Globalization and Marxism

7 December 2008

Redeeming a promissory note

In Yesterday’s Marxism Lite I quoted the eminent Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm from a BBC radio interview as follows: “Globalisation, which is implicit in capitalism, not only destroys the heritage and tradition but it is incredibly unstable, it operates through a series of crises, and I think this has been recognised to be the end of this particular era,” ( “Marx popular amid credit crunch” 20 October 2008).

Eric Hobsbawm

Eric Hobsbawm

I remarked in a note that this quote deserves a fuller exposition, so now it is time to redeem in gold the promissory note. And although I can’t do justice to all that is implied in this single sentence, I can at least make some remarks, perhaps redeeming the note in silver if not gold.

Sentimental forms of exploitation

Hobsbawm mentions the destruction of heritage and tradition wrought by globalization, and this has been a perennial theme of Marxism. In one of the many famous passages from the Communist Manifesto, Marx writes:

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation. ”

One doesn’t ordinarily think of Marx as a sentimentalist, but here Marx sounds as though he prefers the “feudal, patriarchal, idyllic” relations of the pre-industrial past to “callous cash payment”, and that exploitation veiled by religious and political illusions is a better thing than exploitation that is “naked, shameless, direct, brutal.” While this would be a good place for a digression on Freud concerning the future of such illusions, we will leave this for another time (another promissory note to redeem). Of all people, Marx sounds closest to Edmund Burke in this passage, even down to the metaphor of nakedness and the implied comfort of illusions; perhaps the resemblance is intentional, an allusion, as Marx had no doubt read Burke. But one would scarcely be more surprised to find Marx quoting Joseph de Maistre.

Edmund Burke and Karl Marx tête-à-tête in prose

Edmund Burke and Karl Marx tête-à-tête in prose

Edmund Burke, in his Reflections in the Revolution in France, similarly expressed himself on sentimental forms of exploitation thus:

“All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off. All the super-added ideas, furnished from the wardrobe of a moral imagination, which the heart owns and the understanding ratifies as necessary to cover the defects of our naked, shivering nature, and to raise it to dignity in our own estimation, are to be exploded as a ridiculous, absurd, and antiquated fashion.”

One can immediately perceive the parallelism of this from Burke with the above quoted passage from the Communist Manifesto; not only the references, but even the rhythm and cadence, are similar. This sentimental side of Marxism, apparently tolerant of feudal exploitation so long as it is modestly draped in moral rhetoric, illustrates the lengths to which Marx (and his followers) will go to make a point, but it is a mere distraction from the more significant content of Hobsbawm’s above quote.

The development of the heretofore undeveloped world

For much of the twentieth century the political left engaged in ostentatious hand-wringing over the conditions in poor countries around the world. This hand-wringing was best exemplified in dependency theory, which held that poor countries were being “underdeveloped” (instead of simply being “developed”) as part of a nefarious capitalist scheme to keep them poor. Now, some of these countries are no longer poor; certainly, many are no longer as poor as they once were. Countries like India and China have begun to industrialize, and their industrialization is changing conceptions of economic development, international relations, and indeed civilization itself.

Globalization is nothing but the long-awaited development of the undeveloped and underdeveloped world. That globalization is attended by much lamentation and gnashing of teeth in both the developed and in the un- and underdeveloped world is in itself a demonstration that globalization is no respecter of persons and is as blind as justice. The peoples of the developed world complain that jobs are being “exported” to the industrializing nation-states, while the peoples of industrializing nation-states complain about the conditions of industrialization, notwithstanding the fact that industrialization in the twenty-first century is a very different beast than industrialization in the nineteenth century.

If any political entity not affiliated with the left attempted to obstruct globalization, they would be accused of attempting to keep poor countries poor, just as when any political entity in the US points out the counter-productive character of attempting to protect politically visible jobs (by singling out particular industries for protection) such an entity can expect to be pilloried by those claiming to speak on behalf of workers.

Industrialization before revolution

Many are the economists and political theorists who have rightly observed that Marx maintained that industrialization was a necessary preliminary to communist revolution. Marx himself was lukewarm about the enthusiastic Russian reception of Das Kapital, because Russia, being not yet industrialized and lacking an industrial proletariat, was not primed for revolution like heavily industrialized Western Europe. Lenin made some revisions to Marx and attempted to legitimize revolution in Russia from a Marxist theoretical perspective. Mao later went much farther, and made the obviously non-industrialized Chinese peasant the basis of his revolutionary movement. If Marx was right, and we can take him at his word, the communist revolutions in Russia and China were premature revolutions, and had Marx seen them he might well have predicted their failure.

