This article provides a brief overview of what Marxism is. It is intended as a basic introduction but links are included throughout to direct you to further readings. Marxism is, at face value, the term used to describe primarily the work of Karl Marx. However, this is only the starting point of what Marxism is; a point of departure if you will. To answer the question of what Marxism is, at least at the surface level, we still have to go beyond that surface level and look a little deeper by considering Marxism in three ways: The work of Karl Marx himself, works filtered through the lens of Karl Marx’s ideas, and the prevailing definitions of Marxism.
The Work of Karl Marx
The German thinker Karl Marx wrote a substantial body of works covering a wide array of topics and concepts. In tandem with Friedrich Engels, there are 50 volumes of collected works spanning thousands of pages (see further reading box below). He is considered as one of three central founders of sociology alongside Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. Karl Marx lived in a time of massive social upheaval including the ongoing processes of industrialisation. People were moving out of rural areas and into cities where factories dominated the employment landscape. Child labour was also the norm as too was mass poverty. Factory owners, the capitalist class (or bourgeoisie) who owned the means of production, were doing very well financially. Marx believed that the bourgeoisie exerted the greatest control over society through various areas of power such as laws, ideas, or wealth. These entities were largely tilted in favour of this ruling class who used them to dominate the working classes (or proletariat). It was against this backdrop that Karl Marx produced his works.
Some of Marx’s most well-known works include:
- The Communist Manifesto
- Das Kapital
- The German Ideology
- A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
Across his body of works, Marx focused on many concepts which are often associated with being Marxist including, but not limited to:
- Base and superstructure
- Class struggle
- Surplus value
- Historical materialism
- Proletariat and Bourgeoisie
Not all of these concepts are specifically confined to Marxism but are held in general to be predominantly associated with Karl Marx. This is because like most concepts they are ideas which are interpretable and can find their way into other schools of thought. Capitalism for example, while a major focus of Marx’s work, cannot be considered Marxist per se. Rather, it has a Marxist interpretation. You can read more about these concepts in the ‘further reading’ and ‘external reading’ boxes below.
Marx’s work is also what is considered ‘conflict theory’. As the name suggests, conflict theories revolve around inherent conflicts that occur in society. For Marx, this was predominantly around the concept of class conflict. Tensions that arise between the proletariat and bourgeoisie are sources of conflict such as wages or living conditions. Marx viewed social and historical change as being down to these inherent conflicts between the proletariat and the ruling bourgeoisie.
This is evident in his formulation of ‘class consciousness’ where Marx argues that workers being continually subjected to poor conditions would eventually come to realise their shared predicament as caused by the ruling bourgeoisie. This would lead to a kind of shared awakening and an increase in trade unions through which demands for better conditions would be conveyed. These forces would eventually lead to the public ownership of the means of production. Eventually, through a greater level of egalitarianism, communism would arise whereby everybody would have a relatively similar amount of power and wealth.
Works Utilising or Filtered Through the Work of Marx
The use of the term Marxism or Marxist also applies to writers who have taken the ideas of Marx and either used Marx’s ideas and concepts by applying them to their own focus areas and concepts, developed those ideas further than what Marx originally did, or took one or some of Marx’s concepts and altered it in some way. There are many who are considered to be Marxist writers including some famous names who regularly appear in sociology such as Louis Althusser or Antonio Gramsci.
Gramsci, for example, also used concepts such as superstructure within his work. For Marx, economic structure forms the ‘base’ and all other cultural and social institutions rest on this base in what he calls the ‘superstructure’. Gramsci however divided Marx’s superstructure into two parts: political society and civil society and subsequently wrote a detailed account of how this division functions.
As noted above, some of Marx’s ideas have found their way into other schools of thought. Feminism for example, through the use of Marx’s ideas, came to establish a different strand of feminism called Marxist feminism. The intent was to develop the ideas of Marx to help explain the subordination of women in society. An example from this school of thought is that Marxist feminists argue capitalists, not men per se, benefit from large reserve pools of labour which functions in a way in which keeps wages low. Further, women are also considered to work for free when performing the role of housewife. The logic behind this particular argument is the Marxist notion that the family reproduces future labour for capitalists and, as such, women do not get paid for performing this role which capitalism comes to benefit and ultimately profit from.
As these two examples show, the ideas of Marx have either been developed further, altered, or even adopted into a new school of thought. In the case of Gramsci, he developed Marx’s ideas. In the case of feminism, we can see how they adopted the ideas of one school of thought, Marxism in this case, and helped to develop their own ideas from the pre-existing ideas of Marx ultimately constituting a new school of thinking.
The Prevailing Definitions of Marxism
Like all good sociological concepts, definitions tend to vary depending on who you ask. Marxism has accumulated standard dictionary definitions as well as various academic definitions. Oxford Languages (Google definitions) defines Marxism as:
the political and economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, later developed by their followers to form the basis of communism
The Oxford Learners Dictionary defines Marxism as:
the political and economic theories of Karl Marx (1818–83) which explain the changes and developments in society as the result of opposition between the social classes
Further, Merriam-Webster dictionary sees Marxism defined as:
the political, economic, and social principles and policies advocated by Marx especially: a theory and practice of socialism (see socialism sense 3) including the labour theory of value, dialectical materialism, the class struggle, and dictatorship of the proletariat until the establishment of a classless society
This last definition sees a much more concept laden explanation and to the newcomer may be overly complex. Yet, it at least gives seme detail as to what Marxism is. Following dictionary definitions of academic concepts is not always a good idea as often dictionary definitions can be quite different from academic definitions. Yet, when we move into academic definitions, it can become a study in itself. In sociology, it is important to venture through some of these definitions as what a concept means to one person or one school of thought is not always what it means to another. To see more definitions of Marxism, check out our ‘Definitions of Marxism’ article in the ‘further reading box below’. For an analysis of the difficulties in defining Marxism, see Sayers (2021) in the external reading box below.
In total then, Marxism at the surface level is the works and concepts of Karl Marx, work filtered through the lens of Karl Marx, and the way in which Marxism is defined. Together, these form the broad school of thought that is called Marxism.