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Marxism as proposed by Karl Marx advances the following ideas. All the
emphasized phrases are Marxist jargon.
- The most important features of a society are its economic
classes and their relations to
each other in the modes of production of each historical epoch.
- A class is defined by the relations of its members to the means of
- Under capitalism, the capitalists own the means of
proletariat own only their capacity to work. Landlords rule
and the peasants are less significant than workers and are
trapped in the idiocy of rural life. The proletariat
definitely includes those who produce objects in factories with
their hands, but Marxists dither about whether it includes people
who work with their minds but are employees and live by their
- History is the history of class struggles
among the classes in society.
New progressive classes arise that are related to new
forms of production and
struggle with the old. New forms of society arise appropriate to the
new forms of production
when the new classes win power. This doctrine is called historical
- The state is the means whereby the ruling class
forcibly maintains its rule over the other classes.
- The successive stages of history include primitive communism
characterized by equalitarian hunting and gathering, barbarism characterized
by rule by chiefs, slave society with a slave class and agriculture,
feudalism, capitalism, socialism and communism.
- Most struggles in history are class struggles, even though the
participants profess other goals. For example, protestantism reflects
the rising capitalist class.
- New classes usually win power by revolution. Revolutions are
violent, because the dying ruling class doesn't give up power without
a desperate struggle.
- The capitalist class wins power over the feudal class
by a bourgeois democratic revolution. A bourgeois democratic
revolution is a good thing in its day, because it gets rid of feudal
personal relations and replaces them by a cash nexus.
- Capitalism creates the proletariat who have nothing to sell
but their labor by bankrupting the artisan classes and the
petty bourgeoisie and driving them into the proletariat.
- The proletariat wins power by a proletarian revolution.
According to Marx and Lenin, this revolution must be violent, because
the bourgeoisie won't give up power by electoral means.
- Neither Russia nor China had undergone a bourgeois-democratic
revolution when the communists seized power. The communists undertook to
build socialism anyway, and some of their rival socialists used the
missing bourgeois-democratic revolution to predict that
communist power would end badly.
- Around the end of the 19th century Edouard Bernstein argued that it
was possible to win power peacefully by winning elections. This was
revisionism and the orthodox Marxist have used revisionism
as an epithet ever since. "Revisionism" came to have more general meanings
than Bernstein's actual doctrine, because it could be applied to people
who denied Bernstein's doctrine but who could be accused of not being
- Under capitalism the progressive class is the
destined to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism, which
will eventually evolve into communism.
- Historical materialism is the Marxist methodology for
interpreting history. The idea is to interpret all relations
between groups of people as class relations and to interpret
all conflicts as reflections of class struggles. A specific
sequence of historical stages is part of the doctrine. It is
(primitive communism, barbarism, slavery,
socialism, communism). Each stage of history has
its own ruling class which uses the state
to maintain its rule. Under feudalism the ruling class
is the nobility, under capitalism it is the capitalists, and under
socialism it is the proletariat. Primitive communism and communism
are classless. In some countries
oriental despotism happens as a stage distinct from
- The main feature of socialism is public ownership of
the means of production, distribution and exchange.
- Under capitalism, workers "tend" to be paid the bare amount required for
them to support their families and reproduce. This is because of competition
for jobs from the reserve army of labor, i.e. the unemployed.
- The capitalist sells the product of the workers' labor at a price
proportional to its value, which is the
socially necessary labor required
to produce it.
- The difference between what the product sells for and what the workers
are paid is surplus value and is appropriated
by the capitalist.
- Because the workers can't buy the full product of their labor and the
capitalists don't consume all the surplus value, there tend to be
The steady increase in labor saving machinery creates unemployment and drives
down wages. This emphasizes the tendency for there to be economic recessions.
- The tendency to pay the workers bare survival wages leads to the
increasing immiseration of the proletariat.
- The other classes, e.g. artisans and petty
bourgeoisie, e.g. small shopkeepers, go broke and are driven into the
proletariat. Even the smaller capitalists go broke.
- In his "Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy," written
in the 1840s, Engels asserted that "The middle classes must
increasingly disappear until the world is divided into millionaires
and paupers. . . . [T]his result must and will come, unless it is
anticipated by a total transformation of social conditions, a fusion
of opposed interests, an abolition of private property."
- Then a socialist revolution occurs. Originally this was
supposed to occur first in the most advanced capitalist countries, e.g.
Germany, Britain and the United States. It wasn't supposed to
occur first in a backward country like Russia, where a
should have happened first.
- In the first stages of socialism the state
is a dictatorship of the proletariat., i.e
rules the other classes by force.
- The socialist slogan is "From each according to his
ability, to each according to his work."
- The communist slogan is "From each according to his
ability, to each according to his needs."
