Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
Marxist theory was developed in the 1800s by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Marxist ideology includes a philosophy of man, a political and economic program, and a theory of history. Marx’s ideas were changed and altered after his death to suit the needs of those subscribing to them, and were changed further to accommodate communism as practiced by Vladimir Lenin in the Soviet Union in the beginning of the twentieth century. The hybrid created by Lenin is commonly called Marxism-Leninism, communism, or socialism, depending on the source. Marxism is a special brand of communism, specific to the time of Karl Marx. It was instrumental in forming the ideology of modern communism as well.
Marx’s philosophy of man is that humanity is defined by its ability to meet its needs. It does this by laboring on natural materials. Man does this labor for the species as well as for himself. Marx explained that all human creations, including houses, governments, food, and art, combine to create the human world which is made from the productivity of man. He argued that the entire species should benefit from this production, rather than just the producers, as in capitalism.
Marx and Engels wrote and published The Communist Manifesto in 1848. It explains the class struggles and the historical problem between the exploiters and the exploited. Their ideas were novel in that they felt history was fueled by the changes in means of production, where other historians had written only of battles, treaties, inventions, and discoveries.
The Marxist doctrine was refined and changed, especially after Marx’s death. Engels changed the revolutionary propaganda into a more peaceful patience and a quiet confidence of the evolutionary victory of a classless society. Under Vladimir Lenin, Marxism became more removed from the proletariat. According to Lenin, the workers could not organize their own revolt and needed leaders to plan and lead the revolution. Lenin also felt that revolution could and should occur in non-industrialized and non-capitalist nations. Lenin’s version of Marxism is commonly referred to as Marxism-Leninism. Joseph Stalin further altered Marxism to such a degree that it could barely even be called Marxism. His version, more so than Lenin’s, effectively destroyed the equality and freedom that Marxism was designed to promote.
Socialist and Utopian Beginnings
Socialism was labeled as such in the 1820s and has since been used by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and other philosophers to describe ways to organize society. Marxism stems from socialist and communist ideas, though Marxism itself didn’t exist until the middle of the nineteenth century.
Socialists do not agree with capitalism, and believe competition between individuals breeds inequality. Cooperation is a better system to socialists, and a shared ownership of the forces of production and distribution will guarantee equality. Socialists feel that each member of society should have the same materials. Socialism does not necessarily dictate shared government, however, though some socialists are democrats.
Karl Marx was a socialist who molded some of his ideas from the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (428-348 B.C.). Plato wanted to begin a republic free of strife. He did not subscribe to democracy but rather felt that his republic should be run by “philosopher-kings,” trained individuals who made the rules for everyone else to obey. Plato felt that the personal interests of the population would not necessarily be helpful for the common good but would inhibit the decision-making process. People’s desires would block their judgment. Plato put community above all else.
Another socialist thinker was English statesman and author Sir Thomas More (1478-1535). He transferred the Greek word “utopia” to English to describe an island with an ideal society. The secret of the utopia’s success was socialism. All the wealth was shared, and poverty and crime did not exist. Rulers were elected and there was freedom of belief. Farming, which More considered the least-favored work, was divided amongst everyone.
Two hundred years after More, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1788) created another idea of a perfect society in his works on political theory, most notably The Social Contract. He felt that people were naturally good, and that society’s inequality drove evil into people. He agreed with More and Plato that community was the answer.
The French Revolution, in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, had profound effects on political thinking. Europe’s monarchy was brushed away and the privileges enjoyed by the clergy were invalidated. Liberty swept the land and equality became the battle cry. The populace realized that they had the power to alter the reality with which they were so unhappy. Though the Industrial Revolution was slow, it was unstoppable. Though the standard of living went up and there was more material to go around and less work needed to create it, work days for factory workers were seemingly endless and the conditions horrendous. Women and children worked for low wages and were easier to control than men. They often worked sixteen-hour shifts. Towns became crowded as people looked for work in the factories. Their needs, housing, and sanitation were ignored. Slums sprouted up everywhere. It was this poverty and dissatisfaction that made people begin to think that capitalism was not the best economic and political option.
Charles Fourier (1772-1837) felt that men were generally good and could therefore be organized into utopian societies. He envisioned communal units of 1,500 people per unit. The people would live in buildings called phalansteries, which he described in great detail. He also explained how the groups would relate to each other. Work would only be done a few hours per day, and children, who Fourier said enjoyed getting dirty, would do the unappetizing work that adults shunned. Fourier’s ideas influenced many socialist communities.
Another important socialist and utopian advocate was Robert Owen (1771-1858). Shocked by the working conditions in Britain (and himself the co-owner of a large spinning mill in Scotland), he began to form ideas of his own. In his mill, the work day was only 10 hours long. Children went to school instead of to work in the factories and his workers lived in houses and had sanitation and gardens. Owen still made money, despite his fair treatment of his workers. He began New Harmony, Indiana, as a utopian community but, like the other utopias, it didn’t last long— only from 1824 to 1828.
Marx’s ideas on socialism were so convincing that they spawned their own term: Marxism. Marx’s version of socialism not only explained the evolution of society but also examined the reasons for conflict within society. Marx grew up in Germany and was strongly influenced by his father and by his neighbor, Ludwig von Westphalen, an important political figure. Marx studied philosophy at the University of Berlin and joined the Young Hegelians, a group interested in the ideas of German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). The group was radical and revolutionary and, because of Marx’s affiliation with them and his political activity, he was unable to get a job in academia when he received his doctorate in 1841.
