MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms




Belief in god as a super-natural being who intervenes in and controls the affairs of the world. See Deism and Pantheism


Theoretical Idea

A category of Hegel's Logic, which stands opposed to actuality, but its concretisation up to the Practical Idea means the raising of the theoretical negation of the object from the essential to the actual, so that the abstract notion has itself become actual – “confronts the actual as an actual“.

Further Reading: Hegel in Science of Logic.


Theory & Practice

Theory and Practice are the ideal and material aspects of human activity. Theory reflects and organises practice; practice manifests and enriches theory. The separation of theory and practice, which has its origins in the rupture of society into classes, means speculation in theory and unconscious activity in practice.

See also Practice & Theory.



Theory is an ideal image of the material world corresponding to practice.

Marxism understands theory uniquely because while materialism supports the existence of a material world outside consciousness, it neglects the active role of the subject in forming the world into objects. It is because Marxism recognises the importance of the subject (i.e. the human being), that we intertwine theory with practice. As a result of basing theory on practice, we can see that any established theory is always usurped by events in the real world: practice is infinitely rich. The attempt to capture the richness of practice can be managed through a multiplicity of theories, reflecting the complexity of social life, but even still, any multiplicity of theories is but a shadow of the reality of diversity in human life.

By means of theory we mentally organise the material world into what we conceive of as objects. The objects we choose to label, and how we label them, varies tremendously from one era to the next, between classes, cultures, etc. A theory thus defines its own terminology and the relations between them, and tries to remain consistent in the process. But life and language as a whole is full of contradictions, ambiguities and so on, ... and it has to be, because it is based on the fullness and infinite diversity of practice! Only the most limited and formal theory can avoid internal contradictions. Since contradictions are a natural part of the real world, Marxists understand that planned contradictions in theory is a strength, while most philosophers see contradictions as the breaking of the system. As Hegel famously pointed out, the contradictions which inevitably arise within a given theory, both within wider bodies of theory and between theory and perception, have their origin in the practical world and constitute the driving force for the development of theory, successively resolving contradictions, and uncovering new ones.

Every human being has and uses theory. Whether or not a person ever reflects on it, the way they understand the world around them is structured by a theoretical framework reflecting their own times and activity in the world. The production of tools, for example, enables human capacities to take on an objective, material existence in the form of commodities, to which human activity may subsequently be oriented, and in general, the production of material means of production lays the foundation for the theory. Production methods and technique can be internalised in the form of theory, so that activity can be imagined independently of its material execution and theory becomes a means of organising and directing practice in specialised ways.

“The objectification of the human essence, both in its theoretical and practical aspects, is required to make man's sense human, as well as to create the human sense corresponding to the entire wealth of human and natural substance."

Karl Marx & Frederick Engels,
Private Property and Communism

The development of a social division of labour leads to specific social strata (classes) whose labour is theoretical, both in the direction and planning of the labour process, and in the production of theory itself. [See Marx's Estranged Labour: "the real, practical attitude of the worker in production and to the product (as a state of mind) appears for the non-worker who confronts him as a theoretical attitude"] The division between mental and manual labour is integral to class society. Further, development of the social division of labour in general is inevitable and progressive, but there should never be a class of supervisors telling a class of operatives what to do. Socialists aim to abolish this division between mental and manual labour, principally by ensuring that all workers have control over their own labour and the time to engage in creative activities.

Historical Development:

"All social life is essentially practical. All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice."

Karl Marx,
Theses on Feuerbach, No. 8

Throughout the bourgeois epoch, philosophers wrestled with the "mystery" as to how theory corresponded to practice. Descartes found the problem so inexplicable that he posited a special organ - the pineal gland - to connect the two. David Hume concluded that the causes of phenomena could never be proved. Logical positivism attempted to overcome this by asserting that all thought-objects or symbols could be related back to really existing things by a chain of references. Kant wrestled with the problem of how and why, different mutually exclusive theories could effectively reflect the same material world. See the MIA's Value of Knowledge archive for a presentation of the contributions of over 100 philosophers to the problem of the relation of theory and practice.

In general, prior to Marx, the problem was never formulated in terms of the relation between theory and practice, but rather in the primitive form of the relation between sense perception and the material world or more generally, between thought and matter. Hegel demonstrated that logic and conception are historically determined, and all the forms of consciousness of a given society are interconnected in the unfolding of a kind of spirit or Zeitgeist. Rather than the development of culture being the manifestation of an extramundane spirit, according to Marx:

"In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.

"The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness."

