[This excerpt is from Chapter 5 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]
Marxism and waiting for Godot
First formulated in the mid-nineteenth century, classical Marxist socialism made two related pairs of claims, one pair economic and one pair moral. Economically, it argued that capitalism was driven by a logic of competitive exploitation that would cause its eventual collapse; socialism’s communal form of production, by contrast, would prove to be economically superior. Morally, it argued, capitalism was evil both because of the self-interested motives of those engaged in capitalist competition and because of the exploitation and alienation that competition caused; socialism, by contrast, would be based on selfless sacrifice and communal sharing.
The initial hopes of Marxist socialists centered on capitalism’s internal economic contradictions. The contradictions, they thought, would manifest themselves in increasing class conflict. As the competition for resources heated up, the capitalists’ exploitation of the proletariat would necessarily increase. As the exploitation increased, the proletariat would come to realize its alienation and oppression. At some point, the exploited proletariat would decide that it was not going to take it any more and revolution would ensue. So the strategy of the Marxist intellectuals was to wait and mount a lookout for signs that capitalism’s contradictions were leading logically and inexorably to revolution.
They waited a long time. By the early part of the twentieth century, after several failed predictions of imminent revolution, not only was it becoming embarrassing to make further predictions, it was beginning to seem that capitalism was developing in a direction opposite to the way that Marxism said it should be developing.
Three failed predictions
Marxism was and is a class analysis, pitting economic classes against each other in a zero-sum competition. In that competition, the stronger parties would win each successive round of competition, forcing the weaker parties into more desperate straits. Successive rounds of capitalist competition would also pit the stronger parties against each other, yielding more winners and losers, until capitalism generated an economic social structure characterized by a few capitalists at the top and in control of the society’s economic resources while the rest of society was pushed into poverty. Even capitalism’s nascent middle class would not remain stable, for the logic of zero-sum competition would squeeze a few of the middle class into the top capitalist class and the rest into the proletariat.
This class analysis yielded three definite predictions. First, it predicted that the proletariat would both increase as a percentage of the population and become poorer: as capitalist competition progressed, more and more people would be forced to sell their labor; and as the supply of those selling their labor increased, the wages they could demand would necessarily decrease. Second, it predicted that the middle class would decrease to a very small percentage of the population: zero-sum competition means there are winners and losers, and while a few would consistently be winners and thus become rich capitalists, most would lose at some point and be forced into the proletariat. Third, it predicted that the capitalists would also decrease as a percentage of the population: zero-sum competition also applies to competition among the capitalists, generating a few consistent winners in control of everything while the rest would be forced down the economic ladder.
Yet that was not how it worked out. By the early twentieth century it seemed that all three of the predictions failed to characterize the development of the capitalist countries. The class of manual laborers had both declined as a percentage of the population and become relatively better off. And the middle class had grown substantially both as a percentage of the population and in wealth, as had the upper class.
Marxist socialism thus faced a set of theoretical problems: Why had the predictions not come to pass? Even more pressing was the practical problem of impatience: If the proletarian masses were the material of revolution, why were they not revolting? The exploitation and alienation had to be there—despite surface appearances—and it had to be being felt by capitalism’s victims, the proletariat. So what was to be done about the decidedly non-revolutionary working class? After decades of waiting hopefully and pouncing on any sign of worker dissatisfaction and unrest, the plain fact was that the proletariat was not going to revolt any time soon.
Consequently, the waiting strategy needed to be rethought.
 Werner Sombart, a Marxist early in his career, was among the first to rethink: “It had to be admitted in the end that Marx had made mistakes on many points of importance” (1896, 87).
[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page. ]