He turned to journalism to make his living and edited The Rhine Newspaper (Rheinische Zeitung), until the newspaper was shut down five months later for its liberal content. Marx and his wife moved to France where, in the midst of the revolution ideology, Marx developed his theories. Marx met Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) in Paris. Marx had many novel ideas but was less adept than Engels at explaining them in print. Engels had discovered England’s working class at his family’s factory in Manchester in 1842. He was already a communist and began his relationship with Karl Marx two years later in 1844. The two men wrote The Holy Family and The German Ideology.
Marx’s writings were controversial. He wrote a great deal about the ills of his homeland and, in 1845, Germany convinced France to expel him. Marx moved to Brussels, Belgium. Engels went with him and the two joined a group called the Communist League. In 1847 the League asked them to create a statement about its beliefs, and Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto. The Manifesto got little immediate attention because of the Revolutions throughout Europe in 1848. Marx and Engels finally got to experience the revolution about which they’d been writing. When the French government fell, Marx went to Cologne, Germany, and became the editor of The New Rhine Newspaper (Neue Rheinische Zeitung). He was in Cologne when the workers rose up in Paris. Marx supported them enthusiastically in his newspaper, but after three days of fighting the workers were defeated. Marx was arrested in Cologne. During his trial, he made a speech about the conditions in Europe and, to the surprise of many, he was acquitted. Unable to jail him, the Prussian government expelled him again. The Marxes moved to London where they spent the remainder of their years.
Marx continued to write and was supported by Engels, who went to take over the management of his father’s Manchester cotton firm factory. Engels also contributed to Marx’s writing of Das Kapital, his critique of capitalism—the economic data and technical information comes from Engels. Engels also completed the second and third editions of Das Kapitalafter Marx’s death in 1883.
Marxist Decline and Revival
At that time, the industrial nations of Western Europe were in the middle of enormous social, economic, and political change. The quality of education rose and population stabilized. Child labor began was discouraged, and the Western European countries began to look for colonies to further bolster their prosperity. This “imperialism” was in the name of trade and resources. Britain, France, and Germany claimed colonies in Africa, the Near East, and Asia.
This colonialization raised worker dissatisfaction. Not only did citizens have to fight in the colonial wars, but foreign investment meant that factories would be built abroad and that there would be no new jobs at home. At the same time, conditions had improved because of the capitalist systems. France, Germany, and England were becoming increasingly democratic, and labor unions formed in France by 1884. By 1900, there were 2 million union members in England, 850,000 in Germany, and 250,000 in France. Political parties represented the working class in all three countries.
Socialism wasn’t dead, however. The German Social Democratic Party, a Marxist party, was formed in 1875. Marx hadn’t supported its ideology, which included state-controlled education. Marx had complained that the party’s platform didn’t look at the future. Socialist legislators were elected in Germany, however, despite the problems with the party.
Meanwhile, in England, the Labor Party had formed and had elected members to parliament. In Germany chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815-1898) was trying to quiet the socialists by giving in to some of their demands. Social legislation was also passed in France and England and conditions in the factories improved.
In the beginning of the twentieth century, England passed social insurance policies providing old age, sickness, and accident insurance. There was also a minimum wage law and unemployment insurance. If Marx had still been alive, he might have seen these successes as cause to alter his ideology. As things stood, Western Europe was moving away from revolutionary Marxism and concentrating on long-term reform. English Fabian Socialism (socialism based on slow change rather than revolution) overtook Marxism in its popularity because of its adherence to gradual social reform. There was skepticism surrounding Marxism, and after Engels’ death in 1895 there was no one left to defend its creation with equal authority.
The German Experience
In Germany, the Marxist Social Democratic party kept growing. The socialists there were dedicated to Marxism but they had trouble relating Marxist ideas to the already improving conditions under capitalism. Marxists split into two groups, the Orthodox Marxists and the Revisionists.
Karl Kautsky (1854-1938) was a leader of the Orthodox Marxists. He edited the New Times (Neue Zeit), a publication of the German Social Democratic party. He agreed with Marx’s economic arguments and centered on the problems with the lives of the working class. He felt that class struggle was evident because of the impossibility of an agreement between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. He ignored the idea of revolution, however, and argued that the working class could gain control peacefully.
Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932) wanted to update Marxism to address the improved conditions of the working class. He was a founder of Revisionism and he led the party in its abolition of the call for revolution. Bernstein claimed that the crisis inherent in capitalistic systems would become less frequent as capitalism developed and industry consolidated.
The Orthodox Marxists argued that the proletariat would revolt. They thought the workers would take control of the government, rather than overthrow it as Marx had dictated. They used peaceful methods to explain Marxism to the bourgeoisie to meet some of their goals. The Revisionists argued that Marxism was outdated. Both parties condemned violence and even the Orthodox Marxists were a muted version of what was envisioned by Karl Marx.
World War I brought more challenges to Marxism. A radical wing of the German Social Democratic party criticized the democracy used by the Orthodox and the Revisionist parties. Rosa Luxemburg (1870-1919) was unhappy with what the parties had done to Marxism. Luxemburg changed Marx’s ideas, stretching them to include a theory of imperialism. She looked at the European colonialization from an economic standpoint and argued that colonialization was necessary for capitalistic countries to increase their markets. Without new markets they could not progress and if they could not progress, they would not reach socialism. She felt that when the available markets had been saturated, capitalism would collapse and socialism would sweep up the debris.
