Hermann Duncker 1931

Introduction to the Study of Marxism

First Published: in Der Marxist. Blätter der Marxistischen Arbeiterschule, vol. 1 (1931), no. 1, pp. 7-15.
Source: Hermann Duncker: Introduction to Marxism. Selected Speeches and Writings, VEB Edition Leipzig, Leipzig, 1963, 2. enl. ed., pp. 119-129. (This translation has been slightly edited and compared with the original German by a MIA volunteer.)
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive 2021
Transcribed: Geoff
HTML Markup: Zdravko Saveski

1. Introduction: Must we still start by offering special proof that Marxism is worth studying?

In a time of bankruptcy of all bourgeois ideology, in a time in which the frightened, helpless "spiritual man" takes refuge again in the bosom of the medieval church, and the head of Catholic Christianity documents in almost grotesque circular letters that he is not of this world, in a time when all firm beliefs are suddenly shot into a whirlpool of erratic developments, when for millions even the most meagre basis for existence vanishes and the ruling class can shout: "With us, the deluge", in such a time a firmly constructed, conclusive, scientifically based world-outlook is of the greatest importance in life. It grasps the present and enables one to discern the future.

That Marxism is indeed that world outlook is testified as much by the raging chorus of its enemies, from Pope Pius XI to Carl Severing to Adolf Hitler, as by the fact that the earth-shaking, first break-through in the capitalist front by the proletarian revolution the Soviet Union- succeeded solely under the red banner of Marxism.

But between reactionary anti-Marxism and revolutionary Marxism, facing each other openly as deadly enemies, reformist pseudo-Marxism is intruding, that insidious attack on Marxism under the guise of friendship for Marx. One must have worked one's way deep into the inner nature of Marxism to be able to distinguish with confidence between what is genuine and what is imitation, what is truth and what is falsification. And so one cannot evade a serious study of Marxism.

First we must combat the still very common error that Marxism can be assimilated completely through scientific-literary study. Marxism is not laid down only in the books and writings of Marx and Engels and their greatest pupil Lenin, but is above all incorporated in the movement of the class-conscious proletariat. Thus Marxism is at one and the same time both theory and practice.

Lenin's well-known words: "Without a revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement,"[1] can also be read thus: "Without a revolutionary movement, no revolutionary theory." And that means, as far as the individual is concerned, you cannot make Marxism your own solely through scientific study, books and academic education, but you must jump with both feet into the activity of this Marxist movement. The rhythm of the proletarian mass movement must captivate you, and you must take active part and have practical experience of social, political and economic events in order to realise the vital value of Marxist teaching:

"In practice one must prove the truth, that is the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking."[2]

That is the significance which revolutionary political activity has for the study of Marxism. It is precisely his standing apart from the revolutionary mass movement which prevents the intellectual petty-bourgeois outsider from becoming a Marxist. However honest his application to studies, he remains a Marxist individualist. This fundamental unity of Marxist knowledge and activity reveals itself only to the communist, and accordingly Marxism can become alive only in him.

Having first become quite clear about this fundamental unity, then no harm can result if at times we confine ourselves to one side of the acquisition of Marxism. It means then that in the following we shall consider only that side of Marxist study which arises from working through the writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin. Here, naturally, we can give only a stimulus, a first introduction.

2. Marxism as a whole and its parts

When discussing the basic question: "What is Marxism?" we must reject right away certain erroneous answers. Since pseudo-Marxism, first and foremost reformism, will at the most accept certain passages from Marxism, it treats Marxism from the start as a patch-work, an isolated scientific phenomenon. Thus in the view of the pseudo-Marxist, Marxism is only a method of research or a specialised science (perhaps economics, or, a little broader, sociology). But then, already in his time, old Bebel saw the truth of the matter more correctly:

"Socialism is the science which is applied with clear consciousness and full knowledge to all fields of human activity."

What Bebel here calls socialism, is scientific socialism, or communism and thus nothing but Marxism.

