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Marxism as proposed by Karl Marx advances the following ideas. All the emphasized phrases are Marxist jargon.

  1. 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.

  2. A class is defined by the relations of its members to the means of production.

  3. Under capitalism, the capitalists own the means of production, the proletariat own only their capacity to work. Landlords rule the land, 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 salaries.

  4. 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 materialism.

  5. The state is the means whereby the ruling class forcibly maintains its rule over the other classes.

  6. 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.

  7. Most struggles in history are class struggles, even though the participants profess other goals. For example, protestantism reflects the rising capitalist class.

  8. New classes usually win power by revolution. Revolutions are violent, because the dying ruling class doesn't give up power without a desperate struggle.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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 revolutionary enough.

  14. Under capitalism the progressive class is the proletariat which is destined to overthrow capitalism and establish socialism, which will eventually evolve into communism.

  15. 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, feudalism, capitalism 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 feudalism.

  16. The main feature of socialism is public ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange.

  17. 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.

  18. 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.

  19. The difference between what the product sells for and what the workers are paid is surplus value and is appropriated by the capitalist.

  20. 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 recessions.

  21. The steady increase in labor saving machinery creates unemployment and drives down wages. This emphasizes the tendency for there to be economic recessions.
  22. The tendency to pay the workers bare survival wages leads to the increasing immiseration of the proletariat.

  23. 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.
  24. 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."
  25. 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 bourgeois-democratic revolution should have happened first.
  26. In the first stages of socialism the state is a dictatorship of the proletariat., i.e the proletariat rules the other classes by force.

  27. The socialist slogan is "From each according to his ability, to each according to his work."

  28. The communist slogan is "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."

  29. Communism, which evolves peacefully from socialism, is a classless society under which the state will wither away.

  30. Marx wrote

    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)

  31. Capitalism normally is replaced by socialism as a consequence of a proletarian revolution.

  32. Prior to the overthrow of capitalism the proletariat must develop its own class consciousness. Other classes have their own forms of class consciousness.

  33. Class hatred is a good thing and class collaboration is a bad thing.

  34. Under capitalism, capitalist ideology penetrates other classes and must be struggled against by the proletariat.

  35. Trade unions are good as training grounds for the class struggle, but it is capitalist ideology to suppose that they can make any permanent improvement 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.

  36. 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

  37. 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.

  38. The philosophy of Marxism calls itself dialectical materialism.

  39. The materialism part is opposed to idealism and holds that the world is to be understood as matter in motion.

  40. 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.

  41. As far as I can see tipping point is a new name for transformation of quantity into quality.

  42. 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 organization.


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.

  1. Imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. The working class needs to be led by a vanguard party, i.e. the Communist Party which in turn is led by professional revolutionaries.

  5. 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.

  6. The leadership of the working class by the vanguard party continues into the period of socialism.

  7. The state can't wither away soon; in fact the socialist state needs to be strengthened because of all its internal and external enemies.

  8. 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Any movement that calls itself socialist but does not accept the leadership 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 revolutions.

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 revolutionary potential.

Some Consequences

  1. 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.

  2. The doctrine of the vanguard party meant the dictatorship of the communist party.

  3. The doctrine of democratic centralism meant the dictatorship of the leadership of the Party - usually one man.

  4. 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 change.

  5. The intensification of the class struggle under socialism justified mass executions and the Gulag.

  6. 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 disagree.

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 misspent youth.

My opinion of all this is

  1. 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 either. Marxists 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.

  2. 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.)

  3. 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?.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

The Communist Party

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 included.

Here's the 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. - John McCarthy

The number of hits on this page since 1995 October 17th.