Key concepts in Marxism

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Key concepts in Marxism
Karl Marx developed his theories in the mid-nineteenth century. ( Images)

Originally proposed by Karl Marx in the mid-19th century, Marxism is a political philosophy that resulted in the growth of revolutionary socialism in countries such as Russia and, in doing so, influenced the course of world history. Marx himself never used the term, but it came to be associated with his ideas and those of his followers. Like all schools of political thought, Marxism continues to develop in reaction to new circumstances. “It remains a living body of thought, and new forms continue to emerge,” says Professor Sean Sayers of the University of Kent.


German-born Marx developed his economic theory by studying mid-19th century England. He saw how people worked for wages, but saw the surplus value their work created appropriated by the person who owned the company they worked for. The system prevented workers from bettering themselves. Instead they became increasingly poor while the people they worked for grew ever more wealthy. Marx believed that this economic system, which he called capitalism, could not sustain itself indefinitely.


His studies made Marx strongly critical of capitalist societies. Marxism typically views capitalist society as a conflict between two social classes; the bourgeoisie, who control production, and the proletariat, who provide their labour. In the Marxist view, the bourgeoisie exploit the proletariat for their own gain, leaving the proletariat alienated due to their lack of control over their work. As a result, Marxist thought suggests that the role of the state should be to redistribute wealth to all members of society.

Culture and media

Marxist critique does not limit itself to politics and economics. Many Marxists argue that media and culture are products of the society in which they are produced, meaning they will tend to reinforce existing economic and political structures. However, Marxists vary on the degree of influence they believe the wider economic context has on both media and culture. Stuart Hall, for example, influentially argued in the 1970s that space still remains for individuals and social groups to make their own interpretations of media and cultural products.


Interpretations of Marxism differed from place to place and continue to do so. Marxist ideas underpinned the development of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe, but the communist context limited debate. In the aftermath of the Cold War, younger thinkers in these countries re-evaluated Marxist ideas and helped the ideas spread to other parts of the world. An alternative version of a Marxism-based society developed in China after 1949, utilising a different economic model. In the west, however, Marxist politicians and philosophers worked in a capitalist context which largely limited Marxist thought to the cultural and academic fields.

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