One of the quintessential parts of understanding socialism is to understand the conditions that allow it to emerge. Almost every single debate within leftism aims to address how to bring about a revolution that can host, maintain and transition into a socialist state of some sort. Different groups address different aspects of a society that impact its socialist potential. Some focus on the state of agriculture and produce, how farmers and those providing a nation with food get placed within the production chain. Some might even look at the state of one specific minority group, be they ethnic, economic, or any other factor, to gauge the potential. Many leftist discussions ultimately branch from this point; reform over revolution is ultimately about how best to create the conditions the predeceases the best socialist society. This discussion comes even before how to organize a socialist society. Up to now, all successful communist revolutions have taken place in developing countries or colonized countries. Cuba, China, Vietnam, Russia, and many other revolutionary nations all fall into a category outside of the “imperial core.” When their revolutions took place, they were by no means even close to the level of industrialization of the central powers or economically developed nations.
This situation mentioned above puts one of Karl Marx’s main predictions at odds with the actual development of socialist history. Marx predicted that it would be already developed nations that will have revolutions and build socialism from there. He developed his theories about the relations of workers and the means of production under this assumption. This issue about Marx’s prediction is not unknown but rarely gets taken into context during discussions surrounding Marx. Analyzing Marx’s predictions for where revolutions would take place helps us better understand if the past revolutions should be looked at differently. This essay will explore the nature of Marx’s prediction on the conditions required for socialism and explore the contradiction present in Marx’s text with the history of revolutions. Concluding that while there is a clear issue in Marx’s idea of where a revolution will come from, the shifting landscape of industrialization and labor relations in the modern era has caused a re-emergence of the same antagonisms described in Marx’s theories.
Marx, class antagonism, and his perception of the bourgeois.
Before diving into main issues, it is vital to establish the baseline of Marx’s concepts of how he believed revolutions would play out all around the world and which nations he thought would be best suited for this kind of revolution. It is hard to find a single line in Marx that explicitly, in plain words describes, his position. There is no quote from Marx where he says, “the communist revolution will happen here and here,” but it can be inferred from 2 primary texts his exact beliefs on the matter putting the rest of his theories within that framework. Specifically, these citations show that Marx believed that revolutions would take place mainly in industrialized capitalist countries rather than feudal nations. First and foremost, Marx describes most of his antagonisms in the contexts of a “proletarianized” society. His analysis and class structures are very clearly built with this frame of thought in mind. Marx mentions explicitly in the communist manifesto how the bourgeois in capitalist societies (from his period) play a particular role that had been developed over some time.
“The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. […] the feudal system of industry, in which industrial production was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The manufacturing system took its place. The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class; division of labour between the different corporate guilds vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop.” (Marx and Engels The communist manifesto Chapter 1)
These systems and the growth/expansion of markets, and the nature of capitalist society are the contexts that Marx centers his theories around. Marx, in fact, makes some particular distinctions on feudalism in chapter three of the manifesto, separating it from his original analysis on capitalist society. Specifically, Marx defines Feudal socialism and posits that the proletariat known in capitalist societies is entirely a different matter.
“In pointing out that their mode of exploitation was different to that of the bourgeoisie, the feudalists forget that they exploited under circumstances and conditions that were quite different and that are now antiquated. In showing that, under their rule, the modern proletariat never existed, they forget that the modern bourgeoisie is the necessary offspring of their own form of society.” (Marx and Engels The communist manifesto Chapter 3)
Compounding this idea even further, Marx specifically mentions four different nations in his fourth chapter on the “Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties” These four countries being Switzerland, Poland, Germany, and France, all developed nations. Specifically, his paragraph on Germany is quite for his views on revolutions in capitalist nations:
“The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England was in the seventeenth, and France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.” (Marx and Engels The communist manifesto Chapter 4)
Through these quotations taken from the communist manifesto, it becomes evident that Marx had a precise vision when it came to where these revolutions would happen and where it is best fit for them to occur. It was required for nations to have developed through capitalism (accumulating enough capital/productive forces) before having the conditions to host socialism and successfully transition into the next epoch. An excellent way to encapsulate all of the following is from an excerpt in the paper “Theories of Revolution and Industrialized Societies” where the author summarizes Marx’s view of history in the book “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.” (which is by far the most direct instance of Marx speaking to this point)
“For Marx and Engels, revolution means the change from one historical epoch to another-the change from slave society to feudalism, from feudalism to capitalism, from capitalism to socialism. The key to the revolution is a change in the mode of production from slave-labor to serf-labor, to wage-labor, to free labor, respectively. The revolution is always led by the rise of a new class out of the antagonisms of the previous class system. The new class always brings with it a new mode of production which is fettered by the existing relations of production that is, prevailing definition of property relations as master-slave, lord-serf, and capitalist-proletariat. (Malecki Theories of Revolution and Industrialized Societies PP.957)”
Historical revolutions and the contradiction with Marx.
