Because Marxism addresses itself principally to history, its adherents often traffic in historical predictions. This was true of Marx and Engels no less than their followers, and more often than not their predictions turned out to be inaccurate or mistaken. Proletarian revolution — which Marx sometimes called “the revolution of the nineteenth century” — did not ultimately win out or carry the day. Capitalism has not yet collapsed, and despite the periodic pronouncements of Marxist professors every time the stock market dips, none of the crises it’s endured has proved terminal.
Karl Popper, Raymond Aron, and other opponents of Marxian theory often raise the failure of such forecasts as proof that its doctrine is “unfalsifiable.” Opponents of Marxism are not the only ones who rejoice at Marxism’s frustrated prognostications; opportunistic revisionists have also taken comfort whenever things don’t quite pan out. Georg Lukács observed almost a hundred years ago that “the opportunist interpretation of Marxism immediately fastens on to the so-called errors of Marx’s individual predictions in order to eliminate revolution root and branch from Marxism as a whole.”
Some of this is rather unavoidable. Debates about whether the capitalist breakdown is inevitable, the vagaries of Zusammenbruchstheorie, necessarily involve speculation about the future results of present dynamics — whether self-annihilation is a built-in feature of capitalism, whether the entire mode of production is a ticking time-bomb. Yet there have been concrete instances in which the foresight of certain Marxists seems almost prophetic in hindsight. Not just in broad strokes, either, as for example the eventual triumph of bourgeois economics across the globe.
Engels’ very detailed prediction, originally made in 1887, came true almost to the letter:
The only war left for Prussia-Germany to wage will be a world war, a world war, moreover, of an extent and violence hitherto unimagined. Eight to ten million soldiers will be at each other’s throats and in the process they will strip Europe barer than a swarm of locusts.
The depredations of the Thirty Years’ War compressed into three to four years and extended over the entire continent; famine, disease, the universal lapse into barbarism, both of the armies and the people, in the wake of acute misery; irretrievable dislocation of our artificial system of trade, industry, and credit, ending in universal bankruptcy; collapse of the old states and their conventional political wisdom to the point where crowns will roll into the gutters by the dozen, and no one will be around to pick them up; the absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will emerge as victor from the battle.
Only one consequence is absolutely certain: universal exhaustion and the creation of the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class.
Regarding this last line, “the conditions for the ultimate victory of the working class” undoubtedly were created by the world war between great capitalist powers. Whether these conditions were acted upon is another, sadder story. Counterfactuals aside, the fact remains that things could have been otherwise. Historic circumstances conspired to open up a definite field of potential outcomes, in which international proletarian revolution seemed not just abstractly possible but concretely probable.
Leon Trotsky’s prediction of the impending Judeocide in Europe, made almost half a century later, was also uncanny in its terrifying accuracy. From a radio broadcast in December 1938:
Suffocating in its own contradictions, capitalism directs enraged blows against the Jews, moreover a part of these blows fall upon the Jewish bourgeoisie in spite of all its past “service” for capitalism. Measures of a philanthropic nature for refugees become less and less efficacious in comparison with the gigantic dimension of the evil burdening the Jewish people.
Now it is the turn of France. The victory of fascism in this country would signify a vast strengthening of reaction, and a monstrous growth of violent antisemitism in all the world, above all in the United States. The number of countries which expel the Jews grows without cease. The number of countries able to accept them decreases. At the same time the exacerbation of the struggle intensifies.
It is possible to imagine without difficulty what awaits the Jews at the mere outbreak of the future world war. But even without war the next development of world reaction signifies with certainty the physical extermination of the Jews.
Although this might at first seem less impressive than Engels’ forecast of the First World War, given that Trotsky was not so far chronologically removed from what he said would take place. The horrific events that he predicted soon transpired. Still, it is worth remembering that few at the time believed things would get as bad as they eventually did. Jews trapped in Europe knew their situation was dire, but few would have been so bold as to predict their own “physical extermination.” Not even exiled members of the Frankfurt School, famous for their pessimism, went this far before the outbreak of war.
Usually Trotsky did not like to make predictions, it should be said: “Historical forecasts, unlike those of astronomy, are always conditional, containing options and alternatives,” he wrote in 1929. “Any claims to powers of exact prediction would be ridiculous where a struggle between living forces is involved. The task of historical prediction is to differentiate between the possible and the impossible and to separate the most likely variants out from all those that are theoretically possible.”