Philosophy Political Philosophy Politics

What is Marxist-Communism? A Philosophical Overview

What is Marxist-Communism?

Of all political terms when analyzed philosophically, Marxism is the most abused. By critics and disciples alike. As with socialism, many people who claim to be Marxist are really just a weird amalgamation of progressive (liberal) and socialist, using the term Marxist simply because its trendy and edgy. Marxism emerged from the liberal (materialistic) worldview but differed radically from the attendant reformist liberal (e.g. “capitalist”), progressive (technocratic capitalist), and even socialist political ideologies of modernity. What made Marxism different from other political ideologies that were codified and specified from the liberal worldview of materialism, science, and technology was its dialectical and historical nature. Marxism, unlike the normative political ideologies of modernity, had an understanding of history that made it unique.

Marxism could not have been born without the liberal worldview that arose with the New Science. Marxism shares with liberalism certain fundamental assumptions about humanity and the world. Among them are 1) Humans are material beings; 2) The world is nothing but matter; 3) Science and Technology are tools of human improvement and advancement. Where Marxism differed from liberalism was in its philosophy of history, known as dialectical materialism, or sometimes called “scientific socialism.”

Marxism, then, is a very specific outgrowth of socialism which we analyzed here. Marxism shares with the socialist vision that workers control the means of economic production (technology and science) and have an innate material solidarity with other exploited workers around the world. The realization that workers control the means of economic production to create a better world for themselves is the class, or workers’, consciousness that is so famous in socialist/Marxist discourse. The application of technology and science in creating a more egalitarian world of peace and prosperity is also shared. Where Marxism also differed from run of the mill economistic socialism is in its philosophy of history.

What is that philosophy of history? In the simplest sense, Marxism sees “progress” as the result of class (material) conflict throughout history. This material conflict is leading to heightened consciousness in material terms: the world is really about material prosperity and peace. In time, this historical conflict between landowners and material producers will result in a class war where the producers, the workers, overthrow the minority and oppressive landowners, and in that revolution create an egalitarian utopia with the amenities that modern science and technology afford. Class conflict drives technological and scientific advancement as much as it does class solidarity.

In a more comprehensive understanding, Marxism’s dialectical materialism and philosophy of history consists of five stages: slavery, feudalism, capitalism (the stage we are currently living in), socialism (or the revolutionary stage), and communism (the utopian stage). Let us explore these stages more concretely.

The First Stage of History: Slavery (Coerced Agrarianism)

In Marxism, all History is driven forward by material conflict.  Without material conflict there would be no dialectic. Without a dialectic there would be no advancement to human civilization.  Contrary to ignorant “Marxists,” Marx was actually pro-civilization and pro-imperialism, insofar that the advancement of civilization and imperial conquest was the necessary unfolding of historical development. To this end, as we shall see, Marx was also pro-capitalist. As Marx and Engels wrote concerning the Mexican-American War:

[W]ill [Mikhail] Bakunin accuse the Americans of a ‘war of conquest’, which, although it deals with a severe blow to his theory based on ‘justice and humanity’, was nevertheless waged wholly and solely in the interest of civilization? Or is it perhaps unfortunate that splendid California has been taken away from the lazy Mexicans, who could not do anything with it? That the energetic Yankees by rapid exploitation of the California gold mines will increase the means of circulation, in a few years will concentrate a dense population and extensive trade at the most suitable places on the coast of the Pacific Ocean, create large cities, open up communications by steamship, construct a railway from New York to San Francisco, for the first time really open the Pacific Ocean to civilization, and for the third time in history give the world trade a new direction? The ‘independence’ of a few Spanish Californians and Texans may suffer because of it, in someplaces ‘justice’ and other moral principles may be violated; but what does that matter to such facts of world-historic significance? (February 14, 1849)

Marx, and orthodox Marxism, is pro-civilization, pro-imperialism, and pro-capitalism, only insofar that these developments are necessary en route to capitalism. You do not counter what is the necessary unfolding of history. Marx was not anti-anything; he was, rather, a keen analyst of the development of economic society, examining what the inner workings of socio-economic and historical advancement brought and what it might mean to the unfolding of history to its telos. (Yes, Marx is a deeply eschatological and teleological thinker.)

The first stage of history is slavery. Slavery marks the beginning of forced agrarianism and enforced private property, wherein the landowners (men), that is, those who use power to assert their claim to land, control the means of economic production. From the establishment of land control emerge classes.  The class of enforced laborers are called slaves. The class of debt laborers are known as indentured workers—working to pay off their debts (however that debt was accrued). There are small pockets of minimal landowners who work their own land, we may call these individuals the early (or proto-) bourgeoisie who will emerge in greater prominence as time goes on. The large manor lords and agricultural barons are those who wield the most power and control in slave society. Slave owners are distinguished from the aristocratic class, a class of individuals who emerge in society through the development of the state and sovereign power. The future aristocrats are individuals who served the king or emperor or chief and were rewarded with land and titles for their service, they are not the same as slave owners who derived their positions in society through the use of force.

