Marxism and It’s Relevance in the 21st Century

The tradition of Marxist thought has provided the most powerful critique of capitalist institutions and ethics ever conducted. Its founder, Karl Heinrich Marx (1818–1883), was a German political, economic, and philosophical theorist and revolutionist. The influence of Marx’s ideas on modern world history has been vast. Until the collapse in 1991 of the communist systems of the USSR and Eastern Europe, one-third of the world’s population had been living under political administrations claiming descent from Marx’s ideas. His impact on the world of thought has been equally extensive, embracing sociology, philosophy, economics, and cultural theory. Marxism has also generated a rich tradition of literary and cultural criticism. Many branches of modern criticism – including historicism, feminism, deconstruction, postcolonial and cultural criticism – are indebted to the insights of Marxism, which often originated in the philosophy of Hegel. What distinguishes Marxism is that it is not only a political, economic, and social theory but also a form of practice in all of these domains.

Class Struggle

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle,”

The Communist Manifesto

Marx believed that humanity’s core conflict rages between the ruling class, or bourgeoisie, that controls the means of production such as factories, farms and mines, and the working class, or proletariat, which is forced to sell their labour. According to Marx, this conflict at the heart of capitalism — of slaves against masters, serfs against landlords, workers against bosses would inevitably cause it to self-destruct, to be followed by socialism and eventually communism. Marxism has traditionally been viewed as the principal critical or radical alternative to mainstream realist and liberal thinking, although its impact on academic theorizing was always limited. However, Marxism is a very broad field, which encompasses, as far as international theory is concerned, two contrasting tendencies. The first of these gives primary attention to economic analysis, and is mainly concerned with exposing capitalism as a system of class oppression that operates on national and international levels. This applies to classical Marxism and to most forms of neo-Marxism. The second tendency places greater emphasis on the ideological and cultural dimension of oppression, and has come to embrace a post-positivist, and therefore post-Marxist, mode of theorizing. This applies to what has been called ‘critical theory’, as influenced by the ideas of Gramsci.

Dictatorship of The Proletariat and Communism

This idea – coined by early socialist revolutionary Joseph Wedemeyer and adopted by Marx and Engels — refers to the goal of the working-class gaining control of political power. It is the stage of transition from capitalism to communism where the means of production pass from private to collective ownership while the state still exists

The concept, including suppressing “counter-revolutionaries”, was proclaimed by the Russian Bolsheviks in 1918.

Vladimir Lenin wrote that it is “won and maintained by the use of violence”,
signalling the authoritarian drift that began after Russia’s 1917 October Revolution. The core of Marxism is a philosophy of history that outlines why capitalism is doomed and why socialism and eventually communism are destined to replace it. This philosophy is based on the ‘materialist conception of history’, the belief that economic factors are the ultimately determining force in human history. In Marx’s view, history is driven forward through a dialectical process in which internal contradictions within each ‘mode of production’, reflected in class conflict, lead to social revolution and the construction of a new and higher
mode of production. This process was characterized by six historical stages (primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism, socialism and finally global, stateless communism.) and would only end with the establishment of a classless communist society. The desire for profit would drive capitalism to ‘strive to tear down every barrier to intercourse’ and to ‘conquer the whole earth for its market’. In reality, the abolition of private property and the collectivisation of land resulted in millions of deaths, especially under Russia’s Joseph Stalin and China’s Mao Zedong.


“Workers of the world unite!” is the famous rallying cry that concludes the Manifesto and seeks to create a political structure that transcends national borders. The idea lay at the heart of Soviet internationalism, uniting the destiny of countries as geographically distant as the USSR, Vietnam and Cuba, and revolutionary groups including the Colombian FARC or the Kurdish Workers’ Party PKK, as well as anti-globalisation movements. Interest in Marxism was revived during the 1970s through the use of neoMarxist theories to explain patterns of global poverty and inequality. Dependency theory, for example, highlighted the extent to which, in the post1945 period, traditional imperialism had given way to neo colonialism, sometimes viewed as ‘economic imperialism’ or, more specifically, ‘dollar imperialism’. World-systems theory suggested that the world economy is best understood as an interlocking capitalist system which exemplifies, at international level, many of the features that characterize national capitalism; that is, structural inequalities based on exploitation and a tendency towards instability and crisis that is rooted in economic contradictions. The world-system consists of interrelationships between the ‘core’, the ‘periphery’ and the ‘semi-periphery’. Core areas such as the developed North are distinguished by the concentration of capital, high wages and high-skilled manufacturing production They therefore benefit from technological innovation and high and sustained levels of investment. Peripheral areas such as the less developed South are exploited by the core through their dependency on the export of raw materials, subsistence wages and weak frameworks of state protection. Semi-peripheral areas are economically subordinate to the core but in turn take advantage of the periphery, thereby constituting a buffer between the core and the periphery. Such thinking about the inherent inequalities and injustices of global capitalism was one of the influences on the anti-globalization, or ‘anti-capitalist’, movement
that emerged from the late 1990s onwards.

