Orthodox Marxism

Orthodox Marxism

Orthodox Marxism is the term used to describe the version of Marxism which emerged after the death of Karl Marx and acted as the official philosophy of the Second International up to the First World War and of the Third International thereafter. Orthodox Marxism seeks to simplify, codify and systematise Marxist thought, ironing out perceived ambiguities and contradictions in Classical Marxism.

The emergence of orthodox Marxism can be associated with the late works of Friedrich Engels, such as Dialectics of Nature and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, which were efforts to popularise Marx's work, make it more systematic, and apply it to the fundamental questions of philosophy. Daniel De Leon, one of the early American socialist leaders, contributed much during the last years of the 19th century and early 20th century. Orthodox Marxism was further developed during the Second International by thinkers such as George Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky. Kautsky, and to a lesser extent, Plekhanov, were in turn major influences on Vladimir Lenin, whose version of orthodox Marxism was known as Leninism by its contemporaries. The official ideology of the Third International was based in Orthodox Marxism. The terms dialectical materialism and historical materialism are associated with this phase of orthodox Marxism.

Some characteristics of orthodox Marxism are:

  • A strong version of the theory that the economic base determines the cultural and political superstructure (see also economic determinism, economism and vulgar materialism).
  • The claim that Marxism is a science.
  • The attempt to make Marxism a total system, adapting it to changes within the realm of current events and knowledge.
  • An understanding of ideology in terms of false consciousness.
  • That every open class struggle is a political struggle, as opposed to economist claims.
  • A pre-crisis emphasis on organizing an independent, mass workers' movement (in the form of welfare, recreational, educational, and cultural organizations) and especially its political party, combining reform struggles and mass strikes without overreliance on either.
  • The socialist revolution is necessarily the act of the majority.

Critics of orthodox Marxism

There have been a number of criticisms of orthodox Marxism from within the Marxist movement. During the Second International, Eduard Bernstein and others developed a position known as revisionism, which sought to revise Marx's views based on the idea that the progressive development of capitalism and the extension of democracy meant that peaceful, parliamentary reform could achieve socialism. This view was contested by orthodox Marxists such as Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg. (See anti-revisionism.)

Western Marxism, the intellectual Marxism which developed in Western Europe from the 1920s onwards, sought to make Marxism more sophisticated, open and flexible, examining issues like culture that were outside the field of orthodox Marxism. Western Marxists, such as Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, have tended to be open to influences orthodox Marxists consider bourgeois, such as psychoanalysis and the sociology of Max Weber. In parallel to this, Cedric Robinson has identified a Black Marxist tradition, including people like C.L.R. James and W. E. B. Du Bois, who have opened Marxism to the study of race.

In the postwar period, the New Left and new social movements gave rise to intellectual and political currents which challenged orthodox Marxism. These include Italian autonomism, French Situationism, the Yugoslavian Praxis School, British cultural studies, Marxist feminism, Marxist humanism, analytical Marxism and critical realism.

See also

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