Marxism: What It Is and Comparison to Communism, Socialism, and Capitalism

About Marxism: 

Marxism is a social, political, and economic philosophy named after the 19th-century German philosopher and economist Karl Marx. His work examines the historical effects of capitalism on labor, productivity, and economic development, and argues that a worker revolution is needed to replace capitalism with a communist system.

Marxism posits that the struggle between social classes—specifically between the bourgeoisie, or capitalists, and the proletariat, or workers—defines economic relations in a capitalist economy and will lead inevitably to a communist revolution.

  • Marxism is an economic and political theory that examines the flaws inherent in capitalism and seeks to identify an alternative, which he called “utopian socialism.”1
  • Marxist theories were influential in the development of socialism, which requires shared ownership by workers of the means of production.
  • Communism outright rejects the concept of private ownership, mandating that “the people,” in fact the government, collectively own and control the production and distribution of all goods and services.

Understanding Marxism:

Marxism is both a social and political theory and encompasses Marxist class conflict theory and Marxian economics. Marxism was first publicly formulated in 1848 in the pamphlet The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, which lays out the theory of class struggle and revolution.

Marxian economics focuses on criticism of capitalism, detailed by Marx in his book Das Kapital, published in 1867.23

Generally, Marxism argues that capitalism as a form of economic and social reproduction is inherently flawed and will ultimately fail.

Capitalism is defined as a mode of production in which business owners (the capitalists) own all of the means of production (the factory, the tools and machinery, the raw materials, the final product, and the profits earned from their sale). Workers (labor) are hired for wages and have no ownership stake and no share in the profits.

Marxian Economics:

Like other classical economists, Karl Marx believed in a labor theory of value (LTV) to explain relative differences in market prices. This theory states that the value of a product can be measured objectively by the average number of hours of labor required to produce it. In other words, if a table takes twice as long to make as a chair, then the table should be considered twice as valuable. What Marx added to this theory was the conclusion that this labor value represented the exploitation of workers.

Marx claimed that there are two major flaws in capitalism that lead to the exploitation of workers by employers: the chaotic nature of free market competition and the extraction of surplus labor.

Marx predicted that capitalism would eventually destroy itself as more people become relegated to working-class status, inequality rises, and competition drives corporate profits to zero. This would lead, he surmised, to a revolution after which production would be turned over to the working class as a whole.

Class Conflict and the Demise of Capitalism:

Marx’s class theory portrays capitalism as one step in a historical progression of economic systems that follow one another in a natural sequence. They are driven, he posited, by vast impersonal forces of history that play out through the behavior and conflict among social classes. According to Marx, every society is divided into social classes, whose members have more in common with one another than with members of other social classes.

The following are some key elements of Marx’s theories of how class conflict would play out in a capitalist system:

  1. Capitalist society is made up of two classes: the bourgeoisie, or business owners, who control the means of production, and the proletariat, or workers, whose labor transforms raw commodities into goods that have market value.
  2. Ordinary laborers, who do not own the means of production, such as factories, buildings, and materials, have little power in the capitalist economic system. Workers are also readily replaceable in periods of high unemployment, further devaluing their perceived worth.
  3. To maximize profits, business owners have to get the most possible work out of their laborers while paying them the lowest possible wages. This creates an imbalance between owners and laborers, whose work is exploited by the owners for their own gain.
  4. Since workers have little personal stake in the process of production, Marx believed they would become alienated from their work, and even from their own humanity, and turn resentful toward business owners.
  5. The bourgeoisie is able to leverage social institutions, including government, media, academia, organized religion, and the banking and financial systems, as tools and weapons against the proletariat with the goal of maintaining their positions of power and privilege.4
  6. Ultimately, the inherent inequalities and exploitative economic relations between these two classes will lead to a revolution in which the working class rebels against the bourgeoisie, takes control of the means of production, and abolishes capitalism.
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