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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas

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The first version of Marxism is represented mainly
by the writings of the later Engels, the early Eduard
Bernstein, Karl Kautsky, George Plekhanov, and in the
United States by Daniel De Leon. It accepts as literally
valid six interrelated complexes of propositions.

1. The fundamental and determining factor in all
societies is the mode of economic production. All im-
portant changes in the culture of a period—its politics,
ethics, religion, philosophy, and art—are ultimately to
be explained in terms of changes in the economic

2. The capitalist mode of economic production is
fundamentally unstable. It cannot guarantee, except for
very limited periods, continued employment for the
masses, a decent standard of living, and sufficient profit
for the entrepreneurs to justify continued production.
The consequence is growing mass misery culminating
in the crisis and breakdown of the system of produc-
tion. The deficiencies and fate of capitalism are not
due to any specific persons or human actions, but flow
from the law of value and surplus value in a com-
modity-producing society. The collapse of capitalism
and its replacement by a socialist classless society are

3. Classes are defined by the role they play in pro-
duction. Their conflicting economic interests give rise
to economic class struggles that override on crucial
occasions and, in the long run, all other kinds of
struggle—religious, racial, national, etc. The variations
in the intensity of these types of struggle, even their
origin, are directly or indirectly a consequence of the
“underlying” economic class struggle.

4. The state is an integral part of the political and
legal order. It therefore has a class character which
must be changed through class struggles, peaceful
where possible, violent where not, before the forces
of production can be liberated from the quest for
ever-renewed profit and utilized for the benefit of the
entire community, in which the economic exploitation
of men by other men is no longer possible.

5. Capitalism prepares the way for the new socialist
society by intensive development and centralization of
industry, concentration of capital, and rationalization
of the techniques of production. These are necessary
presuppositions of a socialized, planning society in
which the abolition of private ownership of the social
means of production, and its vestment in the commu-
nity as a whole, abolishes the economic class divisions
of the past.

6. The movement towards socialism is a movement
towards democracy. Political democracy must be de-
fended against all its detractors and enemies but from
the point of view of democracy as a way of life, it
is necessary but not sufficient. Political democracy must
be used to achieve a complete democracy by extending
democratic values and principles into economic and
social life. Where democracy does not exist the socialist
movement must introduce it. (The Communist Mani-
because of the absence of political democracy
on the European Continent, advocated revolution by
forcible overthrow.) Where democracy already exists,
the working class can achieve power by peaceful par-
liamentary means (cf. Engels' critique of the Erfurt
Program in 1891 and also his introduction to the first
English translation of Capital).

There are many other doctrines that are part of the
Marxist position (like equality between the sexes, self-
determination for national minorities, the desirability
of trade unions and cooperatives) that are easily deriv-
able from the above propositions and some implicit
value judgments about the desirability of human dig-
nity, freedom, and creative self-fulfillment, even though
they are obviously not uniquely entailed by them.

Marxism, in this its original version, was primarily
a social philosophy. Its spokesmen as a rule adopted
positions in philosophy and religion only in opposition
to those metaphysical or theological doctrines whose
suspected impact obstructed the growth of the working
class movement and the development of its socialist
consciousness. Philosophical and religious freedom of
thought were extended to all thinkers who accepted


the complex of social and economic propositions
enumerated above which defined the theoretical
Marxist orthodoxy of the German Social-Democratic
Party and the majority of the members of the Second
International. Dialectical materialism, for example,
despite its espousal by Engels in his Anti-Dühring
(1878) and Ludwig Feuerbach... (1888; trans. as
Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical
German Philosophy,
1934), was of peripheral impor-
tance in the Marxism that flourished up to 1917. The
attack on Eduard Bernstein as a revisionist of Marxism
was motivated primarily by his criticism of the first
four of the complex of propositions identified above,
and of the party programs of the political movement
based on Marxism. It was only because he rejected the
economic analysis of his party comrades and the politi-
cal program presumably based on it (he approved its
day-by-day activities) that attacks were made on his
philosophical views.