Slave society marks the origin of the state.  Statism is inherently rooted in slavery, and therefore all states emerged on the world-scene through slavery—and so long as states exists there exists some sort of bondage (e.g. slavery). But the need for constant resource exploitation is what drives societal conflict: the conquest for more land and more slaves. Slavery was an inescapable fact of historical conflict. The collapse of slavery into feudalism was because of imperialism and material conquest. The drive for increased land and need for new slave labor led to conflict among slave societies: that is, empires.

Empire is the final stage of socio-political development in the stage of slavery. Overburdened and overcome by internal pressure and external war, empires dissolve into smaller kingdoms or principalities where the slave plantation is exhausted into feudal land holdings. In the dissolution of slave society and empire, those forces and powers that survive become the established aristocracy and churches which take over the responsibilities of political and economic governance as empires break apart. The exhaustion of slave empires leads us to the next stage of historical unfolding: feudalism.

The Second Stage: Feudalism (Classism and Class Conflict Emerges)

The exhaustion of slavery from material conflict leads to the emergence of feudal societies; feudalism therefore is the second stage of history. Feudal societies are distinguished from slave societies in three principal ways. First, there is no longer a class of slave laborers (traditionally conceived). Slavery exhausts itself into the peasantry and serfdom which, while harsh, is an advancement of freedom. Second is the emergence of landed, or territorial, states. We might call these nation-states, wherein political and juridical order is concentrated in a smaller and well-defined territory rather than the over-encompassing imperium—this is, in some way, a return to the tribalism of primitive communism. Third, feudalism brings about the emergence of many classes in society which perpetuates class antagonism (class conflict).

It is the theory of classes in feudalism that is of interest within Marxist dialectic. The feudal state is generally monarchial or aristocratic in orientation, with castes of nobles serving as the de facto political and juridical rulers in society moreover than the universal emperor or the plantation owner as in slave society. Furthermore, additional classes emerge through the new roles and responsibilities of emerging through the exhaustion of empire and slavery: clerical classes who have a close relationship with the aristocracy, the aforementioned peasantry or agrarian toilers, and the merchant classes.

The emergence of the merchant classes comes from the older small property classes of slave society: like the craftsmen. This emergent merchant class engages in transnational and internal trade which expands the economic power of states and also ensures their importance to the state.

The emergence of multiple classes in feudalism leads to the material dialectic within nations rather than external to nations (as was the case in slavery). Class conflict emerges in feudal society as the old powers (the landed gentry, nobility, and church) clash with the emergent bourgeois (merchant) class. The growing importance of the merchants leads to the merchants seeking greater political clout (through the form of guilds). Furthermore, merchants will clash with religious authorities and religious doctrine (which generally forbids usury, etc.) where the merchants try to break free from religious economic restrictions which also serves to break the hold of religion over society—thus freeing the masses to the real possibility of liberation.

(Note, Marx’s famous quote about religion being the opium of the masses is wildly taken out of context; the full quote is: “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 abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness.” Marx saw religion as a genuine response to suffering, but a response that was insufficient to the real (material) plight of the masses.)

The contest between old and new establishes the new dialectic that advances History in the feudal age. The “reactionaries” are the aristocrats and clerics whose power is threaten by the merchant classes which are driven by profit-seeking behavior. The merchants discover capital profitability as a result and begin the transformation of feudal economics from agrarianism to capitalism: that is, the primacy of capital (money) over land and trade over (agricultural) labor. The “progressives” were the merchants and capitalists during the feudal age—there is nothing “reactionary” about capitalism since capitalism is a necessary and inevitable outcome of the material and historical dialectic at work.

Social revolution occurs in feudal society because of the merchants, and late feudal (or late agrarian) revolutions are the revolutions of the capitalists (merchants) wherein the power of aristocracy and church is broken. Capitalism is a deeply progressive force in the original meaning of the Idea of Historical Progress: Capitalism is a necessary moment in historical development that liberates people from the bondage of land and aristocratic servitude and transfers them to the bondage of wage labor. Just as the exhaustion of slavery to serfdom was and advancement in freedom for the workers, so too is the exhaustion of serfdom (or peasantry) into industrial labor. The unfolding of History is to greater and greater stages of freedom which culminate in the absolute freedom of communism—History is not an unfolding to greater tyranny; it is the movement of slavery to freedom, wherein capitalism sits in the middle of this teleological unfolding of History and is, therefore, more free than the previous stages of slavery and feudalism.

