The Etymology of Capitalism and Marxism


Etymologies are useful tools when thinking about the history of ideas. While it is true that a concept can pre-exist a term, and likewise that, “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” the first use of a word can tell us a lot about the importance of a concept to a reading public. Two good examples are the arrival of Capitalist and Capitalism and the arrival of the terms Marxist, Marxism, and Marxist-Leninism. Of tangential interest is the arrival of the terms homosexual and heterosexual (1854 and 1857 respectively). French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault added the etymology of these terms in his arsenal of proof that our conception of sexuality-as-identity is very much a modern phenomenon. See his History of Sexuality, Vol. 1 for more.  All of the definitions and etymologies below come from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). (The inclusion of etymologies and entries detailing first-usage are one of the reasons the OED is so useful for historians).

capitalist, n.

Pronunciation: /ˈkæpɪtəlɪst/
Etymology: < capital n.2 + -ist suffix.

One who has accumulated capital; one who has capital available for employment in financial or industrial enterprises. Also attrib. and Comb., as capitalist-imperialist.

1792    A. Young Trav. France 529   A gross evil of these direct imposts is, that of moneyed men, or capitalists, escaping all taxation.
1823    S. T. Coleridge Table-talk 27 Apr.,   The poor-rates are the consideration paid by‥capitalists for having labour at demand.
1845    B. Disraeli Sybil I. ii. xiii. 95   The capitalist flourishes, he amasses immense wealth; we sink, lower and lower; lower than the beasts of burthen.
1845    J. S. Mill in Edinb. Rev. 81 525   This is true of capitalist farmers‥but not of labourer-farmers.
1867    J. B. Kinnear Quest. for Refd. Parl. 213   The capitalist class.
1937    ‘G. Orwell’ Road to Wigan Pier xii. 247   The capitalist-imperialist governments‥will not fight with any conviction against Fascism.

capitalism, n.

Pronunciation: /ˈkæpɪtəˌlɪz(ə)m/

Etymology: < capital n.2+ -ism suffix.

The condition of possessing capital; the position of a capitalist; a system which favours the existence of capitalists.

1854    Thackeray Newcomes (1855) II. viii. 75   The sense of capitalism sobered and dignified Paul de Florac.
1877    A. Douai Better Times (1884) 10   This institution of private capitalism is of a comparatively recent origin.
1884    Pall Mall Gaz. 11 Sept. 6/1   A loophole for capitalism to creep in upon the primitive Christian communism.

Marxist, n.1 and adj.1

Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈmɑːksɪst/ , U.S. /ˈmɑrksəst/
Etymology: < the name of Karl Marx (see Marxism n.1) + -ist suffix, perhaps after French Marxiste (1882 as noun, 1872 as adjective) or German Marxist…. (Show More)
A. n.1

A proponent of Karl Marx’s theories concerning the historical development of economic systems and their influence on politics; esp. a supporter of a political movement with international affiliations, based on an ideology derived from these theories.

1873    Times 5 Sept. 6   At the Congress of Bologna a cotery of Marxists had tried to impede all progress, but in vain.
1886    ‘Alb’ Living Paris & France 337   The Marxists or Guesdists form the next considerable revolutionary party.
1908    H. G. Wells New Worlds for Old xv. 350   Those ‘class war’ ideas of the Marxist that have been superseded in English socialism.
1918    B. Miall tr. A. Hamon Lessons of World-war vii. 206   They [sc. German Social Democrats] professed to be Marxists‥and they were acting as supporters of the capitalist class in the war which was then commencing.
1938    J. F. Scanlan tr. F. Mauriac Communism & Christians 209   Marx himself was a person in revolt against the world, but Marxists can no longer be such.
1964    D. Caute Communism & Fr. Intellectuals iv. i. 263   The first generation of communist intellectuals in France were conspicuously immature Marxists.
1973    M. Foot Aneurin Bevan II. xv. 562   Marx himself had once posed the question whether he was a Marxist.
1997    J. Birmingham He died with Felafel in his Hand (new ed.) i. 17   My friend Ted says Marxists are worse than junkies. You know, you let one in, you let the whole anarcho-syndicalist commune in.

B. adj.1

Of, relating to, or characteristic of Marxism or Marxists; influenced by Marx’s theories and methods; advocating Marxism as a political ideology.

