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Various aspects of Marxist theory have been criticized. These criticisms concern both the theory itself, and its later interpretations and implementations.

Criticisms of Marxism have come from the political left as well as the political right. Democratic socialists and social democrats reject the idea that socialism can be accomplished only through class conflict and a violent proletarian revolution. Many anarchists reject the need for a transitory state phase. Some thinkers have rejected the fundamentals of Marxist theory, such as historical materialism and the labor theory of value, and gone on to criticize capitalism - and advocate socialism - using other arguments.

Some contemporary supporters of Marxism argue that many aspects of Marxist thought are viable, but that the corpus also fails to deal effectively with certain aspects of economic, political or social theory. They may therefore combine some Marxist concepts with the ideas of other theorists such as Max Weber: the Frankfurt school is one example.


Historical materialism

Historical materialism is normally considered the intellectual basis of Marxism. It proposes that technological advances in modes of production inevitably lead to changes in the social relations of production.[1] This economic 'base' of society supports, is reflected by and influences the ideological 'superstructure' which encompasses culture, religion, politics and all other aspects of humanity's social consciousness.[2] It thus looks for the causes of developments and changes in human history in economic, technological, and more broadly, material factors, as well as the clashes of material interests among tribes, social classes and nations. Law, politics, the arts, literature, morality, religion – are understood by Marx to make up the [superstructure], as reflections of the economic base of society.

Many critics have argued that this is an oversimplification of the nature of society. The influence of ideas, culture and other aspects of what Marx called the superstructure are just as important as the economic base to the course of society, if not more so. Indeed, historical materialism calls into question why Marx would espouse his ideas so vehemently if he thought that they would have no influence.

However, Marxism does not claim that the economic base of society is the only determining element in society as demonstrated by the following letter written by Friedrich Engels, Marx's long-time contributor:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase[3]

However, this also creates another problem for Marxism. If the superstructure influences the base then there is no need for Marx's constant assertions that the history of society is one of economic class conflict. This then becomes a classic chicken or the egg argument as to whether the base or the superstructure comes first. Peter Singer proposes that the way to solve this problem is to understand that Marx saw the economic base as ultimately real. Marx felt that humanity's defining characteristic was its means of production and thus the only way for man to free himself from oppression was for him to take control of the means of production. According to Marx, this is the goal of history and the elements of the superstructure act as tools of history.[4] Even if Singer's interpretation of Marx's intuitions on the "goal of history" is faithful to Marx's original intent, that still would not make this view point necessarily true. In fact, Karl Popper has argued that both the concept of Marx's historical method as well as its application are unfalsifiable, and thus it cannot be proven true or false:

The Marxist theory of history, in spite of the serious efforts of some of its founders and followers, ultimately adopted this soothsaying practice. In some of its earlier formulations (for example in Marx's analysis of the character of the 'coming social revolution') their predictions were testable, and in fact falsified. Yet instead of accepting the refutations the followers of Marx re-interpreted both the theory and the evidence in order to make them agree. In this way they rescued the theory from refutation; but they did so at the price of adopting a device which made it irrefutable. They thus gave a 'conventionalist twist' to the theory; and by this stratagem they destroyed its much advertised claim to scientific status.[5]

Implementation of Communism

Anarchists have often argued that Marxist communism will inevitably lead to coercion and state domination. Mikhail Bakunin believed Marxist regimes would lead to the "despotic control of the populace by a new and not at all numerous aristocracy." Even if this new aristocracy were to have originated from among the ranks of the proletariat, Bakunin argued that their new-found power would fundamentally change their view of society and thus lead them to "look down at the plain working masses.[6]

Historian Richard Pipes describes how many Marxists at the turn of the Twentieth century believed in the coming of the "new man" without vices; in essence a new superior species, albeit one caused by socio-economic changes, not genetics. In order to reach this stage, Pipes argues, it was necessary to completely destroy the existing institutions that had formed the current wretched humans and that this would in turn make it possible to dispense with the state. Pipes argues that such thinking inevitably leads to a devaluation of the importance placed on the lives and rights of current human beings.[7]


To some Marxists the ends justifies the means, though it wasn't the case for Marx himself who wrote:

An end which requires unjustified means is no justifiable end.[8]

This was addressed by Leon Trotsky who wrote:

Dialectic materialism does not know dualism between means and end. The end flows naturally from the historical movement. Organically the means are subordinated to the end.[9]

This approach was criticized by Max Weber in his 1919 lecture Politics as a Vocation:

We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct can be oriented to an 'ethic of ultimate ends' or to an 'ethic of responsibility.' ... ...Whosoever contracts with violent means for whatever ends--and every politician does--is exposed to its specific consequences. This holds especially for the crusader, religious and revolutionary alike. ... ...The leader and his success are completely dependent upon the functioning of his machine and hence not on his own motives. Therefore he also depends upon whether or not the premiums can be permanently granted to the following, that is, to the Red Guard, the informers, the agitators, whom he needs. What he actually attains under the conditions of his work is therefore not in his hand, but is prescribed to him by the following's motives, which, if viewed ethically, are predominantly base.[10]

