What is Marxism?

This booklet is based on a talk presented by Peter Boyle in 2007.

Marx and Engels were subversives

Karl Marx wrote a very concise summary of his political thought in a letter written in 1852:

“As to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists the economic anatomy of the classes. What I did new was to demonstrate: 1) that the existence of classes is merely linked to particular historical phases in the development of production, 2) that class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, 3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of classes.”

Engels even summed these ideas up is a single sentence – a long and complicated sentence:

“The Manifesto being our joint production, I consider myself bound to state that the fundamental proposition which forms the nucleus belongs to Marx. That proposition is: That in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which it is built up, and from that which alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch; that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes; That the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class — the proletariat — cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class — the bourgeoisie — without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction, and class struggles.” (Preface to Communist Manifesto 1888)

Till today, these propositions, sum up the core of the most subversive political thoughts ever put forward on earth. Millions of people have devoted lives to liberation struggles and made huge sacrifices under the influence of these three ideas. Capitalist ideologists have waged ruthless war against these ideas ever since they were first put forward in the mid 19th century. They have been labeled evil, an incitement to totalitarianism and an outdated and utterly disproved 19th century philosophy. Yet despite their access to all the wealth, resources, power and influence of the most powerful ruling class in history, the capitalist ideologists have yet to refute and defeat these subversive ideas.


Karl Marx and Frederick Engels began their political lives as radical democrats, fighters for constitutional rights in Germany and especially for freedom of the press, popular representation and abolition of feudal privileges.

Germany was a collection of backward states in Europe. The feudal aristocracy continued to hang on to power despite capitalist development. Censorship prevailed and when Marx was a student, the police spied heavily on students, suspicious that they were secretly hatching conspiracies against the existing political order.

In the late 1830s, when Marx was officially a law student his interest turned to philosophy and politics. Various currents in the big political debates of the time were forced to masquerade as philosophical schools of thought. For example, those (including the young Marx) who followed the philosophical ideas of Hegel divided into the “Old Hegelians”, who were loyal to the system, and the “Young Hegelians” who were more revolutionary minded.

The Young Hegelians gathered in a group called the “Doktorclub”, whose membership was mostly “young, exuberant and ready for mischief” according to the biography Karl Marx: Man and Fighter by Boris Nicolaievsky and Otto Meachen-Helfen.

They didn’t just discuss philosophy and politics but also rebelled against the ignorance and absurd and petty regimentation of personal life by the police sometimes in unruly pub crawls and street brawls.

The Hegelians were purged from the universities and Marx soon ended his formal student life and turned to political journalism with the Rheinische Zeitung, and soon was fighting for the freedom of the press. The Prussian government censors eventually closed it down after the paper published an article that might have offended the Russian Tsar.

Marx left Germany for Paris and began radically reassessing his ideas, as he explained in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

“In the year 1842-43, as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, I first found myself in the embarrassing position of having to discuss what is known as material interests…

“When the publishers of the Rheinische Zeitung conceived the illusion that by a more compliant policy on the part of the paper it might be possible to secure the abrogation of the death sentence passed upon it, I eagerly grasped the opportunity to withdraw from the public stage to my study. “The first work which I undertook to dispel the doubts assailing me was a critical re-examination of the Hegelian philosophy of law... My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life…”

Another “left Hegelian”, Frederick Engels, underwent a similar intellectual trajectory and in the mid-1840s both Marx and Engels evolved independently into revolutionary socialists or “communists” (as they described themselves).

In August 1944, Marx and Engels began their political partnership that was to critically shape the modern socialist movement.

They found that they shared a common approach to understanding the world not as

“…a complex of ready-made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away…” (Engels, Anti-Duhring)

If you really want to understand anything you have to study its development, recognise the contradictions that drive this development. This is the central principle of dialectics which is not as mysterious or exotic as the name suggests.

It is not enough to describe the world, break it down into parts and identify these parts. We have to understand the real inter-relationships betweens these parts and the dynamics that these relationships involve and arise from.

