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The Basics of Marxism

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This article will help you understand the basic concepts of Marxism, as well as provide interesting videos and further readings.

This article will help you understand the basic concepts of Marxism, as well as provide interesting videos and further readings.

What Is Marxism?

Karl Marx’s theory of Historical Materialism, including the wider ideology known as ‘Marxism’ is not and was never intended to be the preserve of academics in their ivory towers or the latte socialist socialites or the online LARPers we have all encountered who, when they actually use Marxist terminology, utilize it as if it were a type of exclusive pseudo-academic code.

Primarily, Historical Materialism is meant to be understood by ordinary workers, who, Marx ably demonstrates, have always been the real creators and driving force of history, not the habitually lionized 'great men of history' or some obscure and unseen divine hand.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels' historical analysis of previous epochal changes and the mode of class struggle to achieve historical change is compelling. In The Communist Manifesto (1848), they write that:

'The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.' (Chapter 1, para. 1-2)

The cover of the Communist Manifesto's original publication in 1848 by the Workers' Educational Association in London, England.

The cover of the Communist Manifesto's original publication in 1848 by the Workers' Educational Association in London, England.

Marx's Modes of Production

Certainly, there were great inventors, especially during the Industrial Revolution, but it was ordinary workers who sweated to make these instruments of production work and who enabled these instruments' improvement throughout history. Marx referred to the ordinary workers as the ‘moving forces of society.’

These moving forces, within Capitalist society, created a minority, the exploiters, and a majority, the exploited — in plain words ‘bosses’ and ‘workers.’ Further, Marx defined all history as that of the progress of the various modes of production that he identified as:

  1. Primitive Communism - where communal co-operation was the only means by which early peoples could survive.
  2. Chattel slavery - the creation of slave states, for instance, in ancient Egypt.
  3. Feudalism - where absolutist Monarchs and/or the Church hierarchy were the ‘ruling class,’ with the vast majority of people being ‘serfs’ or at best artisans or merchants who paid taxes to Kings and nobles.
  4. Capitalism - the owners of the means of production, commodities and exchange (i.e., Capitalists) became the ruling class, with the sweating majority, the workers (also referred to as the 'Proletariat') being the exploited ‘wage slaves.'
  5. Socialism - the Proletariat, through a revolutionary, epochal upheaval, wrests control from the robber barons of Capitalism and Monopoly Capitalism. With the creation of a strong Socialist state, the working class gains control, where society, inventions and industry are used, not for profit and exploitation like in Capitalism, but for the good of the vast majority, the working class.

Anti-Socialist Quacks and Legitimate Scholarship

While there is a thriving industry of online and academic anti-socialism, many of its supporters are in many cases purple characters such as those pseudo-academics of Prager U, which is a kind of online degree mill populated by proto-fascist scoundrels and certifiable weirdos. Even the bombastic screed, The End of History by Francis Fukuyama, which improbably claimed the end of the dialectic of material change (a position I understand he has since, at least partly retracted) has been dispatched to the 'dustbin of history.'

That said, there are legitimate critiques of Marxism that have been put forth by scholars that are worth considering. For example, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson have provided criticism of Marxian economics in "The Rise and Decline of General Laws of Capitalism"; further, Gary S. Becker has put forth a worthwhile critique of Marx's labor theory of value in "A Theory of the Allocation of Time"; and the historian Paul Johnson produced a thoughtful assessment of Marx's use of evidence in his book Intellectuals: From Marx and Tolstoy to Sartre and Chomsky.

It should be clear from all this bustle and debate that Marx and Engels' historical analysis is important and has stood the test of time. Here is their analysis in a nutshell and in their own words:

'The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.' (The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1, para. 4-5)

Is Capitalism’s Downfall Historically Inevitable?

Marx demonstrates, and history vindicates, that within each exploitative society/mode of production, the seeds of its own destruction are contained. For instance, the growing capitalist class during the French and American revolutions overthrew Feudalism. Of course, the ordinary serf or worker supplied the muscle power, as in all wars and conflicts, but gained very, very little except a semblance of what passes for ‘democracy.’

Marx and Engels state clearly that through its dynamic and contradictions, Capitalism becomes its own gravedigger:

'The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.' (The Communist Manifesto, Chapter 1, para. 18)

Although far from immediately seamless in its dominance, Capitalism came to be the dominant mode of production worldwide; however, there are inherent contradictions within this system that undo its mechanisms. In other words, the seeds of its own overthrow were embedded in its very structure. The Proletariat (aka the working class) grew exponentially in size, becoming the majority, but as of yet are still the most exploited class. Even the most zealous defenders of the Capitalist system know that it is a finite system.

Why Bother With Class Struggle?

So, if Capitalism contains the seeds of its own destruction, if Capitalism is bound to inevitably fail, why should the working class bother at all with class struggle?

Chiefly because, as mentioned above, history and historical change do not create themselves. Naturally enough, despite previous advances by the organized working class like the right to join trades unions, the right to holidays, welfare provisions and universal suffrage (which were all achieved through bitter class conflict), the Capitalist class will fight to the death to retain its primacy and privilege.

We are currently seeing even the timidest progressive advances in favour of the working-class being clawed back by the Capitalist class and a never-ending media propaganda campaign against organized labour.

As the current ruling class, the Capitalists and Monopoly Capitalism is not going to roll over or just ‘throw the towel in’ because of any sudden sense of morality. To quote another Marxist, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, who lived in the century following Herr Marx,

Revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.”

In other words, only a politicised and revolutionary working-class represented by militant trade unions (and of course a revolutionary party) can overthrow the hegemony of the Capitalist class.

This image portrays the power distribution of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in Marxist ideology, with the bourgeoisie distracting and controlling the proletariat through entertainment, the media, and the police force.

This image portrays the power distribution of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat in Marxist ideology, with the bourgeoisie distracting and controlling the proletariat through entertainment, the media, and the police force.

We must be clear that all reformist elements like social-democrats and liberals can never achieve this change via liberal-democratic parliaments or vote Socialism into power. Global lessons such as what happened in Chile, Grenada, Italy, Guatemala, etc., reinforce this truth for revolutionary socialists. Thomas ‘Ta’ Power, an Irish Marxist theorist and INLA guerrilla, stated plainly and clearly:

“There is no parliamentary road to socialism.”

In years to come, Lenin built on the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels, building a revolutionary party. (Covering this development, however, requires much more space than this article). Hopefully, this very much condensed article may go some small way to de-mystify aspects of Marxism for ordinary people like myself.

Once more, I will quote one of the most widely read scientific socialist texts in the world, The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels, specifically their closing statement on Marxism that has as strong resonance in this period of late-stage Capitalism and its imperialist, bloody scramble for profit through the brutal the expropriation of weaker states' land and labour:

'The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.' (Chapter 4, para. 11)

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Liam A Ryan


Liam A Ryan (author) from Ireland on October 04, 2021:

Thank you, MG Singh.

MG Singh from UAE on October 03, 2021:

Very erudite and informative