Marxist schools of thought


Main article: Marxism-Leninism

Note: this is a discussion of Marxism-Leninism as a school of thought. For a discussion of its political practice, see subsection Marxism#Marxism as a political practice below.

At least in terms of adherents and the impact on the world stage, Marxism–Leninism, also known colloquially as Bolshevism or simply communism is the biggest trend within Marxism, easily dwarfing all of the other schools of thought combined.[1] Marxism–Leninism is a term originally coined by the CPSU in order to denote the ideology that Vladimir Lenin had built upon the thought of Karl Marx. There are two broad areas that have set apart Marxism–Leninism as a school of thought.

First, Lenin's followers generally view his additions to the body of Marxism as the practical corollary to Marx's original theoretical contributions of the 19th century; insofar as they apply under the conditions of advanced capitalism that they found themselves working in. Lenin called this time-frame the era of Imperialism. For example, Joseph Stalin wrote that

Leninism grew up and took shape under the conditions of imperialism, when the contradictions of capitalism had reached an extreme point, when the proletarian revolution had become an immediate practical question, when the old period of preparation of the working class for revolution had arrived at and passed into a new period, that of direct assault on capitalism.[2]

The most important consequence of a Leninist-style theory of Imperialism is the strategic need for workers in the industrialized countries to bloc or ally with the oppressed nations contained within their respective countries' colonies abroad in order to overthrow capitalism. This is the source of the slogan, which shows the Leninist conception that not only the proletariat, as is traditional to Marxism, are the sole revolutionary force, but all oppressed people: "Workers and Oppressed Peoples of the World, Unite!"[3]

Second, the other distinguishing characteristic of Marxism–Leninism is how it approaches the question of organization. Lenin believed that the traditional model of the Social Democratic parties of the time, which was a loose, multitendency organization was inadequate for overthrowing the Tsarist regime in Russia. He proposed a cadre of professional revolutionaries that disciplined itself under the model of Democratic Centralism.


Maoism takes its name from Mao Zedong, the erstwhile leader of the Peoples Republic of China; it is the variety of anti-revisionism that took inspiration, and in some cases received material support, from China, especially during the Mao period. There are several key concepts that were developed by Mao. First, Mao concurred with Stalin that not only does class struggle continue under the dictatorship of the proletariat, it actually accelerates as long as gains are being made by the proletariat at the expense of the disenfranchised bourgeoisie. Second, Mao developed a strategy for revolution called Prolonged People's War in what he termed the semi-feudal countries of the Third World. Prolonged People's War relied heavily on the peasantry. Third, Mao wrote many theoretical articles on epistemology and dialectics, which he called contradictions.


Hoxhaism, so named because of the central contribution of Albanian statesman Enver Hoxha, was closely aligned with China for a number of years, but grew critical of Maoism because of the so-called Three Worlds Theory put forth by elements within the Communist Party of China and because it viewed the actions of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping unfavorably. Ultimately, however, Hoxhaism as a trend came to the understanding that Socialism had never existed in China at all.


Main article: Trotskyism

Trotskyism is the branch as advocated by Russian Marxist Leon Trotsky. Trotsky was a contemporary of Lenin from the early years of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, where he led a small trend in competition with both Lenin's Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks; nevertheless Trotsky's followers claim to be the heirs of Lenin in the same way that mainstream Marxist-Leninists do. There are several distinguishing characteristics of this school of thought; foremost is the theory of Permanent Revolution. This stated that in less-developed countries the bourgeoisie were too weak to lead their own 'bourgeois-democratic' revolutions. Due to this weakness, it fell to the proletariat to carry out the bourgeois revolution. However, with power in its hands the proletariat would then continue this revolution (permanently), thus transforming it from a bourgeois to a socialist revolution, and from a national to an international revolution.

