Marx and the Proletarian Revolution

When the Industrial Revolution hit Europe, it tore through the centuries-old fabric of society with never-before-seen power. Artisans and craftsmen were pushed aside as mass-produced commodities flooded the market. Losing the crafts to mass production was a terrible loss to humanity; with it disappeared the intimate knowledge that the manual process of the crafts allowed, and the path of self-perfection that came with it—be it woodwork, stonemasonry, smithing, cobbling or tailoring.

Men and women no longer had their trade, in which they could grow and better themselves, but were now chained to machines, condemned to repeat a singular task over and over, day after day, year after year, to the metronome-tight rhythm imposed on them by cold and heartless machinery. Gone was the intimate, meditative, even therapeutic devotion characteristic of true human labour. Vanished was the connection with nature.

Towering bastions crammed with noisy machinery soon filled the cities, blocking out the sun with their billowing smoke, soot precipitating on the walls and stucco of what once were colourful human settlements. Overproduction created crises, strikes and riots, and wealth. Oh yes, much wealth was created: money that largely accumulated in the hands of the industrialists, as the poor and downtrodden joined the outcompeted craftsmen to toil away in the factories, where men, women and children—such very young children—worked 12, 14 or even 16 hours a day for meagre pay. 

Karl Marx, a Romantic at heart, seethed at the injustice that befell the workers. He imagined the social inequality would “necessarily” escalate into a conflict: a revolution that could only be bloody, one that would overthrow the ruling classes once and for all. From the revolution, a classless society—communism—would emerge, a society of abundance, where all wealth was shared, and where everyone was free to engage in whatever occupation he liked.

It wasn’t just Marx who saw how commoners were being exploited by the juggernaut of capital. Both left and right-wing politicians, aristocrats, union delegates and intellectuals helped introduce numerous laws—the British Factory Acts—to alleviate the burden of the worker. It was hard for Marx to disapprove publicly of these laws, but in his heart, he did. Firmly convinced that class struggle was “the great lever of social transformation”, he distanced himself from the fledgling German Social Democrat Party because it was “showing that it does not wish to pursue the path of forcible, bloody revolution”. Remediating injustices through peaceful and legal means, as the party intended, would not lead to a great revolution and was thus not the desirable approach. 

It is precisely here that Marx’s mask fell off, as his disdain for this raft of progressive legislation clearly shows that the wellbeing of the worker was not his true concern; establishing communism­—at all costs—was.

There may have been an element of self-preservation involved: if the tensions between workers and capitalists could be resolved peacefully, Marx’s activism would have been for naught, and his theories—from his theory of alienation to his economic determinism and materialistic dialectic—would have been largely invalidated, if not entirely disproven. And with them, Marx’s reputation as a thinker would have dissipated.

So he had the following idea, and insisted that things could only happen as he imagined them: an unavoidable escalation between the haves and the have-nots. The capitalists would outcompete the middle class, and eventually each other, until the world was divided into a leviathan of impoverished proletarians on the one hand and a tiny minority of ultra-wealthy bourgeois on the other.

The capitalists, Marx asserted, would constantly increase the oppression, degradation and immiseration of the worker until the great revolution was ignited. But he also stated that the capitalists always pay the workers the bare minimum: “that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as labourer.” How the capitalist would contrive both to keep the worker at a bare minimum and increasingly to immiserate him at the same time, Marx did not explain. But never mind if this dialectical given perplexes your pedestrian cranium; a large-scale revolution would be the “necessary” result. The workers would “seize the means of production” (resources, factories and distribution channels) and establish their revolutionary reign, the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

After what Marx acknowledged would be some seriously bloody birth pangs (as no omelette can be made without breaking eggs), the dictatorship of the proletariat would evolve, spontaneously and exempt of causality, into a benevolent communism of equality, abundance and labour freedom—a classless society finally transcending all class struggle, thus solving “the riddle of history”.

And they all lived happily ever after.

A theoretical fairy tale

Upon closer inspection though, the idea that a proletarian revolution would produce communism doesn’t make sense even on a conceptual level, for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Marx said the proletariat would rule as a collective and “collectively” own the “means of production”. How we are to envision this is about as clear as looking through a mud-smeared window in the pit of night—an overcast moonless night, to be precise. Allow me to enlighten you.

In his book Statism and Anarchy, Mikhail Bakunin criticized the communists as follows: “The Germans number around forty million. Will, for example, all forty million be member of the government?” Marx replied: “Certainly! After all, the whole thing begins with the self-government of the commune.” And that is all the instruction left to posterity on how to organize dozens of millions people to run a government all together. The policy debates will be epic!