The predominant characteristic of Social-Demo-
cratic Marxist thought is its determinism, its reliance
upon the immanent processes of social development
to create the conditions that would impel human beings
to rationalize the whole of economic production in the
same explicit and formal way in which an efficient
industrial plant is organized. Formulated during an era
in which the theory of evolution was being extrapo-
lated from the field of biology to all other fields, espe-
cially the social and cultural areas of human activity,
the laws of social development were considered uni-
versal, necessary, and progressive. The vocabulary was
not very precise, partly because of the popular audi-
ence to which the teachings of Marxism were ad-
dressed. But even in Capital, as well as in his more
popular writings, Marx used the term “inevitable” in
describing the laws of economic change in heralding
the collapse of capitalism. Engels was particularly
addicted to the vocabulary of necessitarianism. Al-
though aware of the differences in the subject matter
of the natural and social sciences, and opposed to the
reduction of the latter to the former, Marxists regarded
the laws in both domains as working themselves out
with an ineluctable “iron” necessity.

The concept of social necessity remained unex-
amined by the Marxist theoreticians and could not be
squared, when strictly interpreted, with the recognition
of alternatives of development, alternatives of action,
and objective possibilities presupposed in the practical
programs of the Marxist movement of the time. None-
theless it possessed a rational kernel of great impor-
tance. For it stressed the importance of social readiness,
preparedness, and maturity as a test and check on
proposals for reform and revolution. It served as a
brake upon the adventurism and euphoria of action
induced by revolutionary rhetoric, and also as a conso-
lation in defeat when objective conditions were proved
to be unripe.

On the other hand, belief in the concept of social
necessity tended psychologically to inhibit risk-taking
actions, especially as the Marxist movement and its
political parties increased in influence and acquired a
feeling of responsibility. Belief in determinism, and in
the heartening conviction that the structure of the
socialist society was being built within the shell of the
old even by those opposed to socialism, could not
obviate the necessity of making choices in economics
and politics, whether it was a question of supporting
a call for a general strike, or voting for welfare and/or
war budgets. But it naturally tended to reinforce in
practice, if not in rhetoric, the choice of the moderate
course, the one less likely to provoke opposition that
might eventuate in violence and bloodshed. And why
not, if the future, so to speak, was already in the bag?

This attitude of caution and restraint was reinforced
by the implicitly teleological interpretation of evolu-
tionary processes. What came later in time was as-
sumed to be “higher” or “better”; setbacks were only
temporary, the reverse stroke of an historical spiral that
had only one direction—upward to a higher level. This
led in practice to a commitment to the inevitability
of gradualism
so that the very pace of reforms tended
to slow down as a sense of the urgent, the critical,
and the catastrophic in history eased, and became
replaced by a feeling of security in the overall devel-
opment of history. Even the outbreak of the First
World War in 1914, which destroyed the belief in the
necessarily progressive character of change, failed to
dispel the moderation of the Social-Democratic variant
of Marxism. It was unprepared not only to take power
but to exercise it vigorously when power was thrust
upon it—at the close of the first World War in
Germany. It moved towards the welfare state very
slowly, partly in fear of provoking civil war.

Beginning with the last decade of the nineteenth
century, as Social-Democratic movements gained
strength in Europe, an enormous literature has been
devoted to the exposition, criticism, and evaluation of
Marxism. At first neglected, then refuted, then reinter-
preted, modified, and qualified, Marxism in all its
varieties has become at present perhaps the strongest
single intellectual current of modern social thought.
It has left a permanent impress upon economic histori-
ans like Max Weber and Charles Beard, even as they
disavowed belief in its basic ideas. Here we shall offer
only a brief review of the principal interpretations of
the historical role and validity of the central notions
of Marxism.

1. The doctrine of historical materialism is accepted


by many historians as a heuristic aid in describing the
ways a society functions, its class power relations, and
their influence on cultural activities. But it is woefully
deficient in clarity with respect to all its basic terms.
It is clear enough that it is not an economic determin-
ism of human motives of a Benthamite variety, nor
a technological determinism à la Veblen. But the con-
nection between “the social relations of production”
and “the material forces of production” is left obscure,
so that there is some doubt whether the basic motor
forces of historical development are tools, techniques,
and inventions, especially what Whitehead calls “the
invention of the method of invention,” all of which
express the productive drive of human beings—a drive
which would open the door to a psychological, idealis-
tic interpretation—or whether the immanent laws of
the social relations of production are the ultimate
determinants. Actually although many historians ex-
press indebtedness to Marxism for its theory of histori-
cal materialism, they mean no more by this doctrine
than that “economics,” in one of its many different
meanings, must always be taken into account in an
adequate understanding of history. But so must many
other things that are not economic.