This criticism is echoed by Gandhi in the work Satyagraha, which outlines his philosophy of non-violence. The theory of Satyagraha sees means and ends as inseparable. The means used to obtain an end are wrapped up and attached to that end. Therefore, it is contradictory to try to use unjust means to obtain justice or to try to use violence to obtain peace. As Gandhi wrote:

They say, 'means are, after all, means'. I would say, 'means are, after all, everything'. As the means so the end... [11]

Bertrand Russell, explained:

In the social field itself this provokes some rather odd consequences. For if you do not agree with the Marxist Doctrine, you are deemed not to be on the side of progress. The term of distinction reserved for those who have not been visited by the new revelation is the word 'Reactionary'. Literally, the inference is that you are working against progress, in a backward direction. The dialectic process, however, ensures that you will be eliminated in due course, for progress must win in the end. This, then, becomes the rationale for violent removal of non-conformist elements. There is here a strong messianic streak in the political phylosophy of Marxism. as the founder of an earlier creed put it, he who is not with us is against us. This is clearly not the principle of a democratic doctrine.[12]


Marxist economics have been criticised for a number of reasons. Some critics point to the Marxist analysis of capitalism while others argue that the economic system proposed by communism is unworkable.

The Austrian School of economics charges Marx's economic system with being based on the classical labour theory of value. It argues this fundamental theory of classical economics is false, and prefers the subsequent and modern theory of value the subjective theory of value put forward by Carl Menger in his book Principles of Economics. The shift from labor being the source of all value to subjective individual evaluations 'creating' all value undermines Marx's economic conclusions and some of his social theories.[13]

John Maynard Keynes referred to Das Kapital as "an obsolete textbook which I know to be not only scientifically erroneous but without interest or application for the modern world", though as Joan Robinson indicated, Keynes had never read Marx seriously, if at all.[14] [15]

Some authors have argued that Marx's economic schema owes a great deal to Hegel's philosophical method, and that one of the reasons why Marx did not complete the three volumes of Capital was that he came to realise later in his life that his pre-established scheme of economic progression did not conform to empirical reality.[16]

Marx's version of the labor theory of value is a major pillar of traditional Marxian economics.[17] The theory holds that the value of a commodity is defined by the socially necessary labor time for its production. However, the subjective theory of value, which posits that the value of commodities comes from the evaluations of individuals, has replaced the classical labor theory of value held by Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Marx.

Friedrich Hayek in The Road to Serfdom argued that a centrally-planned socialist economy would inevitably function poorly due to factors such as the economic calculation problem. Economic theory maintains that an economic system based upon individual choice allows for technological and social advance through entrepreneurship and trial and error. It is argued that economic systems based upon central planning will tend towards stagnation as individual enterprise is stifled.

Empirical and epistemological

Many have argued against Marxism for empirical or epistemological reasons. Some argue that the Marxian conception of society is fundamentally flawed.

The Marxist stages of history, class analysis, and theory of social evolution have been criticized. Robert Conquest argues that detailed analyses of many historical periods fail to find support for "class" or social evolution as used by Marxists. Marx himself admitted that his theory could not explain the internal development of the "Asiatic" social system, where much of the world's population lived for thousands of years.[18]

Many notable academics such as Karl Popper, David Prychitko, and Francis Fukuyama argue that many of Marx's predictions have failed.[19][20][21] Marx predicted that wages would tend to depreciate and that capitalist economies would suffer worsening economic crises leading to the ultimate overthrow of the capitalist system. The socialist revolution would occur first in the most advanced capitalist nations and once collective ownership had been established then all sources of class conflict would disappear. However, while there have been economic crises in capitalist societies, it is argued that there has been an unprecedented level of sustained economic growth since the Second World War and average wages in many advanced capitalist economies have tended to increase. Furthermore, these advanced capitalist economies have not experienced socialist revolutions while less socio-economically developed states, such as China and Russia, have experienced such upheaval.

Popper has further argued that historical materialism is a pseudoscience because it is not falsifiable. Popper believed that Marxism had been initially scientific, in that Marx had postulated a theory which was genuinely predictive. When Marx's predictions were not in fact borne out, Popper argues that the theory was saved from falsification by the addition of ad hoc hypotheses which attempted to make it compatible with the facts. By this means a theory which was initially genuinely scientific degenerated into pseudo-scientific dogma.[19]

Marxists respond that the social sciences are inherently unfalsifiable because they rely upon interpretation and analysis of complex events, which are never fully conclusive, unlike the experimentation of hard science. As an example of this, orthodox economists themselves have difficulty predicting economic developments using their own analyses. Popper agreed on the non-falsifiability of the social sciences, but instead used it as an argument against central planning and all-encompassing historiographical ideologies.[19] Thomas Kuhn rejected Popper's theory of falsifiability and instead proposed that a gradual emergence of contrary data eventually leads to a paradigm shift in which scientists re-evaluate their underlying theoretical beliefs and even metaphysics.[19] This has been used by some Marxists, V. A. Lektorsky among others, in an attempt to show that Popper's criticisms is invalid and unrealistic.[22] Interestingly, Popper devoted much attention to dissecting the practice of using the dialectic in defense of Marxist thought, which was the very strategy employed by V. A. Lektorsky in his defense of Marxism against Popper's criticisms. Among Popper's conclusions was that Marxists used dialectic as a method of side-stepping and evading criticisms, rather than actually answering or addressing them:

Hegel thought that philosophy develops; yet his own system was to remain the last and highest stage of this development and could not be superseded. The Marxists adopted the same attitude towards the Marxian system. Hence, Marx's anti-dogmatic attitude exists only in the theory and not in the practice of orthodox Marxism, and dialectic is used by Marxists, following the example of Engels' Anti-Dühring, mainly for the purposes of apologetics - to defend the Marxist system against criticism. As a rule critics are denounced for their failure to understand the dialectic, or proletarian science, or for being traitors. Thanks to dialectic the anti-dogmatic attitude has disappeared, and Marxism has established itself as a dogmatism which is elastic enough, by using its dialectic method, to evade any further attack. It has thus become what I have called reinforced dogmatism.[23]

Francis Fukuyama argued in his essay The End of History and later in his book The End of History and the Last Man that following the collapse of the Soviet Union, liberal democracy no longer faced any serious ideological challenges and thus had proved itself to be the only sustainable and successful form of government. Marx used the phrase 'the end of pre-history' to denote the triumph of communism over capitalism. Playing on Marx's phrase, Fukuyama claimed that capitalist liberal democracy would eventually spread to all states and that this would be 'the end of history'.[24][25]


Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, referring to ants, once said that "Karl Marx was right, socialism works, it is just that he had the wrong species",[26] meaning that while ants and other social insects appear to live in communist-like societies, they only do so because they are forced to do so from their basic biology, as they lack reproductive independence: worker ants, being sterile, need their ant-queen to survive as a colony and a species and individual ants cannot reproduce without a queen, thus being forced to live in centralised societies. Humans, however, as a different biological being, do possess reproductive independence and can give birth to offspring without the need of a "queen". Edward O. Wilson argues that humans therefore enjoy their maximum level of Darwinian fitness only when they look after themselves and their families, while finding innovative ways to use the societies they live in for their own benefit.[27]

See also


  1. ^ "The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist."Marx, Karl. "The Poverty of Philosophy". Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved 2008-05-23.  
  2. ^ Marx, Karl (2001). Preface to a Critique of Political Economy. London: The Electric Book Company. pp. 7–8.  
  3. ^ Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. Selected Correspondence. p 498
  4. ^ Singer, Peter (1980). Marx: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-19-285405-6.  
  5. ^ Popper, Karl (2002). Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Routledge. p. 49. ISBN 0-415-28594-1.  
  6. ^ Bakunin, Mikhail. "Statism and Anarchy". Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved 2008-08-06.  
  7. ^ Pipes, Richard (1990) The Russian Revolution 1899-1919. Collins Harvill. ISBN 0-679-40074-5. p. 135-138.
  8. ^ Karl Marx, On Freedom of the Press, May 15th 1842, Rheinische Zeitung No. 135.
  9. ^ Trotsky, Their Morals and Ours
  10. ^
  11. ^ R. K. Prabhu & U. R. Rao, editors; from section "The Gospel Of Sarvodaya," of the book The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, Ahemadabad, India, Revised Edition, 1967.
  12. ^ "Wisdom of the West", 1959, 10th chapter "Utilitarianism and since" page 272
  13. ^ Ludwig Von Mises. "Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis" 2nd Ed. Trans. J. Kahane. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1951. pg. 111–222
  14. ^ John Maynard Keynes. Essays in Persuasion. W. W. Norton & Company. 1991. p. 300 ISBN 9780393001907
  15. ^ Joan Robinson: critical assessments of leading economists, Volume 5 2002 By Prue Kerr, Geoffrey Colin Harcourt p. 491
  16. ^ Vincent Barnett, Marx (London: Routledge, 2009)
  17. ^
  18. ^ Conquest, Robert (2000) Reflections on a Ravaged Century. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 0-393-04818-7 p. 47-51.
  19. ^ a b c d Thornton, Stephen (2006), "Karl Popper", in Zolta, Edward N., Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford,,  
  20. ^ Marxism, by David L. Prychitko: The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics: Library of Economics and Liberty
  21. ^ The End of History? - Francis Fukuyama
  22. ^ Lektorsky, V. A.. "The Dialectic of Subject and Object and some Problems of the Methodology of Science". Marxists Internet Archive. Retrieved 2008-08-11.  
  23. ^ Popper, Karl (2002). Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge. Routledge. p. 449. ISBN 0-415-28594-1.  
  24. ^ Fukuyama, Francis. "The End of History?". Wes Jones. Retrieved 2008-05-23.  
  25. ^ Fukuyama, Francis (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. London: Penguin.  
  26. ^ [1]
  27. ^ [2]

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