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The three sources of Marxism

Lenin’s article “The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism” was first published in 1913 in Prosveshcheniye and dedicated to the 30th anniversary of Karl Marx’s death. This text is republished from the Marxists Internet Archive as reproduced in Socialist Worker US

THROUGHOUT THE civilized world the teachings of Marx evoke the utmost hostility and hatred of all bourgeois science (both official and liberal), which regards Marxism as a kind of “pernicious sect.” And no other attitude is to be expected, for there can be no “impartial” social science in a society based on class struggle. In one way or another, all official and liberal science defends wage-slavery, whereas Marxism has declared relentless war on that slavery. To expect science to be impartial in a wage-slave society is as foolishly naïve as to expect impartiality from manufacturers on the question of whether workers’ wages ought not to be increased by decreasing the profits of capital.

 But this is not all. The history of philosophy and the history of social science show with perfect clarity that there is nothing resembling “sectarianism” in Marxism, in the sense of its being a hidebound, petrified doctrine, a doctrine which arose away from the high road of the development of world civilization. On the contrary, the genius of Marx consists precisely in his having furnished answers to questions already raised by the foremost minds of mankind. His doctrine emerged as the direct and immediate continuation of the teachings of the greatest representatives of philosophy, political economy and socialism.


The philosophy of Marxism is materialism. Throughout the modern history of Europe, and especially at the end of the eighteenth century in France, where a resolute struggle was conducted against every kind of medieval rubbish, against serfdom in institutions and ideas, materialism has proved to be the only philosophy that is consistent, true to all the teachings of natural science and hostile to superstition, cant and so forth. The enemies of democracy have, therefore, always exerted all their efforts to “refute,” under mine and defame materialism, and have advocated various forms of philosophical idealism, which always, in one way or another, amounts to the defense or support of religion.

Marx and Engels defended philosophical materialism in the most determined manner and repeatedly explained how profoundly erroneous is every deviation from this basis. Their views are most clearly and fully expounded in the works of Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and Anti-Dühring, which, like the Communist Manifesto, are handbooks for every class-conscious worker.

But Marx did not stop at 18th century materialism: he developed philosophy to a higher level, he enriched it with the achievements of German classical philosophy, especially of Hegel’s system, which in its turn had led to the materialism of Feuerbach. The main achievement was dialectics, i.e., the doctrine of development in its fullest, deepest and most comprehensive form, the doctrine of the relativity of the human knowledge that provides us with a reflection of eternally developing matter. The latest discoveries of natural science–radium, electrons, the transmutation of elements–have been a remarkable confirmation of Marx’s dialectical materialism despite the teachings of the bourgeois philosophers with their “new” reversions to old and decadent idealism.

Marx deepened and developed philosophical materialism to the full, and extended the cognition of nature to include the cognition of human society. His historical materialism was a great achievement in scientific thinking. The chaos and arbitrariness that had previously reigned in views on history and politics were replaced by a strikingly integral and harmonious scientific theory, which shows how, in consequence of the growth of productive forces, out of one system of social life another and higher system develops–how capitalism, for instance, grows out of feudalism.

Just as man’s knowledge reflects nature (i.e., developing matter), which exists independently of him, so man’s social knowledge (i.e., his various views and doctrines–philosophical, religious, political and so forth) reflects the economic system of society. Political institutions are a superstructure on the economic foundation. We see, for example, that the various political forms of the modern European states serve to strengthen the domination of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat.

Marx’s philosophy is a consummate philosophical materialism which has provided mankind, and especially the working class, with powerful instruments of knowledge.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


Having recognized that the economic system is the foundation on which the political superstructure is erected, Marx devoted his greatest attention to the study of this economic system. Marx’s principal work, Capital, is devoted to a study of the economic system of modern, i.e., capitalist, society.

Classical political economy, before Marx, evolved in England, the most developed of the capitalist countries. Adam Smith and David Ricardo, by their investigations of the economic system, laid the foundations of the labor theory of value. Marx continued their work; he provided a proof of the theory and developed it consistently. He showed that the value of every commodity is determined by the quantity of socially necessary labor time spent on its production.

