It’s unfortunate that there isn’t a better word for “Marxism.” Marx himself famously once said that he himself was “not a Marxist” if certain askew interpretations of his theories of historical materialism and capitalism were “Marxist.” Part of the problem is that the theories and processes that Marx helped create are too big to fall under a single -ism; Marx was a philosopher (and sort of historian) of political economy, that is, the study of production and trade in relationship to laws, customs, and human systems, whose theories helped inform numerous other disciplines and practices: economics, sociology, history, literature, and practical politics, among others.
The closest analogy that I can think of is to what we would today call “Darwinism,” the theories of nineteenth-century biologist Charles Darwin. Darwin didn’t invent biology, paleontology, genetics, or any of the numerous disciplines and practices that are informed by “Darwinism.” And in fact, there are many aspects of classical “Darwinism” — the theories and conclusions arrived at by Darwin and his immediate disciples — that have been outright revised or rejected by people who today would still consider themselves “Darwinists.” Since Darwin published On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, hundreds if not thousands of scientists and philosophers have expanded on and improved Darwin’s theories (the so-called “modern synthesis”) — obviously a necessity since during Darwin’s lifetime there was no deep concept of molecular genetics.
It’s useful to think of Marxism the same way. Marxism is not a detailed plan for how to create socialism. Marxism isn’t a moral philosophy, in the way that the Enlightenment philosophers and their progeny — like John Rawls — tried to build up moral systems from first principles to determine what is the most “fair.” It does not instruct us to engage in violent insurrection.
Marx, through his analysis of human society, gave us an understanding of the laws governing how society develops and how we can understand the process of history. His theories of alienation and class struggle inform us as to the causes of human misery and the obstacles to human flourishing. This is the “historical materialism” that is the strongest single thread of his work. Historical materialism is, simply stated, the theory that human societies develop according to how the “forces of production” are ordered, and that the features of a society will, ultimately, relate back to the ordering of the forces of production. People will “relate” to the system of production as a class. Therefore, the core conflict in society has been between classes on opposing sides of the systems of production — this is the dialectical part of his theory.
Just as Darwin was not the first “evolutionist,” Marx was not by any means the first socialist. And as with Darwin and the word “evolution,” “socialism” meant something fairly different before Marx came along. Socialism was basically a moral system, sometimes rooted in Christian values, utopian in character and justified based on what was “fair” or “just.” Marx and Engels spent much of their active years differentiating their theories from prior theories of “utopian” socialism built on moral persuasion — Engels going as far as to publish a book-length pamphlet on it.
Darwin revolutionized existing theories of “evolution” by introducing the concept of natural selection over geologic time — he should better be remembered for the theory of natural selection than evolution; the early title of his book Origin of Species was Natural Selection. In the same way, Karl Marx took existing historical and philosophical analysis of human society and political economy and applied an objective approach, from which he developed the theory of historical materialism/dialectical materialism.
What Marxism teaches us is simply to approach questions of society from a material basis: how does human life persist? Through production of the goods and services needed to live. How are these things produced under capitalist society? Through exploitation of the labor of the working class, that is, by requiring one class of people to sell their labor as a commodity to another class to produce values. What is the result of this system? That workers are “alienated” from their labor, meaning from much of their waking life, constantly required to produce more and more with an ever-precarious access to the means of subsistence.
If we want to engage in political competition and analysis of what Marx would have called “political economy,” there isn’t an alternative to Marxism that has anything near its explanatory power or guidance. That said, I understand the caution many socialists or social democrats may have to subscribing to “Marxism”: Marx’s focus on class “struggle,” the “overthrow” of the capitalist class, and the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” all of which may strike modern American ears as prescriptions for violence and authoritarianism.
It’s important to understand what Marx meant by these things.
The class struggle doesn’t necessarily mean barricades in the streets and summary execution of plutocrats. That these things can result from struggle is a historical fact; but the “struggle” Marx is talking about is the social and political competition between classes, which is always present: whether in the form of wage demands, petitions, law changes, strikes, noncompliance, all the way up to armed revolt. In the Manifesto, Marx describes how sometimes, the capitalists will cave in to demands made via demonstrations and strikes; other times, they will resist until concessions are forcibly extracted. Only the relative strength of the sides determines the nature of the struggle. The whole point of Marx’s method is to understand that the struggle is inherent to the capitalist system; it is objective. How socialists choose strategically to win the struggle depends on many factors, including the avenues available to them to win changes to the system — this is subjective. Whether we like it or not, the way commodities are produced under capitalism will always require struggle between the classes; workers want more, capitalists want them to have less and less.
