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!

31 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. Andrew Potts

    It has not failed it just needs to implement properly, the 100 million deaths is a learning curve

    • Codrin Cernăuțianu

      If we go on that road, same thing can be applied to national socialism too … and we’re talking about less then 100 milion deaths as a “learning curve” !

  2. Ivan Burrows

    The writings of the lunatic Marx have lead to misery, decline, oppression and death wherever it has been tried, Two book that should be compulsory reading at every school on the planet, 1 Basic economics – Thomas Sowell and 2. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx while being taught history of the left. That way Communism, Marxism, socialism and National socialism can all be consigned to the dustbin of history.

    • Karolina

      It’s funny you say that because one of the accusations that the Nazis threw at the Jews was that they were Communists, therefore, clearly they themselves saw Communism as being opposed to their own ideas. Communism does not allow religion btw and also does not discriminate against anyone based on ethnicity. Communism and the NAZIs quite simply cannot be equated.

      This really is some low-quality trolling what you are doing here.

    • Tarquin Farquhar

      You are partially correct AND partially WRONG. Communism is NOT the same as Naziism BUT the 2 flawed and corrupt philosophies do bear many, many disturbing similarities.

  3. カメニャク マリオ

    A failure of a part of his writings does not invalidate the rest of it.
    Though the revolution may still come in ways we don’t expect.

    I think he failed to expect the huge resistance to the revolution and the nuclear stalemate of the cold war.

    So, in a way, it is the nuclear bomb that stopped socialism.

  4. Michele Marco Paolella

    I want to remember to all the righties here that only the balck book of communism stated that there were 100 millions of death and it was written with arbitrary data by an anti-communist.

  5. Michele Marco Paolella

    I think global revolution must take place with a peaceful movement , without an authoritarian standing and starting from Europe, the most civilized and social protected population of the world. So , Karl Marx was not wrong , it was just mislead. People like capitalism ignoring that it is killing million of people in africa, china , india and south america, but are always ready to blame communism.

  6. Quiterio Alberto Báez Benítez

    Marx wasn’t wrong in that period of history. That,s the meaning. The proletarian’s living condition were terrible, it’s work and theories were audacious and accurate in that moment.

  7. Heinrich Koblé

    ”Life is not a zero sum game” ; and the Pareto distribution as a natural law is always working against any ideas about making the world behave globally the way some delusional minds want to have it because these minds can’t deal in any other way with their hate and resentfulness towards life other than denying reality and letting their children die, which leads to millions of deaths in the end. By the way, Marx was also propagating atheism. Anyone with a sense of spirituality should sense at least right now the foul breath of death. Marxism is a religion for people who suffer from depression and are easily deceived, actually not better than any religion it’s criticising

  8. EU Reform- Proactive

    …………“Marx wasn’t actually silly enough to make predictions”… ??
    Surprisingly, literature is full of his (K.M.) predictions and predilections by his students. Learner-ed Prof’s are however always right!

    If persons chose to intensively devote time (except its “intellectual” value) and believe to sustain a reasonable living within our rather competitive & capitalistic world- is free to follow his/her personal choice. All thanks to a free (“capitalistic”) market system and not a weird central directed one.

    For the normal “workers” of today it is more important to remain vigilant and follow the movements of our present politicians & thought leaders (“accountability”) to prevent past disasters from reoccurring. Regardless of some bygone right or wrong predictions by some (celebrated or despised) guru’s from the past.

    Today’s & future “weapon” of the majority remains their broad & superior education and its ‘one man one (direct?) democratic vote or choice’- which some feel is being slowly undermined.

  9. Eugenia Serban

    Becauze he was a deluded lunatic who came with the idea of communism
    The most atrocious tirany

  10. Bódis Kata

    He was wrong about ignoring human nature. His ideology is the root of a great amount of inhumanity

    I find it offensive that Marxism can be still a topic of discussion and you are not letting it slip into the cesspool of history, where it belongs.

  11. Alexandru Sudiţoiu

    Marx made the same mistake many of us repeat today. Economic reductionism. His analysis of history and society failed to take into account subjective factors and not only material ones. Culture, identity have triumphed, in the end, over his hypothesis of class struggle. As the case of German socialists proves, in the end being German proved more relevant than being part of a so called working class.

  12. Ivan Burrows

    Because of the 60 million dead National Socialism is now banned from taking power which begs the question why is Communism, socialism and Marxism not banned with its 100 million dead legacy ?

  13. Anonymous

    He thought the proletariat has a stronger tie to their class than to national identity and the German SPD voting for war bonds in 1914 definitively disproved that. He also said religion is the opium for the masses and dismissed it as a bourgeois plot.

    When you underestimate the power of nationalism and religion in politics, you tend to get a couple of things wrong.

    Not to mention the fact that even in the peak of the industrial revolution the majority of the population never became industrial workers. It was too unidimensional a theory. Doesn’t mean he wasn’t right on some issues. But if you take Marxism as your bible you will inevitably have a few blind spots.

  14. Anonymous

    One-party centralized socialism fails. Perhaps more communalist ideas like democratic confederalism?

  15. Anonymous

    Stalin alone killed 20 mill people. Eastern Europe has its fair share. North Korea seem to be doing pretty good too, China, Vietnam …just to name a few. I wonder where Karl Marx went wrong …?

  16. Anonymous

    EU = Communism = Marxism. Central power, very controlled media, mind indoctrination, fear silencing, censoring/branding (racist etc) anybody who dares to question let alone express an opinion different than what the EU says…..We are not too far from the blood bath are we?

  17. IanScott

    Warum ehren wir Karl Marx? In Karl Marx ehren wir den genialen Begründer des wissenschaft­lichen Kommunismus, der Weltanschauung der Arbeiterklasse, den un­ermüdlichen Kämpfer für die Sache des Proletariats. In Karl Marx ehren wir den größten Sohn des deutschen Volkes, der gemeinsam mit seinem Freund und Kampfgefährten Friedrich Engels die Lehre vom Sozialismus und Kommunismus aus einer Utopie in eine Wissenschaft umwandelte. »Die Anwendung der materialistischen Dialektik bei der radikalen Um­arbeitung der gesamten politischen Ökonomie, ihre Anwendung auf die Geschichte, auf die Naturwissenschaft, die Philosophie, die Politik und die Taktik der Arbeiterklasse – das ist es, was Marx und Engels vor allem interessiert, hierzu haben sie das Wesentlichste und Neueste beigetragen, das ist der geniale Schritt, den sie in der Geschichte des revolutionären Denkens vorwärts getan haben. «[2]In Karl Marx ehren wir den Führer der deutschen und der internatio­nalen Arbeiterklasse, den Begründer der ersten proletarischen Partei, des Bundes der Kommunisten, dessen revolutionäre Traditionen auch die Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands fortsetzte. Ganz im Sinne Ernst Thälmanns, der Gedenktage der Arbeiter­bewegung als »Richtlinien für den Klassenkampf« bezeichnete, ehren wir Karl Marx, indem wir sein Werk als Anleitung für den weiteren Kampf um den Sozialismus betrachten. Wir ehren Karl Marx durch eine vielfältige und wirkungsvolle politisch-­ideologische Arbeit, die auf den überzeugenden Nachweis der Aktualität und Lebenskraft des Marxismus-Leninismus, auf die erneute Herausbildung und Entwicklung des Klassen­bewußtseins in der Arbeiterklasse und den kompromißlosen Kampf gegen die bürgerliche Ideologie in allen ihren Spielarten gerichtet ist. Karl Marx war ein Mensch voller Humor und OptimismusDas ganze Leben von Karl Marx war eine Großtat selbstlosen Dienstes für die Sache der Arbeiterklasse, ja der ganzen Menschheit.

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