Orthodox Marxism

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Orthodox Marxism is the body of Marxist thought that emerged after the death of Karl Marx (1818–1883) and which became the official philosophy of the socialist movement as represented in the Second International until the First World War in 1914. Orthodox Marxism aims to simplify, codify and systematize Marxist method and theory by clarifying the perceived ambiguities and contradictions of classical Marxism.


The philosophy of orthodox Marxism includes the understanding that material development (advances in technology in the productive forces) is the primary agent of change in the structure of society and of human social relations and that social systems and their relations (e.g. feudalism, capitalism and so on) become contradictory and inefficient as the productive forces develop, which results in some form of social revolution arising in response to the mounting contradictions. This revolutionary change is the vehicle for fundamental society-wide changes and ultimately leads to the emergence of new economic systems. [1]

In the term orthodox Marxism, the word "orthodox" refers to the methods of historical materialism and of dialectical materialism—and not the normative aspects inherent to classical Marxism, without implying dogmatic adherence to the results of Marx's investigations. [2]


The emergence of orthodox Marxism is associated with the latter works of Friedrich Engels, such as the Dialectics of Nature and Socialism: Utopian and Scientific , which were efforts to popularise the work of Karl Marx, render it systematic and apply it to the fundamental questions of philosophy. [3] Daniel De Leon, an early American socialist leader, contributed much to the thought during the final years of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Orthodox Marxism was further developed during the Second International by thinkers such as Georgi Plekhanov and Karl Kautsky in Erfurt Program and The Class Struggle (Erfurt Program).

The characteristics of orthodox Marxism are:

Orthodox Marxism is contrasted with revisionist Marxism as developed in post-First World War Social Democratic parties. Some writers also contrast it with Marxism–Leninism as it developed in the Soviet Union,[ citation needed ] while others describe the latter as firmly within orthodoxy:

Orthodox Marxism rested on and grew out of the European working class movement that emerged in the final quarter of the 19th century and continued in that form until the middle years of the twentieth century. Its two institutional expressions were the 2nd and 3rd Internationals, which despite the great schism in 1919, were marked by a shared conception of capital and labour. Their fortunes therefore rose and fell together. Trotskyism and Left communism were equally orthodox in their thinking and approach, and therefore must be considered left-variants of this tradition. [4]

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Two variants of orthodox Marxism are impossibilism and anti-revisionism. Impossibilism is a form of orthodox Marxism that both rejects the reformism of revisionist Marxism and opposes the Leninist theories of imperialism, vanguardism and democratic centralism (which argue that socialism can be constructed in underdeveloped, quasi-feudal countries through revolutionary action as opposed to being an emergent result of advances in material development). An extreme form of this position is held by the Socialist Party of Great Britain. [5] In contrast, the anti-revisionist tradition criticised official Communist parties from the opposite perspective as having abandoned the orthodox Marxism of the founding fathers.


A number of theoretical perspectives and political movements emerged that were firmly rooted in orthodox Marxist analysis, as contrasted with later interpretations and alternative developments in Marxist theory and practice such as Marxism–Leninism, revisionism and reformism.


Impossibilism stresses the limited value of economic, social, cultural and political reforms under capitalism and posits that socialists and Marxists should solely focus on efforts to propagate and establish socialism, disregarding any other cause that has no connection to the goal of the realization of socialism.

Impossibilism posits that reforms to capitalism are counterproductive because they strengthen support for capitalism by the working class by making its conditions more tolerable while creating further contradictions of their own, while removing the socialist character of the parties championing and implementing said reforms. Because reforms cannot solve the systemic contradictions of capitalism, impossibilism opposes reformism, revisionism and ethical socialism.

Impossibilism also opposes the idea of a vanguard-led revolution and the centralization of political power in any elite group of people as espoused by Leninism and Marxism–Leninism .

This perspective is maintained by the World Socialist Movement, De Leonism, and to some extent followers of Karl Kautsky and pre-reformist social democracy.


