Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains! You have the world to win. At least, that was the promise made by Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto, first published 170 years ago in February 1848.
Marx originally envisioned revolution taking place in the advanced industrial societies of the day such as Germany, France, and Britain. From there, he believed revolution would spread to the rest of Europe, and then finally the whole world. In the Communist Manifesto, he declares that the “victory of the proletariat” will be “inevitable”.
Yet that’s not what happened. Instead of beginning in the relatively heavily-industrialised countries of Western Europe, revolution eventually took hold in less-developed, agrarian economies such as Russia and China. And, despite the ideological struggles of the Cold War period, the workers of the world ultimately never rose up. So, why was Marx so wrong about global socialist revolution?
May 2018 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, and February 2018 will be the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto. To mark these dates, Debating Europe is launching a series of online discussions dedicated to examining the impact and legacy of Marx and his writings.
We had a comment sent in from Proactive, who argues that Marx’ failure to accurately predict the demise of capitalism means his theories are not worth studying. Is he right? And why was Karl Marx wrong about global revolution?
To get a response, we spoke to Terrell Carver, Professor of Political Theory at the University of Bristol, and an expert in the translation, analysis, and interpretation of Karl Marx. What would he say?
Well, Proactive, I think the username is quite good. Marx was very ‘proactive’, and he wasn’t actually silly enough to make predictions. There’s a certain amount of cheer-leading in the Communist Manifesto, saying ‘Yes, we can! We can do it, and our victory is unavoidable!’ (The English translation ‘inevitable’ is tendentious).
So, there are what I would call prognostications there, and a proactive kind of rhetoric to get people going and to feel confident about what they’re doing. But it’s also mentioned in the Communist Manifesto that one possible outcome is the ‘common ruin of the contending classes’. So, one needs to bear that in mind before one reduces Marx’s quite interesting and exploratory thinking about social movements and possible outcomes down to a prediction which is merely right or wrong.
For another perspective, we put the same comment to Jonathan Portes, Professor of Economics and Public Policy at King’s College, London. What would he say?
Well, I think he was wrong because of one of the things he got right, which was the dynamism of capitalism. The way capitalism changed the economy, and those economic developments in turn changed the way capitalism functioned politically. And capitalism was even more dynamic than he foresaw, it was able to adapt itself politically in such a way that the workers didn’t become impoverished and weren’t starved. In fact, the workers did very well during much of the 20th Century, particularly after the Second World War.
So, I think Marx underestimated the protean form of capitalism in that respect. But, equally, the current evolution of capitalism is raising some of those questions again. I’m neither predicting, nor am I suggesting the right answer is a global socialist revolution – whatever that means – but I do think that some of the questions that Marx asked about the tendency towards monopoly of capitalism, and the tendency towards exploitation, that those questions need to be asked anew given current technological and economic development.
Why was Marx wrong about global revolution? Why didn’t the workers of the world rise up? Does he failure to predict global revolution invalidate Marx’ theories and writings? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!