What is Marxism? An introduction

Marx and Engels statue at in Oak Park, Kyrgyzstan (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In forthcoming issues, Socialism Today, the monthly journal of the Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales) will be publishing the content of five new Introduction to Marxism pamphlets. They are based on a series first printed in 2003 but take into account the context of the present period, and a fresh approach has been taken in some sections to the way the ideas are presented. Here we begin with the introduction to the new series, written by JUDY BEISHON.

The Marxist ideas contained in this series of short pamphlets are just as vital today as when they were first brilliantly put forward by Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels in the nineteenth century.

Since then, their clear explanation of the failures of capitalism as a system and why it can’t deliver a decent future for humanity and the planet has stood the test of time. Recent decades have seen worsening economic crises, increased inequality, massive levels of displacement and the growing impact of climate change. More recently, the Covid-19 pandemic has shown the failure of capitalist governments to put sufficient resources into public health, whether for preventative measures or treatments.

None of the systemic fault lines that existed at the time of Marx and Engels have been solved. On the contrary, they have further developed and taken a sharper form in many respects. Today we live in a time of immense turmoil, rapidly moving events and great tensions between the world’s ruling classes.

The impact of capitalist crisis on the lives and livelihoods of the overwhelming majority of people across the globe – the working classes and middle classes – has not gone without fightbacks in the form of mass movements and uprisings, including in recent years. The political arming of those struggles with Marxist ideas has never been more urgent – to provide the tools for a clear understanding of the economic, social and political landscape, and the tasks that are necessary to change society.

That is what using Marxist ideas can provide: gaining clarity on events and processes; and using the lessons of past workers’ struggles to understand the need for the building of workers’ organisations that are independent of capitalist interests and capable of leading the working class to power.

The component parts

People unfamiliar with Marxism might think of it as being essentially about economic theory. Certainly, Marx’s writings on the ways in which workers are exploited by employers and the contradictions within the whole system are vitally important. But the entire body of Marxist ideas are much more than that, they are also scientific ideas for understanding human society and natural phenomena in the past, present and future.

Three of the pamphlets in our series are on what Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin referred to as the “three component parts of Marxism”. These are: ‘Historical materialism’ – an analysis of human history based on material conditions; ‘Dialectical materialism’ – Marxist philosophy; and ‘Marxist economics’ – the workings of capitalism.

The fourth pamphlet is on the capitalist state; the fifth focuses on how workers will need to organise and act to change society – ‘The role of a revolutionary party’.

To develop their scientific socialist ideas, Marx and Engels studied the writings of past socialists, economists and philosophers, and those they were contemporary with, in order to build on the best aspects of the conclusions of those authors and discard what they judged to be incorrect. They analysed German writings on philosophy, including those of Georg Hegel, stripping out the idealism within it. For economics, a major source was the works of English authors, and for the latest in socialist thinking they looked particularly at ideas elaborated in France.

Marx though stressed that economics, history and philosophy can’t be entirely separated as areas of knowledge. Each has to be set in the context of the other two and more, for example economics has to be set in a historical, political and social setting and a dialectical approach be taken to it.

His central purpose, along with Engels, was to understand why things are as they are and how they can be changed. What lies behind the changes that take place? How can different types of society be assessed and recognised? What forces can lead to change in societies – and what type of change?

Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels and first published in 1848, brought together their ground-breaking conclusions in a concise way – analysing and summing up what capitalism is, with its inbuilt contradictions, and making clear that the working class would have to move to get rid of it. They cut through the confusion of socialists and reformists who didn’t clearly recognise the classes and class forces in society, and what that means for the system as a whole and the struggle for socialism.

Marxist analysis from the nineteenth century can’t simply be repeated word for word today without taking into account the different conditions, language, and so on, of the present period. Also, as Marx and Engels were well aware, some of their ideas were exploratory and they rightly didn’t see any of their positions as a ‘finished’ analysis – to have done so would not have been a Marxist approach.

But in its substance and message Marxism has not been surpassed during the subsequent 170-plus years. It has only been added to, to take into account the many subsequent developments in human societies – economic, political, social and environmental – that have taken place. Their fundamental ideas remain as true today as when they were formulated and they remain a crucial tool for understanding the present period and what can lie ahead.

Russian revolution

Lenin, a leader of the 1917 Russian revolution along with Leon Trotsky, when unveiling a monument to Marx and Engels in 1918, said: “The great worldwide historic service of Marx and Engels lies in the fact that they proved by scientific analysis the inevitability of the downfall of capitalism and its transition to communism”.