Kautsky and to a lesser extent Plekhanov were in turn major influences on Vladimir Lenin, whose version of Marxism was known as Leninism by its contemporaries. The official thought of the Third International was based in orthodox Marxism combined with Leninist views on revolutionary organization.[ citation needed ] The terms dialectical materialism and historical materialism are associated with this phase of orthodox Marxism. Rosa Luxemburg, Hal Draper and Rudolf Hilferding are prominent thinkers in the orthodox Marxist tradition.[ citation needed ]

Orthodox Marxism is contrasted with later variations of Marxism, notably revisionism and Leninism. In contrast to Lenin's Bolshevik idea of revolution, orthodox Marxists said that Imperial Russia was too backwards for the development of socialism and would first have undergo a capitalist (bourgeois) phase of development. [6]


Luxemburgism is an informal designation for a current of Marxist thought and practice that originates from the ideas and work of Rosa Luxemburg. In particular, it stresses the importance for spontaneous revolution which can only emerge in response to mounting contradictions between the productive forces and social relations of society and therefore rejects Leninism and Bolshevism for its insistence on a "hands-on" approach to revolution. Luxemburgism is also highly critical of the reformist Marxism that emerged from the work of Eduard Bernstein's faction of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. According to Rosa Luxemburg, under reformism "[capitalism] is not overthrown, but is on the contrary strengthened by the development of social reforms". [7]


Menshevism refers to the political positions taken by the Menshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party prior to the October Revolution of 1917. The Mensheviks believed that socialism could not be realized in Russia due to its backwards economic conditions and that Russia would first have to experience a bourgeois revolution and go through a capitalist stage of development before socialism became technically possible and before the working class could develop the class consciousness for a socialist revolution. [8] The Mensheviks were thus opposed to the Bolshevik idea of a vanguard party and their pursuit of socialist revolution in semi-feudal Russia.

Karl Kautsky and "Kautskyism"

Karl Kautsky is recognized as the most authoritative promulgator of orthodox Marxism following the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895. As an advisor to August Bebel, leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) until Bebel's death in 1913 and as editor of Die Neue Zeit from 1883 till 1917, he was known as the "Pope of Marxism". He was removed as editor by the leadership of the SPD when the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) split away from the SPD. Kautsky was an outspoken critic of Bolshevism and Leninism, seeing the Bolsheviks (or Communists as they had renamed themselves after 1917) as an organization that had gained power by a coup and initiated revolutionary changes for which there was no economic rationale in Russia. Kautsky was also opposed to Eduard Bernstein's reformist politics in the period 1896–1901.

Instrumental Marxism

Instrumental Marxism is a theory derived from classical Marxism which reasons that policy makers in government and positions of power tend to "share a common business or class background, and that their decisions will reflect their business or class interests". [9]


There have been a number of criticisms of orthodox Marxism from within the socialist movement. From the 1890s during the Second International, Eduard Bernstein and others developed a position known as revisionism, which sought to revise Marx's views based on the idea that the progressive development of capitalism and the extension of democracy meant that gradual, parliamentary reform could achieve socialism. This view was contested by orthodox Marxists such as Kautsky as well as by the young Georg Lukacs, who in 1919 clarified the definition of orthodox Marxism as thus:

[O]rthodoxy refers exclusively to method. It is the scientific conviction that dialectical materialism is the road to truth and that its methods can be developed, expanded and deepened only along the lines laid down by its founders. It is the conviction, moreover, that all attempts to surpass or 'improve' it have led and must lead to over-simplification, triviality and eclecticism. [10]

Western Marxism, the intellectual Marxism which developed in Western Europe from the 1920s onwards, sought to make Marxism more "sophisticated", open and flexible by examining issues like culture that were outside the field of orthodox Marxism. Western Marxists, such as Georg Lukács, Karl Korsch, Antonio Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, have tended to be open to influences orthodox Marxists consider bourgeois, such as psychoanalysis and the sociology of Max Weber. Marco Torres illustrates the shift away from orthodox Marxism in the Frankfurt School:

In the early 1920s, the original members of the Frankfurt Institute—half forgotten names such as Carl Grünberg, Henryk Grossman and Karl August Wittfogel, were social scientists of an orthodox Marxist conviction. They understood their task as an advancement of the sciences that would prove useful in solving the problems of a Europe-wide transition into socialism, which they saw, if not as inevitable, at least as highly likely. But as fascism reared its head in Germany and throughout Europe, the younger members of the Institute saw the necessity for a different kind of Marxist Scholarship. Beyond accumulating knowledge relevant to an orthodox Marxist line, they felt the need to take the more critical and negative approach that is required for the maintenance of an integral and penetrating understanding of society during a moment of reaction. This could be described as the politically necessary transition from Marxist positive science to Critical Theory. [11]

In parallel to this, Cedric Robinson has identified a Black Marxist tradition, including people like C.L.R. James and W. E. B. Du Bois, who have opened Marxism to the study of race.