Opium of the People

Marx believed that religion, like a drug, helps the exploited to suppress their
immediate pain and misery with pleasant illusions, to the benefit of their oppressors. The quote usually paraphrased as “religion is the opium of the people” originates from the introduction of Marx’s work “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy
of Right”.

In full, it reads: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The idea was used to justify brutal purges of religions in Russia, China and across eastern Europe

Some scholars point out that Marx saw religion as only one of many elements explaining the enslavement of the proletariat and may have been surprised to see radical atheism become a core tenet of communist regimes.

Is Marxism Still Relevant?

Marxism, per se, is almost an anachronism today, with the ideology withering
gradually away ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the breakup of the erstwhile USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Even the electorates of some of the die-hard communist-led states in India are having second thoughts. The millennial generation would probably not be too aware of a dogma which dominated the mind space for a long time until the 1990s. The last vestiges of communism are now in countries that are run by dictators or are super-capitalist, like China. Is Marxism really relevant considering that even at the political level the communist parties are losing their charm in various states in India?

With the discrediting and eventual dissolution of communist regimes in Eastern
Europe, it is often said that Marxism is now ‘dead’, relegated to the dustbin of history, like older theories of theocracy, feudalism, or absolutist monarchies. Surprisingly, however, the death of communist regimes in the East has gone hand in hand with a rebirth of Marxist theorizing in the West. Marx and Marxism were more or less entirely ignored by Anglo-American philosophers for most of the twentieth century (Ware 1989: 1-2). In the last twenty years, however, there has been an outpouring of writings on Marxism, and attempts to reformulate Marxian theories. This movement is often known as ‘analytical Marxism’, since its proponents aim to reformulate Marx’s insights using the tools and methods of
contemporary Anglo-American analytic philosophy and social science.

Analytic Marxists today believe in the inevitability of proletarian revolution.
However, it has become more important for Marxists to clarify the normative basis of their commitments to socialism or communism. When Marxists believed that socialism was inevitable, there was no need to explain why it was desirable. It was simply the end point of a predetermined sequence of historical developments. Capitalism would self-destruct, due to its inner contradictions, and the increasingly immiserated workers would have no choice but to overthrow it. Economic contradictions, not moral arguments, would underlie the revolution.

Marx and Engels were in fact quite scathing about theorists who tried to give moral arguments in favour of socialism. Moral arguments were seen as both unnecessary, since workers had no rational alternative to revolution, and strategically divisive, since the idea of justice is endlessly contestable. Moreover, defenders of capitalism had already crafted elaborate ideological justifications for the freedom and equality of capitalism. Shifting the debate onto the terrain of moral argument would allow these ideologists of capitalism to distract the workers from their task of revolution.

Marxism, in its simplest terms, argued that production relations determine the
‘infrastructure’ of the nation, which was typified by the proletariat and the capitalist, where the relation was antagonistic with a tendency for labour to be exploited. The ‘superstructure was created to maintain these relations and this was the political system and institutions that allowed it to thrive. As capitalists extracted more value from the workers (proletariat), it would reach a point of no return, when there would be a revolt and the former would be overthrown. There would be the dictatorship of the proletariat, whereby people would rule.
However, as happens normally in such systems, new elites were created and worked towards self-fulfilment, and the economic systems that sprung up were inefficient in terms of allocation of resources. Compared with the capitalist system, socialism or communism offered suboptimal solutions, which were discarded by the people over a period of time. India, too, rejected the mixed economy set up gradually, from 1991-92 onwards, with the government having less of a role to play in economic activity. This is liberalisation. But, interestingly, the founding principles of Marxism are still relevant.

Production relations, even today, are defined by links between owners or capitalists and workers. Capitalists as defined by family-run or dominated businesses having their role entrenched in the economy which has become hereditary. The modern corporate has the concept of ‘limited liability’ and hence ‘limited responsibility,’ where managements are the rulers and are overseen by boards, which represent the shareholders. Here, there is always some modicum of conflict between the two classes, with the remuneration being at great variance in a legitimate manner. Conflict, however, is avoided because of the creation of
what would have been called the ‘bourgeoisie class’ or ‘middle class,’ which acts as an effective buffer. Hence, while the top management gets several multiples the wage of the median—as reflected in annual reports—the fact that there are several layers in between, which give hope to others to rise, ensures that harmony is maintained.