Another shared characteristic between Trotskyists is a variety of theoretical justifications for their negative appraisal of the post-Lenin Soviet Union; that is to say, after Trotsky was expelled by a majority vote from the CPSU[4] and subsequently from the Soviet Union. As a consequence, Trotsky defined the Soviet Union under Stalin, as a planned economy ruled over by a bureaucratic caste. Trotsky advocated overthrowing the government of the Soviet Union after he was expelled from it.[5]

Left Communism

Main article: Left Communism

Left communism is the range of communist viewpoints held by the communist left, which criticizes the political ideas of the Bolsheviks from a position that is asserted to be more authentically Marxist and proletarian than the views of Leninism held by the Communist International after its first two congresses.

Although she lived before left communism became a distinct tendency, Rosa Luxemburg has been heavily influential for most left communists, both politically and theoretically. Proponents of left communism have included Herman Gorter, Anton Pannekoek, Otto Rühle, Karl Korsch, Amadeo Bordiga, and Paul Mattick.

Prominent left communist groups existing today include the International Communist Current and the International Bureau for the Revolutionary Party. Also, different factions from the old Bordigist International Communist Party are considered left communist organizations.

Post-Stalin Moscow-aligned communism

At the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Khrushchev made several ideological ruptures with his predecessor, Joseph Stalin. First, Khrushchev denounced the so-called Cult of Personality that had developed around Stalin, which ironically enough Khrushchev had had a pivotal role in fostering decades earlier. More importantly, however, Khrushchev rejected the heretofore orthodox Marxist–Leninist tenet that class struggle continues even under socialism. Rather, the State ought to rule in the name of all classes. A related principle that flowed from the former was the notion of peaceful co-existence, or that the newly emergent socialist bloc could peacefully compete with the capitalist world, solely by developing the productive forces of society.


There are many proponents of Marxist–Leninism who rejected the theses of Khrushchev, particularly Third Worldists. They believed that Khrushchev was unacceptably altering or "revising" the fundamental tenets of Marxism–Leninism, a stance from which the label "anti-revisionist" is derived. Typically, anti-revisionists refer to themselves simply as Marxist-Leninists primarily.

Western Marxism

Main article: Western Marxism

Western Marxism is a broad category of Marxist theoreticians based in Western and Central Europe (and more recently North America ), in contrast with philosophy in the Soviet Union, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, or the People's Republic of China.

Key Western Marxists

Georg Lukács

Georg Lukács (13 April 1885 – 4 June 1971) was a Hungarian Marxist philosopher and literary critic in the tradition of Western Marxism. His main work History and Class Consciousness (written between 1919 and 1922 and first published in 1923), initiated the current of thought that came to be known as Western Marxism. The book is notable for contributing to debates concerning Marxism and its relation to sociology, politics and philosophy, and for reconstructing Marx's theory of alienation before many of the works of the Young Marx had been published. Lukács's work elaborates and expands upon Marxist theories such as ideology, false consciousness, reification and class consciousness.

Karl Korsch

Karl Korsch (15 August 1886 – 21 October 1961) was born in Tostedt, near Hamburg, to the family of a middle-ranking bank official.

In his later work, he rejected orthodox (classical) Marxism as historically outmoded, wanting to adapt Marxism to a new historical situation. He wrote in his Ten Theses (1950) that "the first step in re-establishing a revolutionary theory and practice consists in breaking with that Marxism which claims to monopolize revolutionary initiative as well as theoretical and practical direction" and that "today, all attempts to re-establish the Marxist doctrine as a whole in its original function as a theory of the working classes social revolution are reactionary utopias."[6]

Korsch was especially concerned that Marxist theory was losing its precision and validity – in the words of the day, becoming "vulgarized" – within the upper echelons of the various socialist organizations. His masterwork, Marxism and Philosophy is an attempt to re-establish the historic character of Marxism as the heir to Hegel.

