wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Martin Malia

History's Locomotives

The great question posed by Communist history is why a doctrine predicting proletarian revolution in advanced industrial societies has come to power only in predominantly agrarian ones, by Marxist definition the least prepared for socialism. Or to put the problem in more general terms, Marxist theory rests on two bases: on the one hand, an objective logic of history leading implacably from feudalism to capitalism to socialism, and on the other a subjective proletarian consciousness (the class struggle) serving as detonator of the culminating revolution. But, in actual history, the logic of capitalist development and revolutionary worker consciousness have never intersected. Instead, socialist revolution has occurred only when the hand of history was forced by a vanguard of Marxist intellectuals standing in for the proletariat.

This outcome is often treated as an untoward paradox. The real problem, however, is why Marxist doctrine in fact ended in paradox. The most prominent answer is that its cult of the Promethean powers of industry made it an ideology for the crash overcoming of backwardness—at best a partial explanation. An equally frequent, and even less satisfactory, answer is that Leninist Communism was not genuine Marxism—an argument best treated as metaphysical exorcism to keep Marxism clean of Eastern Communist crime and thus eternally fit for criticizing dirty Western capitalism.

In fact, however, the vocation of Marxism as a doctrine for a 'great leap' out of backwardness was built into the theory from its very inception. And this becomes apparent if we read its genesis in long-term historical context. Or in other words, of what 'base' is Marxism the 'superstructure'?

It will be recalled that contrary to the usual perception, Marxism was not created as a critique of advanced industrial society. Rather, it was devised in the mid-1840s by a pair of intellectuals who hailed from then-preindustrial Germany. The pair, moreover, were moved in the first instance by the degrading spectacle of Germany's political backwardness vis-a-vis France and England: Germany still lived in the Middle Ages under a monarchical and aristocratic Old Regime (in their terms, feudalism) unchanged by the partial emancipation that bourgeois France and England had achieved, respectively, in the Revolution of 1830 and the Reform Bill of 1832. The solution for Germany, therefore, would be the leap of 'permanent revolution' (as Marx put it in 1850), directly from feudalism to socialism. In the penultimate words of the Communist Manifesto, 'The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that...will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.'