This is a scary and dangerous term for many in American culture - seen as referring to an ideology aimed at the violent overthrow of capitalism and democracy and the establishment of communism.  Many regard Marx as directly responsible for the 100 million murders committed by the Marxist regimes of the 20th century, including those of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Tito, Castro, and others.  From this perspective, Marxism is an intellectual virus that caused far more fatalities than did Nazism - and we should abhor Marxism in much the same way that we abhor Nazism.

To students of Marx and to activists inspired by Marx, however, the picture of Marxism just painted could not be further from the truth. Far from aiming at the overthrow of democracy, Marxists see themselves as trying to expand the domain of democracy.  For these, Marxism can be seen as posing two questions to capitalism:  Why is there poverty and unmet basic needs in the midst of the abundance which the capitalist system has produced?  And why are the democratic principles we take for granted in the political sphere largely absent in the economic sphere (e.g. at work)?  The Marxist answer is that under capitalism, the system of wealth production is owned and controlled by a tiny minority of capitalists, and the motivating force of production is profit, not human need.  The Marxist program for reformation and/or revolution is thus to “socialize” (that is, to democratize) the means of production and to organize production around the principle of meeting human needs and desires, rather than maximizing profit.  

How to actually achieve this democratization of both the economic and political spheres of life is where many currents in the world of Marxism have gone their separate ways, with some tending towards the advocacy of a more centrally and rationally planned economy, and others (on the more “anarchic” end of the Marxist spectrum) advocating more locally controlled and decentralized approaches to the meeting of human needs. All currents of Marxism, however, make maximization of democratic principles a priority, and thus, from a Marxist point of view, any political system claiming to be “Marxist” would also have to be profoundly democratic.  For Marxists, then, “Marxist dictator” is an oxymoron, and the regimes popularly associated with Marxism (the USSR under Stalin, China under Mao) are antithetical to actual Marxist values and principles.

From another point of view on the left, Marxism reflects a utopian ideology, whose ideals, while laudable (some of them), must nevertheless be brought into a realistic compromise with the reality of free market capitalism, which must be regulated (largely in line with socialist principles) but not entirely reformed or revolutionized.

Although little apparent open dialogue between Marxist and Capitalist approaches seems to be happening, there are promising attempts to make more space for this. Arthur Peña, for instance, hosts conversations in California called, “Karl Marx and Adam Smith needs to talk.”


It’s hard to imagine two more opposed views:  Marxism as the enemy of democracy vs. Marxism as the champion of democracy.  How do you think people come to such startling different understandings of what “Marxism” means?   

Conversation Catalysts: 

Michael Strong, Arthur M. Peña

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