Another thing Marx and Engels harped on about was the abolition of the division of labour. Even though Marx acknowledged the division of labour, especially the acute division of labour found in factories where each individual performs a bit-part, as a major factor responsible for capitalism’s unprecedentedly productive output, nevertheless he believed that abolishing the division of labour would spur mankind to produce even more.

How so?

Abolishing specialization at work would allow man to develop himself in “all directions”, and this diversity of labour would spontaneously energize man to be super-productive. “In communist society,” Marx insisted, “nobody has an exclusive sphere of activity.” He famously continued,

[This] makes it possible for me to do this today, that tomorrow: to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, to herd cattle in the evening, to criticize after dinner, as I feel inclined, without ever becoming a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd or a critic.

No serious person would think that a pastoral day out à la Marie Antoinette, rounded off with a bout of intellectual onanism (critical theory “as I feel like it”), qualifies as a representative example of an abundance-producing economy. A more realistic example would have been:

Communist society makes it possible for me to do this today, that tomorrow: to toil at the factory in the morning, to help the sick in the afternoon, to mine coal in the evening, to do accounting after dinner, as I feel like it, without ever becoming a factory worker, a nurse, a miner or an accountant.

Of course, if he had written that, Marx wouldn’t have enjoyed the following that he’s always had. Perhaps there wouldn’t have been any communists left by now? Immature as it is, Marx’s example of the average communist working day does at least contain a hint about how society could be “communally” governed. If communism is a classless society, how can the reintroduction of classes be avoided, were it not for the division of labour, where everyone can take turns at being a worker, a factory manager, an official—without ever belonging to a class of workers, managers or officials? 

Thus, it is safe to say that for communism to become (and remain) classless, the abolition of the division of labor will be a prime requirement.

That said, the most fundamental founding requirement of communism was the abolition of private property. Man’s selfishness originated from his desire to “have”, Marx asserted. Communism would produce a superabundance of goods, thus rendering the human desire to “have” moot. Human selfishness would dissolve and mankind would transcend itself to become a truly social species.

The proles won’t care

Viewed in isolation, the Marxian philosophy possesses a certain, albeit limited, internal consistency. However, as even history has shown, the theory exists entirely at odds with reality.

Even the very idea that a proletarian revolution will lead to communism is nothing short of a phantasy. For why would a proletarian revolution, once it came to power, decide to implement communism’s basic requirements: communal government, the abolition of the division of labour, and the abolition of private property? Really, what would be the workers’ motivation to abide in perpetuity by these abstract theoretical constructs?

The workers would see no reason to abolish private property and the division of labour—that is, unless they had all read, understood, and adopted Marxist theory. But the manuscripts that contain Marx’s panaceas for resolving all alienation operate at a high level of abstraction; they are by no means blue-collar reading matter. The number of workers with a profound understanding of Marxist theory will always be tiny. Their influence will be too small to persuade their peers—often very practical people devoid of theoretical passions—to put the experimental Marxian formula to the test. In addition, private property and work specialism are age-old civilizational habits; as we all know, lofty theories do little to break old habits.

Why should the workers abolish their division of labour and their private property? The prime motivation behind any proletarian revolution would be rage at their exploitation; not resentment of the fact that they do only one job, or that they are able to privately own some stuff. Provided that a proletarian uprising was successful, the dictatorship of the proletariat might implement higher wages and better working conditions, because such measures directly answer the original reasons to revolt. After winning the revolutionary battle, the workers of any future real-world Marxian scenario will not abolish private ownership, but rather choose to enjoy the spoils of war—and distribute them as they please.

Likewise, what would spur them to abolish the division of labour? It is an arrangement that has heretofore produced a great amount of wealth: wealth they fought for and do not want to lose or jeopardize, especially since neither Marx nor Engels left us a plan on how to manage the workload when everyone is free to do whatever work he pleases. Will anyone muck out the sewers? “Oh no! Don’t you understand that, under communism, people would be unselfish and, under conditions of labour freedom, would still of their own volition always do the necessary work to ensure an abundance of goods—because, as social beings, they only live to help one another!?” the Marxist will retort.

It should be clear that a proletarian revolution neither carries within itself the seed of the abolition of the division of labour, nor does it entail of the abolition of private property; only a deep faith in Marxism does. Given that the workers usually don’t spend their free time studying Marxian philosophy (certainly not the exhausted proletarians that Marx alluded to), a truly proletarian revolution won’t establish a classless society.

