I am interested in understanding the differences between mainstream economics and marxist economics. For that, a guide about what is central to the marxist economic theory (not political or cultural theory) would be highly useful.

What are the core elements of Marxist economics?

PS: my emphasis on core aims to avoid this question being flagged as "too-broad". I also hope there is sufficient consensus within theorists in order to avoid being "primarily opinion-based".

  • 1
    You asked an important question but I think there are tons of things to be written as an answer for this question. I may suggest you to look at theory of value and how Marx looked at relation between "money and goods" and I think the best way is to read original texts of Marx. – optimal control Sep 4 '16 at 21:14

From reading a selection of writings by Marx, I have come to understand the following three as the core elements of Marxian economics.

  1. The labour theory of value. It asserts that the exchange value of a commodity $x$ (what quantities of $x$ that can be exchanged for another commodity) is determined by that labour time which is socially necessary to produce $x$.

  2. Surplus value theory of profit. I.e., capitalists derives profit from their exploitation of workers. Suppose a capitalist purchases labour power from a worker for one day. To Marx, then, the value of one day's usage of this labour power is the value of the commodities which is necessary for the worker to live through one day. Say that it takes one fourth of a day to produce this amount of commodities, the value of which will be equivalent to the wage paid to the worker by the capitalist. This one fourth of a day is called necessary labour. Any work above this level is surplus labour from which the capitalist derives profit.

  3. The theory of alienation. In the following I quote a passage from Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Relating this passage to the above core elements, I note that Marx somehow seems to think that the institution of capitalism structures parts of the social world.

The worker becomes poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and extent. The worker becomes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he produces. The devaluation of the human world grows in direct proportion to the increase in value of the world of things. Labour not only produces commodities; it also produces itself and the workers as a commodity and it does so in the same proportion in which it produces commodities in general.

This fact simply means that the object that labour produces, its product, stands opposed to it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labour is labour embodied and made material in an object, it is the objectification of labour. The realization of labour is its objectification. In the sphere of political economy, this realization of labour appears as a loss of reality for the worker, objectification as loss of and bondage to the object, and appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.

So much does the realization of labour appear as loss of reality that the worker loses his reality to the point of dying of starvation. So much does objectification appear as loss of the object that the worker is robbed of the objects he needs most not only for life but also for work. Work itself becomes an object which he can only obtain through an enormous effort and with spasmodic interruptions. So much does the appropriation of the object appear as estrangement that the more objects the worker produces the fewer can he possess and the more he falls under the domination of his product, of capital.

  • NB that the labor theory of value was "invented" by the early classical economists like Ricardo. Another thing that Marx picked up from the classics was the division into classes. Ricardo e.g. distinguishes between 3 classes: landlords, capitalists and the working class – Franz Plumpton Nov 22 '16 at 8:33
  • @FranzPlumpton I agree. However, I think the marxian labor theory of value is to be viewed as unique and distinct from the classical economists. – Anna Feb 14 '17 at 14:11
  • just out of curiosity: how would you distinguish them? – Franz Plumpton Feb 15 '17 at 8:38
  • 1
    @FranzPlumpton I do not think I am qualified to answer your question, that is why I wrote "I think". Anyhow, I would distinguish them like this: While the classical economist thought that the exchange value of a good was proportional to the amount of labor needed to produce it, Marx thought that the exchange value of a good was proportional to the amount of socially necessary labor time, a concept Marx developed. Thus, Marx stresses societal standards and not individual conditions as the classical economists did. This is a rough way of distinguishing the two labor theories. – Anna Feb 17 '17 at 12:57

If I had to sum up Marxism in a single word it would be alienation. His political and economic work all branched off the concept of the worker becoming disconnected from his labor. Rather than an egalitarian state, Marx wanted to reconnect man to his the products of labor. Of course, central to this is his labor theory of value, Hegelian dialectical process, and his view of man being the product of his environment.

Your Answer


By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.