There is a further difficulty in ascertaining whether
Marxism asserts that “social relations of production”
or “the mode of economic production” determines the
cultural superstructure, and if so to what degree, or
merely conditions it. If it is taken to mean that it
determines culture in all important aspects—historical
monism—it is obviously untenable. In the face of evi-
dence to the contrary, Marxists are wont to introduce
reference to other factors reserving the determination
of these factors by the mode of economic produc-
tion—“in the last analysis”—despite the fact that
scientifically speaking there is no such thing as “the
last analysis.”

The monistic determinism of Marxism is conspicuous
in its treatment of “great men” in history. From Engels
to Kautsky to Plekhanov to all lesser lights it is dog-
matically assumed that no event-making personality
has existed such that in his absence anything very
important in history would have been different. With
respect to any great event or phase of social develop-
ment it is assumed that “no man is indispensable.”
Nonetheless, to cite only one difficulty, the over-
whelming evidence seems to show that without Lenin
there would in all likelihood have been in 1917 no
October Russian Revolution.

Even if all problems of meaning are resolved and
every trace of incoherence is removed from the theory
of historical materialism, its claims that the mode of
economic production determines politics, that “no
social order ever perishes before all the productive
forces for which there is room in it have developed,”
and that no new social order can develop except on
the basis of the economic foundations that have been
prepared for it—have all been decisively refuted by
the origin, rise, and development of the USSR and
Communist China. Marxism as a theory of social de-
velopment has been proved false by the actions of
adherents of the Marxism of Bolshevik-Leninism. Lenin
and his party seized political power in an industrially
backward country and proceeded to do what the the-
ory of historical materialism declared it was impossible
to do—build the economic foundations of a new society
by the political means of a totalitarian state.

2. The economic theory of Marxism is clearer than
the theory of historical materialism, and events have
more clearly invalidated it by negating its specific
predictions especially the pauperization of the working
classes, and the continuous decline in the rate of profit.
The theory failed to predict the rise of what has been
called the “new middle class” of the service industries
as well as the economics of the totalitarian state, on
the one hand, and of the welfare state, on the other.
Even before events invalidated the Marxist economic
assumptions, the theoretical structure of Marxist eco-
nomics never recovered from Eugen Böhm-Bawerk's
searching critique in the 1890's of its inconsistencies.
Much more successful were the Marxist predictions
about the historical development of capitalism, even
though they did not uniquely follow from his theory
of value and surplus value. The Marxists foresaw the
growth of monopolistic tendencies, the impact of sci-
ence on industrial technology, the periodic business
cycle (although mistaken about its increasing magni-
tude), and imperialistic expansion in quest for foreign
markets. Although Marxists anticipated progressive and
cumulative difficulties for the capitalist system, as
Joseph Schumpeter and others in the twentieth century
have pointed out, they failed to see that these difficul-
ties resulted from the successes of the system rather
than from its failures.

3. The Marxist theory of the class struggle differs
from all other theories of the class struggle in that it
weights the component of economic class membership
more heavily than any other theory in relation to other
social groupings and associations, and in its expectation
that economic class struggles will cease when the social
instruments of production are collectivized. Although
economic class interests and struggles play a large and
indisputable role in political, social, and cultural life,
on crucial occasions nationalist and religious ties have
exercised greater weight. Although the international
Marxist movement was pledged to a general strike
against war, when World War I broke out, French
workmen, instead of making common cause with


German workmen against their respective ruling
classes, joined their “domestic exploiters,” the French
capitalists, in a common “national front” or “sacred
union.” The same was true in all major countries.
National allegiance almost always proves stronger than
class allegiance when national interest and class interest
conflict. The union of capitalist Great Britain and
United States supporting the socialist USSR against the
invasion by capitalist Germany not only constitutes a
difficulty for the theory of historical materialism—since
the mode of economic production here was not deci-
sive—but also for the theory of the class struggle, since
the differences between the economic interests of the
capitalist class as a whole and those of the USSR, espe-
cially in its opposition to capitalism declared from its
very birth, are obviously far greater than the differ-
ences among the capitalists themselves. Even within
the culture of a single capitalist country the Marxist
theory of the class struggle fails to account for the
degree and extent of class cooperation. The organized
American labor movement seems just as hostile to
collectivism as an economy and to communism as a
political system as is the National Association of Man-

With the advent of collectivist economies in the
Soviet Union and elsewhere, class struggles have not
disappeared but have taken on a new form, sometimes
expressed in strikes that are legally forbidden, in wide-
spread pilfering, the use of a private sector to buy and
sell, growth of bureaucratic privileges that some ob-
servers regard as indicia of a new class, and disparities
in income and standards of living that are not too far
removed from the upper and lower ranges of earned
income in some capitalist countries. V. Pareto and
Robert Michels, who agreed with Marxism that class
struggles rage in society but disagreed with Marxism
in holding that these struggles would continue even
after Marxists came to power in what they call a
socialist society, seem to have been justified by events.