The problem that this train of thought has is quite evident when looking at communist revolutions historically. Russia, China, and Cuba were all nations that had their revolutions before they were anywhere close to the kind of conditions that Marx had envisioned. They were not industrialized, and the workers’ relationships to the means of production and productive forces were not in the same vein. Furthermore, these are not the only examples; there have been many revolutions in pre-industrial or third world nations that have resulted in some form of communist government. The only semblance of actual socialist governance in developed nations has been smaller-scale attempts such as the Paris Commune or the Bavarian revolution. Moreover, even those were much more disorganized revolutions brought about not by production relations but by external factors. Historically the way these revolutions emerge because of a lack of development and aggregation of poor conditions. Russia had the first world war, China had the invasion of Japan, the Paris Commune was due to the Franco-Prussian war, etc. Issues like external invasions, nationalism, and global conflicts play heavily into the mix and have taken precedence over labour relations. The entire scenario of underdeveloped, feudalist nations having these revolutions makes it challenging to integrate Marx and various socialist analytical lenses. Rather than a more internationalist proletariat revolution, what occurs is more akin to a peasant or feudal uprising.
How to reconcile Marx in a modern and retrospective context:
The best way to adapt Marx to the context of both today and the past revolutions is by taking a contemporary look at the state of classes and how they have evolved in relation to the means of production. Through this, Marx’s predictions can be re-contextualized and still fit into the framework of a more modern era. What constitutes and is an industrialized society the proletariat, and the ruling class, have all changed heavily under neo-liberalism. First and foremost, an industrial society is what Marx puts in the center of so many of his theories. Back when Marx was writing the communist manifesto and developing his theories, what would make a nation advanced was its industrial capacity. Its through the relations of workers to the means of production in these factories and mills that Marx builds his theories. However, today, industrialism is not the standard for developed nations. Because of globalization and outsourcing, the kinds of nations that Marx discussed, the foremost developed capitalist nations, are no longer the ones that have the most industrial capacities. Nowadays, industrial production is being exported and sent off to developing countries in the global south. They have become hosts for the exploitative first world to produce cheap consumer goods to keep products/services inexpensive and not ruin local environments with the kinds of outdated infrastructure that accompany that nature of industrial production. Therefore, Marx’s conditions of industrialization and the class relations that emerge from the factories of the industrial revolution have now taken root in the developing world. The top two countries in the world for outsourcing are India and the Philippines. (Outsource Accelerator Ultimate outsourcing statistics and reports in 2021))Additionally, both countries have extremely influential and significant communist movements that hold a certain political power. In the Philippines, there is the CPP insurgency, and in India, there is the entire province of Kerala that is run by a communist party (not to mention the recent farmer protests sparking massive support for Marxism). Other post-colonial states are in a similar position; due to their history of being heavily exploited by imperialist nations, they had not had the same form of industrialization that many nations like the US, Germany, France, UK etc had been through.
Through these facts, Marx remains correct in his beliefs because what is shown now is that there are capitalist nations who are being forced to stay at an industrial and exploited level. The very same contradictions that Marx initially talked about, the tensions between proletariat and bourgeoisie have re-emerged in the global south. There are no more “feudal” or underdeveloped nations that have systems where the lower classes are “exploited under circumstances and conditions that were quite different and that are now antiquated.” to re-quote Marx. Therefore, it matters not if the nations that come to host revolutions in the modern context are part of a modern group or not, it is irrelevant due to the absence of these feudal societies. Thusly, suppose a communist revolution or movement were to take place in a developing nation. In that case, it is easily arguable that the forms of exploitation they face are very similar to what Marx had originally been proposing.
