Where did Marxism come from?

01 December 1998

Socialism has been around for thousands of years. When you are starving and at the mercy of someone rich it is not hard to dream of a society where everybody is equal, where there is enough food and shelter, where everyone has access to knowledge and a say in how things are run. The problem is that, until 200 years ago, socialism had to remain just that: a dream. It was only the creation of the industrial, urban working class that brought into existence the force that could make the socialist dream come true.

Marxists say that revolutionary socialism is ‘scientific’ because, unlike the utopian socialism of earlier centuries, it is based not just on the desire for justice but on a theory that understands capitalist society and on a class force that can overcome it.

Dialectical materialism

As a student, Karl Marx, like many of his generation, was attracted to the philosophy of Georg Hegel. Hegel rediscovered and developed the understanding of dialectics. Unlike previous western philosophers, who saw the world as a perfectly ordered machine, he grasped the idea that the world is in a constant process of change: that change is the only constant in the universe. Dialectics is the science of motion which tries to discover the general laws of why and how things change.

Every entity is a unity of opposites, said Hagel. Every organism contains the seeds of its own destruction and transformation—indeed is in the process of destruction and transformation. Change takes place in a process of small steps that add up to something bigger, producing a qualitative change—as for example when the gradual rise in the temperature of water towards 100°C produces a change in form of the water molecules to produce steam.

Out of Hegel’s philosophy two were formed. Marx and a whole generation of young intellectuals in the 1820s and 1830s were beginning to question the God-given right of kings to rule Europe. Dialectics suggested that this state of affairs—reactionary monarchy—contained the seeds of its own destruction.

But Hegel’s right-wing followers denied this, claiming instead that, for example, late feudal Prussia had solved all social contradictions. For them history was the unfolding of a great idea, that had just come to its end. The left-wing or young Hegelians thought otherwise. They used dialectics as a radical critique of society and looked to earlier materialist philosophers for arguments to back them up.

Materialism was interested in the relationship between ideas and experience Its basic premise was that we are the products of our circumstances. The materialists used this to explain why the massive social degradation brought about by city life, for example, was not the result of moral collapse: the city and the factory were imposing new types of behaviour and thought on people—creating new types of individual.

But mechanical materialism also suggested that the mass of people could have no control over their own destiny. Ludwig Feuerbach was one of the key proponents of mechanical materialism. He argued—as did many early socialists—that the solution lay with individuals who could raise themselves beyond the immediate influence of their circumstances. Marx criticised this aspect of materialism, but saw how, if it used dialectics instead of mechanistic explanations of the relationship between our existence and our ideas, the problem could be solved.

Marx synthesised left materialism and dialectics to assert that our social being determines our consciousness; that our consciousness changes through interaction with the world—through social struggle. The rising capitalist society that was bound to supplant feudalism would not be the end of history. It would intensify antagonisms and create the most alienated, yet most combative and selfless social class in human history, the working class.

Capitalism would create the ultimate contradiction: it would for the first time create the possibility of wealth and knowledge for all, but deny it systematically to millions. In creating an army of wage-slaves it was creating its own gravediggers. It would be the explosion of capitalism and the triumph of the workers that would really put an end to the contradictions of class society. Would this, then, be the end of history? No, wrote Marx, the abolition of class society was when real human history could begin.

Marx was not the first materialist, but his understanding of dialectics enabled him to give a truly scientific explanation of history. He showed that human society did not evolve gradually but sporadically, by leaps and bounds—by revolutions. These revolutions were the result of the tensions between society’s potential to produce wealth and the social form in which production takes place.

What humanity produces includes all the forces of production—the raw materials, factories, offices, transport systems. How we produce involves the division of society into separate classes with different and opposed interests—historically, slave owner and slave, feudal lord and serf, capitalist and wage-worker (or proletarian). These Marx called the relations of production.

As the forces of production develop within a given form of class society, these relations of production start to hinder production. The class struggle, which is an unavoidable fact of class society, is the motor force which can and must revolutionise the relations of production, freeing up human society for further development.

Feudalism had put the brake on human progress and the capitalists were in the process of demolishing it. But capitalism too must put the brake on progress with its repeated crises and mass unemployment.

