Karl Marx on 200th Anniversary: Marxism after Marx


Karl Marx was possessed of demonic genius that was to transform the modern world.  —Saul K. Padover (1978)

For all the horrors committed in Marx’s name, the German philosopher has for more than a century struck an inspirational chord among workers and intellectuals disenfranchised by global capitalism. The development of Marx’s doctrine after his death first followed the course of a mainstream, the Second International, and then divided into two separate currents, Soviet Marxism and Western Marxism. The story of these developments is, by and large, a depressing one. Although the Marxist movement has produced some great political leaders, there have been no outstanding thinkers after Marx. Moreover, the propensities of some political leaders to believe themselves great thinkers and their ability to impose this view on others have had a permanently stultifying effect on intellectualise in the communist countries. Marxists in Western Europe on the other hand, have engaged in obscurantism, utopianism, and irresponsibility. There are nuances and exceptions, but on the whole it is difficult not to subscribe to Kolakowski’s negative assessment of the development of Marxist doctrine.

The Second International was formed in 1889 as an association of mainly European socialist parties. For all practical purposes it broke down in 1914, when workers of different countries took to arms against each other. Whatever was left was destroyed a few years later, when the October Revolution made it evident that the carefully worked out compromise formulations did not provide any guide to hard political choices. Politically as well as theoretically, the International was dominated by the German Socialist Party (SPD). Although its official image was that of the revolutionary spearhead of the working class, it was in reality a conservative, bureaucratic organization, oriented mainly toward its own survival and entrenchment. The sociologist Robert Michels cited the SPD as evidence for what he baptized the “iron law of oligarchy.” A later historian referred to its strategy as ‘negative integration’ and ‘revolutionary waiting.’ The leading theoretician of SPD, Karl Kautsky, was also the leading thinker of the International jointly with the Russian Georghi Plekhanov. Between them they completed the process begun by Engels to cut the brilliant, sometimes incoherent ideas of Marx down to size and order.

With some finishing touches added by Lenin, “Marxism-Leninism” with the twin doctrines of historical materialism and dialectical materialism was in place. It is characterized by shallow Hegelianism, naive scientism, lack of falsifiability, and a strong preference for assertion over argument. It is Marxism set in concrete.

There were other trends and figures in the International. An early revolt against the pseudo revolutionary stance of the SPD was made by Eduard Bernstein around 1900. He asserted, essentially, that revolution was unlikely, because capitalism was no longer prone to cyclical crises; superfluous, because the socialist goals could be realized by nonviolent means; and in any case undesirable, because notions like “the dictatorship of the proletariat” belong to a lower stage of civilization. Although these views largely coincided with the practices of SPD, the party was embarrassed by his voicing them in public. Left-wing critics, notably Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, wanted the International to become genuinely revolutionary. The organizational question is central in their writings.

Marx had never developed a theory of organization, except for the general remark that the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves, because the opposite view runs into the problem that the educator must himself be educated. To Lenin’s mind, this attitude was sheer romanticism. With relentless pragmatism, he insisted on a centralized and hierarchical organization of the workers – what came to be known as Overview “democratic centralism.”

Rosa Luxemburg, on the other hand, tried to work out the implications of Marx’s views, toward a working-class movement that was both spontaneous and revolutionary. She was the first great activist of the socialist movement  precursor and heroine of May 1968 but with a more serious bent than the flower generation. She is the only one of the great socialist leaders in the West to have been killed in revolutionary action, in Berlin after the end of World War I. Luxemburg was also one of the best analytical minds of the Second International. The crispness and freshness of her political writings strike one even today, although her more self-conscious theoretical efforts are distinctly forgettable.

An even more impressive thinker was Leon Trotsky. Like Marx, and like Luxemburg, he suffered from wishful thinking and lack of intellectual discipline, but he also had a rare grasp of history and political sociology, which enabled him to adapt Marx’s theory of revolution to backward nations. It can be argued, however, that history has shown him right to a greater extent than he hoped for, by suggesting that revolutions will occur only in the countries on the periphery of capitalism, without spreading to the core countries.

