Marxism: Yesterday and today

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin

By Vejas Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Karl Marx had a huge impact on the social, philosophical, economic, and political aspects of modern life. His writings and theories on society, history, and the economy were revolutionary and shaped today’s systems of thought. He is often referred to as one of the architects of modern social science.

A black-and-white photo of Karl Marx.
German philosopher Karl Marx died in 1883. (Image: John Jabez Edwin Mayal/Public domain)

What happened to the philosophy and doctrine of Karl Marx after his death in 1883? Did they continue to evolve as he had expected? Or like many others, were they interpreted and applied in ways that he himself could not have imagined?

As it turned out throughout the years to come, the Marxist movement did evolve and flourish. But the Marxists had varied and even conflicting interpretations of his ideas, especially about how to put theory into practice. These conflicting ideas created resentment among the Marxists.

This is a transcript from the video series The Rise of Communism: From Marx to Lenin. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Conflicting Marxist Ideas after Marx’s Death

A good example of these conflicts happened in a small town in 1912, Germany. A newspaper editor, Karl Radek, was a true internationalist revolutionary and worked as the editor of the city’s socialist newspaper. He had worked extensively in the Polish, Russian, and German socialist movements. He was an ardent radical socialist and openly despised the “right-wing leaders” and even the centrists of the party.

The national party leaders decided to take control of the newspaper. After a heated hostile argument, they announced they were taking over and Radek’s party membership was revoked. The conflicts did not stop as the radical socialists came to his support. It was not meant to stop and it was only dampened by World War I.  

Another example of these internal clashes is manifested in a story of writing a song. During the Paris Commune – a radical socialist revolutionary government that ruled France from 18 March to 28 May 1871- a transport worker wrote a song. His name was Eugene Pottier and he was a member of the Commune. The song that he wrote was published in 1888 along with the melody by Pierre De Geyter. It was an instant hit in France and many other countries as it was translated into other languages. It was so popular and depicted the ideas and visions of Communism in a way that it later became the national anthem of the Soviet Union

Learn more about World War I as a Revolutionary Opportunity.

A page from the first draft of the manifesto, handwritten by Karl Marx.
Only surviving page from the first draft of the manifesto, handwritten by Karl Marx. (Image: Karl Marx/Public domain)

But the internal conflict of the ideology manifested in the struggles over copyright between Pierre De Geyter and his brother. Each brother claimed that he had written the melody and the copyright had to be granted to him. This was clearly contradictory to the ideas supporting public ownership and eradication of private property.

Even the writings of Marx himself were the center of ownership controversy. Ironically, those writings depicted a world free of private ownership. But it turned out the gap between theory and practice was larger than what Marx would have thought.

Learn more about The 1871 Paris Commune as a Model of Revolt.

What Happened to Societies After Marx?

Socialism created new social structures in Europe. In 1870, after the victory of Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, the German lands were united and formed the German Empire. Following that, Germany experienced a phenomenon called the Second Industrial Revolution. From this time up to World War I, industrial production in Europe increased by 260 percent. New technologies were developed most notably with the production of the combustion engine.

A battle in the Franco-Prussian war
The German Empire was established after the Franco-Prussian War. (Image: Ernst Zimmer (1864-1924)/Public domain)

Social classes experienced massive changes. Although Marx had predicted the growth of capitalism and pauperization, new social groups emerged. The middle class expanded and new groups of office workers and white collars emerged. Contrary to what Marx had expected, the capitalist government started a series of reforms to improve conditions for workers. For example, in Britain, under the Ten Hours Act, the working hours of women and teenagers were limited. Also, working-class men were granted the right to vote.

The Spread of Nationalist Socialist Parties in Europe

Another internal clash in Marxism after the death of Marx was the spread of nationalism. According to the Manifesto issued by Marx and Engels, the working men had no country. But the socialist parties that formed in European countries had nationalistic interests and were based on nationalism.

Trade unions were also established on national interests. But socialists cooperated with them, though with different aims. Trade unions wanted to improve the working conditions for workers but socialists had a wider-scope vision of revolution and social transformation.  

But these nationalist movements gathered under the Second International to move towards the internationalistic visions of Marxism. They gathered in regular congresses to solidify their relations and emphasize the international nature of their ideology.

Common Questions about Marxism After Marx?

Q: What was the Paris Commune?

The Paris Commune was a radical socialist government that took over Paris for two months in 1871. It was formed as a result of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war.

Q: What is Marxism in simple terms?

Marxism supports the idea that social classes should be eradicated. All means of production should be controlled by the proletariat. After the death of Marx, these ideas inspired the growth of socialism.

Q: What did Marxism influence?

Marx’s ideas, even after his death, had huge impacts on societies and social structures. they gave rise to socialism and communism.

Q: What did Karl Marx believe would happen under capitalism?

Karl Marx believed that under capitalism, capital would be concentrated. Therefore, the proletariat would grow in number, and pauperization or ‘emiserization’ would be certain to happen.

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