Both had broken from the idealist approach, which up-ended the real relation between the material world and ideas. Ideas are a reflection in the minds of human beings of the real world, of nature, our interaction with nature and the social relations between human beings.

At this conference there are workshops which will explain in greater detail the philosophical foundations of Marxism.

While Marx went into self-exile in France, Engels had been sent by his father to study business in Manchester, England. There he directly experienced the most advanced capitalist industry in the world at the time – the cotton industry. And he also connected with the first ever mass working class movement, the Chartists.

So Engels was in a position to study firsthand the anatomy and dynamics of capitalism, which he agreed with Marx, had to be sought in political economy.

According to Nicolaievsky and Meachen-Helfen, in Karl Marx: Man and Fighter:

“Engels brought Marx more than he received from him. Both had come independently to communism, both had recognised in the proletariat the class, which product and negation of private property at same time, was to abolish private property. But Engels had an incomparably deeper insight into the economics of bourgeois society. Living in economically advanced England, he had anticipated Marx in understanding its dialectic, its inherent tendency to produce contradictions and thus its own downfall. He had come face to face with a real workers’ movement, met the proletariat in its real form…”

As Marx explained in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859):

“The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies can be summarised as follows.

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness…”

This conception of the objective character of the laws of social development has been criticised for reducing everything to economics, dismissing the role of various ideas, the role of philosophy, morality and religion.

But Marx and Engels did not dismiss the real influence of ideology on historical development. Rather, they looked for the real intersection between ideas and economics. Social consciousness is determined by social being but it also has a relative independence.

Take religious ideas as an example. Whatever their early origins most of the major religions soon became the ideologies of feudal ruling classes and hence served the interests of those classes. However, the religious ideological systems did have a certain life of their own and, in the case of Christianity in Europe, during the Reformation split. An offshoot, Protestantism, became an ideological weapon of the rising capitalist class.

Other ideologies like nationalism, racism and sexism also have a certain relative independence. But they still have material roots. Workshops will explore this further.

Marx and Engels argued in The German Ideology (written in 1845-46 but never published in their lifetime) that it was the contradiction between the development of humanity’s productive forces and outdated forms of ownership of these productive forces that is the material basis of the change from one social system to another.

The flipside of this is that no social system passes while it still provides sufficient scope for development of the productive forces.

As Marx put it in the Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”

Socialism and the working class

Marx and Engels did not invent the idea of socialism. As they noted, earlier thinkers had developed “in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, Utopian pictures of ideal social conditions; in the eighteenth century, actual communistic theories… [in which] it was not simply class privileges that were to be abolished , but class distinctions themselves.” (M&E Selected Works, Vol. 3, p. 126)

Socialism would not be brought about through the moral persuasion of all humanity to a vision of a classless society, but rather through the conquest of political power by a definite class, the working class.

They called themselves “communists” rather than “socialists” because, as they explained later:

“… By Socialists, in 1847, were understood, on the one hand the adherents of the various Utopian systems: Owenites in England, Fourierists in France, both of them already reduced to the position of mere sects, and gradually dying out; on the other hand, the most multifarious social quacks who, by all manner of tinkering, professed to redress, without any danger to capital and profit, all sorts of social grievances, in both cases men outside the working-class movement, and looking rather to the ‘educated’ classes for support. Whatever portion of the working class had become convinced of the insufficiency of mere political revolutions, and had proclaimed the necessity of total social change, called itself Communist. It was a crude, rough-hewn, purely instinctive sort of communism; still, it touched the cardinal point and was powerful enough amongst the working class to produce the Utopian communism of Cabet in France, and of Weitling in Germany. Thus, in 1847, socialism was a middle-class movement, communism a working-class movement. Socialism was, on the Continent at least, ‘respectable’; communism was the very opposite. And as our notion, from the very beginning, was that ‘the emancipation of the workers must be the act of the working class itself,’ there could be no doubt as to which of the two names we must take. Moreover, we have, ever since, been far from repudiating it.”