The further history of Marxism in the communist countries resembles that of any other degenerating research programme, to use a phrase from Imre Lakatos. The development of the theory took the form of Ptolemaic additions to save appearances, ad hoc hypotheses to explain anomalies, tortuous exegeses, and stubborn disregard of facts. It was accompanied by total destruction of philosophy, with the partial exception of logical theory; by near-total paralysis of the social sciences; and by a severe setback for the natural sciences, notably in genetics.

The destruction of reason that took place under Stalin or during the Chinese Cultural Revolution had no precedent in history. The recovery is still incomplete or uncertain, except in the natural sciences. The causal role of Marxism-Leninism in these developments remains unclear. The rise of the pseudogeneticist Lysenko was probably due more to his proletarian background and to the immense faith in the power of science to bring rapid results that characterized the Soviet state in the first years than to any “dialectical” features of his views. Indeed, by virtue of its essential Marxism after Marx vagueness dialectical materialism lends itself to the justification, after the fact, of virtually any theory. Whereas some argued that dialectical materialism requires genes to have a specific material substrate, others asserted that dialectical materialism, as opposed to mechanical materialism, requires them to be lodged in the organism as a whole. The philosophical justification was mainly a ritual embellishment.

Most forms of Western Marxism can be characterized as attempts to create a synthesis of Marx and various other thinkers. Its inception was marked by the publication of Georg Lukacs’s History and Class Consciousness in 1923. This work anticipates in a quite remarkable way the Hegelian reinterpretation of Marx that was fully launched a few years later, with the publication of Marx’s early manuscripts. Lukacs was also influenced by the writings of Max Weber; in particular, his interpretation of Marx’s notion of alienation owes much to Weber’s idea of the increasing rationalization of society. In spite of many valuable insights in this and other works, Lukacs’s career as a whole can be summarized as the abdication of reason or, in Kolakowski’s phrase, reason in the service of dogma. The political and intellectual irresponsibility of his work is matched only by the fascination that for a long time he exerted on other Western intellectuals. Within the same intellectual orbit we may also mention figures like Karl Mannheim or Karl Korsch. More durably influential however, was the Frankfurt School. Counted among its original members were Herbert Marcuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor von Adorno; the central contemporary descendant is Jurgen Habermas. Theirs was a synthesis not of Marx and Weber but of Marx and Freud two great unmaskers, debunkers, and would be liberators. Much of the work of the early Frankfurt School is marred, however by Hegelian obscurantism and thinly disguised elitism. Again the reader is referred to Kolakowski for a devastating review. The work of Habermas is also somewhat impenetrable but more solidly founded in rational argument. French Marxism has been through two major phases. The first  Overview was dominated by Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who added Husserl and Heidegger to the prisms through which Marx could be read. It is somewhat inaccurate, however, to refer to this school as ‘existential Marxism,’ because the major work it produced  Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason owes less to existential philosophy than to French economic and political historians.

The second phase arose through the improbable and barren marriage of Marx with Ferdinand de Saussure, the founder of structural linguistics. In the interpretation of Louis Althusser, scientism again came to the forefront in Marxism, after a generation of Marxists who had insisted that the categories of natural science were inapplicable to the study of society. English Marxism: Is there such a thing? Marx himself grew increasingly cross with his adopted country, deploring the crude empiricism of the English and their lack of revolutionary fervor. The Hegelian aspects of Marxism certainly never took hold in England or in the United States. Marxian political economy, which did not much interest the Continental Marxists, had stronger appeal. Joan Robinson’s Accumulation of Capital from 1956 was perhaps the most important work in Marxist economic theory after Marx, although it turned out to create an orthodoxy of its own that has become a serious obstacle to progress. Other recent Anglo-American work in Marxist philosophy, history, and social science is more promising – at least in my opinion, because I am referring to the tendency that has shaped the present exposition. The work of G. A. Cohen, John Roemer, and others unites rigor and relevance in a way that has been sorely lacking in Marxism. There is, finally, the Marxism of the Third World countries. This has largely been concerned with extending Marx’s notion of exploitation from the national to the international domain. Examples include the dependency theory of Andre Gunder Frank, the theory of unequal exchange proposed by Aghiri Emmanuel and Samir Amin’s theory of accumulation on a world scale. Though often suggestive, these writings are with few exceptions flawed by technical deficiencies and conceptual naivete. Because these writers do not in these respects compare unfavorably with, say, Horkheimer or Althusser, this comment ought 16 Editions of Marx’s Writings not to be taken as a slur on their Third World origin.