Antonio Gramsci

Antonio Gramsci (22 January 1891  27 April 1937) was an Italian writer, politician and political theorist. He was a founding member and onetime leader of the Communist Party of Italy. Gramsci can be seen as one of the most important Marxist thinkers of the twentieth century, and in particular a key thinker in the development of Western Marxism. He wrote more than 30 notebooks and 3000 pages of history and analysis during his imprisonment. These writings, known as the Prison Notebooks, contain Gramsci's tracing of Italian history and nationalism, as well as some ideas in Marxist theory, critical theory and educational theory associated with his name, such as:

Herbert Marcuse

Herbert Marcuse (19 July 1898  29 July 1979) was a prominent German-American philosopher and sociologist of Jewish descent, and a member of the Frankfurt School.

Marcuse's critiques of capitalist society (especially his 1955 synthesis of Marx and Freud, Eros and Civilization, and his 1964 book One-Dimensional Man) resonated with the concerns of the leftist student movement in the 1960s. Because of his willingness to speak at student protests, Marcuse soon became known as "the father of the New Left," a term he disliked and rejected.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre (21 June 1905 – 15 April 1980) was already a key and influential philosopher and playwright for his early writings on individualistic existentialism. In his later career, he attempted to reconcile the existential philosophy of Søren Kierkegaard with Marxist philosophy and Hegelian dialectics in his work Critique of Dialectical Reason.[7]

Sartre was also involved in Marxist politics and was impressed upon visiting Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara, calling him "not only an intellectual but also the most complete human being of our age".[8]

Louis Althusser

Louis Althusser (16 October 1918 – 22 October 1990) was a Marxist philosopher. He was a lifelong member and sometimes strong critic of the French Communist Party. His arguments and theses were set against the threats that he saw attacking the theoretical foundations of Marxism. These included both the influence of empiricism on Marxist theory, and humanist and reformist socialist orientations which manifested as divisions in the European Communist Parties, as well as the problem of the 'cult of personality' and of ideology itself. Althusser is commonly referred to as a Structural Marxist, although his relationship to other schools of French structuralism is not a simple affiliation and he is critical of many aspects of structuralism.

His essay Marxism and Humanism is a strong statement of anti-humanism in Marxist theory, condemning ideas like "human potential" and "species-being", which are often put forth by Marxists, as outgrowths of a bourgeois ideology of "humanity". His essay Contradiction and Overdetermination borrows the concept of overdetermination from psychoanalysis, in order to replace the idea of "contradiction" with a more complex model of multiple causality in political situations (an idea closely related to Antonio Gramsci's concept of hegemony).

Althusser is also widely known as a theorist of ideology, and his best-known essay is Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation.[9] The essay establishes the concept of ideology, also based on Gramsci's theory of hegemony. Whereas hegemony is ultimately determined entirely by political forces, ideology draws on Freud's and Lacan's concepts of the unconscious and mirror-phase respectively, and describes the structures and systems that allow us to meaningfully have a concept of the self.

Hill, Hobsbawm, and Thompson

British Marxism deviated sharply from French (especially Althusserian) Marxism and, like the Frankfurt School, developed an attention to cultural experience and an emphasis on human agency while growing increasingly distant from determinist views of materialism. A circle of historians inside the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) formed the Communist Party Historians Group in 1946. They shared a common interest in 'history from below' and class structure in early capitalist society. Important members of the group included E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and Raphael Samuel.

While some members of the group (most notably E.P. Thompson) left the CPGB after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the common points of British Marxist historiography continued in their works. They placed a great emphasis on the subjective determination of history. E. P. Thompson famously engaged Althusser in The Poverty of Theory,[10] arguing that Althusser's theory overdetermined history, and left no space for historical revolt by the oppressed.

Structural Marxism

Main article: Structural Marxism

Structural Marxism is an approach to Marxism based on structuralism, primarily associated with the work of the French theorist Louis Althusser and his students. It was influential in France during the late 1960s and 1970s, and also came to influence philosophers, political theorists and sociologists outside France during the 1970s.