In the postwar period, the New Left and new social movements gave rise to intellectual and political currents which again challenged orthodox Marxism. These include Italian autonomism, French Situationism, the Yugoslavian Praxis School, British cultural studies, Marxist feminism, Marxist humanism, analytical Marxism and critical realism.

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Leninism Political theory developed by Vladimir Lenin

Leninism is a political theory developed by Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin that proposes the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, led by a revolutionary vanguard party, as the political prelude to the establishment of socialism. The function of the Leninist vanguard party is to provide the working classes with the political consciousness and revolutionary leadership necessary to depose capitalism in the Russian Empire (1721–1917). Leninist revolutionary leadership is based upon The Communist Manifesto (1848) identifying the communist party as "the most advanced and resolute section of the working class parties of every country; that section which pushes forward all others." As the vanguard party, the Bolsheviks viewed history through the theoretical framework of dialectical materialism, which sanctioned political commitment to the successful overthrow of capitalism, and then to instituting socialism; and, as the revolutionary national government, to realize the socio-economic transition by all means.

Eduard Bernstein German politician

Eduard Bernstein was a German social-democratic Marxist theorist and politician. A member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Bernstein had held close association to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but he saw flaws in Marxist thinking and began to criticise views held by Marxism when he investigated and challenged the Marxist materialist theory of history. He rejected significant parts of Marxist theory that were based upon Hegelian metaphysics and rejected the Hegelian dialectical perspective.

Social Reform or Revolution? is an 1899 pamphlet by Polish-German Marxist theorist Rosa Luxemburg. Luxemburg argues that trade unions, reformist political parties and the expansion of social democracy—while important to the proletariat's development of class consciousness—cannot create a socialist society as Eduard Bernstein, among others, argued. Instead, she argues from a historical materialist perspective that capitalism is economically unsustainable and will eventually collapse and that a revolution is necessary to transform capitalism into socialism. The pamphlet was heavily influential in revolutionary socialist circles and along with Luxemburg's other work an important precursor to left communist theory.

Erfurt Program

The Erfurt Programme was adopted by the Social Democratic Party of Germany during the SPD Congress at Erfurt in 1891. Formulated under the political guidance of Eduard Bernstein, August Bebel, and Karl Kautsky, it superseded the earlier Gotha Program.

Marxism Economic and sociopolitical worldview based on the works of Karl Marx

Marxism is a method of socioeconomic analysis that views class relations and social conflict using a materialist interpretation of historical development and takes a dialectical view of social transformation. It originates from the works of 19th-century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxism has developed into many different branches and schools of thought, with the result that there is now no single definitive Marxist theory.

The two-stage theory, or stagism, is a Marxist–Leninist political theory which argues that underdeveloped countries such as Tsarist Russia must first pass through a stage of capitalism via a bourgeois revolution before moving to a socialist stage.

Marxist schools of thought

Marxism is a method of socioeconomic analysis that originates in the works of 19th century German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxism analyzes and critiques the development of class society and especially of capitalism as well as the role of class struggles in systemic economic, social and political change. It frames capitalism through a paradigm of exploitation and analyzes class relations and social conflict using a materialist interpretation of historical development - materialist in the sense that the politics and ideas of an epoch are determined by the way in which material production is carried on.

Internationalist and defencist were the broad opposing camps in the international socialist movement during and shortly after the First World War. Prior to 1914, anti-militarism had been an article of faith among most European socialist parties. Leaders of the Second International had even suggested that socialist workers might foil a declaration of war by means of a general strike.

Revisionism (Marxism) Various ideas, principles and theories based on a significant revision of fundamental Marxist premises

Before the Marxist movement, the phrase Revisionism is used to refer to various ideas, principles and theories that are based on a significant revision of fundamental Marxist premises that usually involve making an alliance with the bourgeois class.

State socialism is a political and economic ideology within socialism advocating state ownership of the means of production, either as a temporary measure in the transition from capitalism to socialism or as characteristic of socialism itself.


Impossibilism is a Marxist theory that stresses the limited value of political, economic, and social reforms under capitalism. As a doctrine, impossibilism views the pursuit of such reforms as counterproductive to the goal of achieving socialism as they stabilize, and therefore strengthen, support for capitalism. Impossibilism holds that reforms to capitalism are irrelevant or outright counter-productive to the goal of achieving socialism and should not be a major focus of socialist politics.