The Third Stage: Capitalism

The third stage of history, which Marx believed himself living in, is the infamous stage of capitalism. As Marx described in Das Kapital:

Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, other developments take place on an ever-increasing scale, such as the growth of the co-operative form of the labour process, the conscious technical application of science, the planned exploitation of the soil, the transformation of the means of labour into forms in which they can only be used in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as the means of production of combined, socialise labour, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and, with this, the growth of the international character of the capitalist regime.

Again, in its inception, and its role in History, capitalism is actually deeply progressive and necessary. It is modern people who use the term “progressive” who fail to properly use it in its original context, the one in which Marx himself understood progress and progressivism: The inevitable unfolding of History to its progressive and predetermined end. In fact, Marx wrote that the French Revolution was the triumph of the bourgeoisie—not the working-class:

The revolutions of 1648 and 1789 were not English and French revolutions, they were revolutions of a European type. They did not represent the victory of a particular class of society over the old political order; they proclaimed the political order of the new European society. The bourgeoisie was victorious in these revolutions, but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at the same time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois ownership over feudal ownership, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of the division of land over primogeniture, of the rule of the landowner over the domination of the owner by the land, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic idleness, of bourgeois law over medieval privileges.

Capitalism was the epoch that Marx spent most of his writings dealing with. Admittedly, Marx’s writings on, and about, capitalism, must, must, must, be read with his historicism in mind. That is, while capitalism was a progressive and necessary advent in the progress of history, Marx’s “anti-capitalism” is not his rejection of the need of capitalism development (which is necessary and inevitable for the march to socialism and eventually to communism), but his analysis of what the inner workings of capitalism is like and what kind of society capitalism produces and the misery, problems, and conflict that it produces (though all of which is necessary in the unfolding of History to communism).

As the third stage of history, capitalism is the transition from feudal society to monetary society—capitalism, in Marxist theory, is the ascendancy of capital (money) to becoming the prime driver and mechanism of economic productivity and decision-making. Furthermore, capitalism emerges through the bourgeois revolutions which overthrow the feudal and theocratic (or theocentric) societies of the feudal epochs. In other words, capital breaks the power of religious monetary restrictions and the primacy of agricultural economics (landed agrarianism).

The ascendancy of capital divides the bourgeoisie into the bourgeoisie proper and the petite bourgeoisie. The bourgeois proper are large landowners, merchants, lawyers, and other atomized individuals—who have broken free of communitarian and collective norms—who ascend to prominence through capital accumulation.  The petite bourgeoisie are small scale landowners, private (e.g. self-sustaining) merchants, lawyers, etc. The proper bourgeoisie conglomerate in corporations and guilds; the bourgeoisie can be understood as CEOs, industrialists, financiers, and corporatists in today’s language. The petite bourgeoisie can be understood as the sort of individual entrepreneur or small business owner in today’s language. There exists a class conflict between the bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie, but insofar that both benefit from the capitalist system of private ownership and primacy of capital in driving economic decision making, both support the system even if the petite bourgeoisie generally come out as the losers in the dialectic between the two.

Marx’s analysis of capitalism includes how democracy begins in the capitalist epoch—through the rise of the bourgeois classes who, in their rise seek greater political power and representation, force changes onto the political systems wherein democracy gets going. So capitalism and democracy go hand-in-hand insofar that capitalism is necessary for democracy to begin. However, as capitalism develops, and democracy grows as capitalism grows, the stagnation of capitalism leads to a stagnation in democracy. The end result is the influx of capital into democratic systems and institutions which hold said systems and institutions for ransom in the sense that bureaucrats and the levers of political institutions and systems work for those who have the most capital.

Furthermore, economies transform into vibrant conflict-driven markets whereby many individuals, and many companies, compete with one another over the scarcity of material goods and resources in their environs. Over time the larger corporations and more powerful and connected individuals merge with each other which leads to monopolistic competition—something that all economics majors learn in their Econ 101 classes (as I did) in university. The drive toward monopolistic tendencies leads to economic power concentrating into a few hands rather than remaining dispersed as the onset of the capitalist epoch had. The concentration of wealth into the hands of the few is what allows these individuals, and corporations, to wrestle control of the economic market as well as political systems—thus corrupting market tendencies and democratic growth through financial control.