Karl Marx,
Preface to the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Abstract

In the development of bourgeois science and philosophy, a restricted but naturally scientific formulation of the relation between theory and practice was developed by Albert Einstein in his critique of classical physics:

"In order to be able to consider a theory as a physical theory it is ... necessary that it implies empirically testable assertions in general"

Einstein's Reply to Criticisms

Einstein emphasised the "in general" because he held that individual concepts within a theory need not be subject to the criterion of testability which he held applied only to the theory as a whole. Percy Bridgman, however, gave the idea a narrower formulation:

"We must demand that the set of operations equivalent to any concept be a unique set, for otherwise there are possibilities of ambiguity in practical applications which we cannot admit" [Bridgman: The Logic of Modern Physics]

Thomas Kuhn studied the development of theory in the natural sciences from a sociological standpoint and introduced the concept of paradigm:

“Scientific revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, again often restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way.”

Thomas Kuhn
The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

Theory and Practice in Marxism:

"To make a science of Socialism, it had first to be placed upon a real basis."

Frederick Engels
Socialism: Utopian & Scientific

In providing this scientific basis for socialism, Marx and Engels opposed the moralistic and Utopian tenor of the socialism of their day. However, they were not “social scientists,” and avoid the construction of theoretical or speculative theories of history and society. Their theoretical work instead centred on (i) the systematic formulation of the principles expressed in the struggle of the working class itself, and (ii) the critique of bourgeois theory.

The Soviet psychologist A N Leontyev, for example, developed Marx’s ideas on the relation of theory and practice, at the level of cognitive psychology, and elaborated a detailed theory related personality and consciousness to the development of the labour process. See his Activity, Consciousness, and Personality.

After the degeneration of the Russian Revolution after the mid-1920s, there has been a split in the revolutionary workers' movement and this has been reflected in a separate development of the theory and practice of communism. On the one hand, creative theoretical work within the workers' movement itself has been stunted by bureaucratism and sectarianism; on the other hand, academics, and others remote from workers' struggles, have further elaborated Marx's theoretical work as part of the social division of labour of bourgeois society. Consequently, there are developments of Marxist theory that have developed relatively independently of the struggle of the working class, and communist struggle which has failed to fruitfully develop Marxist theory. This separation of theory and practice, which is inimical to Marxism, needs to be overcome.

"The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time."

Frederick Engels
The Peasant War in Germany

See Also: practice


Theory of Marginal Utility

The theory of marginal utility was developed independently William Stanley Jevons (England 1871), Karl Menger (Austria 1871) and Leon Walras (Switzerland, 1874) and formed the foundation for all subsequent bourgeois economic science.

John Stuart Mill was the first to call into question the concept of value, which was central to all political economy up to that time. Drawing on the positivist philosophy which began to grow in influence from the 1840s, Mill characterised value as “metaphysical”, proposing that economic science should focus instead on the phenomena of price and utility.

Mill however, did not succeed in making the crucial break-through in this field which became known as “the marginal revolution”. The concept of margin arose from the well-established application of differential calculus to the natural sciences. Instead of trying to find a law expressing the relation of price to other phenomena, Walras and Jevons propounded economic laws in terms of the rate of change in price resulting from a change in a supply or demand.

The other significant component which marked the departure of bourgeois economic science from the tradition of political economy was this: political economy had for its aim to explain why people lived the way they did, and part of this was to explain why and how the wealth of the world was distributed in the way it was, i.e., why there were rich and poor for example. The new economic science was definitively not interested in investigating this, but took distribution as a given. This change was also tied up with a change in ethical conceptions: whereas Adam Smith had been concerned to understand why people placed a greater or lesser value on things, the new economic science was not interested in this. Mill and Bentham’s Utilitarianism was founded on the conception of “freedom of the individual” to the extent that enquiry into virtue, ie., into why we value this or that, was ruled out. Adam Smith arrived at the conclusion that value was determined by the quantity of socially necessary labour embodied in the production of a commodity, for Utilitarianism, value was “in the eye of the beholder”.

One other important change flows from the above changes in orientation, especially the placing of “supply and demand” in centre-stage: although “value” was denied by the theory, it in fact remained, but instead of being regarded as an objective attribute of the process of production, it was transformed into a subjective attribute of the process of consumption. Or put it another way, the focus shifted from the supply side to the demand side.

So these factors taken together laid the basis for the marginal revolution: positivist rejection of metaphysical value for real price, subjectivism in values, abandonment of enquiry into the origin of wealth, application of differential calculus, and the triumph of utilitarian ethics.

Whereas Marx had shown that the concept of value was a dialectical unity of quantity (exchange-value) and quality (use-value), political economy and marginal economic science, both saw utility as a quantitative entity, which was commensurate with exchange value. Thus, Mill could say that someone would purchase a commodity only if its utility (for him!) exceeded its price (set by the seller).