1890    Polit. Sci. Q. 5 634   There is also a large number of special reviews, such as.‥the Idée Nouvelle (organ of the Marxist school).
1928    E. Paul & C. Paul tr. Stalin Leninism 349   In other words, Leninism includes all that Marx taught, with the addition of Lenin’s contribution to the Marxist treasury.
1941    ‘G. Orwell’ Lion & Unicorn i. 23   Letters to the papers from eminent Marxist professors, pointing out that this or that is a ‘miscarriage of British justice’.
1949    J. Lindsay Marxism & Contemp. Sci. ix. 223   One brief example will serve to show how essential Marxist method has beaten against the Hegelian dualism.
1969    R. C. Tucker Marxian Revol. Idea vi. 213   The history of radical movements, Marxist ones included, suggests that Mao’s fear of the coming deradicalization of Chinese communism is well founded.
1973    Times 28 June 16/7   A Labour Party led by Mr Wilson and controlled, to the extent that it already is, by its Marxist wing.
1983    A. Bullock Ernest Bevin ii. 53   The result was not a social revolution in any Marxist sense or a socialist society.
1994    H. Bloom Western Canon iii. x. 258   Ralph Waldo Emerson anticipated the current Marxist critique of Austen when he denounced her as a mere conformist who would not allow her heroines to achieve the soul’s true freedom from societal conventions.

Marxism, n.1

Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈmɑːksɪz(ə)m/ , U.S. /ˈmɑrkˌsɪzəm/

Forms: 18– Marxism, 19– marxism. (Show More)
Etymology: < the name of Karl Heinrich Marx (1818–83), German-born political theorist and economist + -ism suffix, perhaps after French Marxisme (1882) or German Marxismus. Compare Marxist n.1(Show More)

The ideas, theories, and methods of Karl Marx; esp. the political and economic theories propounded by Marx together with Friedrich Engels, later developed by their followers to form the basis for the theory and practice of communism.Central to Marxist theory is an explanation of social change in terms of economic factors, according to which the means of production provide the economic base which determines or influences the political and ideological superstructure. The history of society can be viewed as showing progressive stages in the ownership of the means of production and, hence, the control of political power. Marx and Engels predicted the final revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the proletariat and the eventual attainment of a classless communist society.

1883    Liberty 14 Apr. 1   He [sc. Jules Guesde] is the principal representative of Marxism in France.
1887    Q. Jrnl. Econ. 2 98   Of late years, a slight shade of Marxism may be detected in some of these documents; but, on the whole, the imported socialism of a certain class of London and semi-foreign labor does not seem to have taken any great hold on the abler and more responsible artisan leaders.
1897    Social-Democrat Dec. 365   Marxism, as generally conceived, is a catastrophic theory rather than a theory of development.
1908    H. G. Wells New Worlds for Old xi. 251   It seemed to me, that fatalistic Marxism crumbled down to dust.
1935    F. A. von Hayek Collectivist Econ. Planning i. 18   It is essentially in this form that Marxism has been interpreted by the social-democratic parties on the Continent.
1959    G. D. Overstreet & M. Windmiller Communism in India ii. xx. 488   According to Marxism, the prime movers of history were not nations but classes.
1991    Reason Aug.–Sept. 50/2   ‘Political correctness’—an uneasy amalgam of antiracism, feminism, Marxism, and environmentalism.

Marxism–Leninism, n.

Pronunciation: Brit. /ˌmɑːksɪz(ə)mˈlɛnɨnɪz(ə)m/ , U.S. /ˈmɑrkˌsɪzəmˈlɛnəˌnɪzəm/

Etymology: < Marxism n.1 + Leninism n., after Russian marksizm-leninizm.(Show More)

The political ideology which merges Marx’s analysis of capitalism with Lenin’s theories of revolutionary action, and stresses the role of the central institutions of the Communist Party in controlling and organizing the political and economic life of a state. Cf. Leninism n.The term was originally adopted by Stalin, after Lenin’s death, to describe the political ideology of the Soviet Union (see quot. 1946), and was subsequently adopted by most communist parties worldwide.

1929    (title)    Revolutionary age: an organ of Marxism-Leninism in the United States for communist unity in the revolutionary class struggle.
1936    J. Strachey Theory & Pract. Socialism iv. xxviii. 356   The science [sc. Marxism] is now sometimes referred to as ‘Marxism-Leninism’.
1946    tr. Lenin Sel. Wks. Pref. 13   The revolutionary theory of Marxism-Leninism ‘gives practical workers the power of orientation,‥faith in the victory of our cause’ (Stalin).
1970    D. James Ché Guevara xv. 312   But it is revolutionary thought outside Marxism-Leninism with which Ché Guevara appears to have most in common.
1993    N.Y. Times Bk. Rev. 21 Mar. 29/1   Three years ago Ms. Larina was summoned to the Institute of Marxism-Leninism, the temple of Communist orthodoxy.

One thought on “The Etymology of Capitalism and Marxism

  1. Interesting read. Thank you for writing this. lately, I’ve been interested in the history of the term and the concepts that go with it. I am particularly interested to see how often it is equated with a system of economics and how often it is used to refer to specific practices and or economic interests irrespective of the system in which they operate? …hence, i stumbled onto your post.

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