So to start off, I want to talk a bit about some basic ideas of Marxist theory. Marxism is a set of theories, or a system of thought and analysis, developed by Karl Marx in the nineteenth century in response to the Western industrial revolution and the rise of industrial capitalism as the predominant economic mode. Like feminist theory, Marxist theory is directed at social change; Marxists want to analyze social relations in order to change them, in order to alter what they see are the gross injustices and inequalities created by capitalist economic relations. My capsule summary of the main ideas of Marxism, however, will focus on the theoretical aspects more than on how that theory has been and is applicable to projects for social change.
As a theory, Marxism is pretty complicated. You can think of Marxism as being three types of theory in one: philosophy, history, and economics. First, Marxism is a philosophical movement; Marx’s ideas about human nature, and about how we know and function in the world come from traditions articulated by Hegel, Feuerbach, Kant, and other German philosophers. All of these guys, including Marx, are interested in the relation between materialist and idealist philosophy. As a philosopher, Marx helps create and define a branch of philosophy called DIALECTICAL MATERIALISM. Materialism in general is the branch of Western philosophy from which science (Aristotelian or Newtonian) comes.
Materialist philosophy is based on empiricism, on the direct observation of measurable or observable phenomena; materialist philosophy is interested in studying how the human mind, via the senses, perceives external reality, and particularly with the idea of how we know things “objectively,” without the interference of emotions or preconceived ideas about things. Materialist philosophy often wants to ask how we know something is real, or, more specifically, how we know that what is real IS real, and not the product of our mental processes (which are subjective). The “dialectical” part of “dialectical materialism” comes from the Greek idea of “dialogue,” which means to argue. Marx’s view of the idea of “dialectic” comes from Hegel, who thought that no ideas, social formations, or practices were ever eternal or fixed, but were always in motion or flux (something like Derrida’s “play”).
Hegel said that this motion or flux or change happens in a certain pattern, which he called a “dialectic. ” Hegel says, change occurs as the result of a struggle between two opposed forces, which then get resolved into a third entity. Hegel’s model of change looks like this: you start with a proposition or a position, which he calls a “thesis;” the thesis then stands in opposition to another position, which he calls the “antithesis” (and thus far it does work like our old friend the binary opposition). But then the struggle between thesis and antithesis is resolved into a third position, or set of ideas or practices, which Hegel calls the “synthesis.
” Then, of course, the synthesis eventually becomes a thesis, with an antithesis, and the whole process starts over. But that, says Hegel, is how change happens–by the continual struggle between thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. In addition to being a kind of philosophy, Marxism is also a way to understand history. In this sense, Marxism belongs to a kind of historicism called HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, which shows that history, or social change, occurs via human forces, and not because of God, destiny, or some unknown non-human force that shapes events. Historical materialism is “materialist” because it is interested in how humans have created material culture, i.
e. tools, objects, the material things that we use to live our lives every day, and in how this material culture has formed the basis for historical change. The historical materialist view of history thus holds that the moving forces of social organizations–the forces that make change, that make “history”–are people