So something strange I've been thinking lately is that Marx & Engels are still pretty popular figures, even though their ideologues can be interpreted to be failures. They have numerous statues and continue to be cited over and over again, even though their ideas could argued to not be very good.

So is the "legacy" of Marx & Engels unwarranted?

Can it be merely an ideological interpretation? That is, that certain groups find them "legendary"?

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    Their ideologues can be interpreted to be failures. I think for this statement to be assessed, you need to be much clearer as to what you mean by "their ideologies" and what you would consider as failure. May 8, 2018 at 11:51
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    @DavidBlomstrom "something one can confirm by mere observation". That's the same form of mere observation which also confirms that hospitals spread diseases, isn't it? (I'm concerned with logics not with politics here) May 9, 2018 at 12:48
  • @cbeleites Yeah well, statistically "mere observation" is ambiguous. Since in practice many investigations usually develop many logical consequences with varying contradictions. That is, there often isn't just "one way". In practice accurate prediction often requires statistics over statistics, meaning that one ought to group previous studies and study them again by taking the outcomes that they made as new variables.
    – mavavilj
    May 9, 2018 at 13:26

3 Answers 3



Marx and Engels were political and economic theorists and revolutionaries who analysed the nature of capitalism as it stood in their time - 150 years ago - and diagnosed its inherent faults as these appeared to them. Though capitalism has transformed itself in many ways it is still an economic system in which the main pattern of ownership is private property. Private property, in particular capital goods, served the interests of owners of private property : wages were kept as low as possible, prices were kept as high as was practicable for profit, goods and services were created regardless of human need, and whoever could not afford to buy the essentials for life (food, health care and so on) were left outside the economic system - they were the concern of charities and the state.

Workers were exploited through low wages, with the owners of capital picking up the difference between the cost of producing goods and services and the wages paid to labour. Along with exploitation went alienation; the worker sold his or her labour in order to live but had no control over what they produced.

The economy was seen as the basis of the political and social system, with the law and morality accommodating the economic system.

This sketches Marxism in big, crude lines. The enduring attraction of Marx and Engels is that not a few people see in Marx's depiction of capitalism the economic system that prevails in the West and increasingly elsewhere today. Marx's diagnosis seems to them penetrating and sound, no matter that the precise forms of capitalism have changed.

To the extent that this is so - on which I make no comment - Marxism has not been disproved or exploded. Marx offered a permanently relevant diagnosis of the ills of capitalism. I am not trying to make Marx appeal to you; I am only trying to explain why he continues to appeal to a not inconsiderable number of people.


What was exploded was something with which Marx and Engels had nothing to do, namely the Communist regimes set up in Russia after 1917 and China after 1949. Marx left no blueprint for how to conduct politics or to reform the economy beyond what can be read off from his critique of capitalism. But one point is that while Marx expected capitalism to collapse under the impact of class consciousness - basically, of the working class realising that they were being exploited and rising en masse to overthrow the capitalist economic system - what happened in Russia and China was nothing of the sort. Communism, supposedly an embodiment of Marx's ideas, was imposed by revolutionary elites on the masses. The masses did not impose the system; they had the system imposed on them. Whatever Marx had, it was not a predictive science of politics.


☛ Dictatorship

From the elites who imposed communism arose the dictatorships of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. While Marx envisaged 'the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat' [mainly industrial working class], a period of transition in which the proletariat would wrench control of the economic system from capitalists ('Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875, 327), what they got was dictatorship over the proletariat in which the revolutionary elites imposed an iron-grip control over them.

None of this derives from Marx.

☛ Central planning

What also came with communism was a centrally planned economy. This again was not Marx's idea. He wanted the workers to run the economy, and said nothing about the state organising the economy from the centre. Von Mises and Hayek and many others have argued on epistemological grounds that a centrally planned economy is inherently flawed and inefficient. This is a matter for technical economic debate. Practically both Soviet and Chinese communism were mired in inefficiency. Whether this was inevitably so, as von Mises and Hayek would argue, or just because they were badly planned and miserably mismanaged, is a question not to be settled here.


Marx's diagnosis of capitalism still seems relevant to not a few. No comment. The regimes that were set up in Marx's name in Russia and China, with their personal dictatorships and central planning, cannot bear the imprimatur of Marx's approval. Marx once said he was not a Marxist - was not as he was interpreted. He would not have recanted that remark in Soviet Russia or Communist China.

