Marxism is the intellectual tradition that arose out of the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. It encompasses a whole range of ideas, including an approach towards history, an analysis of capitalism and a new vision of the future.
Marxism is not an unchanging or dogmatic system. Marx's ideas constantly evolved throughout his life and in fact one of the main principles of Marxism is the fluidity of how we conceive things and each other, as he puts it, “nothing is established for all times, nothing is absolute or sacred.”
Marxism is not a roadmap to the future, it is a vision of what the future may hold in store for us based on an analysis of our current society.
Marxism is not a form of government nor does it believe in a state governing over every aspect of our lives.
Marx discovered that throughout the history of human progress, society has taken many different forms and adjusted itself constantly; but he identified a certain defining aspect that governed how different societies were structured: class and its relation to the means of production. He found that the struggle between the classes occurred all throughout history. This approach is called historical materialism.
"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." -Marx
Marx realized through his interpretation of history that capitalism is but one form under which society has organized itself, and a relatively new one at that. Before capitalism there was feudalism, which had completely different social relations. Capitalism is generally seen to have emerged during the Industrial Revolution, though in some countries capitalism didn't emerge until well into the 20 th century.
Socialism and communism are two different stages of a post-capitalist society. Marx most often characterized this as the 'lower stage' of communism (socialism) and the 'higher stage' of communism (pure communism).
The 'lower stage' of communism, or socialism, is characterized by the working class taking control of the means of production and putting it into common ownership to be run democratically by worker's unions or cooperatives. Aspects of capitalism may still exist because as the history of capitalism itself has shown us, there is no single definitive date between the end of the old society and the birth of the new one.
The 'higher stage' of communism, that is, pure communism, comes after all aspects of the previous capitalist society have disappeared: Production is run democratically by workers, money is abolished and everything is accessible freely, there is no state and no classes. Contrary to popular conception, communism is not meant to be a perfect utopian society, it is merely a form of society under which men and women can more freely live amongst each other.
The proletariat is basically an all-encompassing term for the working class, or more specifically, anyone who under capitalism has to live by working for a wage. This includes the unemployed and retired.
The proletariat has not always existed. Prior to capitalism, there were serfs who worked to live on a noble's land. The proletariat rents out his/her labor for a certain amount of time each day for a wage.
The means of production are the means by which commodities are produced. Everything that is sold or bought on the market is a commodity. The means of production (under capitalism) are the factories, machines and the resources and tools by which that commodity was produced.
Private property is the private ownership of the means of production. Because something like a factory has a primarily social character, it is different from a personal possession like a toothbrush. Personal possessions have no inherent social character and are the results of production, not the means.
The dominant and ruling social class under capitalism are the bourgeoisie. This class owns and controls the means of production and as a result of that, owns and controls a good majority of the economic wealth of society. A CEO or investor belong to this class.
Because the proletariat do not own or control the means of production, they have to rent out their labor for a wage.
Perhaps Marx's finest achievement was his socio-economic analysis of capitalism. He noted that certain antagonisms and contradictions arise out of the capitalist system These contradictions manifest themselves most clearly during periodic crisis in the economy.
Throughout history, each mode of production has carried with it a political character. Simultaneous to the Industrial Revolution was a series of revolutions that overthrew the absolutist monarchy and established the bourgeoisie as the ruling class. Such revolutions appeared in England 1688, America 1775 and France 1789, to name a few. These political revolutions paved way for the establishment of liberal democracy and capitalism.
Democracy is historically a very loose term because it is a form of government (like monarchies or empires) that transcend historical modes of production. Direct democracy existed in the slave-society of Athens, just as representative democracy (or, a republic) existed in Rome prior to the Empire.
But just as democracy had existed prior to capitalism, it will exist after it. Socialism and communism are further extensions of democracy. Bourgeois/liberal democracy creates limits because it is primarily based on the rule of the bourgeois class who are elected democratically as 'representatives' of the masses (that is, the proletariat).
Thus despite the democratic form of elections, the bourgeois maintain power above the proletariat because these representatives (politicians) come from and are influenced by the ruling class (as we can see today through lobbying).
The 'lower phase' of communism, or socialism, is a form of democracy based off of the rule of the masses (the proletariat). Because the means of production will be owned and controlled by the public, there will be no ruling class that limits democracy through the influence of money.
The government will take the form of a democratic state run by elected (and re-callable) worker's councils or unions existing to represent not only different regions, but different trades and demographics.
Once there comes a point in which the forces of production have developed to which goods can be accessed freely and equally by all, classes begin to disappear and the state becomes redundant and withers away. Democracy takes the form of a means of stateless organization among freely associating individuals.
A precursor to this can be seen in the 'primitive' communist hunter-gatherer societies of the Native Americans and other societies prior to civilization. The difference is that communism comes at the highest stage of productive development while hunter-gatherer societies exist just prior to the creation of the productive forces.
Marx's idea of revolution is based on the self-emancipation of the working class of all nations . That is, socialism cannot come about in just one country; the proletariat revolution must be of an international character, for the goal of worker's emancipation is to establish a society not limited by arbitrarily defined boarders.
Capitalism is in crisis. Just as Marx predicted, the inherent contradictions of the capitalist economy result in periods of major crisis. But it is the job of us, the working class, to look towards a better world. Communism is not the past, but the future!