The 20th century in retrospect – Moshé Machover

10 December 1999

in Articles

Published in Platform, Workers’ Liberty #59 (December 1999)


It is often said that we all possess twenty-twenty hindsight vision. Like most clichés, this one is only partly correct: hindsight can indeed be acute – but only if you actually make the effort to use it. Wilful retrospective purblindness is widespread in the Marxist movement; and there are none so blind as those who would not see.

Of all Lenin’s writings, the most influential (though arguably not one of the best) was Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, written in the spring of 1916. The whole of that book leads to the following punch-line: “From all that has been said in this book on the economic essence of imperialism, it follows that we must define it as capitalism in transition, or, more precisely, as moribund capitalism.”

The dictionary definition of “moribund” is about to die or in a dying state. So Lenin clearly believed in 1916 that capitalism was on its deathbed. But what did he mean by “capitalism in transition”? He makes this clear in his preface to the French and German editions to Imperialism, dated 6 July 1920:

“Imperialism is the eve of the social revolution of the proletariat. This has been confirmed since 1917 on a world-wide scale.”

So Lenin believed that the world of his day was in transition towards the impending demise of capitalism and its overthrow by a world-wide socialist revolution.

Similar views were held by Trotsky. They were also shared by almost all of their revolutionary Marxist contemporaries; but Lenin and Trotsky are unique in having present-day disciples, Leninists and Trotskyists, who find it very difficult to admit – even in the face of the clearest evidence that has accumulated in the last 80 years – that the great men were wrong.

Moreover, these very views underpinned the actions of Lenin and Trotsky as leaders of the Bolshevik insurrection that was designed to push the 1917 Russian Revolution beyond its bourgeois-democratic phase and transform it into a social revolution of the proletariat. Since it was obvious to them (as to all Marxists) that backward Russia itself, in isolation, was quite unready for socialism, the only possible justification for their actions was the assumption that capitalism as a world system had reached the end of the road, and therefore a proletarian revolution in Russia would trigger off similar revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries, which were supposedly ripe for socialism; consequently the brightest hopes of humankind would soon be realised and socialism would replace capitalism as a world system. Without this justification, the Bolshevik insurrection and the transfer of power to the soviets would have to be regarded as acts of extreme voluntarism, which, from a Marxist point of view, amounts to irresponsible adventurism.

Small wonder that Lenin’s disciples are reluctant to admit that the theoretical justification for the October Revolution, no matter how persuasive it may have seemed at the time, has turned out in retrospect to have been fatally flawed.

In their misguided adherence to Lenin’s pronouncements, the disciples put themselves in the impossible position of having to explain how capitalism, which has allegedly been moribund during the whole of this century, nevertheless appears miraculously to have continued to develop the productive forces to a prodigious extent, penetrate new socio-economic spheres, and spread to almost the whole of the planet. They also have to explain why the social revolution of the proletariat, which according to Lenin’s 1920 prediction was about to erupt on a world-wide scale, has failed to materialize.

Typically, the explanations they offer speak of “usurpation” (of Soviet power), “betrayals” (of the Russian Revolution by Stalin, and of the working classes by their leaderships) and failure of consciousness. These “explanations” explain nothing; they simply beg the questions. Moreover, in offering them – and thus attempting to explain the political history of this century in purely superstructural terms, without delving into the underlying economic base – the disciples remain faithful to Lenin’s pronouncements at the price of abandoning his Marxist method.

Before I go on, I must make it clear that I use the term “capitalist mode of production” in its strict Marxian sense: referring to the mode of production in which the means of labour are privately owned, but mostly not by the direct producers, who must sell (alienate) their labour power as a commodity; the owners of the means of labour appropriate the surplus product (extracted from the direct producers) in the form of surplus value. Capitalism is the social order in which the capitalist mode of production predominates.1

At the beginning of the 20th century, capitalism was about 150 years old – not a very great age, historically speaking, for a social order. Nevertheless, according to Lenin capitalism at that time had entered its highest, “moribund” stage. In hindsight, this seems a bit hasty, doesn’t it?

A Miracle of Resurrection?

In part, this was a case of revolutionary optimism, the sort of wishful thinking to which all revolutionaries are prone, and without which they would hardly be able to muster the will for revolutionary action. But, even discounting subjective optimism and speaking objectively: given the information available at the time, Lenin’s premature predictions did not seem unreasonable, for two reasons.

