What do people mean when they call something marxist?

A friend of mine used the term marxist so I asked him what he meant. This was his response:

If what you’re examining is class struggle and how an economic system determines behavior, you’re doing Marxist analysis.

But my friend wasn’t the only one that has used the term “marxist” lately and I don’t think the above definition fits into the context of how many people use the term. It sparked my curiosity so I went googling (aka searching the internet for clues as to what people mean when they use that word).

Some people seem to use the term marxist to mean a Stalinist type of communism but they are most assuredly wrong.

Rubio says he wants to send the BLM marxists to Cuba. DeSantis and Corcoran want to ban marxist critical race theory discussion from the district run schools. What do they mean by marxists? Do they even know what they mean or are they just using it as a scary term that they hope people will interpret to mean Stalinist type of communism?

Karl Marx did say “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” a slogan in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Program. The principle refers to free access to and distribution of goods, capital and services. It hits many people the wrong way because many feel that people should be rewarded for their hard work and their skills so a slogan such as that goes against that value.

Karl Marx is also popular for the idea that the workers of the world will rise up in revolution against the investors as part of his hypothesis of dialectical materialism. But according to my google search, most people think Marx was wrong about that. Scholars think that as long as the investors pay the workers well, the workers won’t be motivated to rise up in revolution. Also as time has progressed since Marx’s time, socialist programs–such as free education, employer provided health care, government provided safety net, OSHA safety regulations, social security, Medicare, etc–have dissuaded the workers from revolution against the investors.

Marx’s theory of Historical Materialism states that all objects, whether living or inanimate are subject to continuous change. The rate of this change is determined by the laws of dialectics. Marx says that new developments of productive forces of society came in conflict with existing relations of production. Engels postulated three laws of dialectics from his reading of Hegel’s Science of Logic. Engels elucidated these laws as the materialist dialectic in his work Dialectics of Nature: The law of the unity and conflict of opposites.

Another place where I recently read the word marxist was in a review of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition. Here’s the excerpt:

However, we need to listen carefully to what she is saying, for we can easily misunderstand her message as a call for humanity to rise from its torpor, take charge of events, and consciously make our own future. The trouble with that quasi-Marxist scenario is that there is no “humanity” that could take responsibility in this way.

It seems the author, who is writing a critique of of Arendt’s book, is using marxist to mean rising up in revolution. Do you agree? Dare I say that many use the term to mean that. And if you don’t mean that, will you be misunderstood if you don’t clearly define the term as you plan to use it.

My google search continues.

When historians refer to marxist theory, they mean something other than communism. It means a practical approach where you can suggest a set of rules based on evidence that will lead to an ideal society. Do you think that I have correctly summarized the below? Excerpt from link:

“Critical Theory” in the narrow sense designates several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Western European Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. … In the broader sense, any philosophical approach with similar practical aims could be called a “critical theory,” including feminism, critical race theory, and some forms of post-colonial criticism. …In both the broad and the narrow senses, however, a critical theory provides the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms. … The issue for Left Hegelians and Marx was then somehow to overcome Hegelian “theoretical” philosophy, and Marx argues that it can do so only by making philosophy “practical,” in the sense of changing practices by which societies realize their ideals. … While Critical Theory defends the emphasis on normativity and universalist ambitions found in the philosophical tradition, it does so within the context of particular sorts of empirical social research, with which it has to cooperate if it is to understand such normative claims within the current historical context.


Reading about the Frankfurt School took me down this rabbit hole because Horkheimer was part of the Frankfurt School. Excerpt:

No social philosophy that denies the singular import of suffering, and the corresponding desire to overcome that suffering, can properly grasp human social reality. Thus, in the 1933 essay “Materialism and Metaphysics” Horkheimer writes that man’s striving for happiness is to be recognized as a natural fact requiring no justification.”


Is that where Thomas Jefferson got the idea for the pursuit of happiness? It’s based in the philosophy of Horkheimer of the Frankfurt School?

Another book group (that I’m in) was discussing a book about the Kurds in Syria and Turkey and Iraq. These particular Kurds love Öcalan. And he talks about Marx also. It seems to be everywhere these days. I went down the rabbit hole to learn about Öcalan.

