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The historical emergence of Marxism

Analysis by J. Sykes |
February 27, 2022
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Karl Marx
Karl Marx

Continuing the Fight Back! series on the theoretical concepts of Marxism-Leninism, let’s examine how Marxism emerged, and the struggles that it grew out of.

Marxism-Leninism didn’t spring fully grown from the heads of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao. It developed historically as a result of the struggles that were taking place as it emerged. This is because revolutionaries needed to understand the world in order to change it. In the time that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were working, they took the most advanced theory in philosophy, political economy and socialist thought and brought them to a higher level according to the needs of the working class movement. In philosophy, they took the idealist dialectic of Hegel and put it on a materialist basis. In political economy, they took the ideas of Smith and Ricardo and pushed them to their logical conclusions, revealing the inner workings of the capitalist system. And in socialist theory, they built upon the successes and struggled against the shortcomings of the utopian socialists to make socialist theory scientific. They did this in the context of the bitter inequality of the early Industrial Revolution and the resulting growth of the international workers movement, which they helped to lead. It was in the crucible of the class struggle that Marxism was forged.

The revolutions of 1848 swept through Europe while Marx and Engels were in Brussels, Belgium. Marx was expelled and went to Paris, joined by Engels. From there they went to Germany where they led the Communist League (for which they wrote the Communist Manifesto) and published the newspaper Neue Rheinische Zeitung. The 1848 Revolution was defeated in Germany and Marx was again expelled and returned to Paris, while Engels was able to remain in Germany as a soldier in the revolutionary army until its final defeat. Marx was expelled from Paris in 1849 where he finally settled down in London.

The defeat of the revolutionary upsurge of 1848 set the revolutionary movement into disarray, and therefore required analysis and summation. Marx set to work drawing theoretical lessons from that set of practical experiences in order to see the way forward. It was in this period that he wrote Class Struggles in France: 1848 to 1850 and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonapart. These experiences helped to clarify the relationship between classes at the time and allowed Marx to discern who were the friends and who were the enemies of the proletariat in the struggle to transform society.

In 1864 the International Workingmen’s Association was formed. Marx helped found the First International, wrote its program, and came almost immediately to lead it. However, the First International reflected the ideological disarray of the post-1848 revolutionary movement, and within it Marxism had to struggle against both the utopian socialists and the anarchists, preventing the revolution from being led down these blind alleys. The Utopian Socialists and Anarchists advanced pie-in-the-sky theories of what a socialist society would look like and combined this with idealist notions of how to get there. The Utopians’ theory was not grounded in practice or in the practical needs of the workers movements and had now to see their admirable ideas realized.

In 1871 the experience of the Paris Commune further clarified these questions and sharpened these ideological struggles and Marx wrote The Civil War in France to sum up the tremendous revolutionary experience of the Communards, the first instance of working-class state power, which Marx called “the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Marx's famous work, the Critique of the Gotha Program, addressed some of the same issues, in the context of revolutionary strategy. All of these interventions were instrumental to the growth of the revolutionary working-class movement and helped to propel it forward.

As the struggle against idealism in the working class movement progressed, Engels wrote a brilliant pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. In this important text, Engels helped to popularize Marxism and explain the differences between it and the thought of the Utopians Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Robert Owen, who all had followers in the First International. He explained the basis of Marxist Dialectical and Historical Materialism and how these theoretical tools allowed the revolutionary movement to advance past utopian idealism and put the revolutionary movement on a materialist foundation.

All the while, Marx had been deeply engaged in the intense study of political economy that would finally bear fruit in the publication of Volume 1 of his great work, Capital, in 1867. In this mammoth study Marx gave the working-class movement a rigorous critique of capitalism, how it arose historically, how it functions, why exploitation and economic crisis are at its core, and an understanding of how capitalism could be overcome.

It is impossible, of course, to do justice to all of these ideas here. This is but an overview to help give context to Marxism and show its development through struggle. In the following articles in this series, we will show how Marxism continues to develop in the era of imperialism and proletarian revolution, and we will then go deeper into all of the ideas we have covered here.


See the full series on Marxist-Leninist theory here.