[I have given priority to Marx over 'Marx and Engels' because Marx was the creative thinker, Engels the lesser figure.]


K. Marx, 'Critique of the Gotha Programme', Karl Marx & Frederick (sic) Engels, Selected Works in One Volume, London : Lawrence & Wishart, 1968.

Cliff, Tony, Marxism at the Millennium, ISBN 10: 1898876665 / ISBN 13: 9781898876663 Published by Bookmarks, 2000.

Renton, David, Classical Marxism: Socialist Theory and the Second International, ISBN 10: 1873797354 / ISBN 13: 9781873797358 Published by New Clarion Press, 2002.

Brown, Archie, The Rise and Fall of Communism, ISBN 10: 0224078798 / ISBN 13: 9780224078795 Published by Bodley Head, 2009.

F.A. Hayek; Ludwig von Mises; Georg Halm; Enrico Barone; N.G. Pierson, Collectivist Economic Planning, ISBN 10: 1610161629 / ISBN 13: 9781610161626 Published by Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2015.


Part of the issue here is that the people heavily quoting Marx and Engels, and building statues to them, presumably are supporters of their views and hence they do not interpret their ideology as a failure. It is fair to say that Marx and Engels represent two of the primary theorists of socialist ideas and so they are still popular among socialists. (You will find that only a relatively small number of socialists have a sound knowledge of the writings of Marx and Engels; the rest merely take for granted that they were important theorists.) Personally, I agree with the view that socialism is a failure, and the ideas behind it are wrong, but people like me are not heavily citing Marx or building statues to him.

Even from a critical perspective (regarding his ideas as incorrect, which I do), Marx (and to a lesser extent Engels) has a justifiably legacy as a thinker for some of the economic and social theories he put forward. A few of his main contributions that stand out are:

  • Logical consequences of the labour-theory-of-value: Marx built on the "labour theory of value" that was used by many of the classical economists at the time he was writing (i.e., prior to the marginalist revolution in economics). His philosophy can therefore be regarded, to some extent, as the logical reductio of that economic theory. If value is created solely by labour, then it stands to reason that labourers contribute all the value, which means capitalists contribute nothing, which means they are parasites, etc. Marx was the only classical economist to take this idea through to its logical conclusion and show what it would mean. Marx was an admirer of the classical economist Adam Smith (see e.g., Pack 2013), and he says himself that he is extending and correcting the earlier theory of Smith and other classical economists. Unfortunately the "correction" he applies takes one of the main wrong ideas from the early classical economics, and extends this to its logical conclusion. Marx is correct that he was following Adam Smith in regard to the theory of value (since Smith and the other early economists also did not have a good theory of value). His own theory pushes the incorrect theory of value to its logical limits. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a disaster, but it is nonetheless useful to understand the logical implications of the (flawed) labor theory of value.

  • Dialectical materialism and historical materialism: Marx built on the dialectic theory of Hegel to develop a theory of human society and history, whereby the productive superstructure of society determines the social relations among men, which in turn generates ideology as a defensive by-product of the extant social relations. He certainly didn't invent the dialectical method, but he did popularise it as a method of historical explanation. Marx argued that the necessity for human production asserts itself as the primary force in society, and human social relations conform around the structure of production that exists in society at any given time, with resultant ideas and ideology resulting as a product of the structure of production. This turns on its head the notion that ideas and ideology generate social relations, which in turn lead to economic organisation. Marx argued that human productive relations would go through stages (developing through feudalism, to capitalism, then socialism, then communism), with each stage being an inevitable causal result of tensions in the previous modes of production. (Marx never gave a full account of his theory of history, so it has been elaborated by other writers based on his writing.) On the broad issue of dialectic theory, Hegel was certainly the more influential thinker, and some might regard Marx as adding little, but I personally think he added quite a bit, insofar as showing a practical implementation of the dialectic method in history.

  • A historical explanation of capitalism: Marx gives a historical explanation of capitalism as a "revolutionary force" that overcame feudalism and marked a new stage of productive relations in human history. Opinions vary on the quality and accuracy of his exposition of capitalism. While Marx was critical of capitalism (he regarded it as a system whose time had passed), he nevertheless regarded it as a necessary step of history, which overthrows feudalism, and which he believed was a precursor to socialism. Marx explained capitalism as arising out of the weakening of feudal relations of serfdom, whereby the peasant class came to be autonomous labourers, and people other than the feudal lords were able to own the means of production. Former peasants then traded their labour, and owners of the means of production traded the goods created by that labour. Those who accumulated large amounts of capital became the new capitalist class and their power overcame the old feudal lords and supplanted the feudal system with the capitalist system. In regard to this point, it is worth stressing that Marx was a critic of capitalism, but he also had a very positive view of it as a historical stage of evolution.