If, as I have stated above, globalization is nothing other than the extension of the industrial revolution to regions of the world previously untouched by it, and if Marx was right that communist revolution must emerge from the industrialized armies created by the factory system, then globalization must precede any genuine communist revolution. Hobsbawm said that globalization is implicit in capitalism, but he might just as well have said that globalization is implicit in Marxism. In other words, Marx may yet be right, and he may yet be proved right at some distant point in the future, but the conditions under which Marx might be proved right (or wrong) have simply not yet obtained.

Marxism and its experimentum crucis

It is easy to imagine a point in time when all the world is industrialized, and Africa has followed in the footsteps of Asia’s present capitalist development (and, in a sufficiently warm world, Antarctica as well). At such a point in history, the world entire would be ripe for revolution, as financial crises today that are limited to the industrialized and developed world would at that time involve the whole world. When industrialization is world-wide, the mechanisms employed today to stabilize developed economies may no longer function and we could yet see escalating crises of the kind predicted by Marx. But this has not yet happened; it cannot happen until the entire world has industrialized, and the process by which the world is industrialized is globalization.

Globalization is thus a precondition of a sufficiently catastrophic crisis that a communist revolution could unfold as predicted by Marx. After the initial industrialization of western Europe, followed shortly thereafter by the industrialization of North America and Japan, it seemed that the rest of Eurasia and Africa would follow in sequence. But industrialization stalled; while some industries were established in Asia and Africa, society was not transformed by an industrial revolution, and industry after the model of Europe remained economically marginal throughout much of the world. Near the end of the twentieth century, when China began to industrialize in earnest, it seemed again as though the rest of the world would follow in sequence, and this may yet happen, but it is too soon to judge.

So, Marx may yet be proved right. But there is a twist. Depending upon the direction that history takes, Marx’s theories may never be tested properly because the conditions under which they could be tested may never obtain. Firstly, and most obviously, if the world never fully industrializes, the conditions under which communist revolution ought to take place will never obtain; hence, Marx’s theory can never be exposed to its experimentum crucis. Secondly, by the time the developing world industrializes, those economies that were initially transformed by industrial revolutions may have already transitioned to post-industrial economies (e.g., information societies), so that the economic and industrial infrastructure of the world remains uneven and global economic crises do not play out as they would under globally uniform economic and industrial infrastructure. Thirdly, and (in my view) more interestingly, if human civilization establishes itself off the surface of the earth, and industrialization has the indefinite extent of known space into which to expand, the potential infinity of the human future will defy any “complete” industrialization, and hence, again, the conditions needed to test Marx’s theory the way he himself interpreted it may never obtain. An “open” future can never converge on an historical totality of industrialization, therefore the conditions under which communist revolution can take place and be successful would be pushed further and further into an indefinite future, never to be realized.

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Almost four years after writing the above, Eric Hobsbawm passed away on 01 October 2012 at the age of 95. He left an estate of nearly two million pounds.

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14 Responses to “Globalization and Marxism”

  1. A friend of mine just emailed me one of your articles from a while back. I read that one a few more. Really enjoy your blog. Thanks

  2. geopolicraticus said

    Dear Susan,

    You’re welcome! I’m pleased that you enjoyed my blog.

    Best wishes,


  3. Courtland said

    Very interesting read, I am glad you focused on the idea that globalization is just as much a preliminary step in Marxism as it is in capitalism. Many don’t realize the potential for political and social change after globalization, and I believe the resurgence of the left in global politics and my personal leanings toward Marxist economic theory in general are not a mere coincidence in this age of an absolute globalized relationship between nations that includes economy, technology, politics, cultural exchange, etc. Even Paul Krugman, the latest Nobel leaureate in economics, recognizes the importance of class division and the widening gap between developed and underdeveloped nations, tip-toeing near Marxist definitions of capitalist economy in a time where communism and socialism until recently were commonly viewed as defunct ideas.

    This is where I feel that the “specter haunting Europe” is still at large; though not a self-proclaimed Marxist, I am heavily persuaded by socialist ideas and feel that a true Marxist must adhere to the historical properties that Marx himself recognized regarding the evolution of communist thought in the future. We must remember that Marx was a product of his own era, whose ideas are still terribly relevant to the socio-economic conditions of today. Marx was absolutely fascinated by the dynamics of capitalist economy, and how value was constantly changing itself within the system. In order to properly consult Marx, we must recognize the absolute change in the world economy itself, and refuse to dwell in the past, scrounging for answers, though this does not mean we should disregard past situations (I am a student with an unabashed love affair for history).

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Courtland,

      Thanks much for taking the time to write your interesting comments.

