The simplest way to summarize the core of Marxism is to begin with Marx and Engel’s insistence that “the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working classes themselves.” “This struggle for emancipation,” they continued, “[is] not a struggle for class privileges and monopolies, but for equal rights and duties, and the abolition of all class rule.”
The basic idea is this: instead of appealing to gods or saviors to liberate humanity from above, Marx argued that the masses of working-class people who make up the vast majority of modern capitalist societies could, by organizing themselves collectively, radically transform society for the better.
In capitalism, working people often feel like isolated, vulnerable playthings of chaotic economic forces they can’t control. The central theme in Marxism is that this need not be so. Rather than being passively subject to an ecologically ruinous system based solely on profit, Marx argued that the vast majority of human beings can and must bring the economic system under their conscious, collective control.
It’s important to remember that Marx and Engels weren’t the first socialists. They distinguished themselves by opposing earlier socialists who sought to administer socialism from above by devising detailed blueprints of what they saw as an ideal society. Unlike the “utopian socialists,” for example, who thought the masses too ignorant or helpless to liberate themselves from the injustices of capitalism, Marx and Engels argued that a better society could only be built by the conscious, deliberate activity of a democratically organized revolutionary movement of ordinary working people. This puts Marxism at odds with authoritarian bureaucratic regimes who claim Marx’s mantle like those of Stalin or Mao as well as with technocratic, neoliberal visions of governance that limit democratic participation to the vanishing point.