In October 1917, workers in Russia had for the first time in history carried out a revolution which removed capitalism. Public ownership of industry, financial institutions, etc, and a planned economy, replaced a market-led economy that had been based on private ownership. However, democratic workers’ control became eroded in the years after the revolution. This was a consequence of the new workers’ state being left isolated in the world following the failure of attempts at revolution in the west. In addition, Russia’s population suffered devastating loss of life and infrastructure in the post-revolution civil war – and that had come after enormous devastation in the first world war.

A successful removal of capitalism in a developed capitalist economy would have enabled vital aid, goods and technology to be supplied to Russia. Without that, the conditions for socialism – including an end to poverty and deprivation – were not there. Instead, came the development of a ‘deformed’ workers’ state headed by Stalin. As Lenin approached the end of his life, he warned against the development of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Trotsky had to spend over a decade in exile, during which he explained how and why Stalinism arose, before he was eventually killed by one of its agents in August 1940.

Stalinism was the result of a particular set of historical circumstances and conditions and doesn’t negate the verdict of Marx and Engels that capitalism, in its most developed form, had even in their time created enough productive capacity and technology to underlie the basis for socialism. That is true to an even greater degree today. Across the globe, industrial and agricultural capacity is sufficient to provide for the needs of everyone on the planet, while at the same time technological developments – current and future – will be able to reverse environmental degradation. But only on the basis of socialism, when societies will no longer be driven by the profit-making interests of the capitalist ruling classes.

Also, Marx and Engels, and later Lenin and Trotsky, pointed to measures that workers could democratically introduce to help safeguard against the development of a bureaucracy after a socialist transformation.

These included lessons from the 1871 Paris Commune. They had noted that the Parisian workers during that two-month uprising had decided that all officials should be elected and subject to recall by those who elected them, and that they should only be paid a worker’s wage.

Workers’ organisation today

Marx and Engels did not foresee that in the twenty-first century capitalism would still exist across the globe, not yet swept away by mass mobilisations of the working class. It would be wrong to interpret that as an overestimation of the ability of workers to organise and transform society. Rather it was initially due to the young stage of the workers’ movements, and as they grew, it became due to repeated inadequacies and betrayals by the leaders of workers’ movements and parties who stood in opposition to the revolutionary ideas of Marxism. Also, over decades Stalinism in the USSR worked to prevent a successful transformation to democratic socialism in any country where it had influence over the workers’ movement, as that outcome would have come to threaten its own repressive, authoritarian regime.

Today, mass working-class based political parties need to be developed again, but with leaders up to the task of representing workers’ interests, which has to mean maintaining complete independence from capitalist interests. Those parties will be built in a world in which capitalism is showing its rottenness everywhere, and with a high degree of linkage between economies, an unprecedented amount of electronic communication between ordinary people, and with workers virtually everywhere facing attacks on their standard of living.

Not surprisingly, capitalist elites the world over have tried to deter workers and young people from turning to Marxist ideas, by perniciously associating Marxism with Stalin’s monstrous regime and others that had a similar model. It is in the capitalists’ interests to try to portray their system as the highest possible form of human society – and they were boosted in that gross deception when the Stalinist regimes collapsed and capitalist, market economies were restored in those countries.

So, although school and college students can find Marxism included in their courses on politics and economics, it is often taught using ‘educational’ material that misrepresents it and tries to invalidate it. The education institutions in capitalist society are of course products of the system in which they exist and under the influence of its interests.

For everyone interested in socialist ideas, reading the Introduction to Marxism pamphlets can be the start of the necessary antidote. They can be a useful starting point on the ‘science’ of the socialism behind those ideas – ‘scientific socialism’.

They are the ideas on which the Socialist Party and the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) are based, and we meet a growing number of people – young people especially – who are interested in knowing more about them.

Lastly, notwithstanding the importance of learning about Marxist ideas, the purpose of that learning must be to translate the ideas into action, as Marx and Engels always advocated. So, the Introduction to Marxism pamphlets aren’t just aimed at readers gaining knowledge, discussing the ideas within them, and reading further socialist material. But as well, to encourage readers to join the Socialist Party, to educate themselves as members of the party and to get involved in the activities of the party, so that the ideas can be used to concretely build the workers’ movement and the forces of Marxism within it.

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April 2022