Parametricity

Marx and Engel's theorem on the inevitability of revolution

Posted at — Dec 29, 2021

A lot of people think that Marx saw proletarian revolution as inevitable. In fact, it is not. But it is inevitable given certain assumptions that Marx probably believed (owing to arguments he made throughout his writing).

Let’s try to understand what these assumptions are, why Marx thought they were true, and why they might not be.

The theorem

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes that class struggle ends “either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” 1

With the right interpretation, this is a simple logical necessity.

Theorem [Marx and Engels]

Let $B$ and $P$ be classes (as an example, think: $B$ is bourgeoisie and $P$ is proletariat) and assume:

  1. $B$ cannot exist without $P$.
  2. $P$ will always struggle if $B$ exists.
  3. At some time $t$, the two classes will no longer be struggling.

Then at that time $t$, either the society containing these classes no longer exists (“common ruin”), or if it does, $B$ no longer exists (“revolutionary reconstitution”).

Proof. At that time $t$, we may ask if the society containing those two classes still exists. If it does not, then the “common ruin of the contending classes” has occurred. If it does, then $B$ can no longer exist. For if it did, then $P$ would also exist (by 1), and as a result the two are still struggling (by 2) which is contrary to our assumption 3.

Thus we have the conclusion that if the class struggle between $B$ and $P$ ends, then either the society containing these two classes no longer exist (“common ruin”), or the formerly dominant $B$ no longer exists (“revolutionary reconstitution”).

$\square$

Examining assumption 1

How realistic is the assumption that the bourgeoisie could not exist without the proletariat? The bourgeoisie are a part of society which does not produce the value required to sustain itself, and as a result relies on the existence of another class to perform the production required for its continued existence. Given how far we are from full-automation of production, this assumption seems at present pretty solid. (Even the most basic necessities, agricultural production and the construction of housing, are very far from fully automated.) 2

Examining assumption 2

Is it true that the proletariat will always struggle if the bourgeoisie exist? Put more concretely, will exploited people always struggle against those who exploit them?

I think this assumption is slightly questionable theoretically, but in practice is probably true.

Imperialist countries like America are able to institute costly systems of carrots and sticks (or put more directly, of consent and coercion) that dramatically reduce the intensity of the struggle. The “carrots” consist of the material pleasures provided by the capitalist system to a segment of the exploited population, along with the consent manufactured by the media, schools, elections, etc. The effect of this is to reduce people’s desire to struggle.

The “sticks” consist of the state’s expensive apparatus for surveillance and violence (local police, the FBI, the CIA, NSA surveillance, etc.) which can be used to discourage struggle.

However, because of the expense of both of these sets of systems,

  1. It has not yet been economically viable to apply them globally, and
  2. In the absence of a state that is willing and able to guarantee a certain standard of living, the drive for greater profits may lead to an erosion of the “carrots”, and maybe even of the “sticks”.

So, by (1) large sections of the global proletariat are probably willing and able to struggle (even if those in imperialist countries are not), and by (2), conditions in imperialist countries may deteriorate sufficiently to inspire struggle there as well.

So until a high standard of living and/or a very strong repressive apparatus can be applied globally, this assumption continues to seem reasonable.

Examining assumption 3

Will the class struggle end? The answer to this one is pretty unclear to me unless we grant a few other assumptions. If someone has an argument here please let us know in the comments.

Marx and Engels’ hopes

Marx and Engels drew further conclusions based on the above theorem, by adding in further assumptions they hoped were true.

First off, due to their own actions, I think it’s safe to assume they were working on the assumption that the “common ruin” outcome was going to be avoided.

I think more specifically, they also believed the proletariat could adapt to exist without the bourgeoisie. If you are committed to building a new society without class struggle out of capitalist society, I think you have to believe this is true. If it’s not true, the entire project of building a new classless society out of capitalist society is probably doomed.

Another theorem on the inevitability of the end of capitalism (ecological version)

There is another argument that implies the inevitability of the end of capitalism and which has nothing to do with class struggle. In broad strokes it goes like this. Capitalist society requires the production of value at a certain rate, and the production of value requires certain inputs from non-human nature that are not produced at a high enough rate to satisfy the rate of value production.

I tried to make this mathematical, but the most straightforward attempts do not seem to capture the full force of the argument, and for example, it is not clear how to describe the ecological breakdown of climate change in terms of natural inputs required for production.

In a future blog post, I’ll try to give a more adequate account of this argument.


  1. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch01.htm ↩︎

  2. Even if something close to full-automation occurred, it’s still possible that the institution of the market economy would force capitalists to extract surplus labor in novel ways. ↩︎