In this short post, I wanted to highlight three common misconceptions about Marx. These aren’t only misconceptions held by conservatives, but also by leftists. These ideas are based on other people’s ideas that supplemented Marx’s writing. So, they’re not exactly wrong ideas in terms of how Marxism as historical force progressed, but they aren’t ideas that Marx himself had exactly.
The point of this post is by understanding what Marx didn’t say, we can better understand what he did say. Also, I think more dogmatic Marxists tend to only see him in a political context, but there’s a much wider realm of Marxism, like Marxism from a literary and critical theory perspective. The reason for these misconceptions is people take ideas with academic connections to Marx, and then attribute those ideas to him.
One misconception is that Marx described or explained what communism would be like. This will be the most straight-forward misconception I highlight.
There’s a grain of truth for this, but it’s mainly a myth. Before Marx, the common approach to socialism is to envision an ideal political-economic society (ie a utopia). There was little theorizing about how to get there, or even if it was possible to have a society like they’re proposing.
But Marx focused on analyzing the trajectory of history, to get a better sense of how a socialist society would come about. This means Marx illustrated some features and elements of communism, but he didn’t prescribe a utopian economy, or describe specific communist policy.
The way to think about the history of socialist thought is before Marx, socialism was merely a thought experiment. It was people grappling with the very first signs of industrialization and French-style revolutionary behavior. They saw the revolutionary potential, and wanted to guide that energy towards their vision of utopia.
What Marx did, was invert that style of analysis, and make it material instead of utopian (which is a more idealistic approach to socialism). Before Marx, socialist theory looked at what society should look like. Marx looked much more at how society could progress to a socialist society, due to the nature of history and the distribution of wealth throughout history.
The second misconception is that Marx believed that socialism or “crude communism” was the stepping stone to communism. This idea comes from Lenin and writers in the Marxist-Leninist tradition, but this idea is not present in Marx.
The Marxist-Leninist idea is basically that socialism is when the state is controlled by a worker party, representing the working class. This would then lead into the “withering away of the state,” which is the idea that once socialist principles are embraced and socialist institutions are successful, the need for a state will naturally start fading away, because the need that the states are filling will no longer exist.
However, Marx never made any of these distinctions. Marx used socialism and communism mostly interchangeably. As far as I know, he never explicitly differentiated them from each other.
The idea of the “withering away of the state” actually comes from Engels, which is primarily where Lenin inherited the idea of state socialism being the stepping stone to communism. Engels’s writing of course overlaps heavily with Marx, but he tended to write from a different approach. Marx tends to be much more theoretical and analytical, Engels tends to contextualize Marxist thought in more observable ways. He tends to write about the tangible, everyday impact of capitalism, and the broader characteristics of communism. Marx didn’t want to get into the speculative details, like whether or not the state would wither away, in the way Engels did.
I will get more into Engels in Misconception 3, but there’s a broader problem with the socialism-communism distinction, because the taxonomy defining socialism and communism has morphed for different people at different times.
Before Marx, socialism was used to describe a swath of different alternatives to capitalism that sometimes had little to do with one another. It was a realm of speculative theory, imagining futures.
For example, some early socialists include: Victor d’Hupay, who came up with the word communism; Thomas More, who wrote Utopia; Charles Fourier, who founded the utopian socialist movement. You can also include Jesus, who is a socialist figure in liberation theology and Christian theology, as well as Abu Dhar al-Ghifari, a companion of Muhammad who established Islamic socialist ideas.
All of these people are certainly socialist, but they weren’t exactly communist. Even d’Hupay, who came up with the word communism, wasn’t communist in the way we understand it now, simply because he was writing in a very different time. When d’Hupay came up with the word, the Industrial Revolution had just started in England, and it was decades before industrialization spread to Belgium and Northern France.
Then, when Marx came around, he attempted to synthesize a lot of socialist ideas before him, within his distinct approach to historical analysis. Because of this, he treats socialism and communism as near synonyms.
