Marxist Theory: Definition & Impact on Politics

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  • 0:01 Marxism &…
  • 0:28 Principles
  • 2:06 Role in International…
  • 3:09 Strengths & Weaknesses
  • 4:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Shawn Grimsley

Shawn has a masters of public administration, JD, and a BA in political science.

One of the most controversial theories of international relations in the Western world is Marxism. In this lesson, you'll learn about Marxism, its principles, its role in international relations and its strengths and weaknesses.

Marxism & International Relations

Marxism is a political and social theory that argues that social change comes about through economic class struggle. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed the theory in the 19th century. Marxism formed the philosophical basis for the rise of communism in the early 20th century. Important works include The Communist Manifesto and Das Kapital. Let's take a quick look at some of the key principles of Marxism.


Economics is a dominant factor that brings about change in the world according to Marxism. This is an important distinction from other major theories in international relations, such as realism and liberal internationalism, that stress the dominance of the political over the economic.

Importantly, class struggle is the impetus for social change according to Marxism. The theory holds that history can be viewed as a series of class struggles where one social class oppresses others. The oppressed classes eventually overthrow the oppressor class and a new social structure arises with new oppressors and new classes being oppressed. Marx argued that the proletarian class, or worker class, was being oppressed by the capitalists who acquired most of the value of the proletarian work as profits for themselves, leaving workers with little.

Marxism predicts that the proletarian class will eventually revolt and overthrow their capitalistic oppressors, eventually establishing a classless society based on socialism. In fact, the philosophical basis of the communist movements and regimes of the 20th century, ranging from the Soviet Union to Latin America to China and North Korea, is largely based on Marxism. However, it's important to note that while Marxism supports a form of socialism, not all forms of socialism are Marxist in nature.

Marx's original theory was pretty much focused on the internal dynamics of individual societies rather than the world of international affairs. However, V.I. Lenin, one of the architects of the Communist revolution in Russia, brought Marxism international in the early 20th century. Let's see how.

Role in International Relations

Lenin argued that the capitalists in European countries engaged in a policy of imperialism, or empire building, in order to extract the wealth from colonies and use part of that wealth to buy the proletarian class into submission. Thus, according to this new take on Marxism, class exploitation is not just a domestic phenomenon but occurs between States as well. Lenin also pointed out that since there were only so many colonies available to exploit, the growth of one empire will eventually come at the cost of the growth of a rival, which will lead to war as each country competes for more colonies to exploit.

Marxism is often used to explain North-South relations and the gap in the relative wealth and development of the Northern Hemisphere compared to the Southern Hemisphere of our world. It has also been used by revolutionaries in Southern States as a justification to overthrow governments that are allegedly aligned with Northern States and their exploitation of the resources and people of the South. Some noteworthy examples include revolutions in China, Korea (resulting in the split of the country), Vietnam and Cuba.

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