      Certainly there is a spectre that still haunts Europe, and it haunts much of the rest of the world as well. Marxism represents one particular formulation of a perennial tendency in economic thought and political orientation. Like the poor, Marxism will always be with us.

      Moreover, we seem to be able to agree that globalization — which I take to be the global unfolding of the industrial revolution — is a necessary precursor either to the expansion of capitalism or the emergence of communism. I also agree with you that Marx was a product of his own era and that future formulations of perennial socialist and communist ideas must take account of historical developments after Marx. Furthermore, I agree that there is no coincidence between the emergence of financial crisis and the recrudescence of Marxism. I think that one could predict that as the Industrial Revolution slowly makes its way around the planet that we will see a dialectic of industrial expansion and socialist/communist reaction against it — an ebb and flow of industrial development.

      The interesting question, then, becomes whether this ebb and flow of development will exacerbate or attenuate over time. If it exacerbates, Marx may yet be proved right (as I observed above in this post), and the spread of industrialization and the industrialized proletariat will coincide with rising collectivist sentiment that will expropriate the expropriators precisely at their moment of global triumph. However, if the cycles of industrial expansion and socialistic/communistic reaction and protest become less severe with time (especially if our experience of industrialization in the West can be exploited to provide a less traumatic experience of industrialization elsewhere in the world, where it comes later), then Marx will have been proved more decisively wrong than many took him to be proved wrong at the end of the Cold War.

      As for the potential for political and social change after globalization, well, the world is always, perpetually pregnant with change. It may come slowly, with reform, or it may come catastrophically, with revolution, but change will come, one way or another. However, the fact that change inevitably occurs does not make change inevitably either change for the better or change for the worse. It is our intervention in the making of history that makes it something of which to be proud or something of which to be ashamed.



  4. Courtland said

    Very well thought out reply, thank you for your valuable insight. I have been doing much reading on economics and economic history since my last post. One book that I find indispensable to this discussion (and any on globalization and the prospects of Marxism) that I am reading is “Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism,” by the Indian economist Meghnad Desai. I highly recommend this book if you haven’t heard of it. Desai ponders why, in our era of overreaching economic prosperity, communications and technological advances, there is a rising tide against neo-liberalism and globalization (the book was written in 2004, well before our current economic slump). Desai’s thesis concludes that, ironically, of all the economic thinkers that are vindicated by the post-1989 world, it’s Marx. Marx’s scientific critique of capitalism, though needing to be reassessed in our changed environment, still fundamentally tackles the questions of capitalism’s capabilities and limits. Though only about a third of the way through the book, I have learned such a great deal in a short amount of time that Desai has completely reshaped my thinking of socialism and Marxism’s abilities to foment economic and social change today.

    I agree with you that one of the most important concepts is too ask about the future of world industrialization, and whether its growth or recession will harness changes favorable to neo-liberalism, socialism, or maybe something much different. Desai’s take is that we do not yet know, but all we can say is that Marx is far from dead after 1989. Contrary to many on the radical Left, Marx has been proven correct in stating that capitalism cannot and will not crumble until it has absolutely exhausted itself. Once again though, history is of the utmost importance, for we and Desai have the ultimate advantage of living in the present, not the past. Does this mean that Marx is ultimately right, that those looking to progressive social change should sit back while capitalism gorges itself until it can no longer reproduce its sustainability? Or does this mean that now, more than ever, we have chances to attack the capitalist system during this time of crisis, removing internal contradictions and establishing something new? I have no answer to that question, but the question itself drives me to read more, to learn more, and to discuss more with people who share my views and with those who don’t.

  5. Courtland said


    One more thing I would like to comment on is how you discussed the spread of world industrialization and the growth of communistic/socialistic reaction. The greatest controversial addition to Marx’s economic theory was his ultimately understanding the regeneration of capitalist profit from surplus labor-value as a relationship between classes, the capitalists and the workers, in which exploitation was crucial. That, I believe, is the specter that still haunts the world, as I wrote about in my first post. How can we anticipate the future of capitalist/worker relationships alongside the spread of a new economic world order? Perhaps I am being much too naive, but I find a future economic world void of class conflict within the capitalist system almost unbelievable. Yet if one book may change my whole viewpoint today, another could tomorrow…

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Courtland,

      Thanks for your further thoughts on this thread. I’m pleased that you’ve returned to continue the conversation.