Marxism is not just any single science, but a universal science, or to use a more common term, a world outlook. For the Marxist world outlook is no cloud-cuckoo-land speculation, no pondering and "brain-weaving" over mystical "First causes" and supernatural ideas, but the scientific world outlook of dialectical materialism, by which man tries to become scientifically clear about nature and the development of the visible world around him.

In so far as I regard any fact or complex of facts from the following standpoints:

first, scientifically (meaning in systematic arrangement and logical construction);

second, materialistically (meaning in its natural condition and essence, free from any supernatural dogma and other-worldly suppositions);

third, dialectically (meaning in its revolutionary, changing process of development, not as fixed and unalterable);

fourth, from a working-class communist standpoint (its effect and utility for the struggle for emancipation of the working class);

then I have reflected on it in a Marxist fashion.

In addition, however, as we have already seen, I must not merely remain "reflecting", not merely understand but also actively enter into and attack the problem. Thus, Marxism implies not only understanding the world, but also changing it:

"The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."[3]

From the emphasis in the work of Marx on changing the world it is already apparent that the centre of gravity in Marxism does not lie in natural science, but in social science. As all serious social science is primarily a science of history, the materialist conception of history is consequently the most important part of Marxist philosophy.

In the study of Marxism it is in fact indispensable to distinguish certain main fields. Lenin in his very readable popular essay: "The three sources and three component parts of Marxism", 1913,[4] named philosophy, economy and socialism as three such component parts. We may, in line with this classification, which already goes back to Engels (see his "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific"), differentiate between Marxist philosophy, Marxist political economy and the doctrines of class struggle and of socialism.

But one ought never to forget that these three fields are not arranged in equal manner, side by side. In fact Marxist philosophy does actually represent the whole of Marxism. It is only from its fundamental teaching, that one derives the special weight which must be laid on the determining of the economic basis of all social phenomena. Marx's own scientific work, therefore, covered specific economic research (Marx's "Capital"). And to that extent the emphasis on Marxist political economy as one particular main part is justified. Economic criticism, however, is for Marx only a means to an end.

But this end the liberation of the working class - is a distinctly political task. And consequently we have the doctrine of class struggle and of socialism as the third part. Its fundamental teaching, of course, also grows directly out of the study of the Marxist conception of the world and history.

Indeed, in historical materialism, the nature of classes, class society and class struggle are at the centre of all research. Consequently one may straight away link the study of the doctrine of class struggle and socialism with the work on the first part. We can obtain a good survey of the entire content of Marxism from Lenin in his essay "Karl Marx",[5] written in 1914 for a Russian encyclopaedia. Also, the major polemical work by Engels "Anti-Dühring" gives an all-round sketch of the teachings of Marxism, even if, quite naturally, certain parts were pushed to the foreground as necessitated by the correction of Herr Dühring's errors.

3. Marxist philosophy (dialectical materialism)

If we want to become familiar with the philosophy of Marxism, then we must first of all concern ourselves with the antithesis between idealism and materialism. This is nothing but the antithesis between all super natural world images and the natural conception of the world. Marx once said (certainly with a back glance at his own development): "The criticism of religion is the premise of all criticism." (1844).[6]

Also the spiritual development of Engels, as illustrated by his early letters, shows vividly how the religiously brought-up youth, by incessant and at times tormenting self-criticism, became an atheistic materialist. Engels has raised a lasting monument to the man who gave him, and Marx, the decisive impulse to this road of development, in his little book "Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy".

In this book and in Engels' "Anti-Dühring" (Engels' "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" is an abstract of the most important chapter of this book) we find the most detailed presentation of the philosophy of Marxism. An essential supplement on the natural science side was provided by the publication of a large fragment from the papers left by Engels - "The Dialectics of Nature". The Marxist attitude to religion is exhaustively and popularly illuminated in Lenin's little book "On Religion."

