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Daniel Little, University of Michigan-Dearborn

            Marxism is a family of critiques, theories, and political goals loosely organized around the theories and criticisms formulated by Karl Marx in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Central to this body of theory are several key ideas: the view that capitalism embodies a system of class exploitation; that socialism is a social order in which private property and exploitation are abolished; and that socialism can be achieved through revolution.  Revolutionary leaders and theorists, and several generations of social scientists and historians, have attempted to develop these central ideas into programs of political action and historical research.  The challenges for Marxist political parties fall in two general areas: how to achieve revolutionary political change (the problem of revolution); and what the ultimate socialist society ought to look like (the problem of the creation of socialism). 

Marx was an advocate for socialism and for the ascendant political power of the working class (Newman 2005).  He was one of the early leaders of the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International), founded in 1864. However, Marx’s economic and political writings provide very little concrete guidance for the design of a socialist society.  Socialism was to be an order in which exploitation and domination were abolished; it was to establish an end to the dominion of private property; it was to create an environment of democratic self-determination for the proletariat.  Marx’s own definition of socialism might have included these elements: collective ownership of the means of production, a centralized socialist party, political power in the hands of the proletariat, and the view that socialist reform will require the power of a socialist state.  Marx also emphasized human freedom and “true democracy”—elements that could have been incorporated into non-authoritarian forms of democratic socialism. 

Much of the political platform of twentieth-century Marxism took shape following the death of Marx through a handful of more authoritarian theories, including especially those of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.  The most catastrophic ideological results of twentieth-century Communism bear only a tangential relationship to Marx’s writings; instead, they bear the imprint of such revolutionary thinkers as Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and Mao.  Perhaps the most crucial flaw within twentieth-century communist thought was its authoritarianism: the idea that a revolutionary state and its vanguard party can take any means necessary in order to bring about communist outcomes.  This assumption of unlimited political authority for party and state led to massive violations of human rights within Soviet and Communist regimes: Stalin’s war on the kulaks, the Moscow show trials, the Gulag, Mao’s Great Leap Forward and its resulting famine, and the Chinese Cultural Revolution.  The dramatic economic failures of centralized Soviet-style economies derived from a similar impulse: the view that the state could and should manage the basic institutions and behaviors of a socialist society (Kornai 1992). 

            It is possible to formulate a non-authoritarian conception of socialism based on a democratic socialist movement and a theory of a democratic socialist society.  Indeed, it is possible to find support for such conceptions within the writings of Marx himself.  The most influential Marxist parties of the twentieth century took another avenue, however.  These parties emphasized the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” the need for the working class to seize power by force, and the conviction that the “bourgeoisie” and its allies would not tolerate a peaceful transformation of the defining property relations of capitalism. The Bolshevik seizure of political power in the Russian revolution (1917), the failed Spartacist uprising in Germany in 1918, and the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949 all embodied the assumption that only a disciplined central party, supported by the masses, would be able to exercise the power necessary to overthrow the capitalist ruling class; and only a disciplined Communist government would be capable of enacting the massive social changes required for the establishment of communist society once in power. The dominant political ideology of communist parties and states in the twentieth century was anti-democratic and ruthless in its use of violence against its own citizens.  (One of the few examples of a socialist regime that willingly submitted itself to popular referendum, and accepted defeat, was the government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in 1990.)

Soviet Communism represented the earliest and most pervasive ascendancy by a communist party.  After the seizure of power in the Russian Revolution, Lenin and Stalin exercised political power to force the rapid transformation of Soviet society and economy, and to preserve the power and privilege of the Communist Party.  There was deep disagreement among the Party’s leadership about the right course for Soviet Communism.  How should the development of agriculture and industry be balanced?  How rapidly should socialist transition be performed?  How should the forces of the market and the state be involved in socialist transition?  One school of thought advocated a gradual transformation of the Soviet economy and system of production, permitting the workings of market institutions and the emergence of an industrial bourgeoisie that would advance Soviet industrial capacity.  The other school was ideologically opposed to permitting a propertied class to acquire power, and advocated a state-directed and more rapid transition to socialism.  The New Economic Policy (NEP) of 1921 embodied the former strategy, and it was decisively rejected by 1928.  From that point forward, Stalin demonstrated his intention of using the power of the state to force social changes that would propel the Soviet system into its communist future.  Stalin’s determination to defeat “counter-revolutionary kulaks” during the period of collectivization of agriculture brought about the deaths by starvation of several million rural people in the Ukraine, as a deliberate act of policy (Viola 2005).  The doctrine of “socialism in one country” led the Soviet-dominated Communist International to sacrifice other socialist parties (for example, during the Spanish Civil War) in favor of the interests of the Soviet system.  Stalin’s internal political and ideological struggles within the party led him to pursue a murderous campaign against other Communist leaders and ordinary people, resulting in show trials, summary executions, and the consignment of millions of people to remote labor camps.  (See (Smith 2002) for a good summary of these events.)

