ABSTRACT: The word ‘Marxism’ has a very triggering connotation attached to it. Of course, the nature of this trigger amongst people may vary, but it is no mystery that Marxism has left an indelible mark on the entirety of human society. Nearly every core philosophy in the world has been influenced by the Marxian rationale, which may not really come as a surprise considering that ideas of economic exploitation and dominion of one class of individuals are a reality in nearly every walk of human life. In this article, an attempt has been made to trace the development of a socialist thought-process across the world.
Marxist Schools of Thought
The works of the renowned economist and social theorist, Karl Marx (1818-83) have been responsible for revolutionizing the conventional understandings of Western and eventually the global society, right from their inception in the 19th century. As it is with any classical theory, in time, the original ideas of Marx have found in its audience, both a due appreciation as well as a robust critique, which have collectively come to be known as the ‘Marxist Schools of Thought’. For the purpose of ease of understanding, the development of Marxian philosophy can be categorized into four core schools as the following: Marxism
Marxism: Dialectical materialism, alienation and class theory
The ideas of Marx and eventually his closest aide, Friedrich Engels (1820-95) is what form the crux of the communist philosophy. Owing to the influence of the works of German idealist philosopher, G.W.F Hegel, Marx was deeply interested in understanding the complexities of human societies through the workings of a ‘dialectic’- a deliberation of ideas through a series of contradictions and contestations with the aim of establishing one kind of truth.
However, Marx disagreed with Hegel in his handling of the idea of the ‘dialectic’ in the sense that, Hegel, as well as his followers, incorporated it only in the realm of idealism, while Marx insisted that it applies in the real world as well. According to George Ritzer (2010), while Hegel only incorporated dialectics in an abstract understanding of ‘consciousness’, Marx firmly believed that it is relevant mainly in the material or physical world.
- Dialectical and Historical Materialism:
Marx’s theorisation of materialism offers an insight into his contention with Hegel. In simple terms, Marx gave greater weightage to the world’s physical existence rather than an abstract one. He believed that to discern changes in society, one must use the lens of economic developments, especially through modes of production.
According to Marx, any change, conflict, and transition occurring in society is a result of changes in the forces of production which he termed as the ‘base’ or ‘structure’. Thus, it is on this structure that the functioning of social institutions and phenomena such as family, religion, polity, etc., or the ‘superstructure’ happens to rest.
In simple terms, alienation is understood to be the loss of control over something that is distanced from an individual. Similarly, in Marxism, alienation refers to the distancing of one’s own skills, labour, and products of the same labour usually owing to economic exploitation.
While it is acknowledged that alienation is not necessarily unique to Marxian philosophy, it has been observed that the experience of alienation gets intensified in a capitalist society. (Oilman, 1971 as cited in Sydie & Adams, 2001)
- Theory of class struggle:
A class is a unit or cohort of individuals who all have the same relationship with the means of production in a society. Marx’s theorisation of class emerged from his critique of the capitalist society, which was evident in his work in ‘The Communist Manifesto’. In the Manifesto (1848), Marx has claimed that all struggle throughout history has been a struggle of class, which eventually sought political emancipation.
Broadly, Marx and Engels categorized the classes into the ‘bourgeoise’ and the ‘proletariat’, wherein, the bourgeoise consisted of capitalists and groups that owned the forces of production and the latter consisted of workers whose labour was hired by the bourgeoise.
In essence, Marx believed that the existing class struggle would eventually lead to the galvanization and consequent dictatorship of the proletariat, following which society as we know it would become classless.
Soviet or Russian Marxism: Contribution of Lenin and Trotsky
- A Background
The concrete manifestation of a socialist revolution in Russia was definitely brought in by the influence of Marxist principles and the main figure responsible for enabling it was Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924). Lenin is known to have strongly challenged the strong presence of Kantian philosophy in both German as well as Russian Marxism. (McLellan and Chambre, 2021)
Historically, in most instances (Marcuse, 1969; Bellis, 1979) the onset of Russian Marxism, also known as Soviet Marxism, has been accepted in the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ in Western Europe which led to the transition of capitalist society into a socialist one. This is believed to have formed the basis of the socialist revolution in the former U.S.S.R.
Following the events of the October Revolution of 1917, which was a series of ‘anti-tsarist’ or anti-imperialist movements in early 20th century Russia, the emergence of the Bolshevik party, led by Lenin and Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) made a revolution between the classes predicted by Marx and Engels inevitable. Lenin, in essence, having led the Revolution, stressed the need to uproot the then-prevalent bourgeoise-state model.
In his book titled ‘The State and The Revolution’, Lenin (1917 as cited in Bellis, 1979) stressed that the bourgeoise will be replaced by a state existing such that, it cannot help but completely disintegrate into nothingness, an event attributed to the various emergent changes in social institutions of Russian society. However, the point where Leninism contends with classical Marxism is that, unlike the latter, Leninism stressed on the need to have not just a “workers’ revolution”, but actually a “workers’ and peasants’ revolution”. In essence, the crux of Leninism was actually seen in the advocation of a dominion of the proletariat.
