What Is Marxist Theory? Marxism posits that the struggle between social classes—specifically between the bourgeoisie, or capitalists, and the proletariat, or workers—defines economic relations in a capitalist economy and will inevitably lead to revolutionary communism.
Marxism is a social, political, and economic philosophy named after Karl Marx. It examines the effect of capitalism on labor, productivity, and economic development and argues for a worker revolution to overturn capitalism in favor of communism. Marxism posits that the struggle between social classes—specifically between the bourgeoisie, or capitalists, and the proletariat, or workers—defines economic relations in a capitalist economy and will inevitably lead to revolutionary communism.
Marxism is a social, political, and economic theory originated by Karl Marx, which focuses on the struggle between capitalists and the working class.
Marx wrote that the power relationships between capitalists and workers were inherently exploitative and would inevitably create class conflict.
He believed that this conflict would ultimately lead to a revolution in which the working class would overthrow the capitalist class and seize control of the economy.
Four corner-stones which build up the structure of Marxism
There are four corner-stones which build up the structure of Marxism. We shall study these four ingredients of Marxism one-by-one:
1. Dialectical Materialism:
The entire political thought of Karl Marx is based on what is called dialectical materialism. Literally dialectic means “union of opposites”. The expression is rooted in the Greek word dialego which means to debate or discuss with a view to arrive at the truth by admitting the contradictions in the arguments of the opponents.
Although Marx got the idea of dialect, from Friedrich Hegel, he differed from Hegel in many respects and he developed it in his own way. While Hegel believed that human evolution was in a straight line, for Marx it moved in a zig-zag course. Both said that “contradiction was the moving spirit of the world.”
But Marx differed from Hegel from the point of view of approach. For Hegel, human idea was an ultimate reality. But Marx was resolute in his view that it was matter rather than human idea or opinion which was the real thing. In other words, while the Hegelian conception was that the world changes by the force of human thinking, Marx was firm in his conviction that it was matter which was the ultimate reality and the human idea must take a back seat in the social evolution.
For Marx, human idea was nothing but a reflex of the material condition of the society at a particular point of history. Ideas actually emanate from the material condition of the society. He had no doubt that all thinking’s pertaining to religion, politics, philosophy, etc. are the products of actions and reactions of material conditions of society. Dialectics is nothing but actions and reactions (called contradictions).
The onward march of history is actuated by the contradictions between the opposite elements. According to Marx, there are two opposite classes at every stage of social evolution. In the slave system the two classes are the slaves and the slave owners. It takes the form of serfs and feudal lords in the feudal system. In the capitalist system we find the working classes and the industrialists.
Whatever the name of the two classes, one is the exploited and the other is the exploiter. One is the thesis, the other is antithesis. Their actions result in the creation of a new force called the synthesis.
The synthesis does not work unopposed and in the result comes again the tussle between thesis and antithesis. With the creation of synthesis begins a new era. Thus we find the slave system, feudalism, capitalism and finally socialism. When fire is thesis, water is its antithesis and the resultant gas is the synthesis.
This type of action and reaction are found invariably in every stage of history. The last phase of such contradiction is capitalism and working class. The class struggle will come to an end with the emergence of socialism, which will establish a classless society. Marx underlined that it is the dialectics which give us the real insight into the history of human civilisation. This will take us to the materialistic conception of history, which we are going to study at the moment.
2. Materialistic Conception of History:
According to Karl Marx, the application of dialectical materialism to the study of historical evolution is historical materialism or materialistic conception of history. For Marx, history is a continuous evolutionary process from the lowest or earliest stage to the highest or the most modern state. The change is not effected by any outside agency or transcendental factor. It is rather a self-regulated process in accordance with the laws of dialectical materialism.
Marx underlined the mode of production in material life as the determining factor in the general character of social, political and spiritual process of the world. It is the process of production which is the key factor of social evolution. The productive system and production relation among the men is the foundation of the superstructure of the society. Any change in the mode of production is bound to have a corresponding effect on social relations.
Thus all political institutions, laws and traditions, art and philosophy, religion and morality hinge on the nature of a particular method of production and the nature of relations that obtains between the owners of means of production and the workers engaged in such production.
