In this video, starting at 5:36, Stephen Hicks claims that there are three central "social science" Marxist predictions, which I would sum up as follows:

Over time, in any capitalist society,

  1. The share of the population in the lower class will increase,
  2. The share of the population in the middle class will go to zero,
  3. The number of people in the upper class will converge towards a very small number.

He then goes on to say

" ... even in Marx's lifetime, and certainly in the succeeding generations of Marxists, by the time we get to 1900, right, 1920, and so forth ... all three of those predictions failed - it's not just that they failed by a little bit or that the data was mixed, but that all of the data is showing that the exact opposite is coming to pass. [...] Social science stands on its predictions as measured by the data, and by every measure, Marxist social science failed to fit the data, in fact the data was the exact opposite. And this caused a crisis not only by people who are not sympathetic to Marxism ... but a crisis within Marxism. What you find when you read the Marxists of each succeeding generation is that they are aware of the data: we predicted this, but now the data says that."

Now I believe that the above is likely to inspire a lot of politically motivated debate, so I'd like to clarify the scope of my question: In the first half of the 20th century, did Marxists acknowledge that the social predictions of Marxism had failed and that the predictions did not fit the data?

Remark: I originally posted this question on Skeptics.SE, but it was recommended to me to also ask here.

  • This is a very good book, Page Smith, The Progressive Era and WWI.amazon.com/007-America-Peoples-History-Progressive/dp/… what happened in the USA with Wilson and WWI, happened with Friedrich Ebert and the SDP in Germany. The Frankfurt School later set out to answer the question, What happened?
    – Gordon
    Jul 27, 2018 at 11:34
  • I'm not sure if I understand how all of that relates to my question. Are you basically saying that the Frankfurt School are the successors of 19th century Marxists? What was their stance on the "science-y" (falsifiable) statements of Marxist theory?
    – user159517
    Jul 27, 2018 at 12:23
  • 1
    Here is Horkheimer later on: m.youtube.com/watch?v=OBaY09Qi-w0 The body of Marx's works, his writings, have an interesting history themselves. They are now in the Netherlands. socialhistory.org/en/news/… You can also study the work of Maximilien Rubel. en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximilien_Rubel
    – Gordon
    Jul 27, 2018 at 13:56
  • Don't you want to write up an answer? I'd gladly accept it. The video with Horkheimer is on point!
    – user159517
    Jul 27, 2018 at 14:13
  • 2
    Ok gotcha. But understand that Horkheimer statement isn't in any way a consensus view. See also I. Wallerstein, E. Balibar, T. Eagleton, P. Anderson, A. Negri, D. Harvey etc for completely different takes. Jul 28, 2018 at 14:23

1 Answer 1


1 The share of the population in the lower class will increase.

2 The share of the population in the middle class will go to zero.

3 The number of people in the upper class will converge towards a very small number.

Horkheimer can hardly be made in stand in for '20th-century Marxists', whatever his views, acknowledgements or revisions.

But let's take the predictions.

The share of the population in the lower class will increase.

Is the 'lower class' a Marxist term ? Marx refers to 'the proletarian class', 'agricultural labourers', 'the lumpenproletariat', 'the unemployed'. He offers specific predictions for each of these, not for 'the lower class'.

If we make these distinctions, it does appear quite definitely that Marx predicted that the share of the population in the 'lower class' will increase. He says that all landowners will eventually disappear, that the feudal aristocracy will be destroyed by foreign competition, and that entire sections of the ruling class will be drawn into the proletarian class.

The share of the population in the middle class will go to zero.

Marx thinks this will happen along two routes : (a) the smaller capitalists or bourgeoisie will 'go under' to the larger under the impact of competition, and (b) the bourgeoisie will be eliminated as a class in the proletarian revolution.

So : another authentically Marxist prediction

The number of people in the upper class will converge towards a very small number.

Marx predicts that joint-stock companies will emerge as the new aristocracy, that the moneylending class will disappear, that all landowners will also disappear, and that larger capitalists will absorb or put smaller capitalists out of business. That indicates a relatively small 'upper class'.

Was the failure of these predictions acknowledged by 20th-century Marxists ?

I'm not at all dismissive of Horkheimer but it would be interesting if we could add to the number of Marxists who were clear-sighted enough to perceive that something had gone wrong with Marx's predictions.

I add just one point, though. Marx does refer on occasion (e.g. in Capital, I) to 'the iron laws of history' but in more reflective moments he recognised that his 'laws' were not inevitabilities but actually 'trends'. This claim is supported by the following quotation :

"He [my critic] feels himself obliged to metamorphose my sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophical theory of the marche generale imposed by fate on every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labor, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. (He is both honoring and shaming me too much.)" Marx to the Editor of a Russian Joumal, 1877: Correspondence of Marx and Engels, ed. by Dona Torr (Intemational, 1934), p. 35. (Cited in Richard Hudelson, 'Popper's Critique of Marx', Philosophical Studies: An International Journal for Philosophy in the Analytic Tradition, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Apr., 1980), pp. 259-270 : 270.)

Marx and Marxists can reasonably argue that given that Marx was arguing from trends and not laws, his projection of predictions from trends doesn't disprove the trends; it just shows the specific predictions were wrong or ill-timed. In other words, the failure of Marx's predictions doesn't refute his laws since despite his occasional language he formulates no laws strictly speaking.

Eduard Bernstein realised that Marx's predictions were failing : Selected Writings of Eduard Bernstein, 1900–1921. Prometheus Books, 1996. Rosa Luxemburg in The Accumulation of Capital ([1913] 1951) also could see that revisions were needed. George Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness ([1922] 1971) rejected the idea of laws of development and recognised that Marx's trends could not support specific predictions, at least those that Marx had made. Finally in this brief survey Antonio Gramsci emphasised the need as he saw it for a political party, not a class-conscious proletarian class, to overturn the ideological hegemony of the capitalist class. Gramsci wrote in the wake of the rise of fascism in Italy; in a fascist prison he was sure that Marx had miscalculated the likelihood and power of proletarian class-consciousness and that the interventions of Mussolini's fascisti would block Marx's predictions, indeed had blocked them and would continue to do so until a communist party could emerge with the strength and determination to rival and overturn the fascist party. See Gramsci, Antonio, 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks. New York: International Publishers.


A wider survey and longer list of Marx's social science predictions is offered in Fred M. Gottheil, Marx's Economic Predictions, Evanston : Northwestern University Press, 1966.

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