Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: Marxism from Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable

The philosophical and political and economic theories or system propounded by Karl Marx (1818-83) and Friedrich Engels (1820-95), which formed the basis of communist dogma. It involved a materialist conception of history, a theory of class war, a belief in the ultimate destruction of capitalism and the formation of a classless society. See also COMMUNISM; LENIN; MATERIALISM.

Summary Article: Marxism from Encyclopedia of Global Religions

Perhaps no other modern idea has spread as quickly and as widely as the sociopolitical ideas of the 19th-century thinker Karl Marx (1818-1883). Any concept that draws on the discourse of Marx's teaching is considered Marxism. More specifically, Marxism entails a critique of the political economy from a proletarian point of view, where seemingly natural underpinnings of inequality can be interpreted through the concepts of exploitation, alienation, and profit seeking. Although the globalization of Marxism was largely a late-19th-century and 20th-century phenomenon, the impact of this type of ideological reasoning has served to create enormous changes in the world's economic systems and poses challenges to the social structures developed through the capitalist mode of production. The ideas within Marxism have incited wars, transformed ways of living, inspired intellectual revolutions, and formed political alliances that still remain in the second decade of the 21st century.

Life and Works of Karl Marx

Karl Heinrich Marx was born on May 5, 1818, in Trier, Prussia. Educated in the University of Bonn, Friedrich Wilhelm University, and the University of Jena, Marx officially studied law yet retained an interest in several other disciplines including philosophy, economics, and politics. As a student, Marx was heavily influenced by the classical works of Aristotle, Democritus, Plato, Pythagoras, and Thales. In addition to more modern works by Erasmus, Kant, Ricardo, and Machiavelli, Marx was especially concerned with the ideas of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) and his own contemporary Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach (1804-1872).

It was Hegel's philosophy of history and his notion of advancing humanity through contradictory ideas—termed dialectics—that first attracted Marx. However, Hegel had already died by the time Marx began to study his work, and hence, Marx was exposed to the ideas of his peers who had studied under Hegel, chiefly Feuerbach. Feuerbach advocated putting Hegel's ideas into practice, something Marx would later use to fortify his notion of the need to interact with material items in nature rather than concentrating on the ideational concepts that Hegel had proposed.

In late November of 1843, Karl Marx met Friedrich Engels, a young and ambitious advocate for laborers’ role in achieving justice. Engels and Marx soon developed a friendship that lasted throughout much of their adult lives. Engels went on to assist Marx financially and support his literary endeavors as a coauthor in much of his work. Given the importance of his affiliation with Marx and his contributions to his career as a social philosopher, Friedrich Engels is regarded as a central figure in the development of Marxism.

Apart from secondary works that grew out of mid-20th-century reinterpretations of Karl Marx's works, his original writings remain the foundation on which much of Marxism is based today. Some of the more influential pieces composed by Marx and Engels include Thesen über Feuerbach (Theses on Feuerbach) in 1845, Die heilige Familie, oder, Kritik der kritischen Kritik, gegen Bruno Bauer und Consorten (The Holy Family) in 1845, Die deutsche ideologie (The German Ideology) in 1846, Manifest der kommunistischen Partei (Manifesto of the Communist Party) in 1848, and the first volume of Das Kapital: Kritik der polistschen ÖkonomieDas Kapital” (Capital: A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production) in 1867.

Though Marx only held trivial jobs throughout his life, the support from Engels sustained his writing endeavors. As his works were often seen as instigating revolts against states and the owners of the means of production, Marx experienced several expulsions from European nations until he finally arrived in London in 1849. Shortly after his wife's death in 1881, Marx developed several illnesses that led to his death in 1883.

Dialectical Materialism

Dialectical materialism refers to Marx's view that interaction with material resources is the impetus for social, political, and economic change. Within Marxism, this type of dialectics functions within a tension between two opposites, the thesis versus the antithesis—defined by class as the interests of the ruling class versus the interests of the subservient classes. As these two types of interests contradict and cancel out each other, they also preserve the foundation for their respective existences based on class. When thesis and antithesis clash, they allow for the emergence of a synthesis.

A historical example that demonstrates this dialectical model is found in the French Revolution of 1789. According to some Marxists, this conflict occurred because of the French monarchy's accumulation of wealth and control (thesis) over the resistant bourgeoisie (antithesis). As the end result of the clash between the interests of the monarchy and the interests of the bourgeoisie, the proletariat class (synthesis) emerged. With this small creation of a new class, production would also be affected. The rise of the proletariat class would increase the output from production, thereby improving the overall conditions under which society would meet future challenges and foster community.

