Marxism is an ideological system within socialism that developed out of, and drew inspiration from, the writings of Karl Marx (1818–83). The ideology developed only after Marx’s death through attempts Marxism made by Friedrich Engels, Karl Kautsky, and Georgie Plekhanov. However, Marxism doesn’t just comprise exclusively of all the ideological thoughts belonging to Karl Marx. Instead, it a rich tradition of social through which is dynamic and evolving with significant possibilities.
The ideological understanding of Marxism can be traced back to the developments in the 19th century. It emerged in response to the oppressive conditions that capitalist system produced created circumstances where only a few group of capitalists enjoyed complete control of all the factors of production; while the vast majority was exploited for their labor. The proponents of capitalism supported the free market economy where the factors of demand and supply were free to interact without any interference of the state. This free market economy was characterized by growing inequalities between the capitalists and the workers. The liberal state was restricted to play the role of a ‘watchman.' Its functions elusively focused only on maintaining law and order in the society. The principle of ‘laissez-fair,' propagated for a non-interventionists state.
However, because of that, there was no mechanism available that would provide a safety net for the worker who was living in impoverished circumstances. The freedom provided by the liberal nation-state gave the worker the freedom of movement and freed from the feudal obligations the capitalist system allowed them to sell their labor. However, since there was ample availability of the labor, it allowed the capitalists exploited it to increase their profit.
Initially, the ideology of socialism emerged as a response towards the growing inequality between the two economic classes. However, the ideology got subjected to severe criticisms; Karl Marx provided the solutions to the shortcomings of this doctrine, which he later elaborates through Marxism. His significant theoretical contribution to Marxism includes works like A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, the Capital Vol. I, Capital Vol. II, Capital Vol. III etc. Marxism thus can be understood as the set of political and economic principles laid by Karl Marx and Engels to lay a scientific foundation of socialism.
There are however, different versions of Marxism this includes, the classical Marxism, orthodox Marxism and modern Marxism. Classical Marxism or the old Marxism refers to the ideological work produced by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels. Orthodox Marxism, the doctrine it is centered around is ‘dialectical materialism’. It is a term introduced by Plekhanov and this doctrine later formed the basis of Soviet communism. This understanding of Marxism placed a heavier stress upon mechanistic theories and historical inevitability of class conflicts than even Marx did in his own ideological discourse.
However, further complications stemming from the contradictions and complexity existed within of Marx’s own writings. Hence, one suffers from the difficulty of establishing the ‘Marxism of Marx’. Some see Marx as a humanist socialist, while others proclaim him to be an economic determinist. Moreover, on the basis of his work distinctions can be drawn between his early and later writings. Where, this earlier work is referred to as the ‘young’ Marx and the latter as the ‘mature’ Marx. The ‘young’ Marx stressed on the link between communism and human fulfillment through alienated labor that characterized the capitalist system; the ‘mature’ Marx gave much greater attention to the concept of economic determinism and inevitability of class conflict. Modern Marxism has tried to provide an alternative to the mechanistic and determinist ideas of orthodox Marxism by focusing on Hegelian philosophy and has focused on the theoretical understanding of anarchism, liberalism, feminism and even rational choice theory. Their focus is mostly on explaining the reason why Marxism an experiment failed and mostly why Marx’s predictions were so abysmally wrong, it particularly also focuses on the analysis of ideology and the state.
The core of Marxism is a study of historical phenomenon focused on the capitalist system, its critical analysis and the study of the class conflict between the two contending classes, which he classified as bourgeoisie and proletariats. Some significant elements of the philosophical keystone of this study are the theory of historical materialism, an economic determinism that is based on his belief that economic factors are the ultimate determining force in that influences historical development. The study of this has been developed into a collaborate framework in Marx and Engels refer to as the ‘scientific socialism’. According to Karl Marx, historical development progresses in a dialectical manner through the internal contradictions within each mode of production, or economic system, this gets transferred into different contending classes are. Capitalism thus, is only the most technologically advanced of class societies and its resultant class conflict with the proletariats will produce a proletarian revolution and since there is no other contending class that is in opposition to the proletariats this will create a classless, communist society where no class will have the exclusive control of all means of production (Heywood, 2000). These keystones of Marxism can be studied as follows.
Dialectics was the keystone of Hegelian philosophy. Hegel applied dialectic to understand evolution and development of history. He believed that the ‘ideal’ had motivated the creation of ‘matter’ real world. Hegel viewed history as the progressive manifestation of human reason and development of true spirit. This 'ideal' evolved into a new form because of the inherent tension, this process of evolution can be understood as the clash between thesis (partial truth) and antithesis (opposite of thesis) that produces a synthesis (nearer to the truth) (Gauba, 2003, p.32).
Marx, however, believed that it is the real rather than ideal, matter rather than the spirit where there is a constant movement in the dialectic progress. Fredrick Engels gives three important principles of material dialectics: the transformation of quantity into quality, the interpenetration of opposites and the negation of the negation. Marx believed that dialectics is a significant tool that offers a law of social development. He believed that social change is inevitable and thus, is the demise of capitalism.