If you are like me, and think Marx is wrong on his theoretical issues (e.g., labour theory, dialectical materialism), and that subsequent implementation of his theories have been a disaster, it is nonetheless valuable to have an understanding of the arguments he made, and why they lead logically to where they do. In particular, I have personally found it quite "mind expanding" to think about Marx's ideas about dialectical materialism, since it challenges the notion that "ideas matter" and it challenges you to understand the relationship between production and ideology in society. In my view, Marx's theory is wrong about this, but it is no more wrong than the opposite theory which says that ideas are the ultimate cause of all human social relations and the resulting structure of production. (My view is that it is an economic interaction --- both exert causal influence on the other until an equilibrium obtains. I probably would not have figured this out if I had never read Marx.)

As to whether Marx and Engels are over-cited, relative to their contribution to thought, I personally agree that they are. That is really just a reflection of the fact that socialist thought is massively over-represented in academia. For many socialists, Marx and Engels represent two of the foremost thinkers of history.

  • There is some good material in Michael Harrington's "The Twilight of Capitalism" Simon & Schuster, 1977. Obviously this has been a long twilight now looking back from today, and capitalism is still here. But the discussion of economist Piero Sraffa's work (p.147 and onwards) may be of interest. This relates to Marx's concepts of dead and living labor. A machine itself is a reification of dead labor, the tools that made the machine are dead labor and on and on. This gets into how we define a production period. I can highly recommend this book.
    – Gordon
    May 8, 2018 at 4:01
  • Good points. Particularly I notice that I might personally be overestimating the "triviality" of Marx's ideas, because I think that for example to draw the "logical consequences" from labour theory of value as well as to draw the labour theory of value, one doesn't need to be some sort of expert. Any worker (so basically anyone that has a job) ought to be able to interpret the same thing, if they come to think about it as a problem. This could possibly also mean that ideologues such as marxism are "in the wrong size", because the individuals can do a lot more thinking than isms.
    – mavavilj
    May 8, 2018 at 7:37
  • Or put in another way, Marx & Engels for example should not necessarily be held as "ideological authorities", but rather normal people that had some ideas. However their professional designations can (falsely) imply as if they're somehow "more experts" than some others. By the same logic a theologian could be interpreted to be more expert than some others, but the material he deals with is not very real.
    – mavavilj
    May 8, 2018 at 7:39
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    @mavavilj Socialists tend to have one thing in common - the belief that most people are just sheep, clay to be molded by a leader and laws to guide every aspect of their life, and the special, super-people who make those laws and those leaders. They imagine themselves to be of the latter kind, of course - so there's no hypocrisy in their mind about this. They're the special guys, so they get the special rules (usually "no rules"). You can see this in any political beer debate - it's always the others who are stupid and irresponsible and need to be guided, not you, of course.
    – Luaan
    May 9, 2018 at 15:00
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    @Gábor Well, I'd guess you'd be hard pressed to find a political party in Europe that isn't socialist. There's some difference in magnitude, but even that is pretty small. The radical parties are invariably even more socialist than the "moderates". In political landscape at least, socialism has definitely won - it's something people take as entirely normal, and you're the weird one if you suggest perhaps the state shouldn't be all-powerful and responsible for everything. I do know some parties that are seriously free-market, but those are pretty marginal.
    – Luaan
    May 9, 2018 at 17:15

The problems with the communism are inherent to the system. The flaws in communism had already been analysed long before 1917 and the dictatorships that followed.

I think it's best summed-up in R.L. Dabney's 1897 "Practical Philosophy," in the chapter where he reviews Communism:

... the small successes which a few communes have attained (where the larger number have been speedy failures) would disappear utterly when communism was extended to all the citizens of a commonwealth. As the society grew wider, the personal impulse to individual zeal and thrift would grow weaker, the all embracing commune would tend towards the hopeless laziness indifference and misery of the savage tribe. In these we have the completed type.