First, capitalism is by far the most dynamic social order in the whole of human history. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto:

“The bourgeoisie… has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify.”

Because of its unprecedented dynamism, the capitalist mode of production generated in a few decades more material change, greater increase in humankind’s productive forces, than previous modes of production had been able to achieve in as many centuries. From this perspective, the first 15 decades of capitalism do not seem a short historical time-span.

Second, capitalism is inherently crisis-ridden. While each production unit, each firm, is subject to detailed conscious regulation and strict discipline, the system as a whole is buffeted by blind anarchic market forces, which inevitably result in fluctuations, some of which are quite extreme. In particular, the era that Lenin and others defined as that of “modern imperialism” was ushered in by the deep slump of the 1890s. Then came the 1914-18 war – an horrendous international slaughter of unprecedented dimensions and previously unimagined savagery. The world as it had been known before was clearly coming to an end. Anyone who was looking for signs of an apocalypse did not have far to look.

But is it perhaps possible that Lenin’s assessment was right? Could it be that capitalism was indeed moribund in 1916? Was a social revolution of the proletariat a real possibility then in the most advanced capitalist countries? Was it only prevented by the Stalinist usurpation, by the betrayals of social-democratic leaderships and failure of the “subjective factor”? Did these usurpations, betrayals and failures allow capitalism miraculously to revive and rise like Lazarus, and gain a new lease of life?

Modern capitalist development

The answer to these questions must be negative, if we accept Marx’s famous dictum (in his 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy):

“No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions for their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.”

It is highly debatable whether by 1916 the material conditions for the existence of socialist relations of production had matured even in the most advanced capitalist countries. But in any case it is certain that the productive forces for which there is room within capitalism had not all been developed by 1916, or for that matter by 1956 or even 1996. For it is a plain observable fact that the forces of production have developed prodigiously under capitalism during this period. So what Marx regarded as a necessary (though not sufficient!) condition for the demise of capitalism has not as yet been fulfilled, and was absent during the whole of the 20th century.2

Had the development of the productive forces nearly exhausted the capacity of capitalism to accommodate it, we would surely have witnessed a more or less prolonged period of technological and economic stagnation. Nothing of this kind has come to pass. If the steam has gone out of capitalist production, it is only because it has been electrified. True, technical advance and economic growth have occurred at a very uneven pace, but in this there is nothing new: it has ever been so, since the early days of capitalism.

Nor have the human social consequences of this development been wholly benign. But, again, this is inherent in the nature of the system: development is driven not by genuine human needs, but by the private profit motive, working through blind market forces; any progress in general human welfare is either an incidental unintended spin-off, or must be fought for and won in the class struggle.

Far from stagnating, the capitalist mode of production continued in the 20th century to evolve apace, along the lines drawn by Marx, and notably summarised by him in the chapter on the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation in volume 1 of Capital. Let me highlight a few prominent points.

  • Centralisation of capital has proceeded during this century to much greater extremes than ever before. In each important sector of the economy, the global market is almost totally dominated by a very small number of oligopolistic firms. This is equally true in traditional industries such as mining and shipbuilding; in branches that were in their infancy at the beginning of the century such as car manufacture, aircraft building, telecommunication and pharmaceuticals; and in very new spheres such as computer software, in which the lion’s share of the market has been swallowed by a single firm, whose founder is now the richest person in the world.
  • The co-operative form of the labour-process has recently expanded and broken out of its old local confinement. Previously, human beings could not normally engage simultaneously in a consciously synchronised and co-ordinated productive activity, unless they were physically brought together to one place. Now, with the advent of new modes of communication, they can synchronize and co-ordinate their productive activity in real time, across continents.
  • The conscious technical application of science has been greatly stepped up and has become more consciously planned, systematised and institutionalised in the latter half of the century. Formerly, scientific research was for the most part carried on in publicly financed academic institutions and other non-business research foundations. Now big capitalist firms have their own research and development sections, geared directly to profit-seeking; and at the same time big business has also become the chief paymaster of academic scientific research. Science as the pursuit of truth without regard to its business applicability is regarded as old-fashioned and is poorly supported out of the public purse.
  • The methodical cultivation of the soil has now spread to all parts of the planet. Agriculture, the last major refuge of petty commodity production, has become the domain of big agro-business, which not only aims to control the activity of the direct producers but also uses the most advanced scientific techniques to modify, subjugate and dominate nature itself.
  • The socialisation of the labour process has also intensified in the last decades of the 20th century. Since the most modern instruments of labour have become dependent upon centrally supplied power, rapid transport and continual on-line communication with remote computers, they are really only usable by direct and explicit co-operation of one user with many others. The economising of all means of production by their use as means of production of combined, socialised labour has now advanced much further.
  • The world market itself is of course not new. But its scope and degree of integration, the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the global market, have gone very much further in recent decades. Capitalism now truly encompasses the whole planet. And as remaining national economic barriers come tumbling down, the international character of the capitalist regime – its globalization – has reached a degree much greater than a generation ago.
  • The working class has continued to grow in numbers. In the present context, where we are discussing the economic development of capitalism, the term “working class” must be understood in a narrow sense, as comprising only those workers whose wages are paid out of capital (that is, constitute expenditure of capital rather than of revenue) and from whom surplus value is extracted directly. These are what Marx called ‘productive’ workers.3