This realisation turned Marx from a natural sympathy with the working class to the quest to become part of it: to be no longer a philosopher but a socialist. Paradoxically, that led him into the study of capitalist economics.

Political economy

Many liberal critics of Marxism claim that Marx lost his humanism when he devoted decades to studying capitalist economics. But as Lenin pointed out:

‘Where bourgeois economists saw a relation of things (the exchange of one commodity for another) Marx revealed a relation of men … a relation between persons expressed as a relation between things.’

Marx took as his starting point the most developed theories—in this case those of the British economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo. He used dialectical materialism to create new solutions to old problems.

In all previous class societies, the ruling class openly exploited the other classes, for example slavery. But how did the capitalist make a profit out of the worker? Naturally, the early capitalists were quite interested in this. All the ‘classical’ political economists, like Smith and Ricardo, were agreed that human labour is the source of all value. And they insisted that, against the theory of supply and demand, ultimately commodities were being exchanged at their true value. So where did profits come from?

Marx went beyond the partial and inadequate answers of Smith and Ricardo and reasoned that, in order to extract surplus value from this system, the capitalist must find in the market a ‘commodity whose use-value (i.e. its usefulness) possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value’. That commodity is human labour power.

Like all other commodities, labour power is sold at its value—the amount of labour time needed to sustain the worker. The boss buys this labour power through the wages system and sets the worker to work, say for eight hours a day. After four hours though, the worker has produced goods sufficient to cover the cost of his or her maintenance (i.e. wages).

But the worker does not stop working—there remain another four hours of ‘surplus’ labour time which produces ‘surplus value’ which the capitalist takes as his own! The class struggle between the capitalist and the worker is the struggle for this surplus value: a ‘fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ is in fact impossible under the profit system.

Marx used the insights of Smith and Ricardo—both of whom spent their lives wringing their hands about falling profit rates—to show why capitalism is a crisis-wracked system. Workers’ labour is the only source of profit. But, driven by the logic of competition, the capitalists replace living labour with what Marx called the ‘dead labour’ locked up in machines, thus driving out the source of the system’s vitality.

Capitalism then is a system full of contradictions and wracked by crisis, containing in the massive revolution in productive technique both the prerequisites for socialism and the seeds of its own downfall.


Marx started out as a critic of working class socialism. Socialism, in its utopian forms, had tended to be either mechanically materialist or hopelessly idealist (see Marxism: the Basics 1). But Marx’s experience of real revolution showed him that socialism was possible, that it had to be based on working class struggle, and that it would need a revolution to achieve it.

To get that revolution socialism had to be put on a scientific basis, so that every class conscious worker would know what was wrong with relying on just the battle of ideas, or on education, or on enlightened friends in the capitalist class, or with opting out to form your own commune. Every working class militant needed a guide to action, a path to power.

That was what Marx and Engels attempted to provide in the Communist Manifesto. By the time it was printed its authors were on a train to Paris where the red flag was flying and workers were celebrating—albeit temporarily—victory on the barricades.

Pro-capitalist pundits claim that only the market can allow individual freedom, that communism will crush the individual with an oppressive uniformity. Marx brilliantly refuted this by exposing how class society forces humans to relate to each other from their class standpoint, independent of and often against their individual will.

In class society, ‘individuals belonged only as average individuals, only insofar as they lived within the conditions of existence of their class—a relation in which they participated not as individuals but as members of a class. With the community of revolutionary proletarians, on their other hand, who take their conditions of existence and those of all members of society under their control, it is just the reverse; it is as individuals that the individuals participate in it.’

Marx put human activity at the centre of human history and human liberation. Marxism is not a system of ideas to sit back and contemplate, it is a weapon in the fight for freedom—and a constantly evolving system.

Karl Marx’s own motto was ‘doubt everything’: that did not mean he rejected the idea of objective truth and science, as many ‘post-modernists’ do today. It meant for him constantly looking below the surface of phenomena to discover their inner movements and contradictions—including the ideas of Marxism itself.

But, as Marx realised from the moment of his break with left-wing German philosophy, humanity does not need just a method of analysis:

‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways: the point is to change it.’

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