The materialism of Marx and Engels is no metaphysical phantom- as Max Adler and others wanted to make believe -, it makes no kind of speculations, no fantastic declarations on the secret qualities of world matter and so on. World reality as an objective reality, that is the simple and clear starting point of the "materialist" view of Marx and Engels. That is also how Lenin stated the question in his great challenging book "Materialism and Empirio-criticism" (1909) in the sentence:

"The recognition of objective law in nature and the recognition that this law, reflected with approximate fidelity in the mind of man, is materialism."[7]

In the development of world reality, in particular the so-called living nature, we see also emerging the gradual progress of spiritual phenomena: material existence is the condition of everything spiritual.

Against the assertion (by Adler et al.) that Marxism possesses no critical attitude to perception, that Marxism has not clearly understood the standpoint of Kant, according to which all perception is only limited, subjective perception, the reading of Engels' book on Feuerbach, together with Marx's Feuerbach Theses, will prove to satisfaction that Marx and Engels were very well aware of the relativity of the experience of each individual human being.

But on the other hand, they also acknowledged that all false conclusions, due to erring subjectivity, are corrected to a growing extent by human practical experience, that is through social development itself.

The materialism of Marx and Engels accordingly achieves its particular and decisive appearance through dialectics, for that is the doctrine of the continuous revolutionary development of all beings (in nature, history or thought). One can read about this, above all, in the second chapter of Engels' "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific". An important thing is that the Marxist conception of evolution does not only recognise evenly formed, continuous development, but that it considers the spasmodic moment of development as the decisive nodal points in the evolutionary line. In other words, revolutions are part of evolution.

Marx and Engels have naturally spoken frequently about the most important part of their world-outlook, about the revolutionary conception of history. In my text collection: Marx and Engels "On Historical Materialism," (in German: "Über historischen Materialismus," Berlin 1930) Parts l and 2, the most important passages from all their writings have been united to illustrate Marx and Engels' conception of history, along with seven more major essays of theirs that express basic ideas of historical materialism. Of overriding importance in this connection are: The first part of "The German Ideology", written together by Marx and Engels in 1845-1846 (the antithesis between materialistic and idealistic views); the letters by Engels on materialism (1890-1894) and above all the famous introduction to Marx's "Critique of Political Economy" (1859) which one cannot read often enough.

4. Marxist political economy

Marxist teachings on economics are presented in a systematic framework in Marx's great main works: "Capital" and "Theories about Surplus Value". Yet the reader would do well, first of all, to work out the Marxist fundamental doctrine on economics from the two smaller writings of Marx: "Wage Labour and Capital" and "Wage, Price and Profit". My "Guide to the Study of Karl Marx's Basic Economic Doctrines" (in German: "Wegweiser zum Studium der ökonomischen Grundlehren von Karl Marx", 2nd edition 1931) provides support for this. From the reviews of the first volume of "Capital" penned by Engels and of the second and third volumes by Rosa Luxemburg,[8] the reader gains a good preliminary overview of Marx's main work. Marx once advised a friend with little scientific training to read the 8th, 11th, 12th, 13th, and 24th chapters of Volume I first. But one should, of course, not omit to absorb the whole work in its powerful entirety and to force an entrance through the gates of the first section "Commodity and Money", though they are certainly not easy to unlock.

All economic research by Marx turns essentially around two points which still today must form the starting point of every fundamental critique of capitalism.

1. Wherein lies capitalist exploitation?

2. What is the road of capitalist development?

Engels calls the unveiling of the secret of surplus value a gigantic feat by means of which socialism became a science. There is no question that the nature of exploitation is hidden in an exceedingly skilful way within the mechanism of capitalism. Many workers will still not realise that this immense production engine of capitalism is fired entirely by the bones of millions and millions of workers. Yet they are themselves already in the burning boiler. Covering up capitalist exploitation is precisely the main job of reformism. The whole social-democratic and trade-union theory of wages is a stupid and dangerous anti-Marx conglomeration.