When Lenin wrote Imperialism, the most numerous occupational category in England (then the most highly developed capitalist country) was domestic service. Although servants may belong to the working class in a social sense, and although they are paid wages, these wages are not business expenditure; the servants do not produce a saleable commodity, so that no surplus value is extracted directly from them. After Lenin’s time, huge numbers of such workers have joined the ranks of the surplus-value producing working class.

Even more recently, while some traditional industries have contracted drastically, the growth of the working class has received a massive boost as a result of the ruthless privatisation of the public sector in most capitalist countries. When a refuse collector, nurse or bus driver is employed directly by the public sector and are paid out of tax revenue, they are not productive workers in the technical sense; so, economically speaking, they are not part of the working class. But when their jobs are “outsourced”, and they become employees of a private contracting firm, these workers join the working class – although they do exactly the same jobs a before! Now their wages count as capital expenditure of their direct employer, the contractor, who sells their services as commodities, and in so doing extracts surplus value.

Before our very eyes, capitalism has continued to develop dynamically (although of course by fits and starts, as before) and spread into new territories; and it has expanded into new sectors of the economy, even in its old homelands. None of this is compatible with the decline or stagnation of capitalism.

Once this is accepted, then from a Marxian point of view there is no need for all those subjective ad hoc explanations as to why, contrary to earlier expectations, the 20th century has not been the epoch of the overthrow of capitalism and the transition to socialism. Capitalism has not been overthrown because – as we can see in hindsight – it had not reached a stage at which the monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production which has sprung up and flourished along with and under it. The knell of capitalist private property is yet to sound.

The century reconsidered

Having witnessed the economic and political thunderstorms of the early years of the 20th century, Lenin, Trotsky and many of their comrades and followers mistook the summer of maturation of capitalism for the winter of its senescence. This fundamental misjudgement not only led them to the false prognosis that capitalism was moribund. It has also been a source of erroneous assessments of several central economic and political features of this century.

Instead of the 20th century being the epoch of transition from capitalism to socialism, its major theme has in fact been the globalisation of capitalism, its spread to new territories and new sectors. In this process it encountered several major economic, social and political obstacles, which gave rise to traumatic crises and conflicts. The most damaging theoretical and political errors made by revolutionary socialists in the course of this century stem from a common root: an insistence – in the face of a gradually mounting body of evidence – on regarding these crises and conflicts as stemming from the decline of capitalism rather than from problems of its growth.

Here I wish to comment briefly on a few of the most salient of these errors, which can be detected clearly through the powerful telescope of hindsight – provided one doesn’t put this telescope to one’s blind eye.

1. Imperialism was dubbed by Lenin ‘the highest stage of capitalism’. The imperialism of his time was characterised, among other things, by the fact that virtually the whole world had come under more or less direct political and military subjugation by the most powerful capitalist-colonialist countries. This was generally regarded at the time – not only by socialists – as vital for securing for the advanced countries markets for the export of their capital and manufactured goods, and sources of cheap raw materials.

The First World War was quite reasonably seen as a war for re-partition of the globe among the capitalist powers. It was widely believed and often claimed that so long as capitalism continued, such wars between rival great capitalist empires would be a repeated occurrence, as the shifting balance of economic and military power would lead to new challenges against the current partition of the planet, and attempts at fresh re-partition.