The problem is that Marxism tends to attract thinkers who are either fascinated by the darkly Hegelian origins of the theory or on the other extreme urgently preoccupied with practical relevance. Often the extremes meet, in an unnerving combination of extremely abstract theory and highly specific proposals. What Marxism needs is the development of what Robert Merton called “theories of the middle range.” For this purpose it may be necessary – indeed, in the present phase it is necessary – to think less about relevance in the short term, to become more relevant in the long term. When Marx went into his inner exile in the British Museum, he followed the strategy “One step backward, two steps forward,” taking time off from politics to fashion a tool that could then be of use in politics. The theory he developed has done service for a century but is becoming increasingly irrelevant for most of our urgent problems. “Back to the British Museum!” is hardly a slogan with mass political appeal but it is one that Marxists would do well to ponder.

Marx and Communism

Yet, like Cain in the Bible, Marx is cursed with a black mark in history. His name will forever be associated with the dark side of communism. A specter is haunting Karl Marx—the history of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, and the millions who died and suffered under the “evil empire,” as Ronald Reagan called it. Apologists say Marx cannot be held accountable for his communist followers’ atrocities and even assert that Marx would have been one of the first to be executed or sent to the Gulag. Perhaps. For one thing, he vehemently opposed press censorship throughout his career. Yet, without Marx, could there have been such a violent revolution and repression? Did not Marx support a “reign of terror” on the bourgeoisie? As one bitter critic put it, “In the name of human progress, Marx has probably caused more death, misery, degradation and despair than any man who ever lived” (Downs 1983, 299).

Marx’s offerings to Economics

Few economists break out into other disciplines as did Karl Marx. There’s Marx the philosopher, Marx the historian, Marx the political scientist, Marx the sociologist, and Marx the literary critic. He was prolific and wrote unendingly about nearly everything. Even today a compilation of the complete works of Marx and his colleague Friedrich Engels has not been finished. The commentaries on Marx and related subjects are so vast that it would take volumes to tell it all. (On the Internet, Amazon.com lists over 4,000 entries on Marx and communism, second only to Jesus and Christianity.) Thus, our chapter on Marx must of necessity be limited largely to his economic contributions. Even then, Marx the economist is not an easy subject. Marx was probably the first major economist to establish his own school of thought, with its own methodology and specialized language. In creating his own school in his classic work, Capital (1976 [1867]), he contrasted his system with that of laissez-faire—as espoused by Adam Smith, J.-B. Say, and David Ricardo, among others. It was Marx who dubbed laissez-faire the “classical school.” In developing a Marxist approach to economics, he created his own vocabulary: surplus value, reproduction, bourgeoisie and proletarians, historical materialism, vulgar economy, monopoly capitalism, and so on. He invented the term “capitalism.” Since Marx, economics has never been the same. Today, there is no universally acceptable macro model of the economy as there is in physics or mathematics, there are only warring schools of economics.