However, the constant argument for labour reforms is a manifestation of the Marxist conflict, where the capitalist wants to ease labour but governments hold back such drastic reforms. Economic cycles always make a case for downsizing, though the capitalist never takes a cut in pay and often is rewarded with stock options. But while corporates can downsize easily when it is in the middle cadre, the same is difficult when it comes to the factory sector. Therefore, status quo in the ‘infrastructure’ remains even today. How about the superstructure? This is interesting because institutions are laws created to preserve the ruling order.

Let us see how this works. First, governments are committed to capitalism and never really come in the way of free enterprise even while they blow hot and cold over privatisation. Second, the organisations and associations which profess ‘advocacy’ ensure that policies are geared towards making it easy for private enterprises, which cannot be questioned as it leads to growth. This is often supplemented with political donations to serve the interest of the capitalist. Third, the media is always pro-market and against intervention, and with a plethora of experts always badgering the public sector, helps the cause of the capitalist. Fourth, regulators are often influenced by the spokespersons of capitalists such as
market experts, economists, academics, etc, to get the derived results. Fifth, the fact that policy-makers often have worked in global institutions ensure that the capitalist ethic remains firm in practice. Hence, the influence of capitalists on institutions is well-defined.

Marxism also spoke of the extreme stage of capitalism being colonialism, wherein
countries colonised to spread their markets—also called imperialism. Today, the same happens under the façade of globalisation, where institutions like the World Trade Organisation or the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank profess the capitalist ethic. Earlier, loans were tied to ensure that the Washington Consensus was followed. Today, investors decide what should be the policies and countries bend backwards to get in the dollars. Various rankings given by these organisations on doing business, being competitive, etc, ensure that countries veer towards markets.

Therefore, Marx was actually right in terms of understanding how systems worked with the production relations being defined. However, the eruption of a revolution was not how these games resulted, as there are safely buffers built through the middle class as well as the strong superstructure which is reinforced all the time. Further, as long as the public sector exists, which is strong even in western developed countries, the illusion that we are not being driven by capitalists is created. Governments, too, tend to offer the occasional freebies to the poorer sections to remain popular, which are criticised vociferously by the capitalist elites. Hence, while Marx is relevant in understanding how capitalism works, Adam Smith will have the last word.

The latest protagonist of critique of capitalism, Thomas Piketty, has highlighted the growth of inequality, which is a speaking point today in all the seminars with the acceptance that capitalism has ended up being self-serving (as would be applauded positively by Adam Smith, who believed in self-interest). The defenders of the faith will argue that the fact that even the poor have a mobile phone is a vindication that capitalism has delivered, while the vast populace of unemployed in emerging markets tells a different story.

Hence, while markets have led to higher growth, which could be skewed in terms of distribution, the revolution that was prophesized will probably never happen as long as there is an illusion of upward movement, which the mobile phone represents today. Therefore, Marx was right to a large extent, which has been buffered well by the superstructure to ensure that contradictions are either hidden or addressed in a minimalistic manner to create the illusion that ‘all is well

Today, however, Marxists realize that if socialist or communist ideals are to be
implemented, it will require persuading people that these ideals are morally legitimate, and worth pursuing. Far from being increasingly immiserated, many workers have experienced an increasing standard of living, and often vote for political parties committed to capitalism. If socialist parties are to succeed, arguments must be given why a socialist society would be more desirable-more free, just, or democratic-than the sort of welfare state capitalism we see today. And indeed, much of the work in contemporary analytic Marxism has been concerned precisely with developing these sorts of normative arguments.

In other words, the death of ‘scientific’ Marxism as a theory of historical inevitability has helped give birth to Marxism as a normative political theory. A fundamental goal of the new analytical Marxism is to offer a critique of, and alternative to, liberal theories of justice.

Notes and References

  1. Andrew Heywood, Political Ideologies: An Introduction, Palgrave, MacMillan Publishers Limited, 2017.
  2. Andrew Heywood, Politics, Red Glove Press,2019.
  3. Andrew Heywood, Global Politics, Palgrave, MacMillan Publishers Ltd. 2011.
  5. Madan Sabnavis, Is Marx Still Relevant, Financial Express, May 14, 2018.
  6. M. A. R. Habib, Modern Literary Criticism and Theory: From Plato to the Present, Blackwell Publication, 2005.
  7. Peter Barry, Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, Manchester University Press, 2009.
  8. Robert E. Goodin, Philip Pettit, Thomas Pogge; A Companion to Contemporary Political Philosophy, Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2007.
  9. Will Kymlicka, Contemporary Political Theory, Oxford University Press, 2002.

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