Other potential solutions and their shortcomings
Investigating this issue also presents two other possible solutions to Marx’s initially visible oversight on revolutions in developed nations. These two angles take a historical and a more theoretical approach. However, in exploring them further, they both still present themselves with certain limits that cannot be overlooked and make them less ideal when compared to the contemporary approach of re-contextualizing Marx, as discussed in the previous section. Starting with the historical approach, this involves deeper dive into the conditions of some countries on the eve of their revolutions. Ultimately it might be possible to draw similarities between the countries who went through revolutions in the 20th century and the state of their labor/means of production relations during that time to Marx’s described conditions. As a majority of the revolutions occurred during industrialization periods, even ones like Russia, who were far behind the progress of other nations, still were building industrial infrastructure. However, this lens of analysis is very challenging and ultimately impractical in the greater scheme of helping Marx. Not only do most of these future revolutions have their specific hypotheses about their nations, but one would also need to go beyond and compare numerous different elements to prove this. It would need to be conducted on a case-by-case basis, and at that point, it becomes less of an issue with Marx but rather the guiding ideologies of the revolutionary leaders’ own ideologies and the unique conditions of each nation. Additionally, there is a parallel historical debate going on for decades about many revolutions and their relevance to Marxism. Some historians view Lenin’s revolution as a coup d’état more than a real revolution, or that Lenin was not even the principal figure behind the revolution and instead manipulated himself to the top. For that reason, within the context of discussing Marx’s views on socialist revolutions in the industrial world, it does not make any sense to take a historical approach.
The theoretical approach is a lot more in line with the topic and deals more specifically with interpreting Marx’s words, and revolves around one crucial line in the communist manifesto. He mentions a specific direction that revolutions will take and says that “These measures will, of course, be different in different countries. Nevertheless, in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.”(Marx and Engels The communist manifesto Chapter 2) This line is irrelevant to the many other parts of Marx’s writing that imply that he still bases his theories around industrialism and capital accumulation. This quote is more of an acknowledgment that different countries have entirely different conditions/cultures that could alter aspects. This is entirely true and undeniable; there is no way that revolutions and system changes will always take the same path or face the same adversaries. Since it was written in the manifesto, it seems more akin to a cautionary notice to future revolutionaries to plan for some changes. Outside of this one line, and maybe some varied interpretations of others, it is apparent that in Marx’s writing, he believes that revolutions will unfold in a specific set of countries and as a passage between systems.
Those who try and discredit communist/socialist movements will often try and espouse a point that goes along the lines of claiming that “Marx is outdated” or somehow that “Marx did not write about what is happening now” (Parger U, Who Is Karl Marx?). While most of the world does not resemble Europe during the industrial revolution, the class antagonisms that Marx talks about can remain true regardless of any period. It might require some effort to shift perspectives and apply a classical Marxist lens to contexts beyond its time, but it can very well be done. This point is proven by taking one of Marx’s ideas about the progression of epochs and the required step of Feudalism before Capitalism and making that very adaptation. In conclusion, while there is a clear issue in Marx’s idea of where a revolution will come from, the shifting landscape of industrialization and labor relations in the modern era under neoliberalism have caused a re-emergence of the same antagonisms described in Marx’s theories.
Malecki, Edward S. “Theories of Revolution and Industrialized Societies.” The Journal of Politics, vol. 35, no. 4, 1973, pp. 948–985., doi:10.2307/2129215.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. Penguin, 2002.
Outsource Accelerator. “Ultimate Outsourcing Statistics and Reports in 2021.” Outsource Accelerator, 28 Jan. 2021, www.outsourceaccelerator.com/articles/outsourcing-statistics/#:~:text=India%20remains%20the%20leading%20country,listed%20in%20the%20Tholons%20report.
“Who Is Karl Marx?” PragerU, www.prageru.com/video/who-is-karl-marx/.