Marx mentions five stages of human history, namely, the primitive communal system, the slave system, the feudal system, the capitalist system, and socialist system. Except the last one, all these systems came and went yielding place to new ones. Needless to say that the gradual process was on the progressive lines of man-power.
In the case of the first one there was no class exploitation, because the produce could maintain the bare subsistence of the people, there being no surplus which is root factor of exploitation. It applies equally to the last stage, namely socialism, because there the surplus was not in the hands of the few at the head but was distributed among the people!
In the period of slave system, the means of production were rude and primitive and there was a need for a change for better means. So came better methods of agriculture and with it came the feudal system which replaced the slave system. Thus feudalism brought in its trail new laws, new religion and new philosophy.
But the mode of production in the feudal system proved outmoded with the emergence of the Commercial Revolution and Industrial Revolution, which brought in the capitalist system where the industrial workers were engaged in the production for the benefit of the capitalist few who won the industries and factories.
Like the feudal system, the capitalist system too proved unworkable and this was replaced by the workers themselves in a violent revolution in Russia in 1917, whereupon the workers themselves came to own the industries and factories. This socialism is the swan-song of Marx’s materialist conception of history.
Socialism is bound to remain permanent because it is better than any other system, because here the wealth will go to the state, not to any group. In Marx’s diction, the material basis of life in society-is determined by the mode of production. Other factors like geography and population play a minor role in history.
Criticism of Marx’s Materialist Conception of History:
Critics hurl searching attacks on Karl Marx’s theory of historical materialism because he kept his eyes closed on the forces other than the economic factors. Economic factor may be just one of the factors, but never the sole or only factor. The material factors loomed so large before him that he made a too simplistic solution of a very complicated problem. We know that the Ramayana war did not relate to economic factor. It arose and ended over Sita. Here Marx must prove a false prophet.
But in defence of Marx we may say that he did not totally ignore the other factors germane to the historical process. He only gave importance to the economic factors. So there is nothing wrong in Marx’s theory.
3. Class Struggle:
Marxism is a five-dimensioned philosophy, namely dialectical materialism, historical materialism, class-struggle, surplus value and theory of revolution. We have studied the first two. Here we shall take up the third one, namely the class-struggle. There was a group consciousness-or class in every stage of history and its concomitant opposite class.
These two classes conflicted and clashed in all ages in different forms. To say in the words of Karl Marx: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class-struggles…. Each time ended whether in a revolutionary reconstruction of the society at large or in the common run of the contending classes.”
The alignment was on the lines of haves and have-nots which Marx described: “Freeman and slave, patrician and plebian, baron and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in one word, oppressor and the oppressed, standing constantly in opposition to each other, carried on an interrupted warfare, now open, now concealed.”
We get a very clear definition of class from V. I. Lenin: “Classes are large groups of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour, and consequently, by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it”
The earliest stage of man’s history was the hunting stage where the implements for hunting and the hunted animals were taken as the common wealth of the community and it partook the nature of primitive communism. That society had no class conflict, because there was no surplus wealth to appropriate or exploit with. So there was no class-struggle in the primitive stage of human civilisation.
With the coming of the pastoral stage the society got divided on the basis of the owning the herds of cattle and the opposite side without these. The apple of discord was the private property of the cattle. This was the beginning of the class war. As man settled with agriculture on an improved scale, the land became the property and the class conflict veered round the possession of land.
The land-owners and the landless population got polarised. The land-owners became the exploiting class and the landless the exploited ones. The inventions and improvement in technology created the feudal age where the barons exploited the serfs.
But this would not continue forever. The exploited class will rise against the exploiters and they would establish more equitable relations among the people. Thus in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the ‘ feudalism was replaced by the capitalist system. That too was not permanent. The all wall-washing French Revolution of 1789 overthrew feudalism. It took some more years for other countries to follow suit.
The emergence of big machines as a fruit of the Industrial Revolution gave rise to big and heavy industries which made the mode of production simple and profits immense so that the factory lords let loose the steam-roller of oppression on the factory workers. Now we find the capitalists and the working classes. Marx called them bourgeoisie and proletariats.
This stage saw the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few who reduced the working class in abject poverty. To say in the words of Marx: “Our epoch, the epoch of bourgeoisie, has simplified the class antagonism. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – bourgeoisie and proletariat.”
