The first impact of Marxism was felt in continental Europe. By the late 19th cent., through the influence of the Internationals, it had permeated the European trade union movement, and the major socialist parties (see Socialist parties, in European history) were committed to it in theory if not in practice. A major division soon appeared, however, between those socialists who believed that violent revolution was inevitable and those, most notably Eduard Bernstein, who argued that socialism could be achieved by evolution; both groups could cite Marx as their authority because he was inconsistent in his writings on this question.
The success of the revolutionary socialists (hereafter called Communists) in the Russian Revolution and the establishment of an authoritarian Communist state in Russia split the movement irrevocably. In disassociating themselves from dictatorial Russian Communism, many of the democratic socialist parties also moved slowly away from Marxist theory. Communists, on the other hand, regarded Marxism as their official dogma, and it is chiefly under their aegis that it spread through the world, although its concepts of class struggle and exploitation have helped to determine alternative policies of welfare and development in many nations besides those adhering to Communism. However, although useful as a revolutionary ethic and also as a frame of reference and a cue to policy, Marxism has found far less practical application than is often presumed.
The Soviet, Chinese, and other Communist states were at most only partly structured along Marxist "classless" lines, and while such Communist leaders as Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong staunchly claimed Marxist orthodoxy for their pronouncements, they in fact greatly stretched the doctrine in attempting to mold it to their own uses. The evolution of varied forms of welfare capitalism, the improved condition of workers in industrial societies, and the recent demise of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have tended to discredit Marx's dire and deterministic economic predictions. The Soviet and Chinese Communist regimes did not result in the disappearance of the state, but in the erection of huge, monolithic, and largely inefficient state structures.
In the Third World, a legacy of colonialism and anti-imperialist struggle have given Marxism popular support. In Africa, Marxism has had notable impact in such nations as Ethiopia, Benin, Angola, Kenya, and Senegal. In less stable societies Marxism's combination of materialist analysis with a militant sense of justice remains a powerful attraction. Its influence has significantly weakened, however, and seems likely to fade even more since the decline of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe. Indeed, the fall of Communism has led many to predict a similar fate for Marxism. Much of Marxism, because of its close association with Communism, has already been popularly discredited.
In recent years, many Western intellectuals have championed Marxism and repudiated Communism, objecting to the manner in which the two terms are often used interchangeably. A number have turned to Marx's other writings and explored the present-day value of such Marxist concepts as alienation. Among prominent Western Marxists were the Hungarian philosopher György Lukács and the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, both of whom viewed Marxism as a liberation from the rule of political economy and believed in its relationship to the social consciousness. Marxism's influence can be found in disciplines as diverse as economics, history, art, literary criticism, and sociology. German sociologist Max Weber, Frankfurt school theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, British economist Joan Robinson, German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, British literary critic Frederic Jameson, and the French historians of the Annales school have all produced work drawn from Marxist perspectives.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.