The rise of socialism and Marxism

Marxism and socialism are part of the consequences of the Industrial Revolution.  Despite the deep suspicion toward socialism and especially Marxism in this country, Marxism was very much the product of mainstream Western intellectual tradition, combining classical German philosophy with an optimism toward the benefits of science and technology brought about by the Industrial Revolution.  The radical aspects of Marxism, e.g. his championing of class struggles and violent revolutions, were Marx's interpretation of history and his prediction of what was to come based on the often violent confrontations between workers and management.  Finally, precisely because Marxism provided so much threat to European countries, their governments eventually conceded to workers' demands at least partially to avoid further violent confrontations and the prospect of losing out to the socialists/Marxists. 

1. Background: The Industrial Revolution

The new work schedule that many people found too restraining on their lives in comparison with the freer lifestyle under cottage industry.

The industrial assembly line that proved to be monotonous, with each worker only performing a very small part of the work, without seeing the end result. No longer able to invest personal identity or pride in work as, say, a cobbler did in the past, who was able to sell a pair of shoes he made from top to sole to a smiling patron, hence deriving a great deal of satisfaction from his work.

The heavy work load, the meager pay, the total absence of any laws regulating factories, which, like laws regulating the internet, were something quite new and before they appeared, the factories, legally, were "no man's land," hence it  was completely up to the factory owners to decide everything, from the wage to the age of the workers.

        2. Workers’ strikes and uprisings

In the early stages of the Industrial Revolution, there were many workers’ strikes aimed at the destruction of machines, as workers viewed machines as the root of their misery.

Meanwhile, many workers also requested greater political representation, which was often denied them. Revolutions ensued in many parts of Europe, often crushed with great bloodshed. This led Marx to believe that socialist takeover required violence, and workers’ and management’s interests were irreconcilable.

3. Influence of science and the Enlightenment

Marx believed that he formulated the "iron laws" of history which conformed to science. He spent dozens of years working away at his multi-volume work "The Capital", in which he tried to give a mathematical explanation of how the management exploited the workers.

From Adam Smith, Marx borrowed the idea that labor was the generator of wealth, and concluded that industrial capitalists made their wealth by exploiting industrial labor.

4. Explanation of terms

Historical materialism:

The belief that what motivated historical developments were material things, especially two: labor, and the means of production--tools laborers used, be they flintstones or machines.

The relationship people formed with one another as a result of their relationship to the machines led to social classes, the industrial working class and the management class. Class struggle was inevitable and drove society forward.  Eventually the management class would be driven to wars against one another because of competition for markets, since capitalism is driven by the incessant need for new markets, and then the international industrial workers would unite, overthrow their respective countries, and usher in communism that recognized no national borders.


The belief that everything had two sides, initially used by a German philosopher Friedrich Hegel. Therefore the underdogs in one society, be they the bourgeoisie in feudalism or industrial workers in capitalism, will become the ruling class at a new social stage. Although they are tough and even bloody, it is the class struggles at each social stage that pushes society forward.

Economic Determinism:

The belief that social developments are ultimately caused by economic factors, without exception. Spiritual, cultural, and other explanations are excluded here. C.f., cultural determinism.  Marx believed, for instance, that because they owned the property of the factory, factory owners forever belonged to a different realm from the workers and they would do everything, including using government, army, police, and prison to safeguard their property and the unequal relationship with the workers.

5. Early socialists: "utopian"

The word Utopia was taken from an early English novel by Sir Thomas Moore who depicted an idealized society in that story. The early socialists all emphasized harmony and cooperation, a restoration of "society" and "socialness", so to speak, an example being Robert Owen’s "New Harmony" in Indiana. They differed from Marxism in their avoidance of discussion of struggles and bloodshed.

6. Marx's critique of the market economy:

To Marx, market economy was bad because it turned workers' labor into commodities.  Workers lost respect for their persons.  The solution to it was the eventual abolition of a market economy and "each produces according to what he can/each takes  according to what he needs" in a Communist society.

7. Marx's belief in technological developments:

Marx believed his vision for Communism above was possible because of the infinite development of science and technology which would infinitely increase output.  The industrial workers, who are in the forefront of technology utilization, therefore, to Marx, should assume leadership in a socialist society.  

Questions for discussion

1. One Marxist argument goes that it was in the capitalist society that human labor became a piece of commodity, which deprived people of the dignity of work. The conflict between workers and management was inevitable because of their different relationships to the machines. What was Marx’s solution to this problem?

2. Marx calls workers’ wages the minimum wage: enough only to sustain the workers’ lives. And he believes that the capitalists make money by selling goods at a market price higher than this wage, and the difference between market price and minimum wage is the profit for the capitalist. Is this minimum wage the same as what we call minimum wage today?

8. Marx’s critics within the socialist camp

Socialism through trade unions’ assuming representation in the parliament.

9. Alternatives to economic determinism

Marx Weber and the "Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism," in which he attributed capitalist emphasis on frugality and reinvestment to the Protestant Ethic.

Recent publications that traced capitalism to Catholic and Jewish religious characteristics.

10. Transformation of Marxism

In response to the popularity of socialism, many European governments developed measures to absorb workers’ radicalism, e.g. by developing a welfare state and popularizing universal male suffrage. Thus in western and central Europe, the emphasis on violence in Marxism was replaced by "peaceful evolution." Violent communism was only practiced in less industrialized and more autocratic states, such as Russia.