The Marxist philosophical method is dialectical materialism, a reversal of the dialectical idealism of Hegel. Dialectical materialism presumes the primacy of economic determinants in history. Through dialectical materialism was developed the fundamental Marxist premise that the history of society is the inexorable "history of class struggle." According to this premise, a specific class could rule only so long as it best represented the economically productive forces of society; when it became outmoded it would be destroyed and replaced. From this continuing dynamic process a classless society would eventually emerge. In modern capitalist society, the bourgeois (capitalist) class had destroyed and replaced the unproductive feudal nobility and had performed the economically creative task of establishing the new industrial order. The stage was thus set for the final struggle between the bourgeoisie, which had completed its historic role, and the proletariat, composed of the industrial workers, or makers of goods, which had become the true productive class.
Supporting Marxism's historical premises are its economic theories. Of central importance are the labor theory of value and the idea of surplus value. Marxism supposes that the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of labor required for its manufacture. The value of the commodities purchasable by the worker's wages is less than the value of the commodities he produces; the difference, called surplus value, represents the profit of the capitalist. Thus the bourgeois class has flourished through exploitation of the proletariat.
The capitalist system and the bourgeoisie were seen as riven with weaknesses and contradictions, which would become increasingly severe as industrialization progressed and would manifest themselves in increasingly severe economic crises. According to the Communist Manifesto, it would be in a highly industrialized nation, where the crises of capitalism and the consciousness of the workers were far advanced, that the proletarian overthrow of bourgeois society would first succeed. Although this process was inevitable, Marxists were to speed it by bringing about the international union of workers, by supporting (for expediency) whatever political party favored "the momentary interests of the working class," and by helping to prepare workers for their revolutionary role.
The proletariat, after becoming the ruling class, was "to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state" and to increase productive forces at a rapid rate. Once the bourgeoisie had been defeated, there would be no more class divisions, since the means of production would not be owned by any group. The coercive state, formerly a weapon of class oppression, would be replaced by a rational structure of economic and social cooperation and integration. Such bourgeois institutions as the family and religion, which had served to perpetuate bourgeois dominance, would vanish, and each individual would find true fulfillment. Thus social and economic utopia would be achieved, although its exact form could not be predicted.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.