The notion of the theory of marginal utility is this: someone will go on buying more of a commodity at a given price, so long as its utility is greater than the price, but the utility of each new product purchased declines as the buyer gets “saturated”. Contrariwise, a buyer will sell a product at a price so long as the utility of the money for him is greater than the price.

Given this simple idea, it becomes an easy matter to generate hundreds of differential equations which connect various factors involved in exchange of commodities, money supply and so on, all of which, in one way or another rest on hypothetical, unrealistic models of human psychology as implied in the previous paragraph, and all of course, in the name of science.

Further Reading: Meszaros: 'Marginal Utility' and neo-classical Economics, and Ernest Mandel: The marginalist theory of value and neo-classical political economy, and Marx: Capital, Chapter 3; Rudolph Hilferding's Response to Böhm-Bawerk.



Thermidor is that moment in the development of a revolution when the masses begin to withdraw from active intervention in history and the original leadership of the revolution is replaced by a conservative bureaucracy.

On October 24, 1793, the leaders of the French Revolution issued a decree establishing a new calendar to begin on the autumn equinox of the year of the Revolution, that is, at midnight September 22, 1792. Thermidor was the midsummer month in that Republican calendar, late July/August.

On 27th July 1794 (9th Thermidor), the revolutionary Jacobin government was overthrown and Robespierre and his supporters executed. This event marked the end of the Terror, the end of the second, revolutionary phase of the Revolution, and the beginning of the third, reactionary phase culminating on November 19 1799 (18th Brumaire) with the seizure of power by Napoleon Bonaparte, who proclaimed himself Emperor. (See Marx on 18th Brumaire).

The term “Thermidor” was later used by oppositionists in the Soviet Communist Party to refer to the beginning of a corresponding phase in the Russian Revolution, in which the leaders of the Revolution would be removed and affairs put under the control of a conservative bureaucracy, operating within new property relations created by the Revolution.

See The Workers’ State, Thermidor and Bonapartism, by Trotsky, 1935.

The French Revolution was one of history’s greatest social revolutions, along with the English Revolution of 1640-49, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 – social in that the mass of the population participated in the revolution, changing the whole social system, rather than a political revolution which merely changed the governing edifice. Many features of the French Revolution have become defining concepts for understanding all revolutions.

It is reasonable to presume that all revolutions must have their Thermidor, in the sense that it can only ever be for a brief period of time that the entire mass of the population suspends normal life (as they did in 1642-46, in 1791-4 and in 1917-21) to intervene in history, directly taking charge of political life, smashing up the old institutions and replacing them with new ones. After a certain point, there must be some kind of return to “normality,” when the masses return to productive life and leave the new institutions created by the Revolution to be run by some kind of political elite or bureaucracy. Each great social revolution enlarges the scope for popular participation in political life, but there is a decisive difference: in the heat of Revolution, the organisations created by the masses are direct expressions of the subjectivity of the masses; once the level of activity has “cooled off,” these same organisations become institutions, i.e., objectifications, which confront the new generations as a fixed legacy of past actions, to which people have an instrumental relation, rather than recognising them as expressions of their own will. Thermidor marks that moment in which the active participation of the masses has reached its limit and recedes; what follows depends on the quality of the institutions which the masses have created.


Theravada Buddhism

[phonetic: terraVAHduh; the "Doctrine of the Elders" in Pali] A school of Buddhism that has largely resisted local cultural influences and has kept it's foundations in the Pali Canon (Tipitaka), which scholars generally accept as containing the oldest surviving record of the Buddha's teachings. Theravada has been the predominant philosophy of Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), and Thailand for several centuries, and has been the most successful form of Buddhism to penetrate North America and Europe, with over 100 million practioners worldwide at the end of the 20th century.



The “thing-for-us” means the appearance of something, or a phenomenon, as opposed to the “thing-in-itself” which is beyond perception. This is not a Hegelian term, but was introduced for the purpose of popularisation by Engels in “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.”



In-itself refers to a process or movement for which the condition exists, but which is yet to “show itself.” This term is frequently used by writers alluding to Hegelian categories.

In general, the “thing-in-itself”, means the thing as it exists “by itself”, abstracted from our impression of it or our knowledge of it (as opposed to the “thing-for-us”, which denotes the “"phenomenon"”, the thing as it appears to us). This term acquired particular significance in the 18th century, when the empricists demonstrated that, according to the proposition that true knowledge came via the senses, it was impossible to know the “thing-in-itself”, (see Locke). Kant was concerned with the contradiction this led to, since it was obvious that science did provide understanding of the “world beyond sensation” (the “other side”).