-- The Practical Philosophy, Robert Lewis Dabney, 1897

He goes on,

I argue next that communism must either fail utterly or develop itself into a rigid system of slavery. Let common sense analyze its necessary workings. The powerful motives of self interest and domestic affection are discarded. In their place communism proposes that the society shall have all things common, that every person shall labor for the common stock. Then, both necessity and justice will imperiously demand, that those who do not contribute their share should not draw out their share. The rule of the commune must literally be, "If any man will not work neither shall he eat." This class of members, then, must either starve or be compelled to work. Compelled by whom? By the communes? But this is a corporation, an ideal person; it can only act practically upon its members, through its officers. Its theory is that of thorough equality. The compulsion which is exercised upon the many must be exercised upon all. The corporation must be absolute in its title to dictate to each member how much labor he shall contribute, in order to be entitled to draw out his share of good. For, when once the selfish estimate of individuals is allowed to decide that question, there will be an end of equity, an end of harmony, an end of plenty, and a speedy, final explosion. The result must be, then, that each member must be enslaved to the corporation; which is to say, they must be enslaved to the individuals who wield the official power of the corporation.

-- The Practical Philosophy, Robert Lewis Dabney, 1897

and continues,

The result would be the most iniquitous and cruel slavery ever witnessed on earth. The successful demagogues would be the masters, their subservient office-holders would be the slave-drivers, and the citizens and their wives and and children would be the slaves. I am well aware of the attempted reply, that the few successful communes among us by no means enslave their members; but whenever these deem the terms and rules of the society unsuitable, they are left free to withdraw. The rulers wield no penalty except simple dismissal, which restores the discontented member to his liberty. But this deceitful reply seeks to turn our eyes away from a cardinal fact, which, as soon as it is named, discloses its worthlessness. Communism seeks to make itself universal. It aims to possess the commonwealth, and to embrace all the citizens. Now when the commune is the commonwealth, whither shall this dissatisfied member be dismissed? To outlawry? That is the only result, for there is no rival commune in the same commonwealth to which the dismissed man may resort. The penalty, then, is either outlawry or banishment; and this, of course, must be accompanied by absolute poverty, for the all-embracing commune holds all the property.

-- The Practical Philosophy, Robert Lewis Dabney, 1897

(Here Dabney finally makes a mistake and doesn't foresee that a communist nation-state might simply eliminate the dissidents)

In my humble opinion, rather than "hijacking Communism" the communist leaders: Lenin, Stalin, and Mao, simply took the ideology to its predicted, inevitable, logical conclusion, and were transformed into the tyrants that the system required. Marx and Engels couldn't foresee the horrors that their system unleashed in the 1900s, but the problems with Communism started at the beginning while it was still just ink on paper.

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    Did Marx not popularize the slogan "from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs"? I think the issue with this critique is that it is viewed from a model of economic scarcity where human labour is still a requirement to meet one's basic needs. Marx (in Fundamentals of Political Economy Criticism) argued that advances in automation would allow human labor to be significantly reduced to the point that a post-scarcity society could meet the basic needs for all people while allowing them leisure time. This would coincide with, and be allowed for by, a post-capitalist society.
    – Ash
    May 9, 2018 at 9:20
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    I don't think Dabney didn't anticipate this. If you read through a couple of (non-socialist) books of the era, at least the good ones, they're usually extremely positive - they assume everyone is behaving as nicely as reasonably possible, and point out that even then the system fails. Eliminating dissidents is worse (ethically) than banishing them, and banishing them is already a death sentence! Even long before Marx, this has been pointed out by people like Frédéric Bastiat, who tried to save revolutionary France from going down that hole. Marx was probably inspired by France.
    – Luaan
    May 9, 2018 at 15:06
  • @Ashley The tricky bit is that he both assumed that automation would make almost all labor effortless, while at the same time assuming there's no value in capital (machines, technology etc.). And while you can imagine everyone having bread for pretty much free, it's a bit trickier to imagine a society where you have unlimited best seats in the theater, for example, or where everyone can use the same best 100 meters of a beach at the same time. He didn't realize most labor would progressively turn into services, rather than agriculture and industry.
    – Luaan
    May 9, 2018 at 15:10
  • @Ashley Look at people now. How much of your gross income is spent on bare-bone life essentials? If you resorted to a minimal living standard, how much work would you really have to do? And yet you choose to work, as do most people, just to improve your condition (and the condition of your family, offspring etc.). And that choice is yours - nobody can make it for you. Some people like the freedom of not having a steady job, while others like the freedom of having a steady job. I personally know a few people who work only as much as necessary; they treat free time as the scarcest good.
    – Luaan
    May 9, 2018 at 15:14

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