The second main Marxist point of assault on capitalism is related to the inevitable development of the capitalist mode of production. The commodity production machine of capitalism becomes economically ever more backward, unproductive and ruinous for society: that is Marx's doctrine on the accumulation of capital which embodies the theory of impoverishment as well as the doctrine on the inevitable transformation from a capitalist to a socialist society. A scientific examination which is now, in the time of the most terrible crisis that has ever raged in the world, of very special interest to every worker. The accumulation of capital must, out of an inner necessity, drive capitalism into its last universal crisis, which, however, at its most critical point will be the point of departure of the proletariat in their liberation from the fetters of capitalism. A masterly survey of the whole line of economic development is given the third chapter of Engels' "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific".

5. The doctrine of the class struggle and socialism

Here a multitude of greater and lesser political and polemical writings by Marx and Engels awaits the reader: "The Communist Manifesto", "Principles of Communism", "The Inaugural Address", "Class Struggles in France", "The 18th Brumaire", "Revolution and Counter Revolution", "Civil War in France" and above all Lenin's "The State and the Revolution", "Imperialism", "Left-wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder", and "On Reformism."

Valuable hints are also given in the "Critique of the Gotha Programme" (1875) by both Marx and Engels and in Engels' comments on the Erfurt Programme (1891). Political Marxism reaches its peak in the doctrine of the proletarian class struggle and its goal: the setting up of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

All historical presentations by Marx and Engels are first and foremost explanations of certain class-relations, only after which the political forms and aims are made intelligible. For Marxists, all these writings are wonderful material for observation and proof of the correctness of the materialist conception of history. The application of Marxism to the present is amply demonstrated by the Programme of the Communist International (1928).


The study of Marxism can first and foremost be carried out by reading selected works by Marx, Engels and Lenin: the literature at hand being grouped for certain study circles according to its particular difficulty or importance.

At the first stage we should above all consider: Engels' "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific"; Lenin's "On Religion", Marx's "Wage Labour and Capital" and "Wage: Price and Profit", Marx-Engels "The Communist Manifesto", Engels' "Principles of Communism" and Lenin's "The State and the Revolution". As additional political supplement to these, the Programme of the Communist International.

At the second stage on might suitably undertake the reading of Engels' "Feuerbach", Marx's "Capital" (Volume One), Lenin's "Imperialism" and "Left-Wing Communism", Stalin's "Problems of Leninism", Marx-Engels "Programme Critiques", Marx's "Civil War in France". In a third and more exhaustive journey through the fields of Marxism one might then include Lenin's very extensive polemic against all open and hidden idealism in modern philosophy: "Materialism and Empirio-criticism", the 2nd and 3rd volumes of Marx's "Capital", the rest of the historical writings by Marx and Engels (like Engels' "The Peasant War in Germany", and so on). We have not by far been able to include all of Marx's, Engels' and Lenin's writings. It is clear that one can learn a tremendous lot from other writings not specified here.

In any case one should be clear in one's mind that one must draw Marxism from its sources. We say: One sentence from Marx is in general more important and instructive than 20 sentences about him. We may add, that one book by Marx or Engels, thoroughly and universally understood, takes one much deeper into Marxism than any number of writings by Marx and Engels which have been read superficially or only looked through. Painstaking, conscientiousness and thoroughness in reading must be first rule when studying Marxism-Leninism. Better less, but better.


[1] "What is to be done?" Lenin, Marx-Engels-Marxism (Moscow 1947), p. 121.

[2] Marx/Engels, Selected Works, vol. II, p. 365 (Feuerbach Theses).

[3] Marx/Engels, Selected Works, vol. II, p. 367 (Feuerbach Theses).

[4] V. I. Lenin, Marx-Engels-Marxism, p. 70-75 (Moscow 1947).

[5] V. I. Lenin, Marx-Engels-Marxism, p. 15-49 (Moscow 1947).

[6] Marx and Engels, On Religion, p. 41 (London, 1957).

[7] Lenin, Materialism and Empirio-criticism, p. 155 (Moscow 1947).

[8] Rosa Luxemburg composed this text at the request of Franz Mehring for his Marx biography. See Mehring, Karl Marx. Story of His Life, p. 370-380 (London 1936).