            China’s Communist Revolution was guided by Mao T’se Tung from its early mobilization in the 1920s, through civil war and anti-Japanese war in the 1930s and 1940s, to successful seizure of power in 1949 by the Chinese Communist Party and the Red Army.  Mao’s Marxism was strongly influenced by Soviet ideology, but also incorporated the perspective of the role of the peasantry in revolution.  Classical Marxism placed the proletariat at center stage as the revolutionary class; but Mao’s urban proletariat strategy was destroyed in 1927 when the Republican army under Chiang Kai-Shek massacred the Shanghai Communist Party organization;.  This precipitated the Long March and Mao’s regrouping around an ultimately successful peasant-based strategy for revolution.  China’s communist leaders too faced fateful policy choices: whether and how to implement “social ownership” of agriculture and industry, how to achieve rapid industrialization and modernization, how to create the political conditions necessary to sustain Chinese socialism and socialist identity among the Chinese population, and how to confront the capitalist world.  China’s history since 1949 has pivoted around these issues: the Great Leap Forward (1957), in which China underwent rapid collectivization of agriculture, and an ensuing famine that resulted in tens of millions of deaths; the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), in which Red Guards throughout the country persecuted and punished teachers, officials, and others for political purity; the reform of agriculture towards the Family Responsibility system in the 1980s, resulting in a surge of productivity in the farm economy; and the rapid economic growth of the 1990s into the first part of the twenty-first century.  Developments since 1980 reveal a more pragmatic and market-oriented approach towards China’s development on the part of CCP leadership.  At the same time, the Chinese government’s crackdown on the democracy movement in 1990 at Tiananmen Square demonstrated the Party’s determination to maintain control of China’s political system.

            Anti-capitalist politics of the early twentieth century were influenced by several strands of activism and theory that were independent of Marx’s thought, and these strands found expression in the solutions and platforms of Marxist political parties and movements.  Anarchist thinkers as Bakunin and Kropotkin put forward the radical view that all forms of state power were inherently evil.  Anarchism and syndicalism had significant influence on radical labor unions in Europe and North America.  Revisionist socialists such as Edouard Bernstein argued that revolution by force was not a feasible path to socialism and advocated instead for gradual change from within capitalism.  Democratic thinkers emphasized the ability of groups of people to govern themselves, and to press their states to undertake radical reforms of current conditions.  The British Labour Party and the main European social democratic parties fall within the tradition of democratic socialism in opposition to Marxism-Leninism.  European socialist parties in the twentieth century affiliated within the loose political organizations of the Second International (1889-1916), the International Working Union of Socialist Parties, and the Socialist International (Miliband 1982). 

            The twentieth century witnessed several important new developments within the intellectual architecture of Marxism. Western Marxism attempted to extrapolate Marx’s ideas in new ways, extending treatment of issues having to do with humanism, dialectics, history, and democracy.  Critical theory was an important intellectual elaboration of some of Marx’s philosophical ideas, in the hands of such thinkers as Adorno, Horkheimer, Gadamer, and Habermas (Geuss 1981; Wellmer 1971).  In the 1960s Western Marxism developed a distinctive political standpoint on the issues of the day under the banner of “The New Left”: economic inequality within capitalist countries, inequalities within a colonialized world, and struggles for independence by countries in the developing world.   Partially shaped by a growing awareness of Stalin’s crimes in the 1940s and 1950s, Western Marxists developed the strand of democratic socialism into a full intellectual and political program.  Particularly important were contributions by Perry Anderson, E. P. Thompson, Ralph Miliband, and the New Left Review.  This body of thought retained the critical perspective of classical Marxism; it gave greater focus to the world historical importance of imperialism and colonialism; and it aligned itself with the interests of developing countries such as Cuba and India.

Marxism as a body of research.  The other important dimension of Marxism in the contemporary world is in the area of knowledge and theory.  Marx’s theory of historical materialism maintains that large historical change proceeds as a result of dynamic interaction between the forces and relations of production (roughly, technology and property relations) (Cohen 1978).  Marx identifies the economic structure of society (the forces and relations of production) as the key factor that constrains and impels historical transformation across large historical epochs (the slave mode of production, feudalism, capitalism).  And he regards other institutions, including institutions of politics and culture, as part of the superstructure of society.  These “superstructural” institutions are social arrangements that serve to support and stabilize the development of the economic structure.  Another important element of the framework of historical materialism is the theory of class conflict as an engine of historical change.  The central conflict in every society, according to Marx, is the economic conflict between owners of property and property-less: masters and slaves, lords and serfs, and capitalists and proletarians.  Marx also offers a theory of ideology and mystification: the view that the ideas and beliefs that people have in a class society are themselves a material product of specific social institutions, and are distorted in ways that serve the interests of the dominant classes.