Marx and Engels sought to win support in the working class movements for their idea of scientific socialism, the most famous of their political writings was the Communist Manifesto.

In the words of Engels in an 1898 preface to the Communist Manifesto:

“The Manifesto was published as the platform of the Communist League, a working men’s association, first exclusively German, later on international, and under the political conditions of the Continent before 1848, unavoidably a secret society. At a Congress of the League, held in November 1847, Marx and Engels were commissioned to prepare a complete theoretical and practical party programme. Drawn up in German, in January 1848, the manuscript was sent to the printer in London a few weeks before the French Revolution of February 24. A French translation was brought out in Paris shortly before the insurrection of June 1848...”

Marx and Engels joined the League of the Just (which became the Communist League) when it was just a couple of hundred strong. The Communist Manifesto had a section devoted to answering the question: “In what relations to the Communists stand in relation to the proletarians as a whole?”

They gave this answer:

“They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole.

“They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mold the proletarian movement.

“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: (1) In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.

(2) In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”

Consequently, the Manifesto adds:

“The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the lines of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

“The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: Formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”

The Communist Manifesto also concluded that “the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.”

“In all these movements, they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.

“Finally, they labor everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.

“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 communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.

“Working men of all countries, unite!”

This bold ending makes it clear that while Marx and Engels aimed to build a mass working class party, they were not for sacrificing their revolutionary perspectives in the process. They were prepared to engage in broader, looser working class formations while persevering with their revolutionary perspectives, as their later practice demonstrated.

“The defeat of the Parisian insurrection of June 1848 — the first great battle between proletariat and bourgeoisie — drove again into the background, for a time, the social and political aspirations of the European working class. Thenceforth, the struggle for supremacy was, again, as it had been before the Revolution of February, solely between different sections of the propertied class; the working class was reduced to a fight for political elbow-room, and to the position of extreme wing of the middle-class Radicals.

“Wherever independent proletarian movements continued to show signs of life, they were ruthlessly hunted down. Thus the Prussian police hunted out the Central Board of the Communist League, then located in Cologne. The members were arrested and, after eighteen months’ imprisonment, they were tried in October 1852. This celebrated ‘Cologne Communist Trial’ lasted from October 4 till November 12; seven of the prisoners were sentenced to terms of imprisonment in a fortress, varying from three to six years. Immediately after the sentence, the League was formally dissolved by the remaining members. As to the Manifesto, it seemed henceforth doomed to oblivion.

“When the European workers had recovered sufficient strength for another attack on the ruling classes, the International Working Men’s Association sprang up. But this association, formed with the express aim of welding into one body the whole militant proletariat of Europe and America, could not at once proclaim the principles laid down in the Manifesto. The International was bound to have a programme broad enough to be acceptable to the English trade unions, to the followers of Proudhon [the anarchist] in France, Belgium, Italy, and Spain, and to the Lassalleans in Germany.”

Throughout their lives, Marx and Engels greeted every significant development and advance of the working class movements with excitement and enthusiasm, regardless of the fact that these movements usually had a political program and a leadership that was far from revolutionary socialist.

Why? As Engels went on to explain:

“Marx, who drew up this programme to the satisfaction of all parties, entirely trusted to the intellectual development of the working class, which was sure to result from combined action and mutual discussion. The very events and vicissitudes in the struggle against capital, the defeats even more than the victories, could not help bringing home to men’s minds the insufficiency of their various favorite nostrums, and preparing the way for a more complete insight into the true conditions for working-class emancipation…”

“And Marx was right”, Engels concluded. “The International, on its breaking in 1874, left the workers quite different men from what it found them in 1864. Proudhonism in France, Lassalleanism in Germany, were dying out, and even the conservative English trade unions, though most of them had long since severed their connection with the International, were gradually advancing towards that point at which, last year at Swansea, their president could say in their name: ‘Continental socialism has lost its terror for us’. In fact, the principles of the Manifesto had made considerable headway among the working men of all countries.