Luxemburg believed in Marxism’s class struggle theory. She fought for revolution and encouraged workers to strike and stifle whatever they could as practice for the final revolution that would overturn capitalism forever.
The defenders of Marxism were a loose selection of socialist groups that convened in congresses every three years. Marxism had been one of the competing socialist doctrines of the First International and the most respected during the Second International in 1889. The International reaffirmed the Marxist’s doctrines of class struggle and revolution. When World War I broke out in 1914, the socialist sector splintered and Marxism’s influence declined in Western Europe. At the same time, however, the Marxist Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924) was leading a revolt in Russia.
Marxism in Russia
Marx had dismissed Russia as being too backward to deal with, much as he had dismissed the peasants as being too backward to take control. In 1917 Tsar Nicholas II was ousted and a Provisional Government was put in his place. Soon after that, the Bolsheviks and Marxist-Leninists took over the government. Lenin began to mold Marxism to his methods. He kept Marx’s ideas of revolution and, for the first time, began to implement Marxist ideology.
Lenin had to bend Marxism quite a bit to fit it into Russia. Lenin understood that in Russia the working class was too small to revolt on its own. He gathered the support of the peasantry by turning the land over to the peasants and was rewarded with their support. He talked about common interests and he altered the nature of Marxist revolution. While Marx had felt that revolution would be spontaneous, Lenin felt that the workers only wanted to improve their working conditions and their wages and that this was not enough to create a revolution. He felt that they needed to be led by revolutionaries who would take control, and he felt that the proletariat would not be equipped to handle the power if they got it on their own through revolution.
Marx had described a proletariat dictatorship as a government directly created after revolution with the purpose of bringing in a communist society. Lenin called his beliefs Marxism and considered himself a Marxist despite his alterations. Lenin felt that a party-controlled government was essential to success and, once in power, he suppressed opposition and silenced objectors in the name of achieving socialism. Instead of the freedom and creativity that Marxism predicted, Lenin’s reality was a repression and lack of equality that was only exaggerated by his successor, Joseph Stalin (1879-1953). Russia under Stalin could no longer be referred to as Marxist; communism, or more specifically, a harsh form later named Stalinism, took its place.
Theory in Depth
Marxism is a political theory and a means of achieving that theory. Karl Marx developed Marxism in the nineteenth century. He was unhappy with capitalism and felt a need for a new order. He drew his ideas from studies of industrial revolutions, from the ideas of the German philosopher George Hegel, from the European Enlightenment, and from a commitment to social equality and justice. Marxism is centered around the idea of social change and revolution to overthrow the capitalistic injustices heaped upon the common man. It covers three areas: philosophy, history, and economics.
Philosophically, Marxism studies the human mind. It examines the method by which man defines himself and how he decides what is real and what is not. Marx felt that ideas and practices were never fixed but were rather in a state of constant evolution based upon the surroundings at the time. He agreed with his early mentor, Hegel, who felt that change came through two opposing forces which struck each other and through their contact created a third entity. Hegel called this the “synthesis.” The two opposing forces which created the synthesis were the “thesis” and the “antithesis.” In time, the synthesis becomes a thesis with its own antithesis and, through a collision, creates another synthesis.
Though Hegel’s notion of continual change gave Marx a framework, Marx wasn’t fully satisfied with it. Hegel felt that change resulted from “world spirit,” and that this spirit developed freedom. Marx felt that such vague notions made no sense. He believed that people controlled their own future. He rejected the idea that the spiritual world held importance and wanted to bring things back to earth. He applied Hegel’s spiritual metaphors to the physical world, which he found much more practical, viable, and believable.
Marx also declared that philosophy had to become real. It was not enough to observe and comment on the world—one must try to change it and to make it better. Marx thought that knowledge centered around an analysis of ideas and that, without taking the next step to action, things became stymied. He looked at each problem in relation to others and then related them in turn to economic and political realities.
Marx’s philosophy on the causes of revolution was unlike most prominent thinkers of his time. In the nineteenth century, major historical events such as revolution were usually explained in terms of great and dynamic leaders or religious figures. Marx sought to explain revolution in economic terms. He stated that when technological improvements are made in society, the power structure impedes that technology from being used in the best way. In the case of capitalism, Marx thought that its rules of private property ownership would stand in the way of the developing technology that was greatly increasing the production of goods and services.
This theory did have a historical precedent—during the Middle Ages, when technological progress in society was a leading factor in the demise of feudalism and the birth of capitalism. Centuries later, the advancements of the Industrial Revolution would lead, according to Marx, to the only possible outcome: the destruction of capitalism by violent revolution. As Today’s Isms states: “Marx could find no instance in history in which a major social and economic system freely abdicated to its successor. On the assumption that the future will resemble the past, the communists, as the Communist Manifesto says, ‘openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.’ This is a crucial tenet of Marxism-Leninism, and one that clearly distinguishes it from democracy.”
Marxism also examines history. It explains that history is a series of conflicts and arrangements of social arenas. Labor helps to define the social groups. The way in which people labor with the tools available and the groups in which they operate are what defines the different sections of history. Marx labels five historical chapters in the way labor is conducted: the slave state, feudalism, capitalism, socialism, and finally, Marxism. He argues that capitalism exploits the workers in the same way that the slave state does and, for this reason, cannot last. The inequalities of capitalism will lead to revolution to equalize resources. Socialism will ensue, and after the wrinkles are ironed out of socialism, Marxism will replace it.
