Karl Marx’s theory of revolution is rooted in his materialist conception of history (historical materialism). In very schematic terms Marx sees the origins of revolutionary change beginning in the economic base of society where technological developments lead to changes in the relations of production and these in turn see the superstructure of society transformed. In other words, new forces of production will come into conflict with old institutions and social organization, newer, rising classes will come into conflict with old ruling classes, new ideas will conflict with established ones, and the result will be epochal change. There are certain material preconditions for revolution to occur, and without these no agitation or political slogans will make it happen. Marx’s theory of revolution is concerned with the revolutionary leaps between different modes of production, for example from feudalism to capitalism. The next such revolution predicted by Marx is the proletarian revolution that will bring about a socialist society. Previous revolutions may have involved a transition from one mode of production to another, but they have still all been carried out by or on behalf of minority classes. The proletarian revolution will be the first carried out by and on behalf of the immense majority, and it will also be the first truly comprehensive social revolution bringing about the conditions for social as well as political emancipation. The proletarian revolution, instead of swapping the rule of one property-owning class for another, will do away with property altogether, and in so doing will bring about the abolition of all classes.
   According to Marx’s theory, the proletarian revolution would take place in the conditions of an advanced capitalist economy, where technology is advanced and a developed and organized working class in place. England met all the material conditions in terms of its development but lacked “revolutionary spirit.” However, Marx was prepared to be flexible with regard to material economic conditions if other circumