Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Based on the ideas of Karl Marx (and Frederick Engels), Marxism is a form of materialism.

explanatory context

Marxism involves a theory of knowledge, a methodology, and a political programme.


Marx's own work has been developed and adapted by generations of Marxists (including Engels) and there are a large number of different Marxisms. The problem is also compounded by there being a large number of preconceptions and partial accounts of Marx's philosophy that have resulted in very different readings of Marx.

Types of Marxism

Orthodox Marxism

The orthodox tradition of Marxism is that institutionalised in Soviet Marxism.


It allowed three basic options to philosophy. First, to abandon philosophy for a science of history. Second, to abstract the methodological elements from classic works (notably Capital) and produce the volume on dialectics promised by Marx but undelivered. Third, continue the later work of Engels on philosophy and the natural sciences, which has become codified into 'dialectical materialism'.


This third line of development moves philosophy away from a priori speculation to a generalisation of recent scientific results. The assumption being that, although each science has its own domain and its own specificity, there is a fundamental logical, methodological and doctrinal unity binding together all the sciences, and constituting the basis for a philosophical world-view of a radically new type.


Orthodox Marxism thus takes on the dialectical materialist approach developed by Engels and Lenin.



Marxist-Leninism is the development of Marxist theory initiated by Lenin as a result of pragmatic concerns of the Russian Revolution of 1917.


The official Marxist philosophy and approach of the Soviet state is Marxist-Leninist, although Lenin's own theories have been subsequently modified. Thus Marxist-Leninism has become a rather nebulous version of Marxism, having been continuously modified throughout the twentieth century as a result of the pragmatic concerns of the Soviet state. In this sense Marxist-Leninism is rather indistinguishable from orthodox Marxism.


The key areas where Lenin developed Marxism are as folows. First, Lenin developed a clearer and more specific analysis of imperialism. He argued that the 'last stage of capitalism' is imperialism where exploitation goes beyond national boundaries as monopolistic cartels become increasingly powerful. Hence Lenin saw socialism/communism as concerned with the international interests of the working class and argued for world revolution.


Second, he developed a more specific thesis about the role and nature of the party. The party was central in combatting bourgeois ideology. It was necessary to ensure that a revolution which had resulted in the proletariat seizing power would enable them to keep it. For this, Lenin argued that the party would need ideas, information and scientific knowledge derived from all sections of society and not just restricted to the experiences of the working class. Most importantly, a strong party organisation which was not dominated by intellectuals and one where theory was not separated from practice, was essential. This party oprganisation was based on the idea of free discussion and agreement on policy decisions but a complete alliegence by all members to the agreed policy.


Although Lenin modified Marxism in these respects he was a thoroughgoing advocat of Marx's theory and matrialist epistemology which he frequently defended from attacks, especially from the subjective idealism of Machian positivists [and the sensationalists]. More importantly Lenin argued for a reassessment of the Marxist dialectical theory of knowledge. He argued that an insuffient appreciation of how Marx had 'stood Hegel on his feet' had contributed to Marxists after Marx seeing Marxist theory as a body of knowledge rather than concerning themselves with Marx's own prime concern which was the understanding of the derivation of knowledge. Practice, for Marx and Lenin is informed dialectically by theoretical knowledge. Lenin reaffirmed the need to understand the process of abstraction from perception to practical application.


Lenin's approach to Marxism has been criticised by Pannekoek (1938) in his Lenin as Philosopher.




Historicist Marxism

Historicist Marxism argues that the dialectical analysis of social processes is dependent upon an adequate historical analysis. Gramsci, for example, argues for particular historical analysis, rather than broad sweeps of history tied to predetermined theory. The focus of the historical analysis should be the collective, not the individual subject. In the work of people like Lukacs and Goldmann (genetic structuralism) it is social classes that are the historical subject.


Social classes, as trans-individual subjects, are accorded the status of proper historical subject because they (unlike, for example, the family) are unique in manifesting a group consciousness.


Class consciousness is seen as the basis for the transformation of social relations. Class consciousness is seen as intertwined with class Weltanschauung.


Class consciousness is also fundamental to the production of knowledge. Class consciousness, through the practice of class struggle informs the superstructural relations which includes the production of scientific knowledge. Scientific (in its broadest sense) knowledge is part of class Weltanschauung (world view).


The unique aspect of the focus on class consciousness is that the dichotomies of thought and action, subject and object, ends and means, science and conscience, fact and value, part and whole, synchrony and diachrony, static and dynamic, political and moral, are all made redundant. These dualities disappear because the study of the object is simultaneously a transforming self-knowledge of the subject.


In short history is important because it takes account of the limitation on action of prevailing social conditions. Such conditions effect the scope of social class action, which itself attempts to modify the conditions. Thus it is the structuring of history which effects the freedom of social classes. The dichotomous relationships (mentioned above) are thus not permanent and static but are a function of historical circumstances.


However, historicist approaches, arguably, replace ideology by class Weltanschauung. That is, the primary focus of attention is on the general system of ideas common to a class and which serves to unite the members. As such, the concept of ideology looses its specificity.


This is most clearly evident in the concern of historicist Marxists with false consciousness. As knowledge is, in effect, class based all knowledge is ideological. More to the point, all such ideological knowledge is a function of false consciousness. In effect all classes have a distorted view of the relationship between classes and their relationship to the productive base. This false consciousness maintains social structures. Ultimately, the only 'true' or 'objective' consciousness is that of the revolutionary proletariat who have no need of a distorting legitimation or consciousness.



Humanist Marxism

Humanist Marxism refers to those Western European Marxists who wanted to develop an alternative to the Stalinist orthodoxy of the Soviet Union. It is otherwise known as Independent Marxism or Existentialist Marxism. The approach of Humanist Marxists was to concentrate on the role of the individual in the development of socialism. These Marxist adapted existentialist concerns to Marxism. J-P. Sartre and M. Merleau-Ponty are prominent Humanist Marxists.


Both Sartre and Merleau-Ponty were opposed to Stalinist version of Orthodox Marxism, specifically the reliance on 'naturalism' and 'scientism' (in the casting of dialectical materialism), the associated economic and technological determinist accounts of historical process and the conception of historical materialism as a science.


They were opposed to the view embedded in the Orthodox Marxist approach to dialectical materialism that there is a unity between natural and social worlds. This approach posits 'iron laws' rooted in an hypothesised contradiction inherent in a system where forces and relations of production are incompatible and the former will 'progress' at the expense of the latter. This, humanist Marxist claim, denies a role for creative human action. Independent/humanist Marxists thus proposed a theory of revolutionary self-emancipation.


Opposition to Stalinist Marxism involved not just a break in the Marx-Engels-Lenin-Stalin lineage, but a re-reading of Marx based upon phenomenological and existential categories.


Humanist Marxism contains within it (via its locating of theory directly within the historical process) a potential solution to the Orthodox Marxist problem of 'how can the science of Marxism make contact with the lived experience of the working masses?'. However, it is at a cost. The radical non-determinist concept of human freedom means that theory is incapable of guiding practice in terms of strategies and tactics.


For Sartre, human subjectivity and freedom are no longer abstract universals but are historically located and contextualised. Dialectical reason applies only to social practice (praxis). Social actors are creative and make history. For Sartre, consciousness is not formed simply through productive relationships but also through participation in a whole range of institutional practices. The most important mediator of the productive relations is the family.


For Merleau-Ponty, historical practice is seen as bestowing shape on and transforming its object. In this he adopts Husserl's notion of the intentionality of consciousness, i.e. consciousness is consciousness of something. Thus Marxism is directed [back] towards the making of history by people.


Structuralist Marxism

See Structuralism: Marxist structuralism


See also Althusser, for a detailed analysis of his work.

analytical review

Under the heading 'What is Marxism', the web site All About Philosophy (2002–2013) states:

Marxism is an economic and social system based upon the political and economic theories of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. While it would take veritably volumes to explain the full implications and ramifications of the Marxist social and economic ideology, Marxism is summed up in the Encarta Reference Library as “a theory in which class struggle is a central element in the analysis of social change in Western societies.” Marxism is the antithesis of capitalism which is defined by Encarta as “an economic system based on the private ownership of the means of production and distribution of goods, characterized by a free competitive market and motivation by profit.” Marxism is the system of socialism of which the dominant feature is public ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) states:

Marxism: Some words are not readily defined in dictionaries. Marxism is the philosophical and sociological approach of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and their followers. It is very much influenced by the dialectical method of Hegel, but rejects Hegel's philosophic idealism and replaces it with dialectical materialism. Marxism sees the economic factors as the base causal and conditioning factors in both individuals and history. History is seen as basically a series of class struggles, with classes being defined in terms of their relation to the means of production. According to Marx, each period of history has a dominant economic class and a developing rising economic class. In time, a conflict breaks out between the dominant and rising class, which results in the overthrow of the old ruling dominant class and the establishment of the new rising class as the new dominant class. In this manner, the capitalist class or bourgeoisie replaced the feudal aristocracy or ruling class as the dominant class in the West. This historical process does, however, end for Marx, and it is the industrial working class that is given this special historical role of ending class conflict once and for all and establishing a classless society. Marx maintained that industrialized, capitalist societies were becoming increasingly polarized into two classes: the dominant capitalist class (the bourgeoisie) and the rising working-class (the proletariat), and that the working-class would eventually overcome the ruling bourgeoisie to establish the classless-socialist-communist society.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines Marxism as:

Contemporary social theory deriving its main elements from Marx's ideas. Marxist theory strongly emphasizes class struggle and material causation.

associated issues


related areas

See also









Researching the Real World Section

Critical Social Research Section 2.2 and Section 2.3


All About Philosophy (2002–2013) 'What is Marxism?' available at, accessed 12 March 2013, still available 9 June 2019.

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Pannekoek, A., 1938, Lenin as Philosopher, first published in Amsterdam as Lenin als Philosoph. Kritische Betrachtung der philosophischen Grundlagen des Leninismus, under the pseudonym John Harper, by the Bibliothek der Rätekorrespondenz, No.1. Ausgabe der Gruppe Internationaler Kommunisten in Holland, in 1938. The first English translation was published by New Essays in New York in 1948. Published by Merlin Press (London) in 1975 as Lenin as Philosopher: A critical examination of the philosophical basis of Leninism, with additional material by Paul Mattick and Karl Korsch. Available at, accessed 10 June 2019.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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