Marx felt that history could only be explained in terms of what people had done in, and to, the material world. The pattern was the same as Hegel’s thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Continual conflict created new items to create new conflict, and so on.
Marx also said that every society had a “superstructure.” This structure was comprised of the religious beliefs, laws and customs, and the political institutions and ideas. The superstructure protected the upper classes more than the lower. Religion, for example, would teach the poor that it was a virtue to live in poverty and to concentrate on the afterlife rather than on the life being lived at the moment. The poor would therefore not have a good reason to object to their condition, given the explanation of its worth.
Marx talked at length about this class struggle and the barriers it created. He felt that change was inevitable, and that the lower class would eventually reach a breaking point at which they would revolt to improve their condition.
It was this sort of class struggle, according to Marx, that would bring societal change. Mankind has traveled through history this way, from the phases of slavery to feudalism to capitalism. When farming took over hunting and gathering, a more distinct superstructure was necessary. When feudalism followed slavery, serfs with their increased freedom created a new class, the bourgeoisie. Eventually, this group overthrew the feudal lords and capitalism swept in.
Marxism’s main focus is economics. Marx’s program for man begins with satisfying one’s needs. Men need to satisfy certain needs such as food and shelter. Their means of achieving this are a struggle with nature. Hunting and building disturb nature. Through this disruption, man finds himself human because of his own labor. At the same time, he appreciates his mastery of nature. Born in nature, man becomes human, ironically, by fighting nature. Marx contends that all of history is the struggle between man and nature through his labor. Man is self-sufficient and free only when he manipulates the nature that created him.
Capitalism, Marx believed, stole freedom. Marx dissects capitalism to explain its inadequacies. A laborer is paid for the work he does, for example, but is paid an amount to allow him to support his family rather than an amount based on the profit he has given his employer. The laborer is separated, alienated, from his product. This destroys his freedom. The capitalists profit enormously, according to Marx, while the workers make a subsistence living regardless of the worth of their creations. Workers are not paid according to their value, and this injustice will lead to dissatisfaction and the collapse of capitalism. Since there is a lack of freedom, capitalism is not a viable long-term option.
The workers are a class of their own, the proletariat, while the owners of production are a higher class, the capitalists. There is middle class, the bourgeoisie, who don’t labor in the same way as the proletariat but rather organize the labor and work from offices to direct and manage the factories. Marxism dictates that the struggle between the capitalists and the proletariat will end in socialism. Socialism will be the synthesis of the thesis and antithesis of the proletariat and the capitalist.
The most important thing about any society, Marx said, is the way in which it provides for itself. Its economic means, for example, could include hunting and gathering or factories and grocery stores. Marx called these methods a society’s modes of production. The modes of production could be very simple or infinitely complicated, depending on the society. The means of production were the tools the society used to satisfy its needs, such as knives and spears or machinery and computers.
The relations of production were the owners of the means of production. The capitalists, the village chiefs, the monarchs, or the elders could be the relations of production. The relations of production were either owned by society as a whole or were privately owned by individuals. Marx felt that private property allowed inequality and provided a way to create different classes—a small upper-class that had almost everything and a large lower class with virtually nothing to sustain itself.
Marxism identifies “alienation” as a central problem with capitalism. Since labor isn’t directly related to its value, it is alienated labor. The worker is also alienated from himself because he is selling his labor and has become a commodity. He is further alienated by specialization. His task becomes so minute that he can perform it very quickly which speeds up production, but his expertise is so limited that he is virtually useless. Adam Smith (1723-1790), the “father of capitalism,” argued that such specialization, though marvelous for capitalists, rendered the worker worthless in any real measure. The worker is then alienated from his humanness. It is this alienation, in addition to exploitation of the workers by the capitalists, which form the contradictions that will disband capitalism.
Marx goes on to say that private property becomes a principal means of alienating oneself. It is this private ownership that separates one from the collective and creates individual existences separate from the whole.
The economic alienation is coupled with a political alienation. The capitalistic society of the bourgeoisie is separated into economics and politics. Marx viewed the political arena as the vessel for separating the classes and for allowing one class to dominate the next.
Marx analyzed the market system in depth in his Das Kapital. He studied the economy wholly rather than in parts. His ideas center on the belief that economic value comes directly from human labor. Marx felt that capitalism would develop to include more and more contradictions. The inequality of the laborer’s pay versus the capitalist’s profit was the first contradiction. In addition, technology invites trouble. A machine will allow a capitalist to produce more at a lower cost, but competition keeps him from realizing more gain. He must keep up with the latest machinery to remain competitive, which means transferring money once designated for workers and applying them to technology instead. As a result, his rate of profit declines.
The market will also be shaken by crisis periodically. This instability creates increasing poverty, as people are not able to keep up with the fluctuating market. The separation of the proletariat and the capitalists increases and the classes are even more distinct. The monetary assets are controlled by fewer and fewer people and what remains is shared by more and more.
Marx also explains how the worker’s position will lead to revolution. One thing the working class will gain is knowledge about group activity. The factory workers learn to work cooperatively and will eventually see that they can channel this cooperative effort into a movement to better their condition. This is what Marx calls class consciousness. The realization of one’s condition will lead to a greater understanding and, in turn, to conflict between the classes. Pressures build and the workers begin to demand change.