It is a period of exploitation of wage-labour by capital. But Marx was confident that the proletariats would one day rise in arms to terminate with the capitalist system. This would be the final revolution, because at the end of the revolution the proletariats will come to power and there would be no oppressed class.
In this way, history will reach the stage of socialism which actually took place in Russia and China. In other countries of the world socialism has not come and these countries are still witnessing the conflict between the capitalist and the working class. Socialism cannot be halted anywhere. It is bound to materialize all over the world.
The state, which is an instrument of class-antagonism, will wither away with the oncoming of socialism where public ownership takes the place of private ownership and need-based distribution will operate in place of distribution according to work. When communism will pervade all human relationship, there will be no need for the state, which will wither away without the necessity of being killed.
Criticism of Marxist Class-Struggle:
Marx’s theory of class-struggle has evoked scathing criticism. It is difficult to believe that history of all societies was worked by dispute and distrust of different classes. On the other hand, there was a spirit of fellow-feeling and cooperation among the various interests in the society. The real and universal feeling was class-cooperation. And class-antagonism was few and far between.
The second attack on Marxist class-struggle is that Marx magnified only the economic dispute and did not mention of religious, linguistic and ethnic ones which are present in all societies and as true as the sun and the moon. Revolution took place and wars were fought on other issues than economic. How could one shut his eyes to all such antagonism? So Marx did not give the correct picture in class struggle.
In support of the Marxist class struggle we may conclude that Marx was not blind to the other issues omitted by him. He only emphasised on the economic front, since the bread and butter question is more vital than religion, fine arts or music. So we have to justify the Marxist doctrine of class-struggle.
4. The Theory of Surplus Value:
The whole philosophy of Marxism is based on the theory of surplus value. In this matter Karl Marx took a leaf out of the book of the classical economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, who are the acknowledged authorities of the theory of value. That theory says that labour is the source of the value of a commodity.
In other words, the value of a commodity is determined by how much labour and time are spent on it. Although the value of a commodity is sometimes influenced by the forces of demand and supply, there is no denying the fact that in the long run the amount of man-power spent on the production of the commodity is the key factor to fix the price of the commodity. Marx called labour concealed labour and the value as crystallised labour. So in the Marxist doctrine labour is also a commodity.
In the capitalist system all the means of production are in the hands of the private factory lords called the capitalists. The worker sells his labour in the manufacture of the commodity for the capitalist owner in the machinery and with the raw material supplied by the capitalist factory owner. It was a sad truism that the wage paid to the workers was much below the price of the things sold in the market.
As a matter of fact, there was a roaring gulf between the two, which enabled the capitalists to pocket a huge difference called the surplus. The surplus amount is worked as the difference between the earning of the workers and the sale price of the produced thing. As a result, the capitalists exploit the surplus for his own private gains. The capitalists rolled in wealth and the workers were to be content with bare subsistence.
About the unfair appropriation of the surplus value by the capitalists, Marx said: “Capitalists are not interested introducing those goods that are useful and needed by society but in extracting as much surplus value as possible.” This is open deprivation of the legitimate dues by the capitalists. This system continues until the workers rise in uprising and overthrow the capitalist order by a classless society called socialism. Thus Marx encourages a revolution of the nature of the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 and the Communist Revolution in China in 1949.
Criticism of Marx’s Theory of Surplus Value:
The theory of surplus value comes under heavy criticism on the ground that Karl Marx distorted the relation that exist between the rich ruling class and the working class. The industrialists actually work for the benefit of the workers and launch several welfare schemes. Even effective legislations are enacted to reach the maximum benefits to the toiling and depressed classes.
In the past and the present there existed goodwill and cooperation among all sections of the people in the society. Exploitations and oppressions were few and far between. The revolutions that took place in Russia in 1917 and in China in 1949 were not because of economic exploitations but because of the evil effects of the First World War in Russia and the evil effects of the Second World War in China. If economic factor was the real cause, there could have been similar events in England, France, Germany or the USA. So Marx’s theory of surplus value is to be discarded.
All the same, the theory of surplus value had some welcome aspects. It was the inculcation of the doctrine of surplus value that made the working class conscious of their legitimate rights. His teachings opened the eyes of the capitalists also in the sense that they softened their rigour of oppression and evolved a policy of ameliorating the condition of the workers. So Karl Marx did not prove a false prophet. This is the bright side of the theory of surplus value.