The Second World War seemed to confirm this prognosis. But the latter half of the century saw a process of decolonisation, which socialists had not anticipated and had not believed possible under capitalism. True, in Imperialism, Lenin did note that some underdeveloped countries were nominally independent, but “in fact enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence”. In this connection he quoted the example of Argentina. But such cases and other forms of semi-dependence were regarded by him as “transitional”. For him, the normal and most typical form of imperialist domination was the direct colonial, political-military one. And, as far as I know, he did not even consider the possibility that this form of subjugation would all but disappear and be almost totally replaced by more purely economic forms of capitalist domination, through market forces.

But in retrospect we can see that direct colonial subjugation was a relic of pre-capitalist and early-capitalist eras. It is not a typical mature capitalist relation. Under capitalism, all relations of domination tend to assume economic form, the form of exchange between free and nominally equal parties. As Marx puts it in his Grundrisse, under capitalism:

“…the power that each individual exercises over others’ activity or over social wealth exists in him as the owner of exchange values, money. Thus both his power over society and his association with it is carried in his pocket.”

And much the same thing holds also for international relations under mature capitalism.

As for a future major war between great capitalist empires, for a re-partition of the globe – at the end of the 20th century such a war seems so unlikely as to be virtually ruled out. Rivalry between the advanced capitalist powers has assumed its mature form, which is almost purely economic. Military force is no longer used to settle disputes between these countries. It is used by them as a means of disciplining smaller ‘rogue states’, whose unruly behaviour threatens to disturb the order of the global capitalist market-place. The everyday business of international exploitation is carried on by business means.

Present-day capitalism may perhaps still be called “imperialistic”: this is largely a matter of definition. But it is certainly very different from the imperialism of Lenin’s time, which, far from being the highest stage of capitalism, can be seen in hindsight to have been a relatively immature stage.

2. Analysis of the Soviet Union and of other Soviet-type societies has been a much debated issue among revolutionary Marxists. I do not wish to enter here into the detailed arguments for and against the three main views of those societies: whether they should be regarded as degenerated or deformed workers states, as state-capitalist, or as a sui generis bureaucratic-collectivist social formation. I regard the last-mentioned view as by far the most reasonable; but what I would like to point out here is that the whole debate has been distorted by the false assumption, shared by most of the participants, that the overthrow of capitalism was objectively possible during the 20th century, and that this century was, at least potentially, part of the epoch of transition from capitalism to socialism. So the debate about Soviet-type societies has been conducted as though it is essentially part of the problematic of the transitional epoch. In my opinion, the only connection between bureaucratic collectivism and transitionality is the following, purely negative one. Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders of the October Revolution acted on the premise that capitalism, as a world system, was moribund. As reality soon proved this premise to be false, the October Revolution found itself at a dead end, unable to fulfil its intended historical mission. The Bolshevik leadership found itself without a feasible socialist programme, and were reduced to short-term measures allowing them to hold on to power, in the vain hope that some revolutionary development might turn up in the West. In this they left a vacuum, into which stepped a newly created class, led by Stalin, who did have a historically feasible programme. This programme had nothing whatever to do with socialism, but found it necessary to use socialist verbiage in order to maintain political and ideological legitimacy.

Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolsheviks, who thought they could see more clearly than most people, were in fact the blind tools of history. Based on their wrong assessment of the condition of world capitalism, they believed the 20th century would be the epoch of transition from capitalism to socialism. Clearly, they got it wrong by at least 100 years. Instead, the major historical theme of the 20th century (as we can now see clearly in retrospect) has been the spread of capitalism over the whole globe “globalisation”). In this context there was a very serious sub-theme regarding the major under-developed countries -countries like China, Japan, Russia, Turkey and Persia, which had been great powers and were never colonies, but in which capitalism had not developed properly, and which therefore found themselves left behind. In all these countries the “objective” historical task was to get modernisation and industrialisation going. And in all of them the ruling classes (traditional or newly arrived to power) imposed some form of forced modernisation and industrialisation.

In some of those countries, such as Japan and Turkey, this was achieved by capitalist means, which were however kept under strict state control. But the new ruling class led by Stalin attempted another road to modernisation and industrialisation: command planning, while market forces were largely suspended.