While dialectic materialism represents the philosophical basis of Marxism, historical materialism represents its scientific basis (Gauba, 2003, p.32). Marx has applied the method of dialectic materialism to study the material world. The historical materialism thus is the study of the production process that explained historical developments. As mentioned earlier, Marx believed that the modes of production and exchange were the most significant factors that produced social changes and revolution. That for mind and thoughts to change, the society has to change.
Further, Marxism tries to study society regarding the base and superstructure. Marx believes that the change in the base influences and produces a change in the superstructure. Base, the foundation on which society was build consists of the modes of production, it has two most important components, forces of production and relation of production. While, the superstructure that is a build-up on base consists of the various legal, political structure, religion, morals, social, literature, arts and cultural practices, etc. The base cannot remain static, the forces of production have the inherent tendency to develop.
The relationship of production, on the other hand, is determined by the pattern of ownership of the means of production. This produces two contending classes at every stage of development in factors of production- the haves and have not. The change in the mode of production creates a shift in the contending classes but it doesn’t bring an end to the conflict between the two opposing classes (Gauba, 2003, p.33) The social revolution replaces an old social formation with a new one but this the class conflict between the two contending classes continues. This conflict continues until as argued by Marx the capitalist system is replaced by the emergence of a classless society where no class have the exclusive ownership of the factors of productions and hence doesn’t produce any inequality.
According to Karl Marx, Class conflict is an integral part of historical materialism. As the elucidated in the beginning phase of the Communists Manifesto, ‘The history of all hitherto society is the history of class struggles.’ (Marx, 1848) The two conceding classes thus emerged are characterized the relation of production based on one class enjoys the control on the factors of productions while; the other has to sell their labor. Over different historical junctures, these classes are known by different names, but the basic characteristic of their relationship that is based on domination and exploitation remains the same. According to Marx, ‘Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to each other.’(Marx, 1977, p.109)
Marx has tried to describe the class conflict in the modern capitalist's society as in Communist Manifesto (1848) as ‘The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with the class antagonism. It has but established new classes, new conditions of operation, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.’ Marx understood the class conflict in the then western industrial society as that between the capitalists and the workers. According to his the industrial revolution has divided the community into two contending classes, which he classifies as, the Bourgeoisie and Proletariats. Marx believed that the revolution between these two classes would usher in the final stage in the process of evolution, as there isn’t another class that the proletariats could exploit thus producing a classless society and therefore marks an end of the class conflict.
The Theory of Surplus Value forms the basis of Marx’s critique of capitalism. According to Marx of the four factors of production, land, capital, organization, and labor, only labor has the value in the society. All other factors of production don’t have the intrinsic value to reproduce. Without labor, they are all static. Thus, it is the sole creator of value. Therefore, according to Marx, the value of the commodity is the product of the labor. The quantity of labor required in the production is determined by the average conditions of social production and the skill of the labor employed.
The actual amount of labor employed in production if labor is called the natural price and this differs from its market price which isn’t always stable depending on changing condition of various factors of demand and supply in the market. In the capitalist system, a worker has to sell his labor to the capitalists at a market rate. When the number of workers increased, due to an increase in the supply of the labor there is consequently a decline in the in there wage rate. Thus, while the capitalists exploit the available labor, he pays the workers only subsistence wages. Accordingly, it is the capitalist rather than the labor that enjoys the value of the produce. This excess pocketed by the capitalists is what Marx referred to as the surplus value. The value that the labor doesn’t get paid due to decline is the wage rate is something that the capitalists profit from.
Marxism’s political impact has largely been related to its ability to inspire and guide the twentieth-century communist movement. It has provided an alternative to the capitalist mode of production for the newly emerging nation-states. The intellectual attraction of Marxism includes the understanding it offers of all aspects of the social and political elements in the society. It is broad in its scope and includes almost aspect of the society in its study. Politically, it has focused on the exploitation and oppression that the dominant system of capitalism produced and hence it finds a great appeal among the disadvantaged section of society who is suffering from this inequality.
However, the ideology seems to have lost its charm in the late twentieth century. To some extent, this was the result of the knowledge about the tyrannical and dictatorial features of communist regimes themselves, which were traced back to Marx’s ideas and assumptions. The crisis of Marxism, however, intensified as the result of the collapse of communism in the Eastern European countries during 1989-91. The disintegration of Soviet Union was the most devastating blow to the Marxist ideology. Thus, Marxism as a world-historical force appears to have gone extinct. However, the understanding of Marxism, which has now developed divorced from its interpretation in Leninism and Stalinism, might help in reinventing and a renewed study in the field.
Heywood, A., 2000. Key concepts in politics. Macmillan.
Gauba, O.P., 2003. An introduction to political theory. Macmillan.
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