Marxism is one of the most influential ideologies across sociology and economics. Named for Karl Marx, it focuses on communism as an economic system and the capitalist issues of exploitation and class relationships (Levi, 1991). The Communist Manifesto is the primary text associated with Marxism and will be explored in depth throughout this analysis. Published in 1848, The Communist Manifesto has been the subject of critique and interpretation throughout the last two centuries and as such the ideology of Marxism has been shaped based on contemporary thinking. The purpose of this essay is to explore ideology, Marxism, the contemporary and historical interpretations of Marxism, and how the school of thought has developed over time. It will become evident that, while Marxism is not a new socioeconomic approach, many facets of Marx´s ideology still have relevance to this day.
Marxism is a political ideology, which means that it is essentially a belief system that incorporates a set of political ideas and approaches (Levi, 1991). It shares traits with the concept of a political theory, which “is an explanatory proposition, an idea or set of ideas that in some ways seeks to impose order or meaning on phenomena” (Heywood, 2015, p.2). Marxism can be classified as both a political philosophy and a political theory, in that it is generally used to refer to a set of political ideas and beliefs. Another term, Marxism-Leninism, is more commonly used to refer to the ideology of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), which was an ideology in practice (Hunt, 1983). Marxism-Leninism, as the name suggests, is an ideology that is based on the political philosophy espoused by Marx in his writings combined with the practicalities of Leninism. Both Marxism and Marxism-Leninism as ideologies support the idea of a centralized economy and a one-party state run by and for the working classes (Sandle, 2014).
Karl Marx and the Development of Marxism
Karl Marx, born in 1818, was a German political philosopher who observed the exploitation of the working class in German society and felt that the current approach to socialism was not sufficient in its aims to empower workers (Sandle, 2014). The opening line of The Communist Manifesto sums up Marx´s beliefs and observations: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (Marx and Engels, 1848, p.1). Marx´s main collaborator was Friedrich Engels, another German political philosopher who shared Marx´s beliefs about class struggles and the best approach to dealing with interclass conflict (Kamenka, 1965). Together, Marx and Engels worked together to create an overarching theory of society that identified how the capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) dominated the working class and limited their ability to reap the benefits of their own labor (DelGuidice, 1994).
The first wave of Marxism as espoused by Marx and Engels is often referred to as Classical Marxism. It contains several key ideas that serve as the foundation for Leninism, Marxism-Leninism, and later forms of communist theory. Alienation is the foundational idea: Marx observed that people were alienated from the products of their own labor due to capitalism – the profits for this labor goes to their employer (DelGuidice, 1994). The means of production is another key concept of this ideology, and refers to a combination of machines, tools and raw materials (Graham, 1991). Marx called upon the working class to “seize the means of production” as a way of taking labor back from the bourgeoisie and putting the power back into the hands of the proletariat (Graham, 1991). Marxism also focuses on the idea that the upper classes control politics, which means that working class people are subject to their ideology and therefore have a false consciousness (Milberg, 1991). Working class people are taught to believe in the ideology of capitalism and assume that working hard will get them the status afforded to the upper classes. Marx believed that this dominant ideology is perpetrated by the upper classes to keep the working class as “subjects” under capitalism.
Marxism in Practice
The purpose of The Communist Manifesto was to act as a vanguard for the working classes, meaning that Marx and Engels saw themselves as thinkers that could help reduce the impact of the dominant ideology and allow proletariat awareness of other political options (Sabine and Thorson, 1993). In many ways, this worked: Marxism became an ideology that was much discussed across the political spheres. Despite this, Marxism as a standalone approach was not put into practice and indeed a communist government did not exist in the years following the publication of the manifesto (Jevons, 2014). One of the downfalls of Marxism is that it did not describe in detail how a socialist or communist government run by and for the proletariat would function in reality – it was pure ideology and philosophy.
Vladimir Lenin, born in 1870, was a Russian communist revolutionary and political theorist who contributed hugely to the development of Marxism as a more practical approach (Jevons, 2014). As noted above, Marx believed that there needed to be vanguards for the communist approach to spread, but Lenin developed this idea into one of a vanguard political party (Jevons, 2014). This political party would represent the best interests of the working class and would be formed of intellectuals that understood and promoted communist ideologies (Sabine and Thorson, 1993). It was a slight departure from Classical Marxism because the power would not be in the hands of the working classes themselves, but in the hands of those who had developed class consciousness and therefore were aware of the needs of the working classes from a practical and political perspective (Sabine and Thorson, 1993). Marxism-Leninism, as the subsequent ideology is termed, has been implemented with various degrees of success in various countries: The Soviet Union, Cuba, China, Laos, and Vietnam (Sabine and Thorson, 1993).