“The Manifesto itself came thus to the front again…”

And in an 1890 preface by Engels:

“ ‘Working men of all countries, unite!’ But few voices responded when we proclaimed these words to the world 42 years ago, on the eve of the first Paris Revolution in which the proletariat came out with the demands of its own. On September 28, 1864, however, the proletarians of most of the Western European countries joined hands in the International Working Men’s Association of glorious memory. True, the International itself lived only nine years. But that the eternal union of the proletarians of all countries created by it is still alive and lives stronger than ever, there is no better witness than this day. Because today, as I write these lines, the European and American proletariat is reviewing its fighting forces, mobilized for the first time, mobilized as one army, under one flag, for one immediate aim: the standard eight-hour working day to be established by legal enactment, as proclaimed by the Geneva Congress of the International in 1866, and again by the Paris Workers’ Congress of 1889. And today’s spectacle will open the eyes of the capitalists and landlords of all countries to the fact that today the proletarians of all countries are united indeed.

“If only Marx were still by my side to see this with his own eyes!”

This confidence in the revolutionary potential of the working class has been shared by generations of revolutionary socialists, but that is not to say that there has been no questioning of this core proposition of Marxism.

Marxism not a dogma

Marx and Engels were not dogmatists. They had great confidence in their historical material methods of understanding society but they also knew that theirs was a theory of scientific socialism that would be tested in the real class struggles ahead.

In their lifetime they constantly adjusted their perspectives in the wake of real experience.

After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, Marx and Engels came to the conclusion that the economic concessions granted by the absolutist monarchies in Germany had cleared the way for a prolonged expansion of capitalist production. Up until the middle of 1850 they had believed that a new economic crisis like that of 1847 would come soon, and that the new crisis would spark a new outbreak of revolutionary struggle in Europe. However, as they deepened their study of economics, they came to the conclusion that this forecast was unjustified.

Marx and Engels also abandoned their earlier expectations that a proletarian revolution was imminent in France, and that under its impact a bourgeois revolution in Germany could rapidly and easily be transformed into a socialist one.

This premature forecast had been based on an over-estimation of the maturity of capitalism in Europe and of the development of the material conditions for a revolutionary transition to socialism.

Engels admitted bluntly in a preface to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France (1850):

“History has proved us, and all who thought like us, wrong. It has made it clear that the state of economic development on the Continent at the time was not, by a long way, ripe for the elimination of capitalist production.”

Just a few months the famous Paris Commune of 1871, a spectacular but short-lived seizure of power by the workers of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, Marx warned the Paris workers that any attempt to overthrow the government would be the folly of despair. But when, a decisive battle was forced on the workers and the uprising had become a fact, Marx greeted the heroism of the Communards.

As Lenin explains in The State and Revolution:

“Marx, however, was not only enthusiastic about the heroism of the Communards, who, as he expressed it, ‘stormed heaven’. Although the mass revolutionary movement did not achieve its aim, he regarded it as a historic experience of enormous importance, as a certain advance of the world proletarian revolution, as a practical step that was more important than hundreds of programmes and arguments. Marx endeavoured to analyse this experiment, to draw tactical lessons from it and re-examine his theory in the light of it.”

Indeed, the one significant amendment to the main propositions in the Communist Manifesto that Marx and Engels felt compelled to make within their common lifetime was on the basis of the experience of the Paris Commune. In their last jointly signed preface, dated June 24, 1872, they wrote:

“One thing especially was proved by the Commune, viz., that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” .

Marx and Engels showed in practice that what they bequeathed was not some bible or even a finished work. Scientific socialists were not preachers of some revealed truth but diligent students of society and its transformation who collectively engaged in the class struggled and concretized and enriched their struggle in the process.

They bequeathed foremost a method to scientifically understand social development and a theory of scientific socialism that would remain substantially a working hypothesis until the actual revolutionary transformations eliminated class on a significant world scale. Indeed theirs was not a theory designed for indifferent philosophers but rather for those who sought to change the world.

Anything less than this open approach does not deserve the name “Marxism”.