- Communism, which evolves peacefully from socialism, is a
classless society under which the
state will wither away.
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving
subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and
therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, have
vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life's
prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the
all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of the
co-operative wealth flow more abundantly - only then can the narrow
horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society
inscribe upon its banners: "From each according to his ability, to
each according to his needs!"
(K. Marx: Critique of the Gotha Programme)
- Capitalism normally is replaced by socialism as
a consequence of a proletarian revolution.
- Prior to the overthrow of capitalism the proletariat must develop
its own class consciousness. Other classes have their own
forms of class consciousness.
- Class hatred is a good thing and class collaboration
is a bad thing.
- Under capitalism, capitalist ideology penetrates other classes and must be
struggled against by the proletariat.
- Trade unions are good as training grounds for the class struggle, but it
is capitalist ideology to suppose
that they can make any permanent
in the condition of the proletariat. The belief that trade unions can
make a permanent difference is a heresy called economism
or trade-unionism, although
the term may be due to Lenin.
- The increasing exploitation of the working class leads to economic
crises, because the working class cannot afford to buy the products
of its labor. These crises get more intense with time. I forget whether
the term general crisis of capitalism comes from Marx, but I
rather think it comes much later. It refers also to imperialist wars
- Literature, art and other forms of culture tend to reflect the
class ideology of the class to which the artist belongs.
However, the ideology of other classes can also affect the artist.
- The philosophy of Marxism calls itself
- The materialism part is opposed to idealism and holds that
the world is to be understood as matter in motion.
- The dialectical part includes the transformation of quantity into
quality, the dialectical process of
thesis, antithesis and synthesis and the unity of opposites
alias the contradictory tendencies of the thing.
As far as I can see tipping point is a new name for
transformation of quantity into quality.
- There is also a philosophy of history called historical
materialism. Its main feature is the interpretation of history
in terms of class struggle and historical progression
in terms of revolutions in which a new ruling class
takes over from the old ruling class.
That is quite a lot, and there is quite a bit more.
I have neither the space nor the knowledge nor the reader the
patience to go into the different doctrines of European social
democratic parties. Some adhered to almost all of the above analysis
and some to very little of it. The dictatorship of the
proletariat was the sticking point for many. American socialism
was mainly an imitation of European except that Daniel De Leon had a
variant Marxist socialist doctrine and took over the Socialist Labor
Party which still exists.
In 1919 after the communists seized power in Russia, the Communist
International (Comintern) was formed and attempted to get socialist
parties all over the world to affiliate with it. This resulted in
splits within most socialist parties. In the U.S., the Socialist
Party split, the Communist Party being the part that joined the
Comintern. The Socialist Party was never as strong in the U.S. as
were the corresponding parties in Europe, but it did get about a
million votes in 1916. Neither the Communist Party nor the Socialist
Party ever came close again. Stalin made the Comintern dissolve in
1943. I suppose he preferred direct control over communist parties,
rather than through a nominally independent international
Lenin added the following, and of course not all people who call themselves
Marxists accept his additions. Just about all who called themselves
communists after 1919 did.
- Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism.
- The working class in the mother countries is bribed to keep
it passive by exploiting the labor of the colonies. This explains
why the working class became more prosperous in the late 19th and early
20th centuries instead of becoming more miserable as a direct reading of
Marxist theory might suggest.
- The rivalry of the colonial countries becomes more and more intense
leading to imperialist wars. WWI was the prize example (and
maybe the only example) of this. A major attraction of communism after
WWI was the fact that the Russian communists had opposed the Tsarist
war effort. The American Socialist Party did too, but got much less
political benefit from it. The notion of imperialist war was
pressed into service after the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939 to
characterize resistance to Hitler in the West after Hitler
attacked Poland on September 1, 1939. The idea that WWII
was an imperialist war was reversed when Hitler attacked the
Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.
- The working class needs to be led by a vanguard party, i.e.
the Communist Party which in
turn is led by professional revolutionaries.
- The Party itself is ruled by democratic centralism. The doctrine
was that decisions would be made democratically and then enforced by
a central mechanism that didn't allow further dissent. In fact
the power struggles almost always led to one man dictatorship, mostly
dominated from Moscow. Escaping Moscow control was always a major
crisis in a communist party, succcessful in Yugoslavia and China,
unsuccessful in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland and the United States.
- The leadership of the working class by the vanguard party continues
into the period of socialism.
- The state can't wither away soon; in fact the socialist state
needs to be strengthened because of all its internal and external enemies.
- The exploiters need to be liquidated as a class. This ambiguous
phrase sometimes just meant taking their property and exiling them, but often
enough it meant killing them and sometimes their families.
Stalin added the following bits.
- As socialism goes from triumph to triumph, the class struggle
intensifies as the enemy becomes more and more desperate.