Marxism itself was developed in response to mid-19th century German society, and as such needed adaptation to new political contexts as they arose. This has led to the development of several Marxist schools of thought that build on the foundational ideas of Marx and Engels (Kibbut, 2013). Herbert Marcuse developed the theory of Marxism throughout the 20th century. Born in Berlin in 1898, Marcuse was a German-American citizen that criticized the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and developed a form of Heideggerian Marxism that was more relevant to the 20th century and American ideals (Shevchenko, 2018). Marcuse believed that the 20th century focus on sexuality and the freeing of sexual mores in American society was one way in which the ruling classes could control and alienate the working classes – the idea being that the working classes would be so preoccupied with sex that they would not have time to revolt (Kibbut, 2013).
Marcuse expanded on the idea that capitalism alienated the working class from their labor to suggest that capitalism led the working class to see themselves as extensions of the objects that they were creating (Chun, 2016). Marcuse also saw the increasing level of consumerism to spread capitalist ideology. Consumerism, the drive to purchase and use commodities, forces the working class to spend their wages on objects that they have been taught to idealize (Thomas, 2009). This further entrenches the working class into the capitalist system because they are forced to use their wage labor to fund their investments into these commodities (O’Gorman, 2015).
Contemporary Marxism and Relevance
Despite Marcuse developing Marxism into an ideology for the 20th century, the question remains as to whether Marxism is relevant today. Marx himself observed that capitalist market economies did not regulate itself internally (Marx et al., 1955). A capitalist society cannot keep going indefinitely as there is a finite amount of resources and wealth that can be accumulated (Shevchenko, 2018). It is not possible for a society to continue to get richer at the expensive of the proletariat – there must be some regulation involved in the so-called free market. Marx believed that capitalism would have several self-generated breakdowns known as “crises” (Marx et al., 1955). This is particularly relevant to the 21st century as we are still feeling the repercussions of the last “recession”, which is the modern term for these self-generated breakdowns (Shevchenko, 2018).
The global recession of 2008 generated increased sales of Marx´s Capital, and for good reason (Ghosh, 2017). Marxism is essentially a criticism of capitalism, and although Marx could not have predicted capitalism on the scale that it exists today, many elements of 21st century capitalism are subject to the same issues that Marx presents in Capital and The Communist Manifesto. The working classes are still producing labor that benefits the employer. There is also no group ownership of the means of production, meaning that workers must labor for someone else rather than themselves as they have no access to the resources required to produce (Shevchenko, 2018). The consumerism criticized by Marcuse has also continued to develop apace: there can be no argument that we are living in a predominantly capitalist and consumerist society, of which Marxist critiques are generally still relevant.
The development of this capitalism and consumerism perhaps makes Marxism more relevant today than ever. Marx observed that wage laborers were bound into this system and therefore felt alienated from the products of their own labor. Today, the push for commodities and consumerism means that we are more subject to the capitalist ideology than ever before: we need more, so we must work harder to gain access to these objects (Shevchenko, 2018). Marxism also works as a critique of the modern mass media, which pushes these consumer objects onto us and continues to propagate the capitalist ideology (Ward, 2012). Socialism and communism were criticized heavily by Western countries during the Soviet Union era and it is true that there were many flaws in this practical Marxism-Leninism. As such, Marxism went out of fashion both socially and academically, but there has been a growing interest in the ideology as capitalism appears to be more unstable and yet more dominant than ever before (Ward, 2012).
Summary and Conclusions
Marxism is a communist ideology that focuses on the concept of alienation: the working classes are alienated from the products of their own labor as they must sell their labor to fund capitalism. Developed by Marx and Engels, Marxism was based on their observations of 19th century Germany but has since been adopted and discussed in several different contexts. These developments of Marxism differed in their approach. Marxism-Leninism focused on the practical applications of Marxist ideology and as such found a home in the Soviet Union. Herbert Marcuse developed Marxism into an understanding and criticism of 20th century America that focused on consumerism. These developments in Marxist schools of thought allow it to continue to be relevant to this day as we live in a capitalist and consumerist society where, by and large, the proletariat do not own the means of production and are subject to wage labor to survive.
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