Marx saw the invention of the factory as the technological development that established the conditions for a fourth stage in human history, that of capitalism. The factory, with its organization of labor into highly specialized tasks, was a more technically-advanced system of production than the feudal craft shop, and it would become the foundation for a new economic, political, and social system.
Marx’s approach to historical analysis was to identify classes and their particular interests. Accordingly, he viewed the merchants as being an underdog class in the feudal system and as having an interest in promoting the newly emerging factory system and the higher levels of commerce that it would create. The worldview and philosophical orientation of the merchants, their connection to commerce, and their network of interrelationships facilitated that they could see the potential of the new system for their own interests. So the merchant class engaged in the new forms of production and commerce and advocated state policies in support of them, thus transforming themselves into the modern bourgeoisie and a revolutionary class that sought the abolition of feudalism and the establishment of a capitalist society.
For Marx, in the struggle against the feudal privileges of the aristocracy, the revolutionary bourgeoisie advocated a new concept of society, the notion that all persons had rights, regardless of their status at birth. This meant that the economic transformation from feudalism to capitalism ultimately would require the political transformation from monarchy to democracy. Thus the bourgeois revolution sought to eliminate or reduce the power of the monarchy, even though in some moments it was allied with the monarchy in the struggle to eliminate the privileges of the aristocracy. In addition, the new system required a religious transformation from Catholicism, integrally tied to feudalism, to Protestantism, integrally tied to bourgeois democracy. Thus the bourgeois revolution sought to reduce the power and the privileges of the Catholic Church.
In his analysis of the transition from feudalism to capitalism, Marx grasped the importance of the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie, which acted to defend and promote its class interests. But we can understand the transition today in a more global context. Certainly the expansion of commerce and industry and the process of feudal re-urbanization had been developing from the tenth to the fifteenth centuries in a form that was for the most part endogenous to European society, as we have seen (“European feudalism” 8/13/2013). However, this process of transformation was given a tremendous push forward by the Spanish conquest of America in the sixteenth century, which resulted in the acquisition of gold and silver by Spain and her use of the precious metals to purchase manufactured goods from Northwestern Europe, thus facilitating the modernization of agriculture, the expansion of manufacturing, and the origin of the capitalist world-economy (see “The origin of the modern world-economy” 8/6/2013; “Modernization of the West” 8/7/2013; “Conquest, gold, and Western development” 8/8/2013). Marx was aware of the role of colonialism in the accumulation of capital, as we have seen (“Marx on human history” 1/9/2014). But he did not integrate this awareness into his formulation of the transformation from feudalism to capitalism. Today, from the vantage point of the colonized, we can formulate the transformation from European feudalism to the European capitalist world-economy in a manner that never loses sight of its foundation in the Spanish conquest of America.
Our criticism here of Marx is analogous to Marx’s own criticism of Adam Smith. Marx observed that Smith, writing after the emergence of modern industry, understood that general social labor is the source of surplus value; but writing before the emergence of larger-scale industry, Smith was not able to consistently integrate this insight into his theoretical system (see “Marx’s analysis of political economy” 1/8/2014). Today, we can say that Marx, writing after the emergence of the proletarian movement, understood the role of colonial domination in the economic development of Europe; but writing before the emergence of Third World anti-colonial movements, he was not able to consistently integrate this insight into his theoretical system.
Bottomore, T.B., Ed. 1964. Karl Marx: Early Writings. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Marx, Karl. 1963. The Poverty of Philosophy. New York: International Publishers.
__________. 1967. Capital, Vol. I. New York: International Publishers.
__________. 1970. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. New York: International Publishers.
__________. 1973. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy. New York: Random House, Vintage Books.
Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. 1948. The Communist Manifesto. New York: International Publishers.
__________. 1965. The German Ideology. London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marx, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, bourgeois revolution, revolutionary bourgeoisie