Marxism, like many philosophical traditions, is a huge series of concepts and ideas with plenty of complexity and nuance. Too often discussions of Marxism are befuddled and unproductive because people are using the term in different ways than their conversational partner, and so they end up talking past one another. What I want to do here is propose six basic ways of approaching and studying Marxism in an effort to bring some of these complexities and nuances to light, and thereby, hopefully, increase clarity and understanding with regards to discussions of Marx and Marxism. I am motivated to do this because I think Marx, more than ever, offers an essential and important way of orienting oneself to current social, political, and economic events in the pursuit of understanding them fully. However, for a plethora of reasons, there continues to be a stigma attached to Marx and Marxism, and a large reason for this is because so much confusion exists as to what exactly it is; I hope this short essay will clear some of that confusion up.
Here are six general ways of understanding Marxism (in no particular order):
1) As a historical, empirical subject of study: If you were asked, for example, to do a paper on Marx in a college class, you would likely approach him in this way; as a subject of third-person research or of a biography, in which the historical facts of his life and writings are explicated in as objective a way as possible.
2) As a doctrine: as a core set of ideas. This is done by extracting what one considers to be the central points of Marxism, and molding them into a coherent doctrine that can be subscribed to or refuted. This involves abstracting away from any changes in his thought over time in order to put forward a cohesive net of basic ideas. It is a rational reconstruction of Marx’s thought based on what one believes to be the most important, or most central, aspect of his thought.
3) As a conceptual revolution: One could view Marx, fundamentally, as starting a *tradition* of thought; as re-conceptualizing capitalism and history, and thereby spawning a philosophical and political tradition. Much like Darwin and Freud re-conceptualized biology and the mind, starting long traditions which expanded on, edited, corrected, and carried forward those basic ideas.
4) As a branching-off: You could study the thought of *the people who called themselves Marxists* throughout history (Lenin, Adorno, Althusser, Gramsci, Debord, Kautsky, Luxemburg, etc.). So Marxism just becomes a loosely connected net of different strains of thought as represented by different thinkers after Marx. In this interpretation, Marxism becomes identical to the thought of historical figures who called themselves Marxist.
5) As a historical application: You could study Marxism merely by studying the ways in which his ideas were put into practice, focusing more on how they operated in the real world (Soviet Union, Cuba, China, etc.) instead of on the ideas themselves or the methodology he proposed. In this interpretation, Marxism most often becomes synonymous with Leninism and Stalinism. Many of Marxism’s opponents take up this interpretation as the ONLY valid interpretation for obvious reasons.
6) As a methodology: as an interpretive lens through which one can make sense of historical and political events and through which one can analyze the economic paradigm. It can be seen as a continuing project of consistently applying the methodology that Marx put forward. Under this view, it matters less what the exact ideas of Marx himself were, and instead focuses on the WAY in which Marx proposed we analyze the world.
I study Marxism largely via #3 and #6. And insofar as I call myself a Marxist, I mean that I view him as a conceptual revolutionary who put forward an interpretive lens and a methodology (namely historical and dialectical materialism, theory of alienation, the critique of political economy, etc.) that I find particularly useful in analyzing current social, political, historical, and economic events. It is not a dogma or a doctrine to which I blindly adhere, rather its a general approach I take, fully backed up and informed by my own critical thinking, ethical values, and political / historical context. Beyond that basic orientation to Marxism, I also find #4 extremely important. Marx was just a human being, and as such he was wrong about a lot, and many thinkers that came after him took his thought in new and exciting directions, and expanded on his philosophy in such a way that it was improved and updated, and continues to be improved and updated. I place myself in that long tradition of people who studied Marx and his philosophical heirs, and who continue to update Marxism and apply it in new and unique contexts (as Marx himself would have wanted).
But NONE of these ways of interpreting Marxism are completely wrong. All of them are valid ways of studying Marxism, its just a matter of realizing that all these approaches exist and are valid in their own ways, and then being conscious about how you are using the terms involved at any given moment.
Lots of confusion stems from people talking past one another by using different approaches without being clear, in their own minds as well as explicitly, about which one they are using. I’ll often get into arguments with people interpreting Marxism STRICTLY as #5, when I am using it in the ways outlined by #3 and #6. Such discussions are bound to fail because we are literally talking about different things without realizing it, and no constructive dialogue can blossom out of that fundamental miscommunication.
So, whether you are sympathetic to Marxism or are firmly opposed to it, I hope you keep these distinctions in mind going forward, and do your best to articulate them explicitly when engaging in dialogue about Marx and Marxism. It’s not only an intellectual obligation, its also a moral one, because in these times of rapid change, ubiquitous corruption, and constant upheaval, understanding Marx, and what he had to offer, is more important than ever.