Revolutionary socialism is the socialist doctrine that social revolution is necessary in order to bring about structural changes to society. More specifically, it is the view that revolution is a necessary precondition for a transition from capitalism to socialism. Revolution is not necessarily defined as a violent insurrection; it is defined as seizure of political power by mass movements of the working class so that the state is directly controlled or abolished by the working class as opposed to the capitalist class and its interests. Revolutionary socialists believe such a state of affairs is a precondition for establishing socialism and orthodox Marxists believe that it is inevitable but not predetermined.

György Lukács Hungarian philosopher and critic

György Lukács, born György Bernát Löwinger, was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher, aesthetician, literary historian, and critic. He was one of the founders of Western Marxism, an interpretive tradition that departed from the Marxist ideological orthodoxy of the Soviet Union. He developed the theory of reification, and contributed to Marxist theory with developments of Karl Marx's theory of class consciousness. He was also a philosopher of Leninism. He ideologically developed and organised Lenin's pragmatic revolutionary practices into the formal philosophy of vanguard-party revolution.

Reformism is a political doctrine advocating the reform of an existing system or institution instead of its abolition and replacement.

Karl Kautsky Czech-Austrian philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theoretician

Karl Johann Kautsky was a Czech-Austrian philosopher, journalist, and Marxist theoretician. Kautsky was recognized as one of the most authoritative promulgators of Orthodox Marxism after the death of Friedrich Engels in 1895 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Dialectical materialism strand of Marxism

Dialectical materialism is a philosophy of science and nature developed in Europe and based on the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxist dialectics emphasizes the importance of real-world conditions, in terms of class, labor, and socioeconomic interactions. This is in contrast to the Hegelian dialectic, which emphasized the idealist observation that human experience is dependent on the mind's perceptions. Marx supposed that these material conditions contained contradictions which seek resolution in new forms of social organization.

Anti-Leninism opposition to Leninism

Anti-Leninism is opposition to the political philosophy Leninism as advocated by Vladimir Lenin.

Outline of Marxism Overview of and topical guide to Marxism

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to Marxism:

Crisis of Marxism was a term first employed in the 1890s after the unexpected revival of global capitalist expansion became evident after the Great Depression of Europe from 1873-1896, which eventually precipitated a crisis in Marxist theory. The crisis resulted in a series of theoretical debates over the significance of economic recovery for the strategy of the socialist movement, leading to ideological fragmentation and increasingly sectarian debates. By the 1890s, orthodox Marxists came to believe that capitalism was on the “verge of breakdown,” while the socialist movement was on the “verge of revolutionary triumph,” but due to a renewed burst of capitalist and industrial activity such interpretations could no longer be maintained in Western Europe.


  1. Rees, John (July 1998). The Algebra of Revolution: The Dialectic and the Classical Marxist Tradition. Routledge. ISBN   978-0415198776.
  2. Lukács, Georg. What is Orthodox Marxism?. Marxism Internet Archive (1919): "What is Orthodox Marxism?". "Orthodox Marxism, therefore, does not imply the uncritical acceptance of the results of Marx's investigations. It is not the 'belief' in this or that thesis, nor the exegesis of a 'sacred' book. On the contrary, orthodoxy refers exclusively to method."
  3. Jack Mendelson. "On Engels' metaphysical dialectics: A foundation of orthodox "Marxism"" Dialectical Anthropology. 1979. Volume 4. Issue 1. pp. 65–73.
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  5. Howard, M.C. and King, J.E. State Capitalism in the Soviet Union. History of Economic Thought Society of Australia: http://www.hetsa.org.au/pdf/34-A-08.pdf: "The same point was made, in the United Kingdom, by the leadership of the remorselessly orthodox Socialist Party of Great Britain".
  6. Steele, David Ramsay (September 1999). From Marx to Mises: Post-Capitalist Society and the Challenge of Economic Calculation. Open Court. p. 67. ISBN   978-0875484495. Lenin is urging a socialist revolution in Russia, against the traditional Marxists who argue that Russia is too backwards for anything but a bourgeois revolution.
  7. Duncan Hallas (1973). "Do We Support Reformist Demands?". Controversy: Do we support reformist demands?. International Socialism. Retrieved 14 November 2013.
  8. "Menshevik". Marxism.org. Retrieved 9 October 2013.
  9. Goldstein, Joshua S. 2004. International Relations. Canadian Edition. Ed. Whitworth, Sandra. Toronto: Pearson Education. p. 147.
  10. "What is Orthodox Marxism?". March 1919
  11. Marco Torres "The science that wasn't: The orthodox Marxism of the early Frankfurt School and the turn to Marxist Critical Theory". Platypus. May 1, 2008.