For the Rationalists, the “thing-in-itself” presented no problem, since it could be known by Reason, Intuition, Faith, etc. But the problem was how Rational knowledge could correspond to the material world “beyond Mind” (Descartes).

Kant attempted to find a rational explanation for knowledge acquired through the senses, but became hopelessly lost in contradictions; for Kant however, contradiction is a “fault”, indicative of the failure of thought to grasp objective truth. Kant showed that if one attempted to think about things which were not possible objects of perception, then thought came up against “antinomies”.

Hegel showed that the “thing-in-itself” is "a bare abstraction" and criticises Kant for making perception not a connection with the thing but a “barrier” between subject and object, for counter-posing appearance to the “thing-in-itself". The “thing-in-itself” is indeed inaccessible to perception, says Hegel, but only because it is a “Nothing".

Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s concept of “thing-in-itself” as something “beyond perception” is central to Hegel’s importance. Engels’ famous explanation of “thing-in-itself” in Ludwig Feuerbach, Part 2 as properties of things which are at one point unknown, but through the progress of science become known, is a well-known explanation of the materialist theory of knowledge, and owes a great deal to Hegel’s critique of Kant’s “thing-in-itself".


Third World

The “Third World” is a vague term which, before the fall of the Soviet Union, was generally used to encompass all those countries outside of the developed capitalist and industrialised Stalinist countries.

The term was first used in Claude Bourdet’s, L’ Observateur in an article by Alfred Sauvy published in August 1952, entitled Trois mondes, Une planète. (Three worlds, one planet):

‘The Third World, ignored, exploited, and despised like the third state, wanting also to be something.

The term was introduced by analogy with the “third estate” of pre-Revolutionary France – the bourgeoisie, petit-bourgeoisie, artisans, peasants and workers – while the first two estates, were the clergy and the nobility.

The socialists of L’ Observateur (later Le Nouveau Observateur) had in mind parallels between their own search for a ‘Third Way’ between capitalism and Stalinism and the wave of national liberation movements.

The term was quickly taken up by academia and soon came into general usage. The concept is, of course, a construction from the standpoint of the citizen of an imperialist country, which makes an entirely false unity of the “Other”. Regis Debray, for instance, remarked that:

“’Third World’ is a lumber-room of a term, a shapeless bag in which we jumble together, to hasten on their disappearance, nations, classes, races, civilisations and continents as if we were afraid to name them individually and distinguish one from another: it is the modern version of the Greek barbaros, whereby all those who did not speak the language of Percales were lumped together in a single word – Yet what is there in common between Saudi Arabia and The People’s Republic of Vietnam, between Israel and Yemen, between Cuba and Brazil?.”

In 1955, the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement gave a measure of self-consciousness to the “Third World”, but this proved illusory. Cyril Smith put it like this in Marx at the Millennium:

“The concept of a ‘Third World’ - never a clear one - is now quite misleading. The group of former colonial and semi-colonial countries, where industrial and social development had been held back by imperialist domination, has broken into pieces. In Asia, several countries have undergone considerable economic growth, largely under the influence of the rise of the Japanese economy. Although living standards still lag far behind Europe and the US, they must now be classed as industrialised nations.

“Meanwhile, many countries in Africa and Latin America have fallen still further behind. The world shortage of food which could be seen a decade or so back has been reduced in size. And yet starvation in many parts of the world, especially on the African continent, is far worse, sometimes caused by one of the many civil wars raging since the Old Order fell apart. Altogether, about one and a quarter billion men, women and children are living below subsistence levels, and the number is rising fast.

“People sometimes used to refer to the older industrialised countries as ‘metropolitan’. This is now a misnomer, for several of the largest cities in the world are to be found in the southern hemisphere. In 1950, the Third World comprised about two-thirds of the world’s population, but only a small proportion of them lived in the ten cities which then held a million or more inhabitants. By 1990 there were 171 such cities, over 30 with more than 5 million and 9 with over 10 million. By the year 2000, it is estimated 45 per cent of the population of these countries will live in towns.

“In the mega-cities which mushroomed almost overnight, millions live in shanty towns and barrios under the most miserable conditions imaginable. On every continent, the march of progress has engendered monstrous urban conglomerations, vast pools of human misery. Within sight of the most up-to-date airports, in close proximity to glass and concrete structures housing international banks, starvation is an everyday occurrence. Protecting their property against those without any is a major preoccupation of the wealthier citizens.

“For a few of their inhabitants, life in these new cities mimics aspects of life in the older industrialised countries. On the other hand, every metropolis in what are still called the ‘advanced’ countries, has its own ‘Third World’. I mean the ‘cardboard city’ where the homeless struggle to survive, on the margins of urban civilisation.”