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Objectives

  1. Students will be able to define Marxism and explain its concept of historical progress.
  2. Students will understand how and why Marxism spread among intellectuals, workers, and peasants of Europe.
  3. Students will be able to compare and contrast Marxism with other political and economic systems (such as capitalism, socialism, fascism, and liberalism) and put it into its proper historical and philosophical context.
  4. Students will understand the social and political impact of Marxism in the twentieth-century world.

Preparatory Take-Home Assignment

Have students read The Communist Manifesto (1848). Have them write short-answer essays of one to two paragraphs on three out of four of the following questions.

  1. Who is the bourgeoisie? Who is the proletariat? How do they interact in capitalist society? What is the role of capital in society? Of labor?
  2. What are the objectives of communism?
  3. What is the authors' conception of a socialist state? How does this state compare to the United States government today?
  4. The two most famous quotes from this influential book are: "A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism" and "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workingmen of all countries, unite!" Choose one of the quotations and explain what the authors mean. Why do you think people have focused on these quotes?

Please note that some students may have difficulty with the terminology and historical references in the book. While challenging, this should not impede the general understanding of Marx and Engels' main arguments. Also, if you would like to shorten the reading, part 3 of the Manifesto may be expendable. If you are focusing on other variations of socialism, it would be best to leave this section in.

I. Background

A. Roots of Marxism
Emphasize that Marxism did not appear out of a vacuum. It developed out of a long tradition of socialism, Hegelian philosophy, the Enlightenment, and the brutal working conditions of the Industrial Revolution.

B. Biography of Karl Marx
Present a biography of Karl Marx (1818-83):

Karl Marx was born into a middle-class family in Trier, Prussia. After earning a doctorate, he became a journalist but was exiled from Germany due to his radical political philosophy and attacks against censorship. He moved to France, where he continued to publish revolutionary papers. While in Paris, he and Frederick Engels (1820-95) became close friends and began to collaborate. Marx was exiled from Paris in 1845 and moved to Brussels. There, in 1847, he and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, which appeared in February 1848. Marx finally settled in London, England, where he lived out the rest of his life. Marx continued to develop his ideas of "scientific socialism" in works such as Capital. He was also a leader in international radical socialist and anti-capitalist organizations.

Engels was the son of a wealthy factory owner. He supported Marx's ideas, but Engels's writings emphasized the effects of capitalism and the Industrial Revolution on the family.

To review the biographies of Marx and Engels, use the links listed below. The last site includes a biography of Engels written by V. I. Lenin.

Karl Marx
An Analysis of the Communist Manifesto
Biographical Article on Frederick Engels

C. Influence of Hegelian Philosophy on Marxism
Marx was heavily influenced by the writings of Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel (1770-1831). Hegel understood history to be a dialectical process in which there was conflict between the established order (the thesis) and the challenge to the order (the antithesis). A synthesis would emerge that was a step ahead of the old system. Hegel believed that an individual, a hero, was crucial to the advancement of this dialectical process. Marx took Hegel's general dialectical understanding of history and "turned him on his head." That is, Marx applied Hegelianism to society and economics.

Exercise
To help the students to understand and apply the concept of dialectical analysis, you can ask them to think about the recent history of aspects of popular culture, such as clothing trends or musical trends.

II. Marxist Philosophy

Have students discuss their short essays on The Communist Manifesto. Divide them into groups based on the four preparatory questions. Have them discuss and compare answers and then do a brief presentation summarizing their answers.

III. Marxism Compared

A. Marxism and Socialism
Marx and his followers emphasized that Marxism was "scientific socialism" — that is, that Marxist philosophy was grounded in empirical historical, sociological, and economic data. Scientific socialism also distinguished Marxism from "utopian socialism."

B. Marxism and Capitalism
Exercise
Divide the class in two groups and stage a debate between Marxism and capitalism. Make sure that students do not rely solely on emotion, but also base their arguments on the ideals of the philosophies. The debate should show some of the supposed failures of Marxism in practice — no incentive to work, the propensity of Marxist-style governments to result in dictatorial governments, difficulty in achieving economic and social equality, and so forth. If the students bring these weaknesses up themselves, ask them how a Marxist thinker would resolve these problems.

The idea of this exercise is to contrast political philosophies, enumerate the ideals of Marxism, and think critically about the advantages and disadvantages of Marxism.

IV. The Spread of Marxism

Marx was not a political orator. He was an intellectual who wrote great tomes and largely stayed away from the workers. It was up to other Marxist political agitators to spread the word about the ideology.

Use primary sources to show the dissemination of Marxism.

Exercise
Listen to the song "The Internationale" and distribute the lyrics. "The Internationale," written in 1871 by a French worker, has been translated into several languages and was one of the methods political activists used to persuade workers to support Marxist and socialist activities.

What do the lyrics tell people to do? Songs were common instruments to spark workers' enthusiasm about Marxism and socialism. Discuss other ways that intellectuals and political activists disseminated their ideas among a largely illiterate population who spent most of their time at work. Talk about pamphlets, pictures, lectures, and so forth.

You can also talk about the central role of education in Marxist political activity. Marxism was part of the Enlightenment tradition that stressed rationality, the absence of a divine being, equality of all religions, and most of all the need for education for all. Marxist organizers operated night and weekend schools to teach reading and spread propaganda.

Additional Resources

Online
Marxists Internet Arc

This the best free online resource. It has several works by Marx, Engels, Vladimir Lenin, and Leon Trotsky; images; biographies of major Marxist leaders; and essays on a variety of topics of interest to Marxists. This site is run by Marxists, and the essays reflect their political viewpoint.

Books
Curtis, Michael, ed. Marxism: The Inner Dialogues. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1997.
This is a collection of challenging essays for advanced students who want to understand debates among scholars about Marxist philosophy and teachings and its weaknesses.

Heilbroner, Robert L. Marxism, For and Against. New York: Norton, 1980.
An overview of the pros and cons of Marxism.

Sowell, Thomas. Marxism: Philosophy and Economics. New York: Morrow, 1985.
Sowell outlines the Marxist view of history and sets Marx in his historical context.

Strathern, Paul. Marx in Ninety Minutes. New York: Ivan R. Dee, 2001.
A short introduction to the basics of Marxism.

Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton and Co., 1972.
This reader has a wonderful biographical essay and chronology of Marx and Engels as well as a selection of primary sources.