Within this sublation of vitality and market competition and chaotic growth which characterizes early capitalism is the eventual emergence of capitalist imperialism. Whereas the empire building of the slave epoch entailed bodily control over other humans and the seizure of land by brute force, the advances in human societies and interactions means that capitalist imperialism comes through the conquest of money—the infiltration, as it were, of money into political and economic systems. Land is bought and sold for its exploitation by the highest bidder.  Weaker governments, or weaker nations, are “bought” by the more economic advanced nations who utilize them as pawns in the game of economic conquest and exploitation against other highly advanced nations. Occasionally capitalist imperialism does entail forced conquest. However, as Marx makes clear, most capitalist imperialism is done through buying politicians and buying national loyalties wherein these politicians and weaker nations toil for the interest of their moneyed master.

Through capital accumulation—which is the essence of capitalism in Marx’s understanding, the drive for greater and greater capital possession since capital is the only thing that matters in capitalist society—the end result is a class of winners and losers. Rather than the rich getting richer and the poor getting richer (irrespective of who’s getting wealthier faster), Marx’s understanding of materialist capitalism is that a select few rich get richer, some rich get poorer, and the poor remain poor or get even poorer. Furthermore, through the process of capitalization and industrialization, the working-class is exploited by the capitalist class as they labor endlessly for meager pay with meager working-conditions.

This “exploitation of labor” is what drives working-class consciousness. The dialectic of bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie (once the petite bourgeoisie are effectively destroyed even though the “myth of the self-made man” will keep the petite bourgeoisie supportive of the capitalist system because of the delusion of striking it rich) is replaced by the dialectic of the bourgeoisie and the working-class. This represents the point of no return in capitalist development. Why? It is through working-class consciousness that the working-class will realize not only its exploitation and alienation, and therefore form bonds of solidarity with their fellow exploited working-class laborer (which is evidenced, at least in Marx’s estimation, through the formation and activism of the labor unions), but the working-class, more importantly, will realize that it controls the means of economic production!

How so? Because it is the working-class that produces the goods of the capitalist system. It is the working-class that toils away with its endless hours of labor. It is the working-class that operates the machines in the factories. It is the working-class that controls, from start to finish, the means of economic production. Through the working-class exploitation and atomization, leading to working-class solidarity through working-class consciousness, the working-class will rise up and seize the means of economic productivity which they, technically, always controlled. This entails the exodus of the capitalists, the kicking out of managers and “business owners”, as the workers take control of their economic surroundings. This is what the working-class revolution is actually about: the seizure of the economic tools and means of production.  Not “gradual reform.” And certainly not “progressivism,” however construed.

Lastly, within the capitalist stage of history, and the objectification and material conflict therein, the reduction of workers and humans to commodities of economic relations is called “commodity fetishism.” Commodity fetishism is the reduction of human relationships to mere economic relations. For example, rather than view you as a friend I view you as an economic competitor. Alternatively, I view you as a “friend” only insofar that our relationship benefits me economically. This reducing humans to mere objects of economic relations or economic objectification is what is meant by the term commodity fetishism, and this commodity fetishism is part of alienation in Marx’s outlook because such relationships are not genuine human relationships. As such, commodity fetishism alienates us from our humanity. Commodity fetishism arises only in capitalist society and the capitalist stage of history.

The Fourth Stage: Socialism

The fourth stage of Marxist History is socialism. Socialism is a confusing and confused term, in part, because most people associate socialism with generous welfare systems, high taxes on the wealthy, and Bernie Sanders. None of which constitute real socialism. Socialism, properly defined, is the collective (or working-class) control of the means of economic production wherein the control of the technology and science that goes into production will create an egalitarian society. State control need not apply and has never been considered orthodox socialism by orthodox socialists. All forms of state-regulated capitalism and welfare-capitalism have been opposed by real socialists, and has been condemned by orthodox (non-revisionist) Marxists as just an alternative form of liberalism. Socialism is not a stateless or classless society. Socialism is the transition period between capitalism and communism. Simply put, “being nice,” having a generous welfare system, and having few(er) working hours is not socialism—it never has been what socialist theorists and philosophers have understood socialism to be.

Vladimir Lenin, one of the core intellectuals and architects of socialist-communism, in fact, divided communism into two stages: the socialist stage and the communist stage. We must remember, as Marx and Engels, and Lenin, and Bakunin, all wrote, communism is about the abolition of the state and of private property into a perfect stateless society and commune. The epoch of socialism still has a state and forms of property control (though now in the hands of the people) which still needs to exhaust itself in order to reach communism.

The heart of the socialist era would be the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” which is the proletariat control of the state, property, and economic tools and systems to defend itself against capitalist counteraction. Once the dictatorship of the proletariat has defeated the capitalist counter-threat, and once the dictatorship of the proletariat begins to distribute the means of economic labor and production to all persons, the dictatorship of the proletariat has lost its political purpose and all residue of state power, economic division, and property control, wither away as the distribution of the means economic production is fulfilled.