As for “overthrow,” Marx looks at how previous systems of production were ended and changed into new forms: from hunter-gatherer to militarized, to slave chiefdoms and kingdoms, to feudalism, and then to capitalism. It is true that these transitions were generally marked by periods of violent competition; but (just like with Darwinism) historical study has showed that the violent outbursts were not the chief or only means of change. In fact, decades, sometimes centuries, of smaller changes accumulated over time to put stress on existing systems and bring about major changes. This is especially true of capitalism, which arose in Europe not all at once after the French beheaded enough nobles, but took place over an extended period beginning as far back as the fourteenth century. The growth of state-like kingdoms, “free” trading cities, incremental changes in technology, improvements in communications and logistics, and changes in legal systems eroded the basis of feudalism; the French Revolution was one part of a much longer and broader process of change.
Perhaps most misunderstood is the idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which comes from the Manifesto and a work called Critique of the Gotha Program, but is often interpreted according to the later theories of Vladimir Lenin. The dictatorship of the proletariat does not mean revolutionary terror against class enemies and the death of freedom. It means something very simple: look around you. Do you see how in “free market” democracies, political power is monopolized (or nearly monopolized) by the ownership class? The “dictatorship” of the proletariat just flips this. For Marxists, the dictatorship of the proletariat simply means a period where political power is held in common for the sole benefit of the working class. Getting to this point requires the working class to realize it is in fact a single class, and acting in its own interests. That this be accompanied by violent revolution isn’t necessary.
Dictatorship is bad. We live under a form of dictatorship today: a dictatorship on behalf of the capitalist class. This doesn’t mean working-class people have zero freedoms; it means that the states we live in are specifically organized to protect the capitalist system of social relations. Some people can own the means of production and the rest of us have to sell our labor to survive. The dictatorship of the proletariat just inverts this: it organizes the state to preserve the common ownership of the means of production.
Marx and Engels were critical of moral and “fairness” arguments for socialism because they were ahistorical; they lacked a truly rational basis, and were therefore just formed by ruling-class ideology. This isn’t unique to Marx, either: a contemporary philosopher, Bernard Williams (no socialist himself) is among the definitive moral philosophers who rejects the idea that we can reason our way to morality. Historically, the forces of production — the thing that determines human flourishing — had never been reordered through moral argument; it had required engaging in struggle — in political competition. Marx was not trying to provoke people into violence. He was merely exposing and acknowledging that the forces of production create a class struggle, which will resolve in a change to the forces of production.
As socialists post-Marx, as with biologists post-Darwin, we merely accept the material reality of the system in which we live. The forces of production rest on exploitation to extract “surplus value” and requires commodifying labor, which alienates workers. Struggle is inherent to the capitalist system. Only when workers become conscious of themselves as a class and act on their own behalf will they act to affirmatively end the system. There isn’t really a deep question of morality here; this isn’t about fairness. It is about the struggle between those who control their own destiny and are not alienated from their means of subsistence (capitalists) and those who want this condition for themselves, but are kept from it (the working class).
A word about violence. Like most people, I abhor violence. Violence degrades its perpetrators as it harms its victims. Marx does not prescribe violence, although he does treat it as an obviously common outcome of periods of dramatic change in the forces of production — that is, in periods of “overthrow.” We need to ask ourselves whether major social change has ever avoided violence, and where that violence came from. Consider the US Civil Rights Movement, treated in historical memory as the best example of change from “nonviolence.” But wasn’t there violence? The fact is that the state, and individuals, reacted to the demands of black Americans with violence. There was violence during the Civil Rights Movement; it just wasn’t meted out on a large scale by those demanding their rights. And once those demands were won, there was “violence” of another sort — when the state prosecuted and rounded up hate groups, like the Klan for example, that was a sort of state “violence” we would consider appropriate. Not to mention that attacks on freedom fighters, whether they were freedom riders, civil rights lawyers, or a person protecting their home from a lynch mob, always entailed violence.
And what about the labor movement? From private guards to local police to the federal army, violence was regularly called down on those engaging in struggle to win rights in the workplace. The US labor movement, in fact, was particularly marked by violence, even over its European counterparts, especially in the mountain west where mining and energy concerns regularly called down armed forces to break strikes. Struggle for the workers were strikes and noncompliance; the reaction was violence.
In historical struggle, those clinging to the system under attack are the first to resort to violence. To be a Marxist doesn’t require belief in an armed uprising to bring about a new world, in violent change or authoritarianism. It just means acknowledging as a fact something that already exists: the class struggle. The tactics and strategies workers employ to achieve class consciousness and act to end the exploitative system are ours to determine.
Why contemporary socialism is entwined with Marxism is this understanding of how history moves and how it will move, based not on the moral arguments we make, but on the objective conditions we live in. Workers will not struggle against abstract principles but against living human beings with material interests. In his Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Marx wrote that “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please.” We can only change the world if we truly understand the actual forces around us. If we want to change the world, we need to be in it, to build from it; to truly be in it, we need to understand it. That makes us Marxists.