As I worked on my recently published book, Debating Modern Revolution: The Evolution of Revolutionary Ideas, it became apparent to me that Marxist ideology had unquestionably reigned supreme among revolutionaries from the late nineteenth century until 1989. Neither democracy, freedom, nationalism – nothing – possessed the same authority and number of radical followers, although nationalism has had quite a number. Likely Marxism also drew more detractors. Among this opposition, as well as its supporters, Marxism was incredibly visible.
The anchor of Marxist popularity was the immediate answer it provided to the new economic environment that emerged in the wake of the industrial and commercial revolutions. Scholars have long debated the nature of the economy of the nineteenth century, but there is no denying that, at least in Europe, capitalism created a class society that posed a different set of challenges for the working classes. For those restive, would-be revolutionaries, Marx provided a compelling theory. Liberalism and democracy apparently appealed little to these activists. Rather than the ideas themselves, it may have been their application that undercut their reception, as eighteenth-century ideals were understood in the next century to defend the status quo. Liberalism, even in its Jacobin form, linked personal freedom to economic freedom, providing little direct and immediate assistance to the impoverished. Nineteenth-century revolutionaries needed an ideology that would allow redress in a class society.
Marxism also emerged pre-eminent among its peers in part because of its logic and claims. Fundamentally, Marx laid out a universal theory of history with stages through which he believed that every society would pass. Beginning with slave society, and then proceeding through feudalism and capitalism, eventually socialism emerged. In the final struggle, the working class – then impoverished to the breaking point – would triumph and become the owner of the means of production. Followers might rest assured that history was on their side.
Beyond such attributes lay Marx’s commitment to organization and propaganda. With his collaborator Friedrich Engels, Marx published tirelessly, and this writing was clear and often powerful. In particular, his Communist Manifesto, a work of some 50 pages, could be easily read and understood. Further, he was a tireless correspondent available to colleagues all over the world.
But most of all, Marx was flexible about his theories and created a precedent for his followers. While some critics have seen such changeability as cynical, others have viewed it simply a matter of realism. For example, Marx thought nationalism merely a ruse by the upper classes and government to keep workers divided, but he recognized that language and borders actually did separate workers and revolutionary groups. Thus, he accepted such national groups and sought to unite followers through such entities. Likewise, even though he believed that only the most advanced societies – in terms of economic and social development – could achieve socialism, he encouraged Russian socialists and endorsed their role as a spark that might set off more industrialized countries to revolt against their ruling classes.
Equally important, this legacy of flexibility inspired acolytes. The most important innovation was the activist role imagined for peasants, as in Russia. Lenin, in fact, pushed the limits of Marx’s theories even further by claiming that World War I was a battle mainly among imperial powers and that colonial peoples could have an enormous impact by revolting, an act that he believed would lead to the demise of the overlord. Asian revolutionaries, such as Mao Zedong and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, put their faith in peasants; Cuban revolutionaries did the same. And to be sure, without this reformulation of goals, revolutionaries achieving power in these countries would have been unlikely.
In short, the combination of utopian dreams, scientific support, hopes for workers, and doctrinal flexibility help explain why Communism dominated revolutionary ideology for such a long time. Clearly, the shelf-life of these changes has not preserved Marxist parties in power. 1989 was in fact a departure after a long run of successes.
Jack R. Censer is professor emeritus of history at George Mason University. He is the author of a number of books on the French Revolution, revolutionary ideas, and print history. His most recent book is Debating Modern Revolution: The Evolution of Revolutionary Ideas (Bloomsbury, 2016).