This doctrine was used to explain why Stalin's rivals for the
leadership of the Communist Party needed to be killed.
- National conflicts are to be solved by a federation organized in a way
that is national in form and socialist in content. In practice,
this turned out to be a variant of Russian imperialism, but a variant in
which the Russian people turned out to have very little stake.
- The Soviet Union is the Workers' Fatherland, and workers all over
the world owe it loyalty and must accept the leadership of the Commmunist
Party of the Soviet Union led by Stalin.
- Any movement that calls itself socialist but does not accept
of the Soviet Union and Comrade Stalin is objectively
anti-socialist and even objectively fascist. Such movements
and their adherents may be treated as class enemies.
Mao added that in a country like China, the revolution could proceed first
in the countryside which would surround the cities.
Also he emphasized class struggle within socialism and its
evolution towards communism to be played out in a series of cultural
The New Class
Milovan Djilas, a Yugoslav Marxist, and Tito's right hand man until he
dissented in various ways, wrote that socialism creates a new
class of bureaucrats, which appropriates for itself an inordinate
fraction of the goods and privileges of society. A Russian friend of
mine said to me, "We hate him for that theory." Djilas wrote
books Conversations with Stalin and The New Class,
among others that got him imprisoned in Yugoslavia.
Professor Bruce Franklin, then of Stanford University and leader of
the Maoist organization Venceremos, added that Marx
was mistaken in saying that the lumpen proletariat had no
- The doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat meant that
other classes, including the peasantry, were disenfranchised and
reduced to an inferior economic position, e.g. the peasants could
be kept at a bare survival level by forced deliveries of crops at
state set prices.
- The doctrine of the vanguard party meant the dictatorship of
the communist party.
- The doctrine of democratic centralism meant the dictatorship
of the leadership of the Party - usually one man.
- Liquidating the exploiters as a class meant that there
could be mass executions of people not fitting into the new society.
This happened in the Soviet Union, China and Cambodia. Because the
phrase was ambiguous, friendly foreigners could give it the
interpretation that it only meant that the members of the class had to
- The intensification of the class struggle under socialism
justified mass executions and the Gulag.
- The revolutionary potential of the lumpen proletariat
meant combining radical students with violent criminals recruited by
prison visiting. It led to some tens of killings. This phenomenon was
confined to America.
While there are a substantial number of academics who call themselves
Marxists, hardly any of them accept very many of the doctrines that
are associated with Marx. What remains is the vague concept of an
exploiting class from which emanates all doctrines with which they
The rhetorical technique of identifying ideas with which one disagrees with
exploiters has been adopted well beyond Marxism. Some feminists use
it. Other users include opponents of intelligence testing, movements
identifying their opponents as colonialists, and opponents of nuclear energy
or of genetically modified organisms. In each case, charges of representing
exploiters partially or wholly replace arguments about the substance of
the issues. This method of argument is perhaps the major intellectual
legacy of Marxism.
An excessive acquaintance with Marxism-Leninism is a sign of a
My opinion of all this is
- Any attempt at basing all social science on single factor,
e.g. economic classes and class struggles, will fail. Human society
is complicated, and any successful social science will have to
take complications into account. For example, while class conflicts
exist and are sometimes important and affect religious conflicts, religious
conflicts have an independent existence, and explanations of them
as mere reflections of class conflicts don't work. Explaining rival
nationalist or dynastic conflicts as class conflicts doesn't work
tried both, often arriving at very tortuous explanations, e.g.
that religious and national conflicts were creations of the exploiting class
and would disappear once that class was overthrown.
- The labor theory of value can be regarded as postulating a
"labor standard" with respect to which commodities and services
including interest on invested capital are
valued. As such it competes with a gold standard or the current
fad of an energy standard. There is also a crude labor theory in
which everything but the actual wages of workers is regarded as
exploitation. This is a propaganda usage.
However, the labor theory of value is not bad as a first
approximation, and technology has advanced in such a way as to make
it better. Namely, invested capital, agricultural land and natural
resources have become smaller components of a nation's wealth
compared to the quantity and quality of its labor. Countries with
nothing but their labor power, e.g. Japan, have done better and better in the
post WWII era compared to countries with only great agricultural and mineral
resources, e.g. the Soviet Union.
Marxists took as obvious that invested capital would become more and
more important relative to labor as capitalism advanced. It may
have been true in most of the 19th century. However,
technology didn't develop that way. The capital invested per dollar
of annual output has declined in the more advanced countries and is
lower than that in backward countries. The ratio was 1.6 in the
U.S. some years ago and 2.6 in the Soviet Union.
This isn't any kind of
economic law; its just the way technological advance has turned out.