      You ended your most recent comments by stating, “I find a future economic world void of class conflict within the capitalist system almost unbelievable.” I agree with this. There will continue to be class conflict of one sort or another for the foreseeable future. However, you prefaced your comment with this question: “How can we anticipate the future of capitalist/worker relationships alongside the spread of a new economic world order?” This is a good question, and one could spill a good deal of ink trying to give it an adequate answer. But what is more interesting to me is an assumption built into your question. You write about “capitalist/worker relationships” as though these two classes were sufficiently well known and represented in society. This needs to be addressed. The later stages of the Industrial Revolution have nearly finished off the pure capitalist, and almost no one seems to have noticed. There are “capitalists” in the sense of those who believe in the ideology (or ideological superstructure) of capitalism, and there are “capitalists” in the sense of those who identify with the interests of capital, but there are very, very few “pure” capitalists, by which we mean someone who lives purely on their capital.

      We think of an entrepreneur as a capitalist, but in so far as he participates in the management and operations of his start-up he is substituting for supervisory personnel, and at least part of his earnings must be counted as wages and not profit. The venture capitalist comes closest to the pure capitalist, but the venture capitalist does work too, in the form of seeking and promoting opportunities. If the venture capitalist spends part of his time promoting or marketing a firm in which he is invested, at least part of his earnings are wages in compensation for this work. The more anyone is involved with a business, the farther they are from being a pure capitalist.

      Recently I have been reading Hitler’s Social Revolution: Class and Status in Nazi Germany 1933-1939, by David Schoenbaum, in which he remarks on “the rapid growth of the white-collar population” and cites Ferdinand Fried on this sociological phenomenon. The white-collar worker didn’t even figure is Marx’s schema of classes. In Volume Three of Capital, Chapter 52, Marx (edited by Engels) identifies the “three great social classes” as wage laborers, capitalists, and landowners. This was the social division of the early Industrial Revolution that Marx witnessed, but it does not reflect the later sociological formations of the Industrial Revolution. Alfred North Whitehead, usually thought of as an exclusively metaphysical philosopher, had particularly clear insight into this development of industrialized civilization: “In any large city, almost everyone is an employee, employing his working hours in exact ways predetermined by others.” (“The Study of the Past—its Uses and Dangers” Harvard Business Review, Vol. IX, No. 4)

      The processes of industry are now overseen by white-collar workers, not by capitalists. The white-collar workers may identify with capitalists, but even the highest officials of a corporation are employees who can be (and often are) dismissed. Who dismisses them? Either the board of directors (other white-collar workers) or the shareholders. Thus the fundamental class conflict in advanced industrialized society is not that between capitalists and workers, except in a perhaps increasingly abstract and oblique sense.

      You have written of Marx’s views “needing to be reassessed in our changed environment” and many, both those sympathetic and those antipathetic to Marx, have made similar gestures toward updating Marx, but I have yet to see even the suggestion of a radical re-thinking of Marx that would bring his essential doctrines up-to-date with contemporary events in industrialized society. I have suggested several times, in several places, that Marx must be reformulated within terms of the marginalist revolution, but most defend Marx’s labor theory of value tooth-and-nail. It is true that the labor theory of value is deeply embedded in Marxist thought, but is it essential to Marx? I say no. Other will say yes. But Marx cannot be made relevant to contemporary economics without a reformulation in terms of the theory of diminishing marginal utility. So if the labor theory of value is intrinsic and essential to Marx’s thought, then Marx is of merely antiquarian interest (like Descartes on cosmology or Newton’s writings on Biblical prophecy). I think, on the other hand, that Marx is a perennial thinker, and that he would profit from such a reformulation. It is only then that Marx can, “fundamentally tackle the questions of capitalism’s capabilities and limits.”

      As for, “those looking to progressive social change”: this too needs to be brought up-to-date or we will never make sense of the world. There is an insufficient appreciation that while in many things capital has gotten the things it wanted, in terms of the social constitution of contemporary societies, here change has been as rapid and as dramatic as in any area of life. The left-of-center social agenda has been enacted into law to a breathtaking extent that could not have been imagined in the recent past, even while the economic agenda of the left has been utterly abandoned. And in mirror image to this, the right-of-center social agenda has been utterly abandoned while its economic agenda has had a certain degree of currency. So it is not the case that those interested in social change should, “sit back while capitalism gorges itself”—they have been actively re-structuring the world we live in.

      Best wishes,


      • Sam said

        I like how you state that capitalism had extinguished the pure capitalist (although how the new trust fund generation will play into this is yet to be seen). With this I wholeheartedly agree. We are now all the proletariat (nearly) and thus a class consciousness of mutual worker/stock holder can/is beginning to form. Many people see the growth of 401K and similar programs as a new way to rob from the worker, but the other side of this coin is the opportunity provided to allow broad ownership of capital. A revolutionary change especially if a democratic implementation can follow this.

