The origins of Communism and Marxist socialism predate Karl Marx to several intelligentsia thinkers in early nineteenth century Europe, but while figures such as Robert Owen and Charles Fourier were reacting to the deepening class divides caused by raising urban industry, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were the first to constitute an ideological base from which the seeds of socialism were sowed.[i] The ideas set by Marx in The Communist Manifesto directly influenced future socialist and communist thinkers such as Eduard Bernstein, Clara Zetkin, and Vladimir Lenin so much so that even their separate ideologies shared similar principles first established by Marx.

All accepted Marx’s interpretation of history as “the history of class struggles,” and believe that there was an ever-widening division between the bourgeoisie, a capitalist class who owned the means of production, and the proletariat, the working class who were being exploited by capitalists.[ii] Also, they accepted that the era of the proletariat as the ruling class was an inevitable event in human history, but the disagreed about how that future would come to pass. Marx originally called for a dramatic overthrowing of the establishment, a revolution of the working class, from which a utopian world would be born in which social classes and political power would be abolished. According to Marx, “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”[iii]


Eduard Bernstein and Democratic Socialism

The notion of a revolutionary class war where the working class would violently overthrow the establishment was a bitter pill to swallow for many and was also not the most popular platform to push in politics. Because of these realities by the late 1800s Marxist thought had evolved into socialism with revolution, where social democrats like Eduard Bernstein sought to use democratic systems within the establishment to bring change.

Bernstein broke away from Marx’s radicalism while still holding socialist values to be true. “I set myself against the notion that we have to expect shortly a collapse of the bourgeois economy,” argued Bernstein against the destruction of economic systems. Bernstein points out that a sizeable middle class was not considered by Marx and confirms that they are a stable part of modern society. “The middle classes change their character, but they do not disappear from the social scale.” To sway the middle class into adopting socialist ideas and instituting change through democracy was a far more peaceful and realistic approach to achieving a socialist society.

Bernstein argues “In all advanced countries we see the privileges of the capitalist bourgeoisie yielding step by step to democratic organizations.” It is important to note that Bernstein so believed in this path to success because of the success of western democracies in Europe. The ability to peaceful assemble parties and vote for your political agenda insured social democrats that there was a real possibility for change without a radical revolution.[iv]


Clara Zetkin: Feminism and Socialism

As socialist ideas flourished in Europe, another equalitarian movement was threatening societal norms, feminism. These two ideological groups, feminists and socialists, struggled with the logic of inclusion. They wonder whether feminist thought and socialism could coincide and how they showed view each’s ideology within the context of their own. Socialists wondered whether “they should seek to enroll women by supporting their unique concerns” or if “such efforts divide the working class and weaken the socialist movement.”[v]

Clara Zetkin, who was a renown German feminist and socialist, sought to bridge the gap between the two social movements. Zetkin argues that socialist goals are equal to feminist goals and by achieving rights for the proletariat class women will achieve rights for themselves. She says, “The work of our trade unions to enlighten, train, and organize wage-earning women is not smaller nor less important than what the S.D.P. (Social Democratic Party of Germany) has done to induce women to join in political struggles of the working class.”

Zetkin sees the fate of her sex as being indistinguishable from the fate of society itself and sees socialism as a path for both women and the working class to obtain freedom. She opposes any inclusion of women of the capitalist class, as they do not truly strive for true equality, and says “Socialist women oppose strongly the bourgeois women righters’ credo that the women of all classes must gather into an unpolitical, neutral movement striving exclusively for women’s rights.” The goals of feminists and socialists are one in the same.[vi]


Vladimir Lenin and Radical Marxism

While Eduard Bernstein and Clara Zetkin were attempting to achieve revisionist socialist goals through nonrevolutionary means, Vladimir Lenin, a leader in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, faced harsher resistance against socialist movements in Tsarist Russia. The Lenin Marxist ideas of what became the Soviet Union were forged in a country where trade unions and political parties were illegal, and so the possibility for change within the system through representative bodies was nonexistent. Instead, Lenin believed that a democratic path to socialism was “a betrayal of Marxist vision.”[vii]

Lenin sought to take socialism through revolution into its next logical step, by forming a strong socialist organization by which the revolution could be fought. Lenin believed that the workers who made up the proletarian class were not capable of overcoming the establishment by themselves, but rather professional revolutionaries who were “trained in the art of combating the political police” lead the movement. While Marx saw the actions of the revolution to come from the entire proletarian working class, Lenin believe in a separate revolutionary body that waged war on behalf of the proletariats.

Lenin sought a practical way to fulfill Marx’s prophecy of a socialist utopia that he originally laid out in The Communist Manifesto. Lenin presented these ideas over a decade before the Soviet Revolution in Russia and prophetically said: “Give us an organization of revolutionaries, and we shall overturn the whole of Russia!”[viii]

Sources Cited

[i] Eric W. Nelson and Robert W. Strayer, Ways of the World: A Brief Global History with Sources (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016), 775.

[ii] Ibid, 777.

[iii] Ibid, 779.

[iv] Ibid, 777.

[v] Ibid, 781

[vi] Ibid, 782.

[vii] Ibid, 783.

[viii] Ibid, 784.