A valid historical assessment of bureaucratic collectivism cannot be performed by comparing it, even negatively, to socialism. This would not only be unfair to the very idea of socialism, but also irrelevant to the place of bureaucratic collectivism itself in history. Rather, that regime should be assessed in terms of its true historical goal, that of achieving modernisation and industrialisation by purely forced, non-market means. Seen in this light, bureaucratic collectivism may tentatively be said to have achieved some limited success in some countries, albeit at an enormous human cost. This is not the place for drawing up a detailed balance sheet, in which the technical and other advances of the USSR, China and other “second-world” countries are weighed up against the barbarities of Stalinism and its Maoist variant. The main point is that that regime must not be judged in the context of “moribund” capitalism, still less as a failure of socialism, but as an attempted forced-march detour away from relatively immature and under-developed capitalism.

3. Fascism is a specific form of capitalist barbarism of the 20th century. Many Marxists have attempted a theoretical analysis of Fascism and Nazism; but the most brilliant is perhaps that offered in many of his writings by Trotsky. However, his analysis – like that of many other lesser theoreticians – is vitiated by one fundamental error: Fascism and Nazism are falsely depicted as a response to terminal capitalist decline. Thus Trotsky, writing in 1936, claims:

“The instability of the present structure in Germany is conditioned by the fact that its productive forces have long ago[!!!] outgrown the forms of capitalist property.”

With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see quite easily that this was a grotesque misjudgement. The productive forces of Germany are now enormously greater and more highly developed than they were in 1936, and they have yet not outgrown the forms of capitalist property. Moreover, if Fascism and Nazism were associated with the “over-ripeness” of capitalism, as Trotsky repeatedly claimed, then we would expect such regimes to arise in the most highly advanced capitalist countries. Nothing of this kind has happened.

On the contrary, Fascism was associated with the crisis of capitalism in vigorous growth, in countries where it developed relatively late, and very rapidly. As we know – and as Trotsky himself had often pointed out – the global development of capitalism has been very uneven. In countries where it started relatively late and proceeded with extreme rapidity, the crisis of growth was particularly acute. Fascism was a way of “dealing” with this crisis by putting an oppressive totalitarian lid on social discontent. This is why it came to power in countries such as Germany, Italy, Spain and Argentina. The more mature capitalist countries had very different ways of dealing with social discontent.

This is of more than historical importance; it has direct relevance to present political reality. Where is the danger of Fascism greatest today? Not in countries where capitalism is most highly developed and “ripest”; but, on the contrary, in places such as the former USSR, where capitalism is newly being implanted or re-implanted, causing traumatic social dislocation.

Other aspects of traditional Leninist and Trotskyist theory may and should similarly be examined with the benefit of hindsight. Trotskyists in particular should ponder why the theory of permanent revolution, whose internal logic is undeniably very attractive, has nevertheless never worked out in reality. Not a single bourgeois-democratic revolution, and in particular no struggle for national liberation, has been transformed to a genuine socialist revolution.

Addressing the decline of capitalism

In order not to leave any room for misunderstanding, I must state that I do no believe that history has come to an end, or that capitalism will continue as long as there is human life. I find such views not only repugnant but also absurd.

Capitalism, precisely because it is driven by blind market forces which operate as it were behind the backs of humanity, carries within it the seeds of its destruction.

However, the question as to the inherent process that can be expected to bring about the decline of capitalism requires much discussion and clarification. In my view, this is the most urgent theoretical task of the socialist movement.


See also: Panta Rhei: Exchange of email letters, Dov Schoss and Moshé Machover, following Machover’s article “The 20th century in retrospect”.


  1. I avoid the loose use of the term “capitalism”, which covers also the older social order of petty commodity production, in which the means of labour were largely individually owned or rented by the direct producers. Capitalism, in this loose sense, is well over 500 years old.
  2.  When I pointed this out on a previous occasion, a respected Marxist scholar tried to rebut me by claiming that the productive forces would have developed even more highly had capitalism been replaced by socialism. This may well be true, although I cannot see how such a counter-factual proposition can be proved or refuted. But in any case it is irrelevant, because there is no way in which the hypothetical superiority of a hitherto non-existent social order could bring about the destruction of an existing one.
  3. No value judgment is implied by this term. Under capitalism, whether a worker is productive or not depends not on the job s/he does, or how socially useful that job is, but only on the worker’s location within capitalist relations of production.

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