Following the contribution of Leninism, the second major name that one is to remember in the realm of Soviet Marxism is that of Trotsky. He was a contemporary of Lenin and also the co-architect of the Bolshevik resistance. However, Trotsky rose to greater recognition only after the death of Lenin. The main focus in Trotskyism was actually on the permanence of the revolution of the working class. While initially he was paired with the Bolsheviks, Trotsky left Lenin and developed the Left Opposition, continuing a strong opposition against Joseph Stalin’s regime.
Towards the end of Lenin’s life, Trotsky is known to have been in disagreement with the workings of the Bolshevik, although philosophically, he was more similar to Lenin than Stalin. However, eventually, Trotskyism essentially was concerned with the overthrowing of Stalin, which advocated a totalitarian, ‘socialism in one country’ as propounded by the equally popular Marxism-Leninism ideology. These ideas formed much of the theorisations in the Russian branch of Marxism.
Western Marxism: Class consciousness and hegemony
Western Marxism was a faction of Marxist theory that developed after the events of the October Revolution in Russia around the period of Lenin’s rise to power. By this time, that is, at the transience of 19th century to the 20th century, the main aim of most socialist theorists was to reimagine Marxism in a newer light. This effort was primarily realised in the works of two important thinkers of the time namely Georg Lukács, a Hungarian philosopher, whose ideas are depicted in his 1923 text titled, ‘History and Class Consciousness’ and also in the works of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian political theorist, whose ideas are recorded in his ‘Prison Notebooks’ (1929-35).
Gramsci questioned the apparent absence of a proletariat revolution despite the social conditions being suitable for it to arise. His idea was a critique of Marx’s indifference to the impact of ideas in igniting the revolution of the working classes. He believed that there was a ‘cultural hegemony’ or a ‘dominance’ of the ruling bourgeoise class that attempted to curtail the rise of revolutionary ideas among the proletariat. For the same, he proposed that there needs to arise a counter-revolution that would result in the emancipation of the ruling class.
After Gramsci, the works of other noteworthy thinkers like Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse and Louis who brought about significant changes in the approach towards Marxism. A major faction, that continues to play an important role in Marxian understanding of society is known as the Frankfurt School of Thought, officially a grouping at the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Frankfurt. It is believed that through the critical ideas of the Frankfurt school, neo-Marxism as a discipline finally took shape. (Adamson, 1980)
The most radical kind of criticism of Marxism actually comes from feminism, which also later translated into the ideas of post-Marxism. Even the world of Marxist Feminism alone cannot be traversed in one lifetime, let alone the various schools of Marxism.
From the foci of classical Marxist feminists, capitalist exploitation of women was discerned as the root of all women’s oppression. However, in the works of Evelyn Reed and Juliet Mitchell, there appears a shift from the traditional notion of the dominance of capitalism being a monolithic cause for women’s oppression. (Tong, 2014). In a nutshell, however, the main area where Marxist feminism differed from conventional Marxist theory was that, unlike the latter, feminist thought really foregrounded the historical misrepresentation of women’s labour and class struggle.
Upon a fleeting interrogation of post-Marxism, what one can find is that it actually constitutes a theory whose foundations, while rest on classical Marxist thought, actually attempts to challenge its basic tenets and even to a large extent, debunk it. At least from an etymological lens, nearly all works that emerge during the post-World War II period, are considered to be post-Marxist in nature. However, critiques of post-Marxism are often accused of misunderstanding the original ideas that were propounded by Marx. (Wolff & Cullenburg, 1986).
Also Read: Dalit Feminism
Thus, at a glance, one learns that Marx really revolutionized the thinking of not just his contemporaries, but also the following generations to come.
- Bellis, P. (1979). Marxism and the USSR (1st ed.). London: Macmillan.
- Lenin, V. (1917). The State and Revolution (1st ed.). New York: Kessinger Publishing. In Bellis, P. (1979). Marxism and the USSR (1st ed.). London: Macmillan.
- Marcuse, H. (1969). Soviet Marxism: A critical analysis (4th ed.). New York: Columbia University Press.
- McLellan, D. T. and Chambre, Henri (2021, March 24). Marxism. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Marxism
- Oilman, Bertell. 1971. Alienation: Marx’s Conception of Man in Capitalist Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. In Sydie, R., & Adams, B. (2001). Sociological Theory (1st ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press.
- Ritzer, G. (2010). Sociological Theory (8th ed., pp. 21-26). New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Sydie, R., & Adams, B. (2001). Sociological Theory (1st ed.). Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge Press.
- Adamson, W. (1980). Hegemony and Revolution: A study of Antonio Gramsci’s Political and Cultural Theory (1st ed.). London: University of California Press.
- Tong, R. (2014). Feminist thought (1st ed.). New York: Routledge.
- Wolff, R., & Cullenberg, S. (1986). Marxism and Post-Marxism. Social Text, (15), 126-135. doi:10.2307/466496
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