Marxism is a theory of society developed by Karl Marx from whom it takes its name. Marx, an extremely well-read man, combined Hegel's philosophy, Ricardian economics, and 19th century French socialism in a new organic whole.
Hegel proposed a form of idealism in which ideas gradually developed in history. Marx retained Hegel's emphasis on history, but stood Hegel on his head in proposing that material circumstances shape ideas, instead of the other way around. Marx summarizes his material theory of history, otherwise known as historical materialism, in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:
In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
Marx emphasized that the development of material life will come into conflict with the superstructure. These contradictions, he thought, were the driving force of history. Marx illustrated his ideas most prominently by the development of capitalism from feudalism and by the prediction of the development of socialism from capitalism.
Political economy is essential to this vision, and Marx built on and critiqued the most well-known economists of his day, the British classical economists. Marx followed Adam Smith and David Ricardo in claiming that the source of profits under capitalism is value added by workers not paid out in wages. He developed this theory of exploitation of the proletariat with an exposition of the labor theory of value in the first volume of Capital, while remaining aware that the labor theory of value was not a valid theory of relative prices. He critiqued Smith and Ricardo, on the other hand, for not realizing their economic concepts reflected capitalist institutions, not innate natural properties of mankind, and could not be applied unchanged to all societies. Marx's theories of business cycles; of economic growth and development, especially in two sector models; and of the declining rate of profit are other important elements of Marxist economics.
Marx developed these ideas to support his advocacy of socialism and communism: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world differently; the point is, to change it."
Many governments, political parties, social movements, and academic theorists have claimed to be founded on Marxist principles. Social democratic movements in 20th century Europe, the Soviet Union and other Eastern bloc countries, Mao and other revolutionaries in agrarian developing countries are particularly important examples. These struggles have added new ideas to Marx and otherwise transmuted Marxism so much that it is difficult to specify its core.
Many political philosophers now prefer to speak of Marxianism when referring to political thought that is more or less directly based upon, but not the same as, Marxism.
Please merge with the following material moved from the Socialism entry.
The cornerstone beliefs of socialists, which stem from Karl Marx, are based around the notion that a capitalist society is a class society. In this form of society people can be more or less divided into one of three "classes": the working class or proletariat which Marx defined as "those individuals who sell their labor and do not own the means of production" whom he believed were responsible for creating the wealth of a society (buildings, bridges and furniture, for example, are physically built by members of this class), the petty bourgeoisie (often the "middle class" and small-holding property owners), and those who "own the means of production" or the bourgeoisie. Communism would be a social form wherein this system would have been ended and the working classes would be the sole beneficiary of the "fruits of their labour".
Socialists often (or, in varying degrees) do not recognize an individual right to private property. At any rate, socialist philosophers have argued that there is not a specific right to private property, though it might be in the best interest of society in general for certain individuals to have exclusive control over certain goods, so long as this control does not lead to the class divisions and exploitation of the working class they seek to eliminate. Critics have said that "socialism is a system in which everyone is equally poor", pointing out that because individuals are not rewarded more on the basis of supply and demand, there is less incentive for individual achievement, improving technology, and other factors that result in a higher standard of living.
Some of these ideas were shared by anarchists, though they differed in their beliefs on how to bring about an end to the class society. Socialist thinkers suggested that the working class should take over the existing capitalist state, turning it into a workers revolutionary state, which would put in place the democratic structures necessary, and then "wither away". On the anarchist side people such as Mikhail Bakunin and Peter Kropotkin argued that the state per se was the problem, and that destroying it should be the aim of any revolutionary activity.
The 1917 October Revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky was the first large scale attempt to put Marxist ideas about a workers' state into practice. However, counterrevolution, civil war, foreign interventions and the failure of a socialist revolution in Germany gave Joseph Stalin the opportunity to take over power when Lenin died. As predicted by Lenin and Trotsky, Stalin's "socialism in one country" was unable to maintain itself, and the USSR ceased to show the characteristics of a socialist state long before its formal dissolution.