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Marxist Q&A Why do we still call it ‘Marxism’?

Marxism refers to the interpretation of human affairs in the context of the material conditions of their time and place. It remains a useful way of thinking today. The MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY explains

“WHY is it still called ‘Marxism’? We don’t call evolutionary theory ‘Darwinism’ any more!”

A good question and the comparison with Darwin is appropriate. Darwin undertook a systematic and rigorous analysis of the evolution of the natural world and Marx did the same for the development and dynamics of human society. Each caused a revolution in its field.

But why do we still call it Marxism? There are a number of elements in the answer.

The areas of theory (and practice) to which Marx, Engels and others made such a contribution are extraordinarily broad, encompassing history, economics, culture, philosophy and ethics, and extending to aspects of science and its technological applications.

In some of these areas a Marxist approach has become, if not mainstream, then hugely influential.

History is an example. It is uncommon today to have history researched or narrated solely in terms of the actions or beliefs of individuals — especially kings and queens.

“Historical materialism” — the notion that the material conditions, challenges, demands of life provide a framework for understanding events (an approach pioneered by Marx and Engels) — is now the dominant methodology of most professional historians (although the “great men” approach is still followed in popular accounts).

Newton’s contribution to mechanics, for example, is understood not (just) as a great mind discovering gravity through a falling apple, but as a response to the needs and challenges of early industrial society.

The British empire is understood not so much as the result of pioneering adventurers or missionaries, but the outcome of a search for sources of raw materials, new markets and profit.

The rise of Protestantism is more than the consequence of religious conviction by a few individuals, but a response to the challenges of a particular stage in the development of capitalism in certain countries at a particular time.

Historical materialism is today only labelled as Marxist when it is necessary to contrast it with idealist approaches (David Starkey’s television series Monarchy is a good example of the latter), which see ideas and people’s beliefs and actions as independent of their material environment.

However in other areas, especially economics, a Marxist approach is in direct contradiction to popular (“orthodox” or ruling-class) approaches, including those taught in many university economics departments.

This is analogous to the situation in Darwin’s day before evolution though natural selection was widely accepted and when “Darwinism” challenged other evolutionary theories (such as Lamarckism) as well as creationism.

In other disciplines too, theories and whole schools of thought are often associated with the name of particular individuals, to distinguish them from other approaches.

For example in physics, mechanics is often labelled “Newtonian,” in contrast to relativity theory pioneered by Einstein.

Because a Marxist approach offers the theoretical basis for achieving socialism, Marxist economics could be called “socialist economics” but this would imply that it is somehow biased towards socialism, rather than providing an objective analysis of the dynamics and contradictions of capitalism.

In fact it is “orthodox” economics (sometimes labelled “bourgeois economics” by Marxists) that is biased towards capitalism, which it presents always as the natural, inevitable (and if earlier stages such as feudalism are acknowledged, the highest achievable) state of human affairs.

A similar situation applies today in philosophy — perhaps with even greater force because there are many different branches of philosophy and contested approaches within each, often identified with particular individuals.

In ethical theory (moral philosophy) for example, we have teleology, deontology, different varieties of utilitarianism and a host of “new age” approaches, not to speak of religious ethics.

Dialectical materialism (the focus of an earlier answer) is the underlying philosophical approach of Marxism which seeks to make sense of the world through an understanding of its internal dynamics, contradictions and changes.

So, because Marx and Engels pioneered approaches across such a wide spectrum and because so many of their theories still hold true today, the terms Marxism and Marxist have stuck.

Variations such as “Marxian” — a term increasingly found in academia and particularly in economics — are used to refer to analytical approaches deriving from Marx or from Marxist methodology, often to distance them from any advocacy of the need for revolutionary change.

An alternative name sometimes applied to Marxism is “scientific socialism,” reflecting the fact that socialism is seen not just as an abstract moral goal, but also as the necessary outcome of people’s engagement with the internal contradictions and crises of capitalism.

But this raises issues about what kind of socialism and what is meant by “scientific” — another question requiring a separate answer.

In the meantime, it’s important to emphasise that Marxism isn’t a dogma, a set of eternal truths or a religion, to be taken on trust.  
It is a dynamic and developing approach to understanding and changing the world, an enterprise to which everyone can contribute.

Finally it isn’t quite correct to say that the term “Darwinism” is no longer used. Charles Darwin didn’t “discover” evolution. There were widely held evolutionary theories before Darwin.

What Darwin did (together with Alfred Wallace who first used the term “Darwinism”) was to propose a mechanism based on gradual changes in a population through natural selection of “advantageous characteristics” over time.

“Darwinism” and “Darwinian” are often used when it is necessary to contrast evolution through natural selection (“giraffes which happen to have long necks produce more surviving offspring than those with short necks”) with competing theories of evolution such as Lamarckism (“giraffes grow long necks to browse savannah trees and pass these acquired characteristics on to their offspring”).

From the 1930s “natural selection” became fused with the gene theory of inheritance to become neo-Darwinism. Neo-Darwinism (not to be confused with anti-Marxist “social Darwinism”) is today the mainstream theory of how evolution takes place and one that, like Marxism, is continually being tested and developed in the light of new knowledge and understanding.


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