Marxism

The body of theory and diverse political practices and policies associated with (or justified by reference to) the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels . For a substantial part of the twentieth century, and until the closing years of the millennium, Marxism was the alleged organizing principle of societies which contained more than one-third of the earth's population. Its influence on culture, history, sociology, politics, economics, and philosophy is explained and documented in, Marx: The First Hundred Years (1983). However, one of the best treatments is still to be found in, The Marxists (1962), which offers an especially useful introduction for students of sociology because it is suitably sceptical and avoids Marxist jargon.
In one way the political success of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in establishing itself as the principal voice of the German working-class movement in the 1880s was unfortunate for the further development of Marxism as an intellectual and sociological system. This success encouraged the premature systematization of the somewhat inchoate ideas of Marx and Engels around their economic core, so that they could better serve as the doctrinal basis for what was a rapidly developing international movement (the German-led Second International). Engels's own contribution to this process, as represented by his formulation of the doctrine of dialectical materialism , was probably its critical moment.
The one undoubted benefit arising from the economically determinist nature of this systematization was a political one; namely, the fusing within social-democratic thought of Marxism's revolutionary ideas with an acceptance of so-called bourgeois democracy . (Nothing could prevent the replacement of capitalism by socialism so there was no need to challenge the fundamental rules of the democratic system.) The person most often credited with this accomplishment was the SPD's leader Karl Kautsky . Almost as soon as Kautsky's ‘orthodox Marxism’ became the dominant current within his party, it was challenged from both the right (by Eduard Bernstein's revisionism), and the left (by Rosa Luxemburg's spontaneism). Bernstein criticized the retention of Marxism's revolutionism, whilst Luxemburg was opposed to the acceptance of parliamentarianism. Luxemburg's ideas briefly challenged the dominance of those of the orthodoxy, during the course of the ill-fated Spartacist Uprising of 1918, which took place in Berlin. But Bernstein's ideas eventually triumphed over the orthodoxy at the SPD's 1959 Bad Godesburg conference.
In terms of global politics, however, what was vastly more important than these German oppositional currents in determining the fate of both socialism and Marxism for most of the twentieth century was an oppositional current that arose in Russia in the early years of the century. This was the Bolshevism fashioned by Lenin , during the course of his struggle with the Russian equivalent of German orthodox Marxism, namely Menshevism. For the reasons set out with matchless clarity by Herbert Marcuse in his Soviet Marxism (1958), the establishment of Marxism-Leninism or Stalinism as the ruling ideology of the Soviet state led to the self-strangulation of the most influential body of Marxist thought as a creative and critical enterprise. The significance of this human and intellectual tragedy was then hugely magnified by the Comintern's (and latterly the Third or Communist International's) successful export of these ideas to much of the rest of the world, most notably to China.
By contrast, although it was of course powerfully influenced by the rise of Marxism-Leninism, Marxism retained much of its critical political and intellectual edge in the non-communist world. In the underdeveloped world it helped to stimulate and guide numerous national liberation movements-although there has been considerable dispute about precisely what might be the specifically Marxist elements in some of these movements (on which point see’s celebrated article on ‘Neo-Marxist Approaches to Development and Underdevelopment’, in , Sociology and Development, 1974). In the developed world it has played an equally vital role in the emergence of the welfare state and latterly the new social movements . Here too, however, Marxism has been driven by internal disputes between different groups claiming to represent the authentic tradition established by Marx and Engels. (The most acrimonious of these debates has involved competing ‘structuralist’ and ‘humanist’ interpretations, and probably reached its nadir in the debate about the work of Althusser , as for example in E. P. Thompson's vitriolic attack on structural Marxism in his The Poverty of Theory, 1978).
In sum, despite Marxism's complicity in the crimes associated with Marxism-Leninism, with some irony it remains a highly significant element in the pursuit of knowledge and social justice in the post-communist world. It may even survive politically, in the form of the soviet as a mode of social organization, despite the statist interpretation these were given in the USSR. The concept of the soviet was inspired by an anarcho-libertarian strand in the Marxist tradition, which was suppressed and marginalized under communism , but survives in some quarters as a utopian ideal, suggesting the possibility of a society constructed on the basis of competitive, self-managing enterprises and ‘associative’, democratic political institutions. As practised in certain communes , for example, it offers an alternative to the various forms of market regimes. See also anarchism ; critical theory ; humanism ; post-modernism ; structuralism.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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