Marxism and historical predictions

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.”

2 thoughts on “Marxism and historical predictions

  1. You know that Magritte painting where the guy is painting a bird in flight while his model is an egg? I like to think of Marxist predictions as like that – picking out possibilities of development they see in a situation, without any guarantee that the egg won’t smash on the floor before those tendencies can become manifest.

    And the best naff Marxist prediction might be Trotsky on the coming Anglo-American war for global hegemony…

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