Where the bourgeois economists saw a relation between things (the exchange of one commodity for another) Marx revealed a relation between people. The exchange of commodities expresses the connection between individual producers through the market. Money signifies that the connection is becoming closer and closer, inseparably uniting the entire economic life of the individual producers into one whole. Capital signifies a further development of this connection: man’s labor-power becomes a commodity. The wage-worker sells his labor-power to the owner of land, factories and instruments of labor. The worker spends one part of the day covering the cost of maintaining himself and his family (wages), while the other part of the day he works without remuneration, creating for the capitalist surplus-value, the source of profit, the source of the wealth of the capitalist class.

The doctrine of surplus-value is the cornerstone of Marx’s economic theory.

Capital, created by the labor of the worker, crushes the worker, ruining small proprietors and creating an army of unemployed. In industry, the victory of large-scale production is immediately apparent, but the same phenomenon is also to be observed in agriculture, where the superiority of large-scale capitalist agriculture is enhanced, the use of machinery increases and the peasant economy, trapped by money-capital, declines and falls into ruin under the burden of its backward technique. The decline of small-scale production assumes different forms in agriculture, but the decline itself is an indisputable fact.

By destroying small-scale production, capital leads to an increase in productivity of labor and to the creation of a monopoly position for the associations of big capitalists. Production itself becomes more and more social–hundreds of thousands and millions of workers become bound together in a regular economic organism–but the product of this collective labor is appropriated by a handful of capitalists. Anarchy of production, crises, the furious chase after markets and the insecurity of existence of the mass of the population are intensified.

By increasing the dependence of the workers on capital, the capitalist system creates the great power of united labor.

Marx traced the development of capitalism from embryonic commodity economy, from simple exchange, to its highest forms, to large-scale production.

And the experience of all capitalist countries, old and new, year by year demonstrates clearly the truth of this Marxian doctrine to increasing numbers of workers.

Capitalism has triumphed all over the world, but this triumph is only the prelude to the triumph of labor over capital.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –


When feudalism was overthrown and “free” capitalist society appeared in the world, it at once became apparent that this freedom meant a new system of oppression and exploitation of the working people. Various socialist doctrines immediately emerged as a reflection of and protest against this oppression. Early socialism, however, was utopian socialism. It criticized capitalist society, it condemned and damned it, it dreamed of its destruction, it had visions of a better order and endeavored to convince the rich of the immorality of exploitation.

But utopian socialism could not indicate the real solution. It could not explain the real nature of wage-slavery under capitalism, it could not reveal the laws of capitalist development, or show what social force is capable of becoming the creator of a new society.

Meanwhile, the stormy revolutions which everywhere in Europe, and especially in France, accompanied the fall of feudalism, of serfdom, more and more clearly revealed the struggle of classes as the basis and the driving force of all development.

Not a single victory of political freedom over the feudal class was won except against desperate resistance. Not a single capitalist country evolved on a more or less free and democratic basis except by a life-and-death struggle between the various classes of capitalist society.

The genius of Marx lies in his having been the first to deduce from this the lesson world history teaches and to apply that lesson consistently. The deduction he made is the doctrine of the class struggle.

People always have been the foolish victims of deception and self-deception in politics, and they always will be until they have learnt to seek out the interests of some class or other behind all moral, religious, political and social phrases, declarations and promises. Champions of reforms and improvements will always be fooled by the defenders of the old order until they realize that every old institution, how ever barbarous and rotten it may appear to be, is kept going by the forces of certain ruling classes. And there is only one way of smashing the resistance of those classes, and that is to find, in the very society which surrounds us, the forces which can–and, owing to their social position, must–constitute the power capable of sweeping away the old and creating the new, and to enlighten and organize those forces for the struggle.

Marx’s philosophical materialism alone has shown the proletariat the way out of the spiritual slavery in which all oppressed classes have hitherto languished. Marx’s economic theory alone has explained the true position of the proletariat in the general system of capitalism.