Main article: Neo-Marxism

Neo-Marxism is a school of Marxism that began in the 20th century and hearkened back to the early writings of Marx, before the influence of Engels, which focused on dialectical idealism rather than dialectical materialism. It thus rejected economic determinism being instead far more libertarian. Neo-Marxism adds Max Weber's broader understanding of social inequality, such as status and power, to orthodox Marxist thought.

The Frankfurt School

Main article: Frankfurt School

The Frankfurt School is a school of neo-Marxist social theory, social research, and philosophy. The grouping emerged at the Institute for Social Research (Institut für Sozialforschung) of the University of Frankfurt am Main in Germany. The term "Frankfurt School" is an informal term used to designate the thinkers affiliated with the Institute for Social Research or influenced by them: it is not the title of any institution, and the main thinkers of the Frankfurt School did not use the term to refer to themselves.

The Frankfurt School gathered together dissident Marxists, severe critics of capitalism who believed that some of Marx's alleged followers had come to parrot a narrow selection of Marx's ideas, usually in defense of orthodox communist or social democratic parties. Influenced especially by the failure of working-class revolutions in Western Europe after World War I and by the rise of Nazism in an economically, technologically, and culturally advanced nation (Germany), they took up the task of choosing what parts of Marx's thought might serve to clarify social conditions which Marx himself had never seen. They drew on other schools of thought to fill in Marx's perceived omissions.

Max Weber exerted a major influence, as did Sigmund Freud (as in Herbert Marcuse's Freudo-Marxist synthesis in the 1954 work Eros and Civilization). Their emphasis on the "critical" component of theory was derived significantly from their attempt to overcome the limits of positivism, crude materialism, and phenomenology by returning to Kant's critical philosophy and its successors in German idealism, principally Hegel's philosophy, with its emphasis on negation and contradiction as inherent properties of reality.

Autonomist Marxism

Main article: Autonomism

Autonomism is a category of Marxist social movements around the world that emphasize the ability to organize in autonomous and horizontal networks, as opposed to hierarchical structures such as unions or parties. Autonomist Marxists, including Harry Cleaver, broaden the definition of the working-class to include salaried and unpaid labour, such as skilled professions and housework; it focuses on the working class in advanced capitalist states as the primary force of change in the construct of capital. Modern autonomist theorists such as Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt argue that network power constructs are the most effective methods of organization against the neoliberal regime of accumulation, and predict a massive shift in the dynamics of capital into a 21st Century Empire.

Analytical Marxism

Main article: Analytical Marxism

Analytical Marxism refers to a style of thinking about Marxism that was prominent amongst a half-dozen analytically trained English-speaking philosophers and social scientists during the 1980s. It was mainly associated with the September Group of academics, so called because they have biennial meetings in varying locations every other September to discuss common interests. The group also dubbed itself "Non-Bullshit Marxism" (Cohen 2000a). It was characterized, in the words of David Miller, by "clear and rigorous thinking about questions that are usually blanketed by ideological fog". (Miller 1994)

Marxist humanism

Main article: Marxist humanism

Marxist humanism is a branch of Marxism that primarily focuses on Marx's earlier writings, especially the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 in which Marx develops his theory of alienation, as opposed to his later works, which are considered to be concerned more with his structural conception of capitalist society. It was opposed by Louis Althusser's "antihumanism", who qualified it as a revisionist movement.

Marxist humanists contend that 'Marxism' developed lopsided because Marx's early works were unknown until after the orthodox ideas were in vogue  the Manuscripts of 1844 were published only in 1932  and it is necessary to understand Marx's philosophical foundations to understand his latter works properly.