Hegel, preceding Marx, was fully aware of the dialectical process, yet rather than emphasizing the material conditions within a given social setting, he focused on ideas. This inversion of the dialectical process from one based on ideas to one based on material is popularly known as Hegel's dialectics operating on its head, whereas the ideas of Marx and Engels placed it on its feet. In Marxism, interaction with material, not ideas, would be necessary to solve burgeoning new challenges.

Marxism and Religion

Although Marxism plays a central role in the study of religion, the original works of Karl Marx contributed less to any paradigmatic approach to studying it as such. However, a number of works by Marx and Engels indicate an extensive interest in religion, including the essay “On the Jewish Question,” “Theses on Feuerbach,” and brief references to the oppressive features of institutionalized religion. A rather famous example of this type of religious interest is found in Marx's (1844) “Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.” Though often misquoted through a paraphrased version that reads “Religion is the opiate of the masses,” the original quote is as follows: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of the real suffering and heart of a heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” With this sweeping statement, Marx and Engels cast an underlying theme that presents religion as simply another institution that serves to undergird the false consciousness of the laborers and hold them captive to the exploits of the owners of the means of production.

On the Jewish Question

Marx's (1843) essay titled “On the Jewish Question” is one of the more misunderstood literary pieces within Marxism as is it written in an ironic style, lending itself to misinterpretations with regard to tenor and intention. In actuality, this essay is a theoretical exercise with Marx's notion of historical materialism, where he focused on the Jews in Prussia and their mode of achieving political emancipation. Marx's piece was also a response to the works of his peer Bruno Bauer, who felt that for Jews to achieve political emancipation, they must first abandon their religion, as in Bauer's view only a secular state could offer political emancipation. Marx, however, rejected Bauer's assertions by explaining how the secular state does not abolish religion but instead considers the people who interact with religion as separate from it.

Theses on Feuerbach

Written in 1845, Marx's “Theses on Feuerbach” outlines 11 theses that analyze, and at times scrutinize, the potential uses of Feuerbach's views on religion. Where Feuerbach's overall critical model held that man's affinity with attributing the qualities of humanity to the omnipotence of God was backward, Marx sought to advance the notion of ideational concepts as the product of human reasoning and not the other way around. That is, for Feuerbach—and by extension, Marx—God did not create man but was instead a creation of man. In many ways, this grounding of the Divine provided the reinforcing means for Marx to affirm his concentration on materialist conditions while challenging Hegel's emphasis on idealism.

However, Marx not only found Feuerbach's work to be useful but also noted the shortcomings in his reasoning. Although Feuerbach poses a break with divine sacralization of royalty and thus established a realistic basis for interpreting inequality, in Marx's view Feuerbach failed to consider human activity as objective activity. In this way, Marx advocates for praxis in his famous statement from the 11th thesis: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Marxism and Liberation Theology

Liberation Theology is a largely Roman Catholic theological perspective that locates sin within the institution of poverty and attempts to combat this sin through a synthesis of Christianity and socialism. Within this perspective, poverty is at once an indication of God's mercy on the poor and oppressed in the face of avarice as well as the epitome of class struggle whereby the teachings of Jesus Christ and Karl Marx are complementary in achieving justice.

Marxism and Religious Eschatology

The trajectory of realizing a communist society has often been compared with a series of eschatological developments. In what has been called Marx's historical materialism model, various stages of history have been defined by the economic mode of production. As each stage experiences a dialectical contradiction between groups vying for the material means of production, history advances toward a state of improved material conditions that increase productivity. An example of this progressive trajectory can be found in the transformation from feudal states, where the means of production were the property of the aristocratic, lords, to capitalist states, where the bourgeoisie seized these means and established a new economic system of production. An eschatological approach to Marxism focuses on the stages from capitalist states to socialist and communist societies. The struggle between “good and evil” would be played out in the final days before the realization of a utopian society that would be classless and thus free from inequality.

Given the progressive movement toward an ideal scenario of this magnitude, the similarities between an eschatology within Marxism and traditional Christian eschatology have inadvertently given rise to ideas about Marx as a prophet, socialists as religious practitioners venerating iconic figures and the literature of communalism, and the state of communism as an enterprise in establishing a “heaven on earth.”

Marxism and Religious Movements

The general tenets of communalism found within Marxism have attracted religious practitioners, who appropriate such ideology as their own. An example of this type of appropriation can be found within The Universal Industrial Church of the New World Comforter (UICNWC), whose members have been described as “millenarian utopians.” Founded in 1973 by Allen Michael, this small movement is one of very few groups that openly avows an association with socialist-leaning tenets.