        • geopolicraticus said

          Is it not ironic that at the very moment in history when we have all become proletarians, no one identifies as a proletariat?

          If you haven’t run across this yet, I wrote a longish post on the recrudescence of the proletariat, The Re-Proletarianization of the Workforce, which you might find interesting.

          We aren’t seeing an increasingly broad ownership of capital, but actually the reverse: the concentration of capital, which is the topic of Piketty’s widely discussed book, which I also discussed in Compensating Losers in a Winner-Take-All Economy.

          However, we also are not seeing the growth of class consciousness or a “reserve army of the unemployed,” which Marx thought would be the vehicle of revolution that would expropriate the expropriators. There may be plenty of unemployed, but they don’t see themselves as the core of an army that is going to move in and take over.

          And, again, we are not seeing the vigorous growth and vitality of democracy, which we might wish as an avenue to a more humane and less violent future. The same stagnation that marks the present economic regime also marks the present political regime.

          All of the great mass political movements that drove the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seem to have petered out, and nothing equally compelling has replaced them, so we find ourselves in an age of geopolitical drift.



  6. Sam said

    What if a further adaptation of Marxist thought takes place to adjust to a post-industrial world? And what if the communist revolution that follows precedes the extraterrestrialization of humanity? I wonder what communist space colonies would look like….

    Also, I have read somewhere that the worst slave masters where the ones who treated their slaves “good”. The argument being that the worst conditions are the more likely the revolt, so if someone wants a Marxist revolution to take place wouldn’t they want to exacerbate the class and industrial issues of the world?

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear Sam,

      Although you have prefaced your comments with, “Quickly,” the issues you have raised in brief compass cannot be settled so quickly.

      I think that we have seen Marxism repeatedly adapted to changing conditions, even while Marx was still alive. Marxism at the height of the Cold War was a very different beast from Marxism post-1989. Marxism will continue to adapt because Marx gave voice to a perennial idea that will always have a place in human civilization. So, yes, there will be Marxism in a post-industrial world, and Marxism in a post-post-industrial world, and so on, world without end.

      I view it as entirely possible that a communist revolution of a globalized and industrialized Earth could precede the extraterrestrialization of humanity, and we actually have quite a good hint of what communist space colonies might be like. Given Russia’s early start in the space race, there is a lot of Soviet-era science fiction literature and art, as well as a lot of designs and plans from the Soviet space era, and many of these are suggestive of the assumptions of a communist space program spreading humanity and communism through the universe. I have used many Soviet-era science fiction paintings to illustration blog posts, as I find them so evocative. They are different from US science fiction art, but both share an optimistic vision of human expansion beyond Earth. After all, Tsiolkovsky was one of the original space travel visionaries.

      There is, I think, a significant literature on whether communist subversives should seek to sabotage the capitalist state, thus to increase immiseration and thus also increase the chances of a communist revolution, or whether they should encourage the growth and development of industry both so that a future communist state can inherit a better industrial infrastructure and because the growth of the economy and the concentration of capital and fewer and fewer hands is part of the inevitable process that Marx predicted as a precondition of the expropriation of the expropriators. However, I could well understand why one would not want to plow through this literature as it can be tendentious at best and nauseating at worst.

      Best wishes,


  7. albert8184 said

    Globalization posits a world being remade by economic and technological forces into a shared economic and political arena of open borders. The most prominent strains seem to be anti-nationalist, anti-border, anti-tribal and anti-tradition.

    Marxism is, as you say, a globalizing philosophy. So is Islam. But globalization is not really the idea of spreading the industrial revolution to all parts of the world. It might be the idea of SOME globalists. But it isn’t the idea of Marxists, or the idea of Islamists. There are right globalists, left globalists and centrist globalists. There is also the idea of DOING AWAY WITH much of the “fruit” of the industrial revolution.

    • geopolicraticus said

      This post is now several years old, and events have overtaken my use of “globalization.” I need to write about globalization again taking into account the ideological changes of the past few years. Technically I would defend the idea that globalization is the fulfillment of the industrial revolution, but, obviously, “globalization” is now being used as a term of abuse more than was the case previously. I was recently listening to an alt-right Youtube hangout when one of the participants claimed that the major ideological conflict of our time is that between globalists and nationalists, and in this sense of “globalist” contrasted to “nationalist” the term “globalist” doesn’t have much to do with industrialization, expanding trade networks, or improving standards of living for all peoples of the world.

      Best wishes,


  8. […] Globalization and Marxism JN Nielsen, Grand Strategy: The View from Oregon […]

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