Of course, one could try to indoctrinate the proletariat with Marxist ideas, if one had the time, capital, and organization at one’s disposal to do so. But in that case, the revolution wouldn’t be a truly proletarian one: it would be a contrived enterprise steered by manipulative outside forces. Marx himself firmly condemned such an approach in a circular letter to his closest comrades, dated 17 September 1879:

When the International was founded, we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. So we cannot co-operate with people who openly declare that the workers are too uneducated to liberate themselves and must first be liberated from above by philanthropic grand and petty bourgeois.

However, the sincerity of Marx’s public doctrine that the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself is up for debate. Six months later, in a letter to Louis Kugelmann dated 28 March 1870, Marx included a copy of an internal document labeled “Confidential Information”—written by him and issued by the general council of the International Workers’ Association. It read:

The General Council being at the present placed in the happy position of having its hand directly on this great lever of the proletarian revolution […] As the General Council, we can initiate measures […] which later, in the public execution of their tasks, appear as spontaneous movements of the English working class.

If this ambivalence of Marx leads you to conclude that he was just an intellectual swindler, you are clearly failing to grasp the nuances of the dialectic.

Historically absent

Has there ever been in history a truly proletarian revolution like the one Marx alluded to in Capital and his other writings? No. That proletarian revolution never came about. But the tribune of Dean Street did inspire people like him—intellectual misérables and their thugs—to take up arms and overthrow iniquitous regimes to establish their own, according to his baseless dreams of utopia. The first successful communist revolution—successful in the sense that it managed to seize and hold on to power, not in the sense that it established a classless society—was anything but the kind of proletarian uprising Marx had predicted.

The 1917 February Revolution did not result from an escalating capitalist exploitation of the workers. In fact, Russia had exceptionally good labour laws for its time: it was the first country to ban child labour under twelve; workers enjoyed paid sick leave (no less than 66% of normal wages); and factories with more than 100 employees had to provide free medical assistance. Even a system of medical insurance was in place. Contrary to Marx’s predictions, it was not capitalist exploitation but bad governance, ethnic grievances, and the chaos of the First World War that catalyzed the Russian Revolution.

Heavy losses at the front had cost the Russian Empire more than two million lives; ammunition was scarce; trains had been commandeered by the military, crippling food supplies during harsh winters. Rumours circulated that the Government had been compromised by the Germans through Rasputin’s influence on the Empress, adding to the general dissatisfaction with Tsarist rule.

The tsar and his family were deposed in February 1917, and an interim administration, the Kerensky government, was established in agreement with the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries. In October, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, successfully staged a coup after several months of political infighting. Essentially, Lenin seized power in Russia with no more than 10,000 revolutionaries: it certainly wasn’t the kind of widespread proletarian revolution Marx had envisioned. Furthermore, and ironically so—as if history was determined to spite him from the very beginning—the Russian Revolution was bankrolled by the two things Marx hated the most: capitalists and the state. 

Four reasons can be identified why the Bolshevik Revolution was funded from abroad: tactical, ethnic, financial, and ideological.

State funding

In terms of tactical reasons, it is only logical that Germany would support revolutionaries undermining its wartime opponent from within. A successful coup would gain Germany access to the Russian market; a failed one would, at a minimum, weaken its enemy. On 3 December 1917, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs wrote to Kaiser Wilhelm II:

It was not until the Bolsheviks had received from us a steady flow of funds through various channels and under varying labels that they were in a position to be able to build up their main organ Pravda, to conduct energetic propaganda and appreciably extend the originally narrow base of their party.

On 20 October 1918, Lenin candidly mentioned receiving German funding at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Soviet Government:

I am frequently accused of having won our revolution with the aid of German money. I have never denied the fact, nor do I do so now. I will add though, that with Russian money we shall stage a similar revolution in Germany.

According to Maj-Gen Arsène de Goulevitch, Germany paid Lenin’s organization a total of 70 million marks from 1914 onwards. His 1962 book, Czarism and Revolution, gives a good overview of the geopolitical interests at play—including British and American operatives paying Russian soldiers to join the revolutionaries, although these may have been privately funded (see below).

Jewish funding

The Tsarist dynasty had been anything but kind to the Jews for many generations. Marx had intellectualized communism. Thus, it is no surprise that the communist revolutionary leaders were mostly Jewish intellectuals. Socialist convictions aside, the sentiment that spurred wealthy Jews abroad to fund the Russian communists was that a Jewish-led coup was bound to end the oppression of the Jews.