An extreme example is computer based industry, where the cost of the
computers has declined relative to the cost of the labor of the
programmers and computer users. Thus our research laboratory used
a computer in the 1960s that cost as much as 30 man-years of labor, whereas
we now use a computer system that costs as much as 1/3 of a man-year.
Compared to the labor theory of value, the currently popular energy theory of
value is really bad. Direct labor accounts for a much larger fraction of
the cost of anything than does energy (Energy was 8 percent of the
U.S. GDP in 1992 and not rising.)
- Up through the 1920s, Marxists argued with each other on the
basis of Marxist theory. After that Marxism became merely
window-dressing for policies developed on other grounds, e.g. by the
outcome of power struggles. This is obvious for the Soviet Union
and for communists under Soviet control. However, it seems to be
true to a substantial extent for Marxists not under Soviet control.
Lenin was intolerant of opposition from other leftists and wiped out
the Russian Social-Revolutionaries when he no longer needed them.
However, it was the split between Stalin and Trotsky after Lenin's
death in 1924 that doomed genuine intellectual activity under
communism - elsewhere as well as in the Soviet Union.
Here are some notes on
What Was Attractive about Marxism?.
- The Trotskyist variant of communism had ideological differences
that seemed large to the participants but which were nevertheless
auxiliary to the power struggle. Now the differences seem
microscopic, although the Trotskyists will explain how all the bad
things that happened in the Soviet Union would have been avoided had
Trotsky won the power struggle.
- Did Marxism ever do any good? It seems to me that the answer is yes -
once in a while.
Marxism was very effective in its attacks on privilege in feudal
and capitalist societies, especially hereditary privilege. Of course,
liberalism, e.g. American republicanism, was effective in reducing many
kinds of hereditary privilege in America, but its example was not
very effective in Europe and did not prevent the expansion of hereditary
idle rich classes in Latin America after independence from Spain.
Marxist doctrine went too far in its attacks on capitalism. Liquidating
the capitalists as a class made the country poorer. Moreover,
the communists themselves created a new exploiting class as Milovan
Djilas, a dissident Yugoslav communist, pointed out.
Marxists also helped the development of a labor movement that considerably
increased the bargaining power of workers relative to management. That
often goes too far in specific industries, especially where the industry
is sheltered from competition, as is often the case with government
employment. Nevertheless, most of the time it was a good thing.
It is possible that liberal and socialist doctrines would have accomplished
the elimination of these privileges equally quickly if Marxism never
existed. Maybe. Maybe not. Full Marxism in power has been a disaster
in every country where it has gained power.
Communist Party of the U.S.A. maintains
a rather professional looking web site.
It is interesting to see what parties in other countries the CPUSA
recognizes as sister communist parties. China and Nicaragua are not
Communist Manifesto, the 1848 start of communism.
The Marx/Engels Archive has a lot
Marxist stuff including excerpts from Capital,
Marx's major economic work. Perhaps I will be able to add references
to some other non-Marxist analyses of Marxism.
The Maoist International
Movement (MIM) is the most far out Marxist movement in the sense
of defending Stalin, Mao and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. I
haven't seen whether they support Castro and the current violent
Marxist movements, e.g. in Peru. They have put up four essays by Mao.
The National Security Agency (NSA) established
a site on the decrypted Venona
documents. These were encrypted telegrams between Moscow and New York
between 1941 and 1946 and were intercepted by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.
The documents themselves are quite fragmentary. However, assuming the code
names are correctly identified, they verify that the people reporting
Soviet espionage, e.g. Whittaker Chambers and Elizabeth Bentley, were
truthful. Here are some
further facts from Venona.
These facts are tangential to the question of Marxism, although they
do confirm that many people in many countries gave their primary
loyalty to movements and other countries claiming to realize Marxist
ideas. Somewhat less tangential is the information about the effect
of the disbanding of the Communist International (Comintern) in 1943
on Soviet espionage. Connections with communist parties now had to
be handled directly by the KGB.
There are many contemporary groups and individuals that call
themselves Marxist to one extent or another. Some of their
discussions are available on the Usenet newsgroup
soc.politics.marxism. The discussions indicate that present
day "marxists" are as fragmented as they ever were. None of them seems
to be "a clear and present danger" or even a remote danger.
None of the groups seem to have the military-style discipline
that made communism so dangerous.
An excessive knowledge of Marxism is a sign of a misspent youth.
- jmc 1980s
The following list of Marxist Web sites was
posted by someone who signs himself Agent Provocateur.
I haven't surveyed them.
The word "militant" in the titles of some often means Trotskyist.
Studyweb, which links to this site, has large numbers
of articles on many subjects.
Send comments to mccarthy at stanford.edu. I sometimes make changes
suggested in them. -
The number of hits on this page since 1995 October 17th.