Marxism, formulated by German philosophers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, comprises both a theory of history and an ideology.1
Marxism asserts that the central force of human history is class struggle: conflict between the dominant economic class (which strives to maintain its position) and the exploited economic classes (which strive to improve theirs). This struggle brings about a progression of economic phases. The medieval phase was feudalism, in which class struggle occurs between those who own land (nobility) and those who do not. The modern phase is capitalism, in which struggle occurs between those who own capital (capitalists) and those who do not (workers).1
According to Marx, all features of society (e.g. political systems, law, religion, social norms) are moulded by the dominant class in order to help them maintain economic supremacy; he famously described religion as "the opiate of the masses".6 Nonetheless, Marxism predicts an inevitable transition from capitalism to communism, due to a workers' uprising. Communism is defined as a society in which there are no classes, no private property, and no government; everything is commonly owned (hence the term "communism"), and everyone contributes what labour they can and takes what production they need ("from each according to his ability, to each according to his need").7
Marxism does not predict the direct conversion of a capitalist state to communism, however. First there will be an intermediate phase, termed socialism. The socialist phase will feature a "workers' dictatorship", under which the state will seize all means of production, and the initial organization of communist production and distribution will take place.9,10
In terms of ideology, Marxism asserts that capitalism is inherently wrong, since the owners of capital receive most of the wealth produced by workers. Workers deserve to fully reap this wealth; when they do not, they are "alienated" from their labour.1 Communism is therefore not only inevitable in the Marxist view, but a moral imperative.
Beginning in the twentieth century, various governments have claimed to be "communist". None of them have come close to the definition of communism described above, however. Rather, these governments have been socialist dictatorships (i.e. dictatorships that own the nation's means of production) that have shown no desire to actually complete the transition to communism.
2 - "Leninism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2010.
3 - "Maoism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2010.
4 - "Economics", Columbia Encyclopedia. Accessed April 2010.
5 - "Economics", Encarta 2004.
6 - "Philosophy", Encarta 2004.
7 - "Political theory", Encarta 2004.
8 - "Western Philosophy", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 2010.
9 - "Proletariat", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2010.
10 - "Socialism", Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed May 2010.