This is critical to understand.  Socialism is about the distribution of the means of economic production (or labor)! Not the distribution of economic goods. For it is through the distribution of the means of economic production that the workers control the means of economic productivity directly. The distribution of economic goods, while occurring in the socialist epoch, is not the real issue that socialism needs to achieve. The real goal of socialism is the distribution of labor production to the people who decide for themselves what they will do and when they will work to the benefit of their fellow man.

Marx’s maxim “from each according to his contributions” is the fundamental Marxist maxim that Marx wrote about in his Critique of the Gotha Program:

For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

Once again, in the words of Karl Marx, the real Karl Marx, socialism is not about a classless or egalitarian society. Not everyone receives the same distribution of goods for their services. Each receives the proper distribution according to their work and contributions. This is why a socialist society still has classes, not to mention that it exists in a stage of class society through revolution. The complete and equal distribution of the means of economic production and labor has yet to be complete. This is what communism is about.

Socialism, in the Marxist framework, marks the movement to a classless society through the distribution of economic production and labor to the people. There will be some who work more than others, and therefore receive more than others. This constitutes the material dialectic in late stage socialism which will eventually move those who work more, and those who work less, and therefore those who receive more, and those who receive less, to the proper equilibrium whereby the perfect and equal distribution of economic labor is achieved amongst all individuals in socialist society. This leads to the end of socialism and the beginning of communism, which is the end of history.  As every philosopher knows, socialism is about the collective ownership (or control) of the means of economic production and the distribution of the means of economic production to the workers where the workers therefore control all the modes of economic production: the hours they will work, what they will produce, and how much of X they will produce.

The End of History: Communism

Communism is the fifth and final stage of History according to Marx, and it is the communist stage that sees the complete exhaustion of the material dialectic which is why History ends with communism. There is no more material conflict. Therefore, there is no more movement of History to material equilibrium or convergence. Conflict, which emerged as a result of competition over the scarcity of resources, is absent in the communist commonwealth because scarcity is replaced with abundance. According to Marx, there is no scarcity of resources. Scarcity is the result of “rational conflict” that resulted in the movement away from the primitive state of communism in primordial history.

In the communist stage of History there is no state because there is no slavery, forced labor, forced control, and no threat of force from others. There is also no private property because all property is communally owned because all people work the same property the same amount of time for the same amount of dividends for their labor. Everyone is able to consume the goods of society as they have need. Lastly, society and labor and consumption is not driven by capital. There is no capital. Money is abolished in communism. Long live the certificates that are used to demonstrate your contribution to society and what you are permitted to take as you have need.

Communism is, in many ways, a return to the stage of primitive communism (the stage of pre-history in Marx’s philosophy of history). And this is what “revolution means.” Revolution means “return to.” Revolve. It is cyclical.

Marx’s Historicism is cyclical and not progressive if we are being absolutely specific and true to Marxist conceptualizations. Marxist communism is about the return to absolute freedom and equality that humans shared in the stage of primitive communism, but without the conflict drive for survival. Abundance is widespread in the end of history because all work equally and for the equal leisure and comfort of all in communist society. Lastly, we also see that Marx is not a statist (or totalitarian or authoritarian) thinker whatsoever. At least if you accept his philosophy and premises. Marx is actually an anti-statist thinker. The state is the existence of coercion, oppression, and inequality in materialist terms. As long as states exists there cannot be actual freedom and equality among humans. The abolition of the state signals the end of material conflict.

What is Marxism and What is Communism?

Marxism is a comprehensive materialist philosophy of history from which political principles are derived. That is what makes it different from the liberal worldview from which it derives from, and the progressive and socialist political ideologies which it shares certain similarities with (like the beliefs that science and technology are the engines of egalitarianism and human progress and improvement. Communism, then, is the politicization and ideologization of the Marxist philosophy of history and represents the final consummation of the Marxist philosophy of history.


Hesiod, Paul Krause in real life, is the editor-in-chief of VoegelinView. He is writer, classicist, and historian. He has written on the arts, culture, classics, literature, philosophy, religion, and history for numerous journals, magazines, and newspapers. He is the author of The Odyssey of Love and the Politics of Plato, and a contributor to the College Lecture Today and the forthcoming book Making Sense of Diseases and Disasters. He holds master’s degrees in philosophy and religious studies (biblical studies & theology) from the University of Buckingham and Yale, and a bachelor’s degree in economics, history, and philosophy from Baldwin Wallace University.


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