Marx spoke at great length about this class struggle, which is the focal point of his social evolution. When man is conscious of his alienation, he will move toward revolution. This will be the beginning of communism. There are two forms of revolution for Marx. The first is a standard uprising of the proletariat after having been exploited past their breaking point. The second type of revolution is more permanent—a provisional merger between proletariat and bourgeoisie rebelling, together, against capitalism. Later on, when there is a proletariat majority to the coalition, power is transferred completely to the proletariat. It was this revolution that would bring capitalism to an end and allow socialism and, finally, Marxism, to take its place. After the establishment of a Marxist economy, class structure would disappear from society.
Friedrich Engels, Marx’s friend and the co-author of The Communist Manifesto, added his comments to Marx’s capitalism critique. Engels felt that man’s mentality could be its own prison. Ideologies allowed people to understand themselves and where they fit into the puzzle. These ideas masked the true picture, their exploitation. Ideologically, for example, the capitalist will give the workers the impression that he is working in their best interest. The workers will feel that, though they are paid small sums, they are appreciated and cared for. But in reality, the capitalist will simply be spouting words to boost morale and encourage loyalty, so that he can continue to get as much labor from his workers as possible, and for the lowest price. According to Engels, workers focus on the ways in which they are not exploited rather than on all the ways in which they are.
In addition to the Marxism drawn out by Mark and Engels, there is Soviet Marxism. It is debatable as to whether or not the version of Marxism practiced by Vladimir Lenin in Russia was still true Marxism or whether it was so distorted that it became something else entirely.
Theory In Action
When Marx and Engels died at the end of the nineteenth century, Marxism’s evolution was inherited by the revolutionaries of the next generation. In Western Europe at that time, conditions improved for factory workers. Economic prosperity meant improved living standards across the board. Workers formed unions and were able to negotiate better working conditions and earnings. Many European countries were becoming more democratic, moving away from Marxism, and were prospering.
In Western Europe the people felt satisfied and, rather than jeopardizing what they’d gained by having a revolution, they worked to gradually improve their conditions. Marxism fizzled into smaller groups of intellectuals who, in order to gain any support at all, stressed reform in place of revolution.
When the Second International was formed as the latest communist entity, it was an international organization of socialist parties. Its members slowly lost their revolutionary spirit in favor of long-term reform. Democratic socialist writer Eduard Bernstein said that capitalism was making life better, not worse. He pointed out that violent struggles between the classes was not the best way to create change. Capitalism would gradually evolve into socialism, he said. His ideas were called revisionism and were considered an updated version of Marxism. The Second International went along with his ideas.
While Marxism was shrinking away in Western Europe, it was spreading into Russia and gaining momentum. Much of Russia’s population was poor. The majority were peasants who had been liberated from serfdom and slavery by Tsar Alexander II (1818- 1881) in 1861 but who lived in the same conditions they had before their freedom. Though Russia was also going through an industrial revolution, it was far behind Europe. To make matters worse, the tsar had almost complete power over his people. There was a huge class difference between the minute elite and the uneducated mass peasant population. The groups didn’t interact at all. Ironically, most of the revolutionaries were from the elite class and knew little of the life of the people for whom they were concerned.
Das Kapital was translated into Russian in the 1870s (ironically, the tsarist censors didn’t think it would be read because of its difficult style). The first Russian Marxist group, The Liberation of Labor, was formed in 1883. The Russian Marxists were a small minority and the majority of the socialists didn’t subscribe to Marx’s call for world revolution.
Marxism Under Lenin
Vladimir Lenin was born in 1870. He grew up in a middle class family and had a happy childhood. During his adolescence, however, two significant things happened that helped lead him down the road to professional revolutionary. When Lenin was 16 his father, a schoolteacher, died of a stroke; the following year his brother was hanged for being involved in a revolutionary plot to kill the tsar.
Lenin was expelled from the university he was attending for participated in a student protest. Studying from home he learned about revolutionary leaders and read Das Kapital. Lenin became one of the most important leaders of Russian Marxism and spent the next 17 years helping the communists gather momentum. He became a Marxist in the 1890s, taking some of his ideas from Marxism and combining them with Russian revolutionary tradition. His version of Marxism is commonly known as Leninism or Marxism-Leninism.
Lenin did not agree with Marx’s assumption that a society must pass through capitalism before it reaches socialism. Lenin desperately wanted socialism. He did not want to wait for Russia to go through capitalism—he wanted change to happen quickly, so he organized a political party. In keeping with Russian socialist tradition, Lenin distrusted the masses. The masses, at the time, wanted the Marxist party to be modeled after the German Social Democratic Party. Lenin, however, felt that the party workers would be happy with minor changes and would ignore the need for revolution. They would not reach “revolutionary consciousness,” Lenin said. He organized his ideas in a pamphlet published in 1902 called What Is to Be Done? named in honor of a book written by Nicholas Chernyshevsky (1828-1889), a Russian revolutionary.
Lenin felt that a group of professional revolutionaries should be in control of the revolution. This group would make the decisions instead of the proletariat. Decisions would be made by the leaders, the central committee. Policy could be debated but when a decision was reached, it was to be followed. In addition, Lenin’s party was to be kept secret to avoid censorship by the government.