The sway of Radical German Philosophers

Two radical philosophers greatly influenced Marx during these college years and soon after: G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831) and a contemporary, Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72). From Hegel, Marx developed the driving force of his “dialectical materialism”—that all progress was achieved through conflict. From Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity (1841), Marx rationalized his mythical view of religion and his rejection of Christianity. God did not create man; man created God! Engels described the liberating impact of Feuerbach’s book: “In one blow it . . . placed materialism back upon the throne. . . . The spell was broken . . . . The enthusiasm was universal: We were all for the moment Feuerbachians” (Padover 1978, 136). Marx’s parents were worried sick about their prodigal son who wanted to become a writer and a critic instead of a lawyer. His letters reveal the often harsh correspondence between him and his parents. His father, Heinrich, was a classic liberal and a defender of bourgeois culture, so one can imagine his despair over his son. His letters charged Karl with being “a slovenly barbarian, an anti-social person, a wretched son, an indifferent brother, a selfish lover, an irresponsible student, and a reckless spendthrift,” all accurate accusations that haunted Marx throughout his adult life. Heinrich Marx railed, “God help us! Disorderliness, stupefying dabbling in all the sciences, stupefying brooding at the gloomy oil lamp; barbarism in scholar’s adressing-gown and unkempt hair” (Padover 1978, 106–07). In another letter, he accused Karl of being possessed by a “demonic spirit” that “estranges your heart from finer feelings” (Berman 1999, 25). This letter of Karl’s father would not be the only time Marx would be accused of devilish behavior, however.


Marx Writes a Powerful Polemic

Marx’s life in Paris did not last long. He was expelled for inciting revolution in Germany. He left for Brussels, the first stage of a life of permanent exile. It was in Belgium that Marx and Engels were commissioned by the London-based League of the Just, later renamed the Communist League, to write their famous pamphlet, The Communist Manifesto. The Communist Manifesto, the final version written by Marx, was a forceful call to arms, a powerful reflection of the new machine age and new hardships as men, women, and children moved to enormous chaotic cities, worked sixteen hours a day in factories, and often lived in desperate squalor. “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal patriarchal, idyllic relations. . . . It has left remaining no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash-payment.’” Consequently, “the bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science into its paid wage laborers.” Further, “all that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profane.” Capitalism “has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation” (Marx and Engels 1964 [1848], 5–7). When the Manifesto was published in German in February 1848, the timing could not have been better. By the summer, worker revolts spread throughout Europe in France, Germany, Austria, and Italy. Images of the French Revolution a generation earlier dominated the spirit of the times. However, the European revolts were quickly quelled and Marx was arrested by Belgian police for spending his inheritance from his father (6,000 gold francs) on arming Belgian workers with rifles. He was released from jail in 1849 and moved to Cologne, Germany, where he edited another journal. The last issue was printed in red ink, the revolutionary color.

Marx Writes Das Buch and Changes the Course of History

Basically, Marx did not want to waste his time doing routine work to support his young family. He preferred to spend long hours, months, and years at the British Library in London researching and writing. He would come home and tell Jenny he had made the colossal discovery of economic determinism, that all society’s actions were determined by economic forces. His work culminated in his classic Das Kapital, published in German in 1867. Capital (the English title) introduced economic determinism and a new “exploitive” theory of capitalism based on universal “scientific” laws discovered by Marx. Marx considered his work the “bible of the working class,” and even expected laborers to read his heavy pedantic tome. He saw himself as “engaged in the bitterest conflict in the world,” and hoped his book would “deliver the bourgeoisie a theoretical blow from which it will never recover”