Despite the more contemporary examples of the religious uses of Marxism, there were also some groups that held similar beliefs and practices prior to the writing of Marx and Engels. These movements include the True Levelers (established in 1649), later known as the Diggers; Robert Owen's settlement of New Harmony (1814); and the League of the Just (1836), which later became The Communist League.

Influence of Marxism on Revolutions and Social Movements

The sheer immensity and far-reaching diffusion of Marx's works have inspired revolutions and major social movements in several nations, including Russia, China, Cuba, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Bolivia, Columbia Chile, Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Israel, Cyprus, Greece, Hungary, former Czechoslovakia, Germany, Italy, France, and the United States. In conjunction with these revolutions and major social movements, Marxism has influenced popular historical figures from every corner of literary, political, social, and cultural worlds, such as Vladimir Lenin, Fidel Castro, Sigmund Freud, Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Chí Minh, Betty Friedan, Julius Nyerere, Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, and César Chávez.

Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

Perhaps the most well-known and longest running experiment with Marxism emerged in Russia, just after the turn of the 20th century, with the Bolshevik movement of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin (1870-1924). The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was created in 1922 after a series of uprisings initially against the Czar and later against a provisional government that succeeded the reign of the Romanov Dynasty. The USSR operated for nearly seven decades as the superpower in opposition to the United States of America within the framework of the Cold War. Supporting Marxist-based revolutions in a number of countries throughout the second and third worlds, the USSR was often viewed as the ideological, economic, and political foundation for all other socialist movements.


In China, Marxism was most famously advanced by Mao Zedong (1893-1976). From 1949 to 1976, Mao governed the People's Republic of China as the chairman of the Communist Party of China. Marxism's influence on Mao is credited with the most drastic changes in history of China, including the introduction of sweeping social, political, and economic policies that transformed a succession of imperial dynasties and divided republics into a single-party socialist republic operating under a planned economy. After Mao's death, his successor, Deng Xiaoping, advanced the modernization and industrialization of China through a socialist market economy.


In 1959, the Cuban regime of Fulgencio Batista was overthrown by Marxist-leaning guerillas, including Ernesto “Che” Guevara (1928-1967), Camilo Cienfuegos (1932-1959), Raúl Castro (b. 1931), and his brother Fidel Castro (b. 1926). In 1961, Fidel Castro introduced Cuba as a socialist state and in the years to come effectively employed the Soviet model of a Marxist-Leninist state.

Marxism and Communism

Although the terms Marxism and communism are often used synonymously, there is a significant difference between the two. As it would seem impossible to speak of these two terms as unrelated, their distinction is best described as a difference between theory and practice. Whereas the former refers to the broader sociopolitical theories of Marx, the latter denotes a particular enterprise of practices based on the applied theoretical concepts intended to create a communist social reality. In short, Marxism embodies theoretical notions that, when put into action, are geared toward the realization of a communist society.

Marxism and Academia

Along similar lines pertaining to the distinction between Marxism and communism that rests almost exclusively within the practice of discursive strategies is the use of Marxism as a theoretical framework for interpreting social phenomena. Within academia, there are several paradigmatic approaches to the study of topics such as race, class, gender, nationalism, sexuality, and age that draw on the interpretive theories of inequality, exploitation, and alienation found within Marxism. Although the use of Marxism could be found within any academic discipline, its use is concentrated mainly within the social and literary sciences.

See also

China, Communism, Liberation Theology, Marx and Religion, Russian Federation

Further Readings
  • Appelbaum, R. P. (1988). Karl Marx. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Lefebvre, H. (1982). The sociology of Marx. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • McLellan, D. (Ed.). (2000). Karl Marx: Selected writings. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Wolf, R. P. (1984). Understanding Marx: A reconstruction and critique of Capital. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  • Murguía, Salvador Jiménez
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article Marxism
    Philosophy of Education: An Encyclopedia

    Marxism may be defined as the set of ideas originally formulated by Karl Marx (1818-1883) to provide a critical explanation of the development...

    Full text Article Marxism
    Dictionary of World Philosophy

    A family of philosophies derived from the writings of the German philosopher Karl Marx (CE 1818–83). It has become common practice to extend use...

    Full text Article Marxism
    Bloomsbury Guide to Human Thought

    The economic and political doctrine known as Marxism was developed by the German theorists Karl Marx 1818 1883 and Friedrich ...

    See more from Credo