. He claimed that Communism represents the “real interests” of the working classes whose labor creates the wealth of the bourgeoisie. Capitalists prosper while workers are exploited and alienated. Furthermore, capital creates a lumpenproletariat, a surplus population of the jobless—beggars, thieves, and prostitutes.

Marx was not the first to criticize capitalism and suggest alternatives. The three primary influences on Marx were Hegel, the British political economists already noted, and the French socialists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The French socialists had deplored the living conditions of the workers and argued for communal ownership. Claude-Henri de Rouvroy (known as St. Simon) had sketched a materialist theory of history while Charles Fourier suggested a vision in which work and play were joined and human dignity realized. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon declared that property was theft and the basis of modern misery. As a system builder like Hegel, Marx absorbed these ideas and developed a comprehensive, materialist explanation of power and ideology.

For Marx, history as commonly understood was obscured by ideologies that masked the economic and political motives of elites. He provided a way of comprehending the general misery of the poor in a broader context. In the nineteenth century, the poor were commonly seen as lazy, impulsive, and morally deficient and thereby they, and not the class system, were deemed responsible for their adverse conditions. In Das Kapital Marx demonstrated the nature of exchange value (goods produced for the market to be exchanged for money as opposed to being used by the producer and/or traded for other goods), the valorization process (profit based on exploitation), and “commodity fetishism”—the way in which goods produced and sold for the market were embodiments of social relations. In so doing, Marx transformed the way people understood the world thereafter.

Perhaps the most politically salient part of Marx’s work was his analysis of capitalism’s inherent contradictions, which he thought would lead inevitably to its overthrow. Business cycles and crises of overproduction would either demand imperial expansion or create unemployment, forging workers into a revolutionary class, whose eventual victory would overturn the economic order and abolish private property. Communism would usher in an era of freedom, an order that acknowledged all people’s needs, allowing them to realize their full creative potential and find meaning, recognition, community, and empowerment.

Comprehensive and sophisticated, Marx’s analysis “put it all together” and offered an ameliorative vision that held considerable allure. For the growing masses of impoverished workers and those sympathetic with workers’ struggles, Marx provided a rationale and agenda for the revolutionary change that he thought inevitable. In the style of many great leaders, he gave people hope. The Internationale, the anthem of the Communist Party, promised that a “better world was in sight.”

Marx’s Political Influence

To temper the lure of Communism, Europe’s bourgeois and monarchist governments initiated a variety of reforms in the wake of the 1848 revolutions and the brief rule of the Paris Commune in 1871. Indeed, the first social security legislation laws, unemployment compensation, and pensions were passed in Germany in 1872. Marx’s own analyses hinted at ways in which workers could be pacified by socialist reforms providing material benefits. But as wage laborers, they would remain alienated and dominated—even if less harshly. The very threat of Communism disposed the capitalist classes first to initiate reforms, unions, and entitlements (such as pensions and unemployment insurance) that would benefit the workers, and second, to promulgate ideologies such as consumerism and nationalism that would mask the class interests of the bourgeoisie as the “general good” and secure their hegemony by obscuring the operations of class.

After Germany established social security benefits, workers have been ever less than enthusiastic about toppling governments that provide unemployment benefits and pensions. (In the twentieth century, consumerism would further dull revolutionary impulses.) But Marx’s ideas and theories of revolution would be embraced by revolutionaries in preindustrial societies struggling against either colonial rule or wealthy elites.

Among Marx’s more important successors would be Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870–1924) and Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), who led impoverished masses of Russians and the disaffected czarist armies in a revolution to form the first major Communist government. Following World War II, Marxism inspired a number of “peasant revolutions,” the most important being the Chinese revolution led by Mao Zedong in which the Communists eventually defeated Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. There were a number of other societies and revolutionaries influenced by Marxism, including Ho Chi Minh (Vietnam), Tito (Yugoslavia), Fidel Castro (Cuba), and Che Guevara (Congo, Cuba, and Latin America). Each movement blended Marxism, nationalism, and peasant struggles into liberation movements seeking autonomy from colonial rule and/or capitalist domination; not all such movements were successful, some of them needlessly bloody and violent.

Communism as practiced in the USSR bore little relationship to Marx’s vision of a just society. For a number of reasons, primarily due to the totalitarian leaders who claimed the mantle of Marx in an attempt to legitimate their tyranny, and partly due to pressures from the West, come 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. China, meanwhile, had embraced an increasingly open market economy to become one of the most powerful countries in the world. Marx should not be blamed for the totalitarian nature of formerly existing socialism; he is no more responsible for the gulags, secret police, and political murders of these dictatorial regimes than Christ was responsible for the Inquisition. For many contemporary Marxists, the humanistic side of Marx and his critiques of alienation, exploitation, and domination remain a salient warning of the dysfunctions of global capitalism.

Marxism and the Future

Marx and Marxist thought have remained influential throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the work of thinkers and social theorists such as Max Weber, Talcott Parsons, Gyorgy Lukacs, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Rosa Luxemburg, Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, the Frankfurt school, Antonio Negri, and Slavoj Zizek, to name just a few prominent intellectuals. So, too, a number of feminist theorists began to see gender stratification in terms of class and ideologies of dominance—in this case, patriarchies. Similarly, while the field of economics in the twenty-first century is largely dominated by neoliberals, some contemporary economists have been much influenced by Marx, such as Joan Robinson and Richard Wolff, valuing equality and redistribution. Consequently, class analysis, the economic basis of power, and the roles of ideology, alienation, reification, and commodity fetishism are fundamental concepts for a number of disciplines in the social sciences, arts, and literature.

The power of Marxism as an intellectual influence has often been said to be on the wane. But Marxism has been pronounced dead a number of times—even as throughout the world growing numbers of people suffer from the adverse consequences of neoliberal globalization. Marx suggested that the use of machines and the overproduction of goods would lead to economic crises; indeed, this does seem to be a serious problem requiring urgent attention in the early twenty-first century. Millions have mobilized to challenge and contest contemporary forms of global capitalism. While these movements represent the diverse interests of workers, feminists, environmentalists, gay activists, and so on, one of the common themes heard across this wide spectrum of voices is a concern for the onerous consequences of global capitalism—often articulated in Marx’s language of class analysis and colored by his humanistic vision. The vast numbers of writings critical of globalized capital, the widespread antiglobalization demonstrations, and the World Social Forum under whose banner 100,000 activists and intellectuals gather regularly all affirm the continued influence of Marx as one of the most significant and important thinkers in history.


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