Independent organizations of the proletariat are multiplying all over the world, from America to Japan and from Sweden to South Africa. The proletariat is becoming enlightened and educated by waging its class struggle; it is ridding itself of the prejudices of bourgeois society; it is rallying its ranks ever more closely and is learning to gauge the measure of its successes; it is steeling its forces and is growing irresistibly.

Published in Prosveshcheniye No 3., March 1913. Source: Lenin’s Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1977, Moscow, Volume 19, pages 21-28. Published online at Marxists Internet Archive.



Comment from Shane H
Time October 7, 2012 at 10:43 am


So next year its been 100 years since Lenin wrote this classic piece and 130 since the death of Marx.

So what have we learned in the last 100 years? Some Marxists of course added a new doctrine ‘Leninism’ making 4 component parts something that would have surprised Lenin as much as anyone (embalmed by Stalin in the end). Some added Stalin or Mao to their list of people who had produced the ‘best humanity had produced’ in the 20th century but neither of us would agree about those names.

So after a century of war and revolutions – what should Marxists make of it all? Lenin and Mao tried to apply Marxism to their homelands – without success as it turned out. So the question is what needs to be added to the 3 component parts if not Leninism? How do we account for the failure of the revolutions (or success of counter revolutions) after 100 years.

Comment from Kay
Time October 8, 2012 at 7:11 am

An excellent article – and it is great to remind us of this very sensible, logical and clear explanation of the development of capitalism.

I can see the destruction of small farms and businesses throughout the world as one of those very regrettable outcomes of society’s relentless march towards greater productivity and ‘globalisation’. But society itself has helped create this outcome by wanting better technology, more possessions and greater comfort and money for the pursuit of pleasure. And ‘society’ doesn’t mean only the rich ‘ruling class’, it means all of us, including the ‘workers’ (which most of us are).

I also see that the history of capitalism is littered with a series of booms and busts – given that, in many ways, the world’s capitalist economic system is dominated by the rises and falls of stock exchanges and as such, there is a huge divide between the supposed ‘wealth’ in the world and the actual value of the commodities underwriting these markets.

Shane H has quite rightly asked the question: “How do we account for the failure of the revolutions (or success of counter revolutions) after 100 years.” Certainly the so-called ‘Communist’ countries have turned out to be nothing but brutal totalitarian regimes – or as John says “state capitalism”. And they have all been replaced by more open, more democratic, capitalist societies. And this move by those countries towards capitalism very much reflected the desire by the society in general to have a more open, capitalist society as much as it reflected a failure of those so-called ‘Communist’ economic systems to sustain themselves.

Perhaps this suggests that a democratic capitalist society, with all its risks and often destructive impacts, fits best with the desire of people to have the means and opportunities to improve their own economic circumstances?

I still place education and democracy as the most important tools we have to curb the excesses of the very rich ‘ruling class’. And I acknowledge that no gains by the working class have ever been achieved by any means other than by constant ‘struggle’. And in that regard, despite all the bad press being received today by the unions, the union movement is to be thanked for all the improvements for ‘workers’. Without those struggles by brave and dedicated unionists, the average worker would have very little.

So for all its many bad points and constant iterations, I cannot see a better practical system for today’s societies than a well-regulated, well educated, unionised democratic capitalist society which allows full freedom of the press. But even so, the road ahead will always be rocky and will require constant vigilance and struggle.

Comment from John
Time October 9, 2012 at 4:11 am

This is a complex question. For a start I don’t agree with you about Mao and communism.Tony Cliff’s deflected permanent revolution might explain why.

When the working class doesn’t take the revolutionary lead, another group (such as intellectuals mobilising peasants) can step in to their place to undertake a different historical task, not socialism but the national bourgeois revolution. The failure of evolutions? One part of the equation of course is the rise of counter-revolutionary Stalinism and also the stages theories of revolution. A second related one is the failure of the left to build parties like the Bolshevik Party committed to socialism from below. The specific failure of the Russian revolution has to do with the failure of the revolution to spread, the civil war, the foreign intervention, the destruction of the working class as a class etc.