Glossar - Facets of the Term ‘Marxism’

Since the end of the nineteenth century, Socialists and Social Democrats have shaped the term ‘Marxism’ according to their interpretations of Karl Marx’s analyses. “Marxism” popularises Marx’s criticism of society and capitalism. Many European Labour parties regard themselves as Marxist.

The term also contributes to the assumption that Marx left any kind of cohesive doctrine. Looking at some selected “Marxisms” proves that this is not the case. On the contrary, Marx leaves an extensive but incomplete, and in parts inconsistent, analysis and criticism of capitalist society.

Because for a long time several texts remained unpublished, many individuals, parties and movements attempt to fill the gaps. In doing so they create new ‘Marxisms’. Often they closely refer to each other while sometimes deliberately distancing themselves.


Marxism-Leninism is a doctrine built upon Marx and Lenin that attempts to prevail against other contemporary currents. The concept is committed to historical materialism, claiming to be the scientific worldview of the working class. The state doctrine of many communist countries is marked by: exclusion of peaceful and evolutionary transitions, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ at the core of the socialist state and social system during the transition period from capitalism to communism, the need for a political avant-garde leading the working class and a socialist economic system. ML creates the illusion of a coherent global narrative.


Ruthlessly, Leo Trotsky helps lead the Bolshevists to victory after 1917. In the struggle over Lenin’s succession he is defeated by Stalin who has him persecuted and murdered in Mexican exile in 1940. In contrast to Stalin, Trotsky believes that a “world revolution” must free the whole world from capitalism in order to ensure the success of socialism and communism. Given the global influence of capitalism, he thinks it is not enough to realise socialism in only one country, the Soviet Union. Under Stalin, ‘Trotskyism’ evolves into a term to disparage political enemies.


Mao Zedong develops his own theories, also by referring to Karl Marx and Marxism-Leninism: the exploited peasant population is the backbone of the revolution, and guerrilla warfare is the strategy to seize power. Like Marx and Lenin, Mao differentiates between main and subsidiary contradictions in the revolutionary struggle. Mao defines his enemies as main contradictions: the Japanese who occupy parts of China, the nationalist Guomindang, after the foundation of the People’s Republic China the intellectuals and finally all (alleged) critics. Despite his violent rule Mao becomes a star of the left in the ‘global West’ of the 1960s.


Titoism refers to the ideology and the state, economic and societal order in Yugoslavia under Josip Broz Tito. Certain characteristics distinguish Titoism from the Soviet model: a workers’ self-management that enables a certain extent of participation, home rule for the Yugoslavian constituent republics and autonomous territories, and non-alignment in foreign politics, which allows for contacts with non-Communist states. Nevertheless, as the violent collapse of Yugoslavia after 1990 shows, Titoism is a one-party rule that establishes a forced community.

Critical Theory

Critical Theory is a theory of society developed by intellectuals connected to the Institute for Social Research in Frankfurt. ‘Critical’ refers to a differentiation from ‘orthodox’ interpretations such as by Marxism-Leninism, but also to a critical discussion of the ‘traditional’ philosophy of the Enlightenment after the experiences of Nationalsocialism. Its most famous representatives, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, analyse and criticise the mechanisms of rule in capitalist societies, the economisation of life and their effects on the individual, adding (social)psychological concepts to the theory. Like Marx, they are concerned with the emancipation of man and the change of society while tending to focus on the individual and groups, rather than classes, to a greater degree than Marx does.


The term ‘Austro-Marxism’ refers to the intellectual network around the Austrian Social Democrat Otto Bauer. Its members share the intention to protect Marx’s ideas from one rigid interpretation. Two aspects are pivotal and characteristic for Austro-Marxism: abiding by moral convictions and, above all, achieving Socialism by peaceful and democratic means. Bauer’s strategy is ‘to win minds not to break heads’.


Eurocommunism is a movement of Western European Communists after 1945, who want to break free from Soviet dominance – especially after the brutal quelling of the uprisings in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. It is the attempt to pave the way for Socialism by taking power under parliamentary democracy. Increasingly the concept of the revolution is no longer a prime concern. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eurocommunism loses its significance.

Democratic socialism

Democratic Socialism has its roots in the debate over reform or revolution within German Social Democracy from 1900 onwards. This concept is a commitment to democracy as a goal: ‘Socialism can be realised only through democracy’ reads the

Godesberg Programme from 1959. Its objective is to build a democratic welfare state improving the living and working conditions for all people in a capitalist society. In Scandinavia this is called ‘Functional Socialism’ – not least to distinguish it from the Communist claim to the concept of Democratic Socialism. The idea of the revolution gives way to the concept of the processual development of society.


Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara’s justification of the revolutionary fight in the ‘Third World’ draws on Karl Marx, Marxism-Leninism and Maoism. In his eyes the driving forces of the revolution are the guerrilla, fighters from Latin America’s rural and mountain areas, rather than party cadres. Guevara considers the underdeveloped countries the vanguard to globally overcome capitalism.

Liberation Theology

Around the same time as Guevarism, Liberation Theology arises in the context of the Latin American Catholic Church. It too declares war on those regimes economically and militarily supported by the USA. It argues that it is a Christian duty to liberate the poor and oppressed people, which can be achieved by socialist democratic reform.


In 1960s Italy, Operaism emerges and distinguishes itself from the Communist Party. The Operaists want to take power of the state and fight against modern forms of exploitation by factory work. They draw on both Karl Marx and the social movements of the 1960s. Operaists not only believe that capitalism determines class struggle, but also that class struggle affects the development of capitalism. Conflicts must be fought where capitalist power relations are produced: in the factories. Strikes, refusal to work, ‘pulling a sickie’, but also abductions are from the 1970s part of the Operaist strategy. They are intended to disrupt the discipline that is required for the development of capitalism.


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