Marxism purports to offer a scientific account of human history based on the economic and material conditions through which societies pass. Marxism is a species of communism in that it holds that the best society is one in which all property is held in common. Specifically, Marxism holds industrial communism to be the highest and final stage of social development. Its founder, Karl Marx (1818–1883), believed that this final stage of history was rapidly approaching, and he worked tirelessly to advance both his social theories and the revolution that they entailed. Many others had argued for communal property, but the enormous influence of Marx’s thought guaranteed that modern communism will always be most closely associated with him and his system, especially in light of the fact that his economic theory of social ownership was predicated on the prior development of an industrial society.
Marxism is an intellectual descendant of German idealism, and particularly of Hegelian thought, which held that history is the story of the gradual development of man’s spirit through a series of stages, each one more advanced than the last. Hegel viewed man’s mind or spirit as progressing through a series of conflicts and resolutions, and he viewed the outward manifestation of this process as identical with “history” in its more conventional sense. Hegel argued that inner conflicts, present within the leading men and leading societies of any age, were ultimately the driving force of economic, political, and cultural change. These conflicts within the life of the mind in turn produced the various stages of human history, complete with their governments, beliefs, arts, and economics. Marx, however, argued that the conflicts of intellectual and social life found their ultimate origin in conflicts over scarce resources and over the ownership of the means of production for any given epoch.
History, in other words, was fundamentally an economic phenomenon, not an intellectual one, and economics provided the key to understanding all the rest. In a famous phrase of Marx’s, “The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist.” More precisely, Marxist thought holds that the feudal system was predicated on the ownership of land and the extraction of agricultural land rent as the most important means of economic production. Because this form of extraction was the most profitable one available given the stage of material development at the time, it necessarily benefited the landlords, whose tastes, cultural values, and ideas, shaped, as they were, by economic circumstances, also were the ones that determined the culture of the era. To a Marxist, feudal forms of government, religion, philosophy, and art all reflected this basic economic reality.
The end of the feudal period, Marx held, was marked by revolution, as was the end of any stage of economic development. Marx believed that this revolution had occurred in England in the 1640s and in France beginning in 1789. Marx and his followers explained this transformation as essentially a transfer of power from the old ruling class to a new one, the bourgeois or capitalist class. With the advent of a new stage of economic development, the bourgeoisie became the chief owners of the means of production of the new era, and it was their values that predominated in all other areas of life. Bourgeois government, religion, philosophy, art—and even science—were held to be the results of this system of property ownership. As the Communist Manifesto put it, “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.”
Capitalism, for Marx, like all stages, contained the seeds of its own destruction. In support of this conclusion, Marx had recourse to the labor theory of value—the notion that the value of a product is ultimately reducible to the amount of labor required to produce it. Although in the end Marx viewed capitalism as destructive, it had at least shown to the world the nature of this relationship: “Man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind,” he claimed. These relations, under capitalism, were merely pecuniary and increasingly exploitative. Capitalism was based on the theft of the value of goods, produced by labor, a value exploited from laborers.
The proletariat, or the working class, Marx believed, would face ever-increasing poverty and more onerous working conditions. Capitalists, who held ever more economic, cultural, and political power, would oppress them until they reached a breaking point—and then would come a communist revolution. In this final phase of history, the proletariat would appropriate the means of production, namely the entire industrial capital of the world. It would thereby crush the capitalist class, ending the capitalist phase of history. At that point, the workers would set up a socialist society, which would spread the benefits of industry to all.
The benefits of communism were said to be enormous. For example, the Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky offered the following grandiose vision of human enrichment under communism:
It is difficult to predict the extent of self-government which the man of the future may reach or the heights to which he may carry his technique. Social construction and psycho-physical self-education will become two aspects of one and the same process. All the arts—literature, drama, painting, music and architecture will lend this process beautiful form… . Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx.
These are noble-sounding ideals, yet, despite Marx’s voluminous writings, it is never quite clear how they are to be achieved. Marx disdained incremental reforms; he scoffed at the so-called Fabian socialists, who advocated achieving socialism through gradual legal reforms. He likewise mistrusted those labor unions that negotiated peacefully with employers for improved working conditions and wages. For Marx, these half-measures did not advance industrial society toward socialism; on the contrary, they simply temporarily propped up the tottering capitalist edifice. There must be a revolution, Marx argued, and it must be entirely radical in its aims. It could be violent, but it could never be piecemeal. Yet just what should follow after the revolution is a mystery that Marx never cared to elucidate.