Marxist theology

Although Marx was intensely critical of institutionalized religion including Christianity, some Christians have "accepted the basic premises of Marxism and attempted to reinterpret Christian faith from this perspective."[11] Some of the resulting examples are some forms of liberation theology and black theology. Pope Benedict XVI strongly opposed radical liberation theology while he was still a cardinal, with the Vatican condemning acceptance of Marxism. Black theologian James Cone wrote in his book For My People that "for analyzing the structure of capitalism. Marxism as a tool of social analysis can disclose the gap between appearance and reality, and thereby help Christians to see how things really are."[12]


Marxism-Deleonism, is a form of syndicalist Marxism developed by Daniel De Leon. De Leon was an early leader of the first US socialist political party, the Socialist Labor Party. This party exists to the present day. De Leonism lies outside the Leninist tradition of communism. The highly decentralized and democratic nature of the proposed De Leonist government is in contrast to the democratic centralism of Marxism–Leninism and what they see as the dictatorial nature of the Soviet Union. The success of the De Leonist plan depends on achieving majority support among the people both in the workplaces and at the polls, in contrast to the Leninist notion that a small vanguard party should lead the working class to carry out the revolution. Daniel De Leon and other De Leonist writers have issued frequent polemics against 'democratic socialist' movements, especially the Socialist Party of America, and consider them to be "reformist" or "bourgeois socialist". De Leonists have traditionally refrained from any activity or alliances viewed by them as trying to reform capitalism, though the Socialist Labor Party in De Leon's time was active during strikes and such, such as social justice movements.


Beginning around the 1970s, various communist parties in Western Europe, such as the Partito Comunista Italiano in Italy and the Partido Comunista de España under Santiago Carrillo tried to hew to a more independent line from Moscow. Particularly in Italy, they leaned on the theories of Antonio Gramsci. This trend went by the name Eurocommunism.


Main article: Post-Marxism

Post-Marxism represents the theoretical work of philosophers and social theorists who have built their theories upon those of Marx and Marxists but exceeded the limits of those theories in ways that puts them outside of Marxism. It begins with the basic tenets of Marxism but moves away from the Mode of Production as the starting point for analysis and includes factors other than class, such as gender, ethnicity etc., and a reflexive relationship between the base and superstructure.

Marxism remains a powerful theory in some unexpected and relatively obscure places, and is not always properly labeled as "Marxism". For example, many Mexican and some American archaeologists still employ a Marxist model to explain the Classic Maya Collapse (c. 900 A.D.) – without mentioning Marxism by name.

Marxist feminism

Main article: Marxist feminism

Marxist feminism is a sub-type of feminist theory which focuses on the dismantling of capitalism as a way to liberate women. Marxist feminism states that private property, which gives rise to economic inequality, dependence, political confusion and ultimately unhealthy social relations between men and women, is the root of women's oppression.

According to Marxist theory, in capitalist societies the individual is shaped by class relations; that is, people's capacities, needs and interests are seen to be determined by the mode of production that characterises the society they inhabit. Marxist feminists see gender inequality as determined ultimately by the capitalist mode of production. Gender oppression is class oppression and women's subordination is seen as a form of class oppression which is maintained (like racism) because it serves the interests of capital and the ruling class. Marxist feminists have extended traditional Marxist analysis by looking at domestic labour as well as wage work in order to support their position.


  1. For example, the Communist Party of China alone has more than 66 million members. See
  5. "The characterisation of the anti-bureaucratic revolution as “political revolution” referred to the fact that the bureaucracy had politically expropriated the proletariat ..."
  6. Karl Korsch (1950) Ten Theses on Marxism Today
  7. [ Jean-Paul Sartre on Stanford Encyclopedia.]
  8. Anderson, Jon. Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life. 1997 p.468
  9. Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Toward an Investigation is available in several English volumes including Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays
  10. Thompson, E. P., (1978). The Poverty of Theory & other essays Merlin, 1978. ISBN 0-85036-231-8.
  11. "Marxist Theology" in The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, p. 352.
  12. Marxist Roots of Black Liberation Theology
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