- History of a Word
- “What is certain is that I am not a Marxist.”— Karl MarxThe history of the word Marxism tells us something of the history of Marxism itself. The development of the word, of linked words and of qualifying terms is the surface trace of deep struggles within the radical labor movement. Marxism as a movement and as an ideology has always involved fierce controversies, partly as a result of the great richness, not to mention ambiguities, of Marx’s writings, but also reflecting the fact that Marxism has always been rooted in political struggle. Schisms have occurred and factions arisen out of real political, and sometimes personal, disputes. From battles with other socialists and with anarchists to fights between rival Marxist camps, the Marxist vocabulary has grown acting as a set of signposts pointing to the twists and turns of Marxist history.Initially the term Marxism and the closely related terms Marxian and Marxist were used by opponents of Marx and his followers.1 As early as the 1840s opponents of Marx referred to the Marx party, and by the 1850s the term Marxian was being used by supporters of Wilhelm Weitling to refer to those they saw as blindly following Marx’s teachings. Within the First International (1864–1876) the anarchist Michael Bakunin and his disciples used the terms Marxian, Marxids, and Marxists to refer disparagingly to Marx and his adherents, and to their outlook and deeds. For example, Bakunin’s followers would typically use the term Marxist in such phrases as Marxist falsifications, always with some negative connotation.The word Marxism seems to have appeared first in the 1880s, and, although its originator cannot be clearly identified, it was certainly used in 1882 by the anarchist Paul Brousse in a pamphlet criticising Marxists entitled Le Marxisme dans l’Internationale. In the 1880s the term Marxism also started to be used in a more positive sense in radical circles in Russia to refer to the movement inspired by Marx. Elsewhere, again shaking off the negative associations the term Marxist was used by many to describe the 1889 International Workers’ Congress in Paris, and the terms Marxist and Marxism were used with increasing frequency from the 1880s on by groups, parties and activists wishing to associate themselves with Marx. At this stage those calling themselves Marxists or Marxians did not necessarily embrace Marx’s theoretical position, being swayed more by Marx’s personal authority and standing.Marx’s intellect, strong personality, and tactical maneuvering within the First International made him dominant within the European labor movement of the time, and he achieved wider fame through the aligning of the International with the Paris uprising and the Paris Commune in 1871. Marx was identified by the press of the time as the head of the dangerous International giving him a wider reputation. Marx’s actual theories and ideas were more slowly disseminated. Initially, the main vehicle for propagating Marx’s ideas was the set of basic documents of the First International that Marx wrote and/or edited. Among these were the Inaugural Address, Congress resolutions, and the Addresses to the Council of the First International including the important addresses on the civil war in France at the time. Gradually the ideas and language of Marx’s theoretical standpoint permeated the socialist movement, mixing with the existing and competing arguments and terms.Marxism as a distinct and dominant ideology also developed slowly but steadily. Friedrich Engels played a key role in creating a Marxist movement and system of ideas. His Anti-Dühring published in article form during 1877–1878 clearly demarcated Marx’s ideas from those of his rivals who, notably Karl Dühring and the “utopian socialists,” were subjected to scathing criticism. This enormously influential work helped to make Marxism the dominant ideology of European socialism, and, in particular, to make it the ideology of the preeminent European socialists, the German social democrats. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) leaders, August Bebel, Karl Liebknecht, Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, all embraced Marxism, via Engels, as a system of ideas, and as a label to apply to themselves and the movement they headed. Kautsky in particular took up the terms Marxist and Marxism and used them in a systematic and positive way to refer to the views he advocated and the system of ideas he sought to further within the social democratic movement. Fighting against the “eclectic socialism” of the time that mixed various ideas and viewpoints, Kautsky more than anyone created an explicit and distinctive Marxist school and program. As editor of the SPD’s theory journal Neue Zeit Kautsky sought to advance the Marxist school and the idea of Marxism as a science of history. By 1895 the Encyclopaedia Meyer included the word Marxist, and in 1897 the first socialist encyclopaedia, Handbuch des Sozialismus, referred to Marxist socialism. By the new century Marxism and Marxist were in common usage, being particularly strongly identified with the German Social Democratic Party and organizations of a similar outlook. The Russian Marxists, especially Vladimir Ilich Lenin, commonly used the term as well, although some Marxists, for example Rosa Luxemburg, still favored other labels such as scientific socialism or social democracy.In the 20th century the history of the terms Marxism and Marxist becomes the history of Marxism’s divisions and developments. Qualifying terms abound, such as Marxism–Leninism, Marxism–Leninism– Maoism, Austro-Marxism, analytical Marxism, structural Marxism, and even post-Marxism. Also, alternative terms have been created to distinguish schools and sides within the Marxist camp, for example, revisionism, Bolshevism, Menshevism, Trotskyism, Stalinism and Castroism.So, the neologisms based on Marx’s name were born out of the struggle within the socialist movement, initially terms of denunciation that became proud labels. They referred to movements, ideas and individuals, and with their acceptance came the divergence in their usage. They have always been contested terms with some of the fiercest battles being between rival Marxists questioning what was authentic Marxism. As for Marx and Engels themselves, they avoided or resisted the use of such terms as Marxist or Marxism. Marx feared that the use of such terms would marginalize his ideas and supporters by encouraging the view that they were a sect centered on Marx. Marx and Engels preferred terms such as critical materialist socialism, critical and revolutionary socialism, or scientific socialism. It is worth mentioning in this context Marx’s remark quoted by Engels. Marx purportedly said, “What is certain is that I am not a Marxist,” a comment intended to distance Marx from some of the ideas and groups in France claiming to be Marxist and indicative of his distaste of such labels in the first place.The other words most often used to label Marx’s ideas and his followers are communist and communism, and the most famous work of Marx and Engels is titled Communist Manifesto. The words were not and are not exclusively used to refer to Marxism and Marxists, both being used and claimed by other socialists, including during Marx’s time Louis Blanqui and his supporters. Marx and Engels used the word communism in two related ways: to refer to the political movement of workers; and as a name for the society that would follow capitalism. Marxism and communism are more often than not used interchangeably, and most Marxist-inspired organizations employ the word communist to describe themselves. One final lexical clarification that should be made regards the term social democratic. Today it usually refers to moderate, reformist center-left ideas and organizations, but in the late 19th and early 20th century it was a term adopted by German and Russian Marxists (among others) to denote their political outlooks and parties.
Historical dictionary of Marxism. David Walker and Daniel Gray . 2014.