Classical Marxism

Im Gasthof zum Löwen in Bendlikon bei Zürich 1893. Von links: Dr. Simon (Schwiegersohn Bebels), Frieda Simon-Bebel, Clara Zetkin, Friedrich Engels, Julie Bebel, August Bebel, Ernst Schattner, Regine Bernstein und Eduard Bernstein
Im Gasthof zum Löwen in Bendlikon bei Zürich 1893. Von links: Dr. Simon (Schwiegersohn Bebels), Frieda Simon-Bebel, Clara Zetkin, Friedrich Engels, Julie Bebel, August Bebel, Ernst Schattner, Regine Bernstein und Eduard Bernstein Foto: Wikipedia Public Domain

The theories and debates considered to be "classical Marxism" are those that were already being discussed during the lifetimes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, in the period of early socialism and within the socialist labour movement, particularly within its organisations and political parties. The term "classical Marxism" is used here to specify a certain temporal and logical field; it does not reflect a value judgement.

Three generations can be distinguished within "classical Marxism." The first comprises the theories of early socialism and the debates conducted during the lifetimes of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The Marxism of the Second International (1889–1914/1918) constitutes a second generation, following which "Marxism-Leninism" (ML) developed into a state doctrine – first in the Soviet Union, following Lenin's death, then in the Third International and, later still, in the real socialist states.

Within this third generation, however, a rupture within Marxism becomes evident. For while Marxism-Leninism situated itself within the tradition of the "classics" and claimed to engage in their "creative application," the genuine advancement of Marxist theories occurred elsewhere: first in "Austro-Marxism" and later in left socialism and left communism, which are treated as variants of "Classical Marxism" here. Thereafter, a Marx-based critique of society developed and renewed itself mainly within those currents that are summarised in the second major category, namely "Western and Heterodox Marxism." On the other hand, some later 20th century currents, such as Trotskyism and Maoism, are attributed to "Classical Marxism".

Early Socialism; Theories and Debates during the Lifetimes of Marx and Engels (prior to and around 1848)

"Early socialism" refers to utopian, democratic, humanist and early anarchist ideas, most of which were discussed prior to the publication of Marx's writings on the critique of political economy, and prior to the formation of the major socialist organisations and associations. In some cases, they precede the revolutionary year of 1848 and the defeats that followed it.

The Marxism of the Second International (1889–1814/1918)

This period comprises the debates conducted during the first decades following Marx's death. These debates were already characterised by intense and open arguments on the "correct" interpretation of his theories and on how to practically implement his critique of society. Its most well-known exponents were typically both recognised theorists and political activists.

The Marxism of the Third International (1819–circa 1945) and "Marxism-Leninism" (from 1924)

This period saw consequential divisions within the labour movement. Unlike earlier periods, these divisions were not so much due to open arguments on the "correct" interpretation, further development or political implementation of Marxist critique.


Austro-Marxism emerged within the context of Austrian social democracy following the First World War. Politically, it was geared towards democratic/parliamentary activities; theoretically, it pursued questions of socialist transformation. In the Historico-Critical Dictionary of Marxism, Austro-Marxism is associated with the period between about 1900 and 1934.

Left Socialism (from 1918)

The term "left socialism" denotes those theories and discussions that emerged, as it were, in the space between dogmatic Marxism-Leninism and the reformism of social democracy, in Western Europe and North America.

Council and Left Communism (from 1920)

During the 1920s, there emerged, from Dutch and German communism, a council communist current that distanced itself both from the Soviet Union's Marxism-Leninism and from social democracy's reformism, and which struggled for theoretical and political independence. Within this development, insistence on the principle of council democracy (as opposed to authoritarian party rule) played a decisive role.

Trotskyism (from 1917)

Trotskyism was initiated by the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, who contributed to the development of Marxist debates by distancing himself from Stalin, on the basis of a critique of the development of bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, while continuing to endorse Lenin. Trotskyism – the term has sometimes been used polemically, to denounce positions that deviated from Moscow's positions – is committed to the international and "permanent" character of revolution.

Maoism (from 1949)

Maoism is based on the writings and policies of Mao Zedong and reached the apex of its importance in China following the revolution of 1949. Around 1970, Mao's China became an important reference point for anti-imperialist and national liberation movements in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as well as for parts of the New Left and the student movement in the West, given its particular approach, which promised an independent socialism, distinct from that of the Soviet Union.