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Classical Marxian economic theory and the concept of socialism

Jonathan Diskin, University of Massachusetts Amherst


What does socialism mean? This word carries many implications and in this thesis I consider how the concept of socialism was constructed within the discourses of classical Marxian economic and social theory. Socialism is understood to refer both to a general theory of historical and economic development as well as a particular post capitalist political economic system. One of the chief aims of this thesis is to examine the relationship between these two different levels of meaning of the word socialism. The classical Marxian discourse I analyze has three important levels or aspects which are combined in various ways to produce complex, though ultimately reductive, understandings of socialism. These are discourses of economic determinism, relative autonomy, and class analysis. How these modes of thought serve as the basis for policy, historical analysis and the construction of socialism as a political economic system is the principle topic of this thesis. I develop this thesis by examining three "moments" in the classical tradition: the work of the latter Engels, the period of the Second International, and Russian Marxism. Engels' work provides a basis for what follows as he subtly articulates the discourses of determinism, relative autonomy and class to produce a teleological vision of socialism. Later writers reproduce the tension created by the simultaneous use of the discourses of determinism and relative autonomy. The Second International, chiefly represented here by Karl Kautsky, use this classical conception to produce particular notions of socialist policy which I argue ultimately rely on a teleological notion of historical development. Later the Russian Marxists both extend and challenge the teleology and determinism of classical Marxian theory as they think about the nature of stages and the revolutionary transformation of societies. However, they frame what is innovative in their work within the boundaries bequeathed by Engels. In the final portion of this thesis I examine the consequences of the threads of the classical discourse on the construction of early "actually existing socialism" in the Soviet Union.

Subject Area

Economics|Economic history|Political science

Recommended Citation

Diskin, Jonathan, "Classical Marxian economic theory and the concept of socialism" (1990). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9110126.