For example, the place of central planning in Marxist thought is a thoroughgoing puzzle. Marx famously declared that, under communism, the state would “wither away” and that fully self-realized individuals, capable as they would be in all walks of life, would have no need of anyone to direct them in their spontaneous, freely undertaken labor—a labor they would view with joy, not drudgery. Real-world Marxists who have faced the task of running a state, however, have not been able to achieve or even vaguely approach this end. Instead, they have adopted extensive central planning, including quotas, fixed prices, forced labor, and an astonishing array of directives about the minutiae of economic life. Impartial observers might well suspect that Marx would have repudiated these efforts.
As with any such all-encompassing system, Marxism has been subject to a number of criticisms. Many of the sharpest critiques have come from those closely associated with the libertarian or classical liberal tradition. Indeed, because classical liberalism champions private property and commerce and because Marxism disdains them, the two have been inveterate ideological enemies.
Karl Popper, for instance, argued that, even by Marx’s own admission, ideas, emotions, and freely adopted values clearly influence political and social structures. After all, someone must devise the technologies that so profoundly shape human societies, and someone else must take it into his head to rise up in revolution or else to refrain from doing so. These determinations cannot easily be reduced to economic necessity. It may be arguing tu quoque to complain that Marx was not a proletarian, but rather of bourgeois stock, yet Marxism invites this critique in that it champions the importance of class struggle, rather than ideology.
Thus, Popper argued, economics is a profoundly important part of human history, but it is not the sole constitutive factor of all political and social life. Marx admitted, and indeed proclaimed, that communist revolutionaries had the power to change history through their own efforts, yet, by the tenets of his own system, it is by no means clear that they should have this power if the means of production really do determine our social and political capacities.
Popper further argued that the scientific pretensions of Marxism were simply a window dressing and that the core of the theory lay merely in the idea that a certain favored class should rule over all others, by violence if necessary. This notion is neither new nor particularly helpful; indeed, it amounts to little more than tyranny in fancy language. Marx’s predictions of a future communistic society are fantasies—albeit particularly dangerous and irresponsible ones because so often they seem to entail violence. To Popper, Marxism is neither systematic nor scientific; it is incomplete and prophetic.
One of the most telling and intellectually sophisticated challenges to Marxism came from the Austrian School of Economics, a movement that stressed the radically personal and subjective nature of all economic choice and the fundamental impossibility of centrally managing or directing any economy. Collective ownership of all means of production would mean an end to the free market, and Marxists candidly acknowledged this fact. Yet destroying the free market also would mean destroying the price system, which Austrians emphasize is a necessary means of transmitting information about economic wants from consumers to producers and back again. Without a functioning free-market price system, no one would be able to determine the value of goods, which would mean not limitless wealth for all, but unending dearth.
The Austrians argued that price fluctuations were neither arbitrary, as some naive observers believed, nor pernicious, as Marxists have often claimed. On the contrary, as Ludwig von Mises argued in his landmark book Socialism, prices transmit information that is necessary for economic prosperity. Under a Marxist system, in which the means of production are all collectively owned, this information becomes impossible to garner.
A final critique of Marxism often advanced by libertarians is simply to note that virtually none of Marx’s predictions have come to pass in the roughly 150 years since he advanced them. Instead, workers in capitalist nations have seen a steady advance in their standard of living: salaries have increased, working conditions have improved, hours have grown shorter, and unemployment has not increased in any permanent way. Socialist revolutions insofar as they have been attempted, have neither achieved communism nor have managed to improve the lot of the worker. Most of them, of course, have since been abandoned, and former Marxist states now outnumber actual ones. This empirical or consequentialist critique of Marxism, when put into a more general form, tends to stress that, under any system of economic redistribution, individual incentives toward productivity vanish. Only capitalism, which rewards individual efforts, is capable of motivating individuals.
Supporters and critics alike agree that Marxism has never been fully put into practice, and it remains to this day an almost wholly theoretical system. Admirers and detractors alike have advanced differing reasons for why this should be so, but one fact is incontrovertible: In all historical cases, attempting simply to create a socialist society based on Marxist ideology has proved a horrific failure.
Marx, Karl. Karl Marx: The Essential Writings. Frederic L. Bender, ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986.
Mises, Ludwig von. Socialism. J. Kahane, trans. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1981.
Popper, Karl. The Open Society and Its Enemies. New York: Routledge Classics, 2003 .
Rand, Ayn, Nathaniel Branden, and Alan Greenspan. Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. New York: New American Library, 1967.
Sciabarra, Chris Matthew. Marx, Hayek, and Utopia. New York: SUNY Press, 1995.
Trotsky, Leon. Literature and Revolution. New York: Russell & Russell, 1957 .
Originally published .