Marxism after Marx

To be true to the teaching and example of Marx and Engels, Marxism today is inevitably more than the collection of the ideas of those two great revolutionaries.

It has been tested, adjusted and enriched by the experiences and deliberations of subsequent generations of revolutionary socialists. And much of the subject matter of this conference comprises a discussion about just that.

The actual development of capitalism into its imperialist stage at the beginning of the 21st century required a significant development of Marxism. Lenin did the most incisive work in this regard.

He applied the Marxist method not just to the development of imperialism but also to the material roots of opportunism, national chauvinism and racism in the working class movements in the wealthy, exploiter imperialist nations. The latter has been long ignored, downplayed or rejected by many who consider themselves Marxist – but it is too real and too politically consequential to keep ignoring.

Then there was the Russian Revolution, the first socialist revolution ever. The Bolsheviks put Marxism to the test – thoroughly, as those who have studied the writings of Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolsheviks. The enduring value of Marxist insights was confirmed in spades and today no serious study of Marxism is not comprised in large part of a discussion about the various polemics around the Bolshevik experience.

There were also important developments in the wake of the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia. Trotsky did what is the most important work here, so far, though there is much unfinished work as the full impact of this costly betrayal (costly in human terms, for the struggle for liberation from capitalism).

There were developments in the wake of the post-1960s “new social movements” – a greater consciousness about the ecological crisis and women’s oppression, to name just two things.

There have been developments in the wake of the Latin American revolutions: Cuba, Nicaragua and now Venezuela and the new wave of revolts – and more are undoubtedly to come.

And there are developments in the wake of the massive transformations unleashed neo-liberal globalization/late capitalism.

A comrade lent me a copy of a new book by Mike Davis. It tells a dramatic story that demonstrates on the one hand the enduring value of Marxism and on the other hand the challenges posed by developments in the capitalist system, which lives up many years later to the vivid description in the Communist Manifesto:

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing 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 revolutionizing 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 condition of life and his relations with his kind.

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

“The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilization. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

These words were written when Europe was going through its Industrial Revolution in the 19th Century.

At the beginning of the 21st Century, there is unfolding a development that dwarfs that upheaval in both scale and velocity, explains Davis:

“Sometime in the next year or two, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one of Lima’s innumerable pueblos jovenes. The exact number is unimportant and will pass unnoticed. Nonetheless it will constitute a watershed in human history… For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural. Indeed, given the imprecisions of Third World census, this epochal transition has probably already occurred…

“…the urban labour force has more than doubled since 1980… As a result cities will account for virtually all future world population growth, which is expected to peak at 10 billion in 2050.

“Ninety-five percent of this final buildup of humanity will occur in the urban areas of developing countries, whose populations will double to 4 billion over the next generation… The scale and velocity of Third World urbanization, moreover, utterly dwarfs that of Victorian Europe. London in 1910 was seven times larger than it was in 1800, but Dhaka, Kinhasa, and Lagos today are each approximately forty times larger than they were in 1950. China – urbanizing ‘at a speed unprecedented in human history’ – added more city-dwellers in the 1980s than did all of Europe (including Russia) in the entire nineteenth century.”

What new contradictions does this introduce, or existing contradictions does this exacerbate, diminish or modify?

What is the class character of these urban masses and how will they relate to other classes?

What impact will this have on the open ended imperialist war on the Third World that masquerades as a “war on terrorism”? Davis tells us that US military strategists are pondering what military tactics might even be contemplated for counter-insurgency operations in these mega-cities.

What does this explosion of urban poor population in the megacities of the Third World mean for revolutionary prospects? (The “refugee/illegal/guest” worker phenomena in the imperialist countries being only a remote echo of this and the recent reconsiderations of Marxism by some on the radical US left have ensued in significant part from such echoes.)

What does this mean for the divisions in the working class in the imperialist countries How can we advance the battle for internationalist class solidarity?

I end this presentation with questions rather than answers about this massive new upheaval that is going on in the world, because in revolutionary honesty we cannot pose much more at this stage. This is serious work in progress for our movement.