Materialism implies that the economic structure of society is fundamental to its historical dynamics.  How does this theory work in relation to modern society?  Marx advanced a multi-stranded analysis of the capitalist mode of production in his most extensive work, Capital.  This account was intended to be rigorous and scientific (Little 1986), (Rosdolsky 1977).   Marx hoped to succeed in penetrating below the surface appearances of the English economy of the nineteenth century, to discover some “laws of motion” and institutional mechanisms that would explain its historical behavior.  There are several independent strands of this analysis: a social-institutional account of the specific property relations (capital and wage labor) that defined the material and institutional context of capitalist development; a sociological description of some of the characteristics of the industrial workplace and the industrial city; a historical account of the transformations of traditional rural society that had created the foundation for the emergence of this dynamic system; and a mathematical analysis of the sources and transformation of value and surplus value within this economy.  The mathematical theory based on the labor theory of value has not stood the test of time well; whereas the more sociological and institutional core of the framework continues to shed light on how a modern private-property economy functions.

            There is no single answer to the question, “What is the Marxist approach to social science?”  Instead, Marxist social inquiry in the twentieth century represents a chorus of many voices and insights, many of which are inconsistent with others.  Rather than representing a coherent research community defined by a central paradigm and commitment to specific methodological and theoretical premises, Marxist social science in the twentieth century has had a great deal of variety and diversity of perspectives.  There is a wide range of thinkers whose work falls within the general category of Marxian social science and history: E. P. Thompson, Louis Althusser, Jürgen Habermas, Gerald Cohen, Robert Brenner, Nicos Poulantzas, Perry Anderson, Ralph Miliband, Nikolai Bukharin, Georg Lukàcs, Antonio Gramsci, or Michel Foucault.  All these authors have made a contribution to Marxist social science; but in no way do these contributions add up to a single, coherent and focused methodology for the social sciences.  Instead, there are numerous instances of substantive and methodological writings, from a variety of traditions, that have provided moments of insight and locations for possible future research.

The twenty-first century. Where do Marx’s ideas stand in the early part of the twenty-first century?  Several areas of limitation in Marx’s social theories have come under scrutiny by theorists and social critics late in the twentieth century.  (1) Feminist and cultural critics have argued that Marx’s thought is too economistic and exclusively focused on issues of class—thereby ignoring other forms of oppression and domination that exist in modern society, including those based on gender, race, or ethnicity.  (2) “Green” socialists have criticized Marx’s theory of capitalist development and socialism on the ground that it is deeply pro-growth, in ways that are sometimes said to be at odds with environmental sustainability.  (3) Democratic socialists have criticized Marx’s rhetoric of class politics on the ground that it gives too little validity to the demands of democracy; they have advocated for a much deeper embodiment of the importance of collective self-determination within socialist theory and practice.  (4) Marx’s critique of capitalist society emphasizes economic features to the neglect of cultural or ideological forms of domination.  Theorists who consider the social role of communications media argue (reminiscent of Gramsci’s writings) that the softer forms of oppression and domination that are associated with television, the internet, and the instruments of public opinion are at least as profound in the contemporary world as the more visible forms of political and economic domination that Marx emphasized.  Here the writings of Stuart Hall (Hall 1980, 1997) and Raymond Williams (Williams 1974, 1977) have been particularly influential.

Notwithstanding these areas of limitation in Marx’s vision, the most central critical theory within Marxism is the demand for human emancipation from forms of exploitation, domination, and alienation that interfere with full, free human development.  And these ideas give ample scope for twenty-first century debates and progress.



Cohen, G. A. 1978. Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Geuss, Raymond. 1981. The Idea of a Critical Theory: Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hall, Stuart. 1980. Culture, media, language : working papers in cultural studies, 1972-79. London [Birmingham, West Midlands]: Hutchinson ; Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, University of Birmingham.

———. 1997. Representation : cultural representations and signifying practices, Culture, media, and identities. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage in association with the Open University.

Kornai, Janos. 1992. The Socialist System: The Political Economy of Communism Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Little, Daniel. 1986. The Scientific Marx. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Miliband, Ralph. 1982. Capitalist Democracy in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Newman, Michael. 2005. Socialism : a very short introduction, Very short introductions ; 126. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Rosdolsky, Roman. 1977. The making of Marx's 'Capital'. London: Pluto Press.

Smith, S. A. 2002. The Russian Revolution : a very short introduction, Very short introductions ; 63. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.

Viola, Lynne. 2005. The war against the peasantry, 1927-1930 : the tragedy of the Soviet countryside, Annals of Communism. Tragedy of the Soviet countryside, 1927-1939. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Wellmer, Albrecht. 1971. Critical theory of society. [New York]: Herder and Herder.

Williams, Raymond. 1974. Television; technology and cultural form. [London]: Fontana.

———. 1977. Marxism and literature, Marxist introductions. Oxford [Eng.]: Oxford University Press.




Daniel Little

University of Michigan-Dearborn

Word count: 2089 (excluding references)

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