This party model was also taken from Chernyshevsky’s book. Many of the Marxists in Russia did not agree with Lenin’s party ideas and thought that the central committee would become a dictatorship. This argument led to a split in the Russian Social Democratic Party the next year. The two sections were called the Bolsheviks (the majority) led by Lenin, and the Mensheviks (the minority). Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), a young revolutionary who grew to enormous power in the party, criticized Lenin’s ideas. He said that Lenin’s party would substitute itself for the proletariat, the central committee would substitute itself for the party, and the dictator who took control would substitute himself for the central committee. Many years later, Trotsky ignored his own words and became a Bolshevik, helping to bring them to power.
Lenin also changed another aspect of Marxism. Marxist analysis predicted that the first countries to overthrow their governments and their capitalistic economies would be the most economically advanced, by definition of having to first evolve through capitalism. That meant that Western Europe would have to do it first, given its relative economic success. Lenin didn’t see any evidence of revolutionary ideology in the West and therefore couldn’t accept Marx’s prediction. Lenin argued that when Marx wrote Das Kapital, capitalism had not yet become worldwide. Since Marx’s death, capitalism had swept the planet and had led to exploitation of Asia and Africa. Lenin called this exploitation “imperialism.” He said that imperialism had good points and bad points. One bad point was that the socialist revolution would be put off in the capitalist countries because they were able to boost the living conditions of their proletariat from the goods they’d exploited from Africa and Asia. One good point was that the capitalist-imperialist system had an Achilles’ heel. Russia’s capitalism was much less steady and could, therefore, be the first to collapse— a direct reversal of Marxist theory. This revolution would then spread in reverse order from Marx’s theory, going from the lesser advanced countries to the more advanced.
Lenin felt that his revolutionaries should use any means necessary to overthrow capitalist Russia. Before the Bolsheviks seized control in 1917, Lenin endorsed extortion, fraud, robbery, and other crimes. After he came to power he seemed willing to do anything to keep it. This belief allowed him to commit heinous acts of cruelty to try to create a society that would put an end to such cruelty forever.
Revolution in 1905
Until 1904, the Marxist leaders and Russian revolutionaries remained in exile and were unable to unseat the tsar. In 1904, Russia went to war with Japan. The tsar, Nicholas II, thought it would be easy to defeat the Japanese, but the war proved to be disastrous. Conditions worsened in Russia. There was a revolution in 1905, which began with peaceful demonstrations but ended in massacre by the tsar’s troops. As the revolution spread to the Russian capital of Moscow, Lenin returned to Russia from Europe to lead the Bolsheviks, and Leon Trotsky led a strike against the government.
After the failed revolt, Lenin was forced into exile from 1907 until 1917 and, from a distance, struggled to keep the Bolsheviks united. To this end he organized the Bolshevik Party Conference in Prague in 1912, which officially separated the Mensheviks from the Bolsheviks.
Through their experiences, the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks learned separate lessons. The Mensheviks decided that the proletariat was too small for a revolution and that capitalism had to mature before the proletariat would be in the majority. The Bolsheviks felt that waiting for capitalism to mature was a waste of time. Lenin looked for ways to increase the proletariat’s numbers. He decided to try to ally the peasantry with the proletariat. The peasantry wouldn’t hold any decision-making power, but their numbers alone would be useful. Lenin decided that he could win the peasants by giving them a few of their demands. Karl Marx had argued that the peasants were a warped class, but Lenin needed them for his program to have enough support for an uprising to succeed.
Although the 1905 revolution failed, Nicholas II was pressured to make changes. He created a constitution and made some steps toward ensuring the people had civil rights, at least on paper. Russia had its first parliament, the Duma. The Duma had limited power that catered to the upper class but was a step toward democracy. The government also tried to raise the peasantry’s standard of living, improve the army, create opportunities for education, and bolster the industrial revolution. However, despite the changes, the majority of the population remained very poor and the upper classes were displeased with the weak nature of the reforms.
Changes in Russia
World War I began in 1914. Russia, France, and England fought against Austria-Hungary and Germany. From the onset of the fighting, Russia suffered crippling defeats. The national pride the country felt when the troops first marched off to war quickly faded. Marches and riots swept the country. Workers and soldiers turned against the tsar, and Nicholas II was forced out in March 1917. The 300-year-old Romanov Dynasty was thrown away, and a Provisional Government composed of leaders of the Duma and noblemen was swept into place.
The Provisional Government planned to create a democracy like those in the West. They wanted to promote capitalism and reform instead of revolution. The government enacted laws expanding civil rights and shortening the work day to eight hours. They freed political prisoners and planned for a national election. But it wasn’t enough.
Russia was still in the war, and the Provisional Government’s popularity cascaded downward. Lenin returned to Russia from exile in Europe the same year, arriving in Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg) on April 16, 1917. Lenin was determined to overthrow the Provisional Government believing he was the only one who could lead Russia into socialism. He denounced this government as imperialistic despite its claims of democracy.
The Bolsheviks revolt
By the autumn of 1917, the Bolsheviks were the majority party and Lenin decided to make his move. Though many of his supporters wanted the Provisional Government replaced by a coalition of the major parties, Lenin convinced them that a dictatorship of one party would be better. Trotsky helped Lenin to win support and, in October, Lenin’s central committee voted to overthrow the government.