This is a bit of a side-note, but these slippery definitions of socialism and communism, and how they relate to each other, is a big reason the Nazis were the National Socialists. Dough-brained conservatives online will often say “Nazis were socialist, just look at the name,” and leftists will reply, “they only did that to trick people”. The Socialist in Nazi wasn’t meant to be a trick, because Marxism and socialism were much less comingled than they are now.
The Nazis used socialist in their title because there were dozens of National Socialist parties in Europe, and the Nazis were one of many. There wasn’t a consistent party line among these parties. And they were all operating from a non-Marxist definition of socialism, where socialism is just any political-economic alternative to capitalism.
The point of this is to reiterate: communism, but especially socialism, has had different definitions throughout time and place. Marx treated them as near synonyms, but many other people did not. The warping and appropriation of socialism is then imposed on Marx, even though he wouldn’t have been aware of, or advocated for, many things that have been called socialism.
This one has a lot more nuance, but the final misconception is that Marx wrote about dialectical materialism.
This is the real bombshell, because people who are well-read on Marx tend to know he rarely, or never, actually “describes” communist policy, that’s not his approach. They also tend to understand how Marx generally uses socialism and communism. However, dialectical materialism is usually seen to be a backbone thought of Marxism.
I will also say, that there’s truth to Marx writing about dialectical materialism, but it’s not true in the way, and to the extent that, most people assume. For example, Marx never used the terminology of “dialectical materialism”. The closest he used was “historical materialism” and “a material conception of history”. He also wrote about dialectics a lot, but more frequently in the context of contradictions in capital, rather than dialectical processes throughout history.
There are a couple reasons that dialectical materialism is imposed on Marx though. For one, Marx does write in Capital Volume 2, that he turned Hegel on his head. The implication of this is that Hegel has a dialectical idealist view of history, and Marx has a dialectical materialist view of history. There’s definitely truth to this.
The issue comes from the fact that Marx’s passage about turning Hegel on his head is one of the most often quoted lines from Das Kapital. But that’s a massive, broad book that covers a lot of stuff, and relatively little of it has to do with this materialist turn away from Hegel’s dialectical historicism. So although the idea of dialectical materialism is present in Marx it’s both: (a) never referred to in those terms and (b) not highlighted nearly as much as its made to be.
There are two reasons for the overemphasis of dialectical materialism in Marx:
- Engels was really into the idea of dialectical materialism, more than Marx. His book Dialectics of Nature is one of the foundational books in the strain of Marxist thought that calls Marxism(-Leninism) an immortal science. Engels looked at the law of the conservation of energy, a relatively new idea in the sciences. Engels then looked at the distribution of material throughout history, and determined that the law of conservation of energy and phase changes in nature are at play throughout history. This is much more explicitly and directly “dialectical materialist”, ie Marxism at its most natural and dialectical, than Marx.
- In Lenin’s time, as is true today, Marx was seen as the main theorist of Marxism, and Engels was seen as a supplement. However, Lenin was extremely interested in Engels, and saw his contribution to Marxism to be equal to Marx. Lenin incorporated a lot more Engels into his theories than most people in the Marxist tradition did. So what happened is Marxism-Leninism became the official state ideology of USSR. Then, Stalin made dialectical materialism the “official” state interpretation of Marx. Through these maneuvers, dialectical materialism became increasingly associated with Marx’s writing itself.
The impact of the third misconception might be lost, because it’s a little more conceptually slippery than the other two. But the ultimate takeaway is that Marx is less targeted in his analysis than he’s portrayed to be, even by many of his biggest supporters.
The source of all of these misconceptions is people in the Marxist tradition taking ideas in Marx, then elaborating on those ideas, and then having that elaboration imposed on Marx.
To close, a perfect example of this process, although not a misconception, is Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution. Permanent Revolution is a phrase that Marx and Engels used a few times, usually in the context of resisting bourgeoisie political processes after a revolution happens. Trotsky, however, completely changes the implications of the idea. He turned Permanent Revolution into an idea that a country can only be socialist if it first has developed capitalism, and that its the duty of post-capitalist workers to help developing countries achieve socialism. This idea is based in Marx, but absolutely not present in Marx.