Öcalan’s political thought is influenced by Murray Bookchin, Michel Foucault, Hannah Arendt, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels as well as feminist political theory and the myths of Ancient Mesopotamia. Öcalan’s is the symbolic leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), a militant left-wing nationalist movement, managing to maintain this role whilst in prison. He is the empty signifier of freedom, liberation and decolonization for Kurds, and his political project is one that can be classified as decolonial and as having a radical democratic aim. Crucial to Öcalan’s thought is a feminist politics in which he figures Women at the centre of his theory of democratic civilization or freedom. … Öcalan’s work from 2000 onwards illustrates a new political project in which he develops his own version of socialism through which ‘democratic self-government’ can function, and in practice this implies, according to Öcalan that it ‘builds on the self-government of local communities and is organized in the form of open councils, town councils, local parliaments and larger congresses


I started this journey because of a discussion in a book group about a book on Native American history by Dunbar-Ortiz. Excerpt from a book review:

I’ve always thought the strength of Dunbar- Ortiz’s work is intertwined with exploring the effects of capitalism on collective tribal peoples’ cultural and political realities—which in turn means that a Marxist economic analysis is essential in order to ground the material world’s inequalities into a critique that amalgamates the intersectionality of race, class, and culture. … Dunbar-Ortiz is able to argue the main theoretical thrust of her text through the lens of settler colonialism.

I don’t think what the reviewer means by Marxist economic analysis is this definition that I found earlier:
A practical approach where you can suggest a set of rules based on evidence that will lead to an ideal society.

But perhaps he means this:
If what you’re examining is class struggle and how an economic system determines behavior, you’re doing Marxist analysis.

Continuing my google journey, I found this great article. Excerpt:

This tendency to criticize Marx without actually engaging his ideas…Another go-to argument of conservative thinkers is to dismiss Marx’s “theory of human nature”: either Marx was dangerously naive about the human capacity for evil and selfishness — which shows why his ideal classless society turned out to be such a bust in practice — or he believed that there was no human nature, that we are infinitely plastic beings that could be made and remade by a sufficiently rational and powerful state committed to utopian planning.


Here’s a good article about some of the things the author thinks Marx got right. Although everyone agrees that Marx’s major premise didn’t and probably won’t happen, i.e. the workers aren’t going to revolt against the investors as long as the investors pay the workers a living wage. And as the author says: Marx was wrong about many things. Most of his writing focuses on a critique of capitalism rather than a proposal of what to replace it with – which left it open to misinterpretation by madmen like Stalin in the 20th century.

1. The inherently chaotic, crisis-prone nature of capitalism was a key part of Marx’s writings. He argued that the relentless drive for profits would lead companies to mechanize their workplaces, producing more and more goods while squeezing workers’ wages until they could no longer purchase the products they created.
2. Marx warned that capitalism’s tendency to concentrate high value on essentially arbitrary products would, over time, lead to what he called “a contriving and ever-calculating subservience to inhuman, sophisticated, unnatural and imaginary appetites.”
3. The relentless search for new markets and cheap labor, as well as the incessant demand for more natural resources, are beasts that demand constant feeding.
4. The classical theory of economics assumed that competition was natural and therefore self-sustaining. Marx, however, argued that market power would actually be centralized in large monopoly firms as businesses increasingly preyed upon each other.
5. Marx believed that wages would be held down by a “reserve army of labor,” which he explained simply using classical economic techniques: Capitalists wish to pay as little as possible for labor, and this is easiest to do when there are too many workers floating around.


It can be confusing when people use terms such as marxism, capitalism, and socialism. And sometimes I think they purposely do it to obfuscate and use the logical fallacy of equivocation.

Equivocation fallacy occurs when one word has two different meanings. Simply put, the same word is used in two different contexts in the same phrase. Phrases that contain equivocation fallacy are not grammatically incorrect, but a change in the meaning of a word tends to change the subject of that sentence or phrase entirely.

Some say capitalism merely means that the government doesn’t run/operate/own the “something” and socialism means the government operates the “something.” In that sense, all the countries in the world are part socialist and part capitalist. There are different types of each.

This fun site uses the term “producers” which I assume means the workers. One of the types of capitalism (according to their analysis) is what they call right wing socialism partly described as follows:

A small minority, less than 1/10th of 1% of the citizens, takes control of Government and sets up Government programs that allow them to concentrate the wealth of the Nation into their hands. In Right Wing Socialism, the owners pay those who produce the commodities, trades, goods and service the least amount possible. Right Wing Socialism is operated very similarly to Communist Socialism. The Government is involved in both systems. In both systems the Government sets policies that redistributes and concentrates the money, value, energy, wealth, capital and power into the hands of the powerful people who control the Government.