The most notable player here was Jacob Schiff, head of the New York investment firm Kuhn, Loeb and Co. and one of Woodrow Wilson’s biggest donors (which may explain why Trotsky was allowed to leave for Russia after his arrest, using a passport granted by Wilson). In the 3 February 1949 issue of The New York Journal-American, Jacob Schiff’s grandson claimed that his grandfather had given about $20 million to the Russian communists (roughly half a billion dollars in today’s money).

Another notable player was Olof Aschberg, alias the “Bolshevik Banker”, owner of the Swedish Nya Banken, who would later become the director of the first international Soviet bank. 

Some evidence suggests the involvement of a rather large network of wealthy Jewish individuals and financial establishments, which should not surprise anyone—for the ethnic reason mentioned above. In addition, Marxism had never been tried before, so who knew—what if it worked?

An article called Zionism versus Bolshevism—a struggle for the soul of the Jewish people, written by Winston Churchill and published in the Sunday Herald of 8 February 1920, indicates that the Jewish support for the communist cause was considerable, and in his eyes threatening enough to be labeled a “sinister confederacy” of “international Jews” (whom he opposed to the “national Jews” who “play an honourable and useful part in the national life”). The “international Jews” supported what Churchill called the “diabolical” ideology of communism.

Wall Street funding

Lenin, like Marx, believed that widespread industrialization was an indispensable prerequisite for communism to succeed. Except for its major cities, Russia was still a largely agrarian country. Factories and railroads would have to be built, and this of course offered good prospects for international industrialists—but only if Lenin came to power.

The involvement of Wall Street in the Russian Revolution has been documented extensively by Anthony Sutton in his book Wall Street and the Bolshevik Revolution. The most prominent player here is probably William Boyce Thompson, a high financier, the first full-time director of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, large stockholder in the Rockefeller-controlled Chase Bank, and a financial associate of the Guggenheims and the Morgans. He gave over two million rubles for propaganda purposes inside Russia and, with J.P. Morgan, a million dollars for the spreading of revolutionary propaganda outside of Russia, particularly in Germany and Austria. According to Sutton, Thompson’s most important achievement was to convince the decidedly anti-Bolshevik British War Cabinet that the communist regime was here to stay, and that British policy should embrace the new realities and support Lenin.

Ideological funding

Lastly, there was the ideological impetus. Not only did Marx appeal to disgruntled intellectuals, he managed to enamour wealthy industrialists in the West as well. Lord Milner, for instance, member of the British War Cabinet, 1917, director of the London Joint Stock Bank and an ardent imperialist, was an open admirer of Marx.

H.G. Wells, one of the most famous authors of his time, exerted a great influence on high-society socialists. Like the Fabian Society, he opposed the violent revolution propounded by Marx. He outlined the idea of a kind of global socialism ruled from above by an educated elite in his 1905 book A Modern Utopia (and later in his World of William Clissold trilogy). It wasn’t just a disembodied idea: Wells described attending the “Club of Coefficients”—a club aimed at bringing socialist reformers and British imperialists together precisely for this aim. 

Lord Milner later founded the secretive Milner Group, dedicated to establishing a kind of “world imperial federation”. (Out of the Milner Group grew the British Chatham House, initially known as the Royal Institute of International Affairs, founded by Lionel Curtis, who in his later life became an advocate for a world state. Its American delegates formed the Council on Foreign Relations in the United States.)

According to Goulevitch, Lord Milner spent over 21 million rubles financing the Russian Revolution. Considering the great interest in socialist ideas among high society figures of the age, he was undoubtedly not the only wealthy person who, lured by the Marxian promise, chipped in.


So what does all of the above have to do with Marx’s “proletarian revolution” or “dictatorship of the proletariat”? Very little, it would seem. The Russian Revolution was a direct result of the miseries of war and the oppression of the Jews. The success of the revolution was unquestioningly decided by the financial backing of non-proletarian world powers, who, for various reasons, decided that a Bolshevik victory served their personal interest—or that of their ethnicity. The proletariat, however, is not an ethnicity, nor did it ever seize the means of production, nor abolish private property or the division of labour anywhere in the world.

Once the Bolsheviks had secured their rule—an analogous scenario later occurred in China—these powerful states in turn helped communist revolutions abroad, logistically, financially and militarily. In other words, these, too, were not proletarian revolutions; they were, rather, political coups by professional revolutionaries backed by foreign powers. Marx’s “proletarian revolution” has shown itself in history to be exactly what it is in theory: a figment of the imagination.


Main article image: Karl Marx customised image by the author