Marxism is a philosophical, political and social movement derived from the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) in the second half of the 19th Century. It is a theoretical-practical framework based on the analysis of “the conflicts between the powerful and the subjugated” with working class self-emancipation as its goal. It promotes a pure form of Socialism and provides the intellectual base for various subsequent forms of Communism.
Karl Marx, the principle founder of the movement, was born on 5 May 1818 in Trier, Prussia (modern-day Germany), the third of seven children of a Jewish family. He was educated at home until the age of thirteen, when he attended the Trier Gymnasium. In 1835 he enrolled in the University of Bonn to study law , but he did not pursue his studies very diligently and his father moved him the next year to the more serious and academically orientated Humboldt University in Berlin. At Humboldt, he began to absorb the atheistic philosophy of the Young Hegelians. He earned his doctorate in 1841 with a thesis entitled "The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature."
In 1843, Marx moved to Paris in order to work with Arnold Ruge, a German revolutionary, on the political journal German-French Annals. The next year he met Friedrich Engels, and began the most important friendship of his life. In January 1845, Marx and Engels and many others were ordered to leave Paris, and he and Engels moved to Brussels, Belgium.
Marx and Engels published their most famous work, "The Communist Manifesto" in early 1848, as the manifesto of the Communist League. In 1848, during the revolutionary upheaval in Europe, Marx was arrested and expelled from Belgium. Next year, Marx moved to Cologne and started the New Rhenish Newspaper. Marx then moved to London, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. During most of his stay in London, he lived with his family in poverty. He had seven children (of which three survived to their adulthood).
He published the first volume of his masterwork, Das Kapital (Capital) in 1867. Volumes II and III remained mere manuscripts, and were published posthumously by Engels. Marx also devoted much of his time and energy to the First International.
He died in London on March 14th, 1883 from catarrh. His tombstone carved with the final line of "The Communist Manifesto": “Workers of all lands unite".
According to Marx, it is class struggle (the evolving conflict between classes with opposing interests) that is the means of bringing about changes in a society's mode of production, and that structures each historical period and drives historical change. Marx believed that a socialist revolution must occur in order to establish a "dictatorship of the proletariat" with the ultimate goal of public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.
The other major element of Marx's philosophy is his theory of Historical Materialism, his attempt to make history scientific. It is based on the principle of Dialectical Materialism as it applies to history and societies. Societies, and their cultural and institutional superstructures, naturally move from stage to stage as the dominant class is displaced by a new emerging class in a social and political upheaval.
The identity of a social class derives from its relationship to the means of production; Marx describes the social classes in capitalist societies:
Proletariat: “the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live.” The capitalist mode of production establishes the conditions enabling the bourgeoisie to exploit the proletariat because the workers' labour generates a surplus value greater than the workers' wages.
Bourgeoisie: those who “own the means of production” and buy labour power from the proletariat, thus exploiting the proletariat.
Lumpenproletariat: The outcasts of society such as criminals, vagabonds, beggars, prostitutes, et al., who have no stake in the economy and no mind of their own .
Landlords: a historically important social class who retain some wealth and power.
Peasantry and farmers: a scattered class incapable of organising and effecting socio-economic change, most of whom would enter the proletariat while some became landlords.
Class consciousness denotes the awareness that a social class possesses, and its capacity to rationally act in their best interests. It is required before the class can effect a successful revolution.
One of the main elements in Marx's doctrine is the relationship between the superstructure and the base. While the means of production and the relationship of production represent the base, by superstructure Marx means everything that does not directly participate in the production, but that which provides it with the ideology, like cultural and educational institutions.
In Marx's view, communism is a socio-economic structure that promotes the establishment of a classless, stateless society based on common ownership of the means of production. It encourages the formation of a proletarian state in order to overcome the class structures and alienation of labour that characterise capitalistic societies, and their legacy of imperialism and nationalism. Communism holds that the only way to solve these problems is for the working class (or proletariat) to replace the wealthy ruling class (or bourgeoisie), through revolutionary action, in order to establish a peaceful, free society, without classes or government.
Communism, then, is the idea of a free society with no division or alienation, where humanity is free from oppression and scarcity, and where there is no need for governments or countries and no class divisions. It envisages a world in which each person gives according to their abilities, and receives according to their needs. Its proponents claim it to be the only means to the full realisation of human freedom.
In the late 19th Century, the terms "socialism" and "communism" were often used interchangeably. However, Marxist theory argues that Communism would not emerge from Capitalism in a fully developed state, but would pass through a "first phase" (Socialism) in which most productive property was owned in common, but some class differences remained. This would eventually evolve into a "higher phase" (Communism) in which class differences were eliminated, and a state was no longer needed and would wither away.
Theory is one thing, and implementation, or realisation of a theory another. Communists across Europe had different visions of how Marxism should be implemented. Bolsheviks, who came to power in Russia in 1917, thought that socialism as a phase should be totally skipped, and the society should immediately star implementing the "dictatorship of the proletariat". As a result, the country fell into terror, civil war and famine that would last for decades.
The most famous Marxist scholars in the West were Hungarian Gyorgy Lukacs (1885-1971), Italian Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and Frenchman Louis Althusser (1918-1990). They each had a different vision about achieving a communist society.
The main criticism of Marxism is that communism is an unrealisable utopia because it does not take into account human nature, i.e. human selfishness. It is also said that it devalues humanity, and that it represents an attack on human rights and liberty. Some critics point out that historical materialism in practice leads to nihilism. Since it disregards achievement arts and humanities that differs from its specific interpretation related to history, means of production and economy, it is hardly reachable without cultural censorship.