Very little was done to solve some of the obvious
difficulties in using the concept of class consistently
with its definition, viz., the role played by individuals
in the mode of production. In ordinary discourse, the
various meanings of class take their meanings from the
varied contexts in which they are used. One would have
expected an attempt by Marxists to show that the chief
uses of the term “class” that are different are derivative
from the central Marxist one. Even more important
was the failure to relate the concept of class interest
to individual interest. Marxism is not a theory of human
motivation, and especially not a theory of self-interest
or egoism. The question remains: how does class inter-
est get expressed? Classes are not individuals. They are
abstractions. Only individuals act in history. On the
Marxist theory of class, regardless of whether individual
members of the class are selfish or unselfish, the inter-
ests of their class presumably get expressed. How does
this happen and through what mechanisms? Is there
an implicit statistical judgment that describes the be-
havior of most members of a class or are there repre-
sentative leaders who speak for the class? These are
some of the questions that remained unexplored, with
the result that the concept of class interest, often in-
voked, appeared as vague and mystical as “national
interest,” “the spirit of the times,” “the spirit of the
people,” and similar expressions.

4. The Marxist theory of the state in its simplest
form asserts that the state—consisting of the legislature,
courts, and armed forces—is nothing but “the executive
committee of the dominant economic class.” If this
were so, it would be hard to explain the character of
much of the criminal law or rules of evidence and
procedure, which reflect either common ethical norms
or professional interests not directly related to eco-
nomic interests. The Marxist movement soon discov-
ered that its economic power could be wielded in a
political way to bring pressure on the state to liberalize
and humanize the social relationships of men, and to
reduce inequalities in living conditions. It soon discov-
ered that with the extension of the franchise it could
use the state power to redistribute social wealth
through taxation, subsidies, and price supports. Under
such circumstances the state, especially when it func-
tions as a welfare state, does not act as the “executive
committee” of the dominant economic class. It may
do things that are bitterly opposed by that class. The
state, then, becomes the instrument of that class or
coalition of classes strong enough to win electoral
victory. Allowing for time lags, where the democratic
process prevails the state can become more responsive
to those groups that wield political power with major-
ity electoral support, than to dominant economic in-

5. Marxism as a movement became unfaithful to
Marxism as a theory because of the success of capital-
ism in sustaining a relative prosperity—even if uncer-
tain and discontinuous in times of acute crisis. Over
the years, the numbers of the unemployed and poverty-
stricken decreased instead of increasing. Real wages
increased. Nonetheless, in order to achieve and sustain
this relative affluence the state or government had to
intervene in the economy with controls and plans
foreign to the spirit and structure of a free market
economy. The result has been a type of mixed econ-
omy—a private and public (often hidden) sector, un-
anticipated by the theorists both of capitalism and
socialism. It turns out that the free enterprise economy
of capitalism and the fully planned and planning col-


lectivist economy of socialism are neither exclusive nor
exhaustive possible social alternatives, and that in the
political struggles of democracy the issue was rarely
posed as a stark choice between either a free economy
or a planned economy, either capitalism or socialism,
but rather as a choice between “more or less.”

6. The Marxism of the Social-Democratic movement
became transformed into a broad democratic people's
front in which socialist measures are the means of
extending democracy, providing security, defending
human dignity and freedom. It no longer speaks in the
name of the working class even when the latter consti-
tutes its mass base but instead in behalf of the common
interest and common good. Despite the revolutionary
rhetoric, it has become a people's socialism. Marxism
is no longer the ideology of the German Social-Demo-
cratic Party whose program in broad outline (in the
1960's) barely differs from the liberal wing of the
Democratic Party in the USA or the Labor Party in
Great Britain. A multiplicity of problems remain to
be met in order to make the Welfare State truly de-
voted to the human welfare of all its citizens. Progress
is no longer regarded as automatic but as requiring
patience and hard work. But so long as the processes
of freely given consent are not abridged in democratic
countries and so long as large-scale war is avoided, the
prospects of continued improvement are encouraging.