(Padover 1978, 346). Marx viewed himself as the “Darwin of society,” and in 1880 he sent Charles Darwin a copy of Capital. Darwin courteously replied, begging ignorance of the subject. Only a thousand copies were printed and it sold slowly, primarily because “Das Buch” was theoretically abstract and scholastically dense, with over 1,500 sources cited. The reviews of Capital were almost universally poor, but through the efforts of Engels and other die-hard supporters, the work was translated into Russian in 1872 and French in 1875. The Russian edition was a momentous publishing event, luckily passing czarist censors as “nonthreatening” high theory. It was studied heavily by Russian intellectuals, and eventually a copy fell into the hands of Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov—V.I. Lenin. It was Lenin, Marx’s most powerful disciple, who brought Marx to light. “Without Marx there would have been no Lenin, without Lenin no communist Russia” (Schwartzchild 1947, vii). The English edition did not appear until 1887. In 1890, an American edition became a best-seller and the print run of 5,000 sold out quickly because Capital was promoted as a book informing readers “how to accumulate capital”—a course on making money! (Padover 1978, 375). Most economists wonder how such a “long, verbose, abstract, tedious, badly written, difficult labyrinth of a book [could] become the Talmud and Koran for half the world” (Gordon 1967, 641). Marxists respond, “That’s the beauty of it!” Capital has survived and blossomed as a classic in part because of its intellectual appeal. According to an eminent socialist, the prestige of Capital owes much to “its indigestible length, its hermetic style, its ostentatious erudition, and its algebraically mysticism” (Wesson 1976, 27).

Marx Dies in Obscurity

Marx was only forty-nine years old when he published Capital, but he refused to finish any more full-length books and instead read, researched, and took notes on huge quantities of books and articles on such wide topics as mathematics, chemistry, and foreign languages. “He delved into such problems as the chemistry of nitrogen fertilizers, agriculture, physics, and mathematics. . . . Marx immediately wrote a treatise on differential calculus and various other mathematical manuscripts; he learned Danish; he learned Russian” (Raddatz 1978, 236). Marx had a hard time completing anything in his later years, he never finished the next two volumes of Capital, which exasperated Engels, who finally edited and published them himself. Marx was a sick man most of his life, constantly beset with chronic illnesses—asthma attacks, prolonged headaches, strep throat, influenza, rheumatism, bronchitis, toothaches, liver pains, eye inflammations, laryngitis, and insomnia. His boils and carbuncles were so severe that by the end of his life, his entire body was covered with scars. His “eternally beloved” Jenny died of cancer in 1881; Marx was so ill he couldn’t attend her funeral. His daughter, also named Jenny, died of the same disease two years later. That same year, on March 17, 1883, Marx passed away sitting in his easy chair. Not surprisingly, there was no will or estate. Marx was buried at Highgate Cemetery in London along with his wife Jenny, his housemaid Lenchen (in 1890), and other family members. A twelve-foot monument with a bust of Marx was erected in the 1950s by the Communist Party. The famous phrase “Workers of all lands, unite!” is emblazoned on the monument in gold. At the bottom are printed the words of Marx, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Engels conducted the service at Marx’s burial. He spoke eloquently of Marx’s position in history, proclaiming him the Darwin of the social sciences. “His name will live on through the centuries, and so will his work.” Indeed. In The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written, by Martin Seymour-Smith (1998), seven economists are listed: Adam Smith, Thomas Robert Malthus, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich von Hayek and Karl Marx.


  1. Marxism after Marx. The three volumes of Kolakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism are indispensable. They can be usefully supplemented by volumes 3 to 5 of G. D. H. Cole’s History of Socialist Thought (Macmillan. 1953-60).
  2. Editions of Marx’s writings. A useful survey is that of Eric Hobsbawm, “The Fortune of Marx’s and Engels writings,” in E. Hobsbawm (ed.), History of Marxism, 1: 327-344.
  3. Payne, Robert. 1968. Marx. New York: Simon & Schuster.

______. 1971. The Unknown Marx. New York: New York University Press.

  1. Sweezy, Paul M. 1942. The Theory of Capitalist Development. New York: Modern Reader.
  2. Tarshis, Lorie. 1947. The Elements of Economics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  3. Wesson, Robert G. 1976. Why Marxism? The Continuing Success of a Failed Theory. New York: Basic Books.

Short Biography


I Pravat Ranjan Sethi completed my studies from Centre for Historical Studies, JNU, New Delhi, Currently teaching at Amity University, Jaipur. My area of interest is Modern History especially Nationalism, Political History and Gender Studies.


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