The Bolshevik militia, called the Red Guards, deposed the Provisional Government in the first week of November 1917, by seizing important areas in Petrograd and arresting the ministers of the Provisional Government. The takeover was easy and smooth, and much of Russia missed it entirely. In a day, with a relatively small death toll of several hundred, the Russian democratic experiment had ended. The world’s first attempt at Marxism had begun, with Lenin at its helm.
The Bolsheviks initially controlled only Petrograd and the surrounding countryside, but Lenin wanted more. He did two things to increase his popularity and control. He gave Russia’s farmland to the peasants to win their support, and he began negotiations to end the war. The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed by Germany in 1918, gave Russia freedom from the war in exchange for territory—territory, Lenin knew, Russia would get back someday.
The next step for the Bolsheviks was to exterminate their rivals. Lenin met opposition when he fought to make Bolshevik control over the government absolute. He finally allowed a tiny minority party to have a small voice, but after a few months even that was quashed and control became entirely Bolshevik.
Newspapers that were not socialist were shut down and Lenin’s secret police, the Cheka, infiltrated the population and eliminated opposition to their leadership. In 1918 the Bolsheviks got rid of the Constituent Assembly which had been elected the year before.
Lenin’s repression of opposition led to civil war. The fighting lasted until 1920. Virtually everyone who was not Bolshevik, or The Reds, was fighting against them. The Whites, or anti-Bolsheviks, were supported by Britain, the United States, and France.
By using savage and bloody tactics, the Bolsheviks eventually won the civil war. They created the first concentration camps in history to house their political prisoners. The Cheka crushed worker strikes and stole food from anyone who had it, forcing peasants to give up their grain.
The Bolsheviks seized food, controlled the factories, forbid trade, forced labor, and crushed dissension. These policies killed the Russian economy but supplied the Red Army with food and supplies which was, in Lenin’s view, crucial.
When the civil war ended, the Bolsheviks’ power was shaky. The economy had been flattened, riots and strikes flooded the cities, and a massive famine killed 5 million people from 1921 to 1922. In response, the Bolsheviks met for their Tenth Party Congress to discuss how to bolster the economy and the Bolshevik’s popularity. Lenin suggested an end to the war communism that had confiscated provisions from the peasants. He created the New Economic Policy, designed feed his starving country. It allowed farmers to sell their goods while paying the government a percentage of their profits in tax. Peasants who had lost their incentive to grow crops began to replant. After two years, the country began to feed itself again.
Trouble within the party
Many of the Bolsheviks were frustrated by this provision, however, because it stank of capitalism. The war communism, which confiscated goods from the peasants and distributed them among the troops, had been a step toward socialism, and had already failed.
The New Economic Policy created another problem. According to Marxism, in order to achieve socialism the industrial revolution had to continue until it reached modernity. The economic policy didn’t have the resources for this, however, and the industries controlled by the state were too inefficient to amass the profits needed to invest in technology, nor could the taxes be raised without killing the incentives for peasants to produce food. Moreover, Lenin believed the New Economic Policy would relieve the peasants’ fears and ease the transition to communism.
The Bolsheviks were also in the midst of a political struggle. During the civil war the opposition to the Reds had been violently silenced leading to resentment and dissatisfaction with the Bolsheviks. At the Tenth Party Congress that accepted Lenin’s New Economic Policy, the leaders of the Congress created the post of general secretary to organize the party’s regime, giving the post to Joseph (Dzhugashvili) Stalin.
Lenin had not expected party corruption, as it was not in keeping with Marxism. However, the party was overrun with it during the 1920s and officials used their power to satisfy personal whims. Lenin was very worried that Stalin was involved in this corruption. Stalin used his title to acquire power and Lenin decided that Stalin should be replaced. Before he could advocate his position, however, Lenin suffered the first of his three strokes. He was confined to his bed for a year and died of his third stroke in 1924.
After Lenin died, his version of Marxism became called Leninism or Marxism-Leninism. Lenin had warped many of the ideas of Marxism to rationalize revolution in Russia and his dictatorship. His version was very different from that of Marx and Engels, and even more distant from the moderate reform sector of Marxism that had swept through Western Europe.
Analysis and Critical Response
As with so many other political systems, Marxism in practice didn’t work exactly as it did in theory. Marx and Engels assumed that corruption wouldn’t be a problem under communism and that the negative vices and traits that caused such corruption were spawned from the inequality and dissatisfaction of capitalism. Since Marxism would provide for all, there would be no dissatisfaction and, therefore, no reason for criminal activity. Perhaps it is impossible to say if this would be the case, as a true Marxist state has never really been reached.
There has not been a Marxist success without simultaneous abuses by those in power. Marx’s ideas have been called idealistic. It is utopian, to use Marx’s own word, to believe that a society can exist without a class struggle of some kind. It was unrealistic to expect that work would be done voluntarily, crime would not exist, political and religious differences would be forgotten, and everyone would live happily. One of Marxism’s major failings is placing so much emphasis on economic matters while downplaying—almost dismissing—factors such as religion and ethnic pride. For example, in today’s Middle East, if all economic problems were suddenly solved, it’s difficult to imagine that all other problems would go away, too
Many of the details of Marxism didn’t blend with one another. Marx’s moral disagreement with capitalism and particularly his studies which showed communism was unavoidable don’t seem to hold up when measured against modern history—Japan, Germany, and the United States have had thriving capitalist economies for decades; and yet, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a Marxist revolution in any of the three seems almost inconceivable. Marx’s contention that capitalism had to first mature to its fullest state before the inevitable communist revolution was also disproven in the reverse—Russia hardly had a thriving capitalist economy when the Bolsheviks took over in 1917.
Moreover, Marx’s views on the causes of imperialism were also at odds with events that occurred long after his death. Today’s Isms states: “Communist imperialism cannot be explained in Marxian economic terms, according to which imperialism is the last phase of an advanced capitalist economy with an abundance of capital that it seeks to invest in less developed areas.” Indeed, modern-day Germany and Japan are two examples of capitalist governments that don’t seem to have any imperical ambitions, while the cash-strapped Soviet Union of the mid-twentieth century aggressively set up communist satellite states all over Eastern Europe. Of course, by the mid-twentieth century Stalin had so twisted communist theory that Marx himself likely would’ve been disappointed if he had seen what the first country to base itself on his ideas had become. The truly ironic thing is if Marx had been around in the 1930s to express those disappointments in Stalin’s Russia, he probably would’ve found himself exiled to Siberia—or worse.
Marx also believed that, after the communist revolution, the class structure of society would disappear. But that was not the case in Soviet Russia. Indeed, the proletariat fell even further behind the small class of quasi-intellectual government officials who—in the name of the state—controlled the means of production. In fact, it has been the advanced capitalist economies that showed a change for the better. Of the twentieth-century capitalist societies, Eugene O. Porter writes in Fallacies of Karl Marx: “The middle-class is not disappearing, but increasing, as a result of the greatly expanding educational system which produces professional men and women—doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc., most of whom are property owners and therefore of the petty bourgeoisie as defined by Marx.”
Marx and Engels claimed that, scientifically, socialism was the only way history could end. They called this theory “scientific” socialism and considered it much more sound than the idealistic dreams of the utopians. Engels, after Marx’s death, hinted that their theories may need modification, given that socialism had yet to ensue.
After Vladimir Lenin came to control Russia in 1917, his version of Marxism became known as Marxism-Leninism. He altered many of Marx’s ideas to rationalize his seizure of power and the atrocities committed by his Bolshevik party. He justified the ends by the means and was willing to do anything to force socialism onto tsarist Russia.
Lenin added to Marxism the idea that a new party had to be created to control the working class. He also added the idea of Marxist revolution in one country instead of the worldwide revolution that Marx had predicted. Lenin sought control rather than leadership. His dictatorship became more severe when he encountered opposition that could force him from power. He felt compelled to silence it, and did.
The Bolsheviks changed their name to the Communist Party in 1918 to distinguish their revolutionary selves from the moderate Marxists in Western Europe. The Communist International, set up by the Bolsheviks in 1919, was separate from the Second International’s organization of socialist parties. Lenin wanted only revolutionary socialism and so created the Communist International to allow for a split.
Marxism-Leninism, signified socialist ideology in tandem with mass murder. Lenin voiced some comments on Marxism that shed light on some of the causes of its struggle in Russia. In his 1923 speech, “Better Fewer, But Better,” Lenin spoke about some of the areas in which his Marxism had strayed from the vision recorded by Karl Marx.
Lenin’s speech, by title and content, included the idea that rule was better controlled by a small, competent minority than by the masses. This was a direct split from Marx’s contention that the revolutionary party would succeed because of its control by the masses, or the proletariat (the working class.) Lenin’s statement, “We must follow the rule: Better fewer, but better,” was a switch from the Marxist ideals he planned to follow.
Lenin also felt that it was important to progress slowly and that change that was forced quickly would eventually ring false. His simultaneous need to be able to defend his country from aggressors was an obstacle, however. The two desires could not find a way to coexist. Lenin stated: “We must show sound scepticism (sic) for too rapid progress… we must remember that we should not stint time on building it, and that it will take many many years.” At the same time, Lenin felt: “What interests us is… the tactics which we, the Russian Communist Party… should pursue to prevent the West-European counter-revolutionary states from crushing us.”
Lenin’s own claims are that to reach a Marxist world, progress could not be rushed, yet at the same time it was imperative to have a powerful country to protect Marxist ideals. Though Lenin said that “… we shall be able to keep going not on the level of a small peasant country, not on the level of universal limitation, but on a level steadily advancing to large-scale machine industry,” he wanted these conflicting goals to happen simultaneously. These plans could have led to their own failure.
Marxism was designed to be a road to equality and freedom. Society would be fair and repressive methods would be unnecessary. The Marxist reality in Russia was very different from the ideology it claimed to follow. The state did not whither into nothing but rather grew until it virtually destroyed everything else. The state controlled everything—industry, agriculture, education, art, and the media. Travel was only allowed with permission and the state spied on its citizens so that it could bury dissension.
There is some debate as to why the quest for Marxism created such blood bath in Russia. Marx believed that checks and balances, as found in the Constitution of the United States, were unnecessary. He felt that the evils of the world would disappear when equality took over because it was the poverty and need caused by capitalism that created the evils to begin with. The Russian experiment of Marxism was a failure. The freedom and equality that Marxism was created to promote were ignored. Crime flourished at the highest level: It did not melt away as Marx had predicted. Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), commented on the problems of freedom when she said, “Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party—however numerous they may be—is no freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently.” In Soviet Russia, the ones who thought differently were quite often killed, which may help to explain why freedom was so thoroughly lacking and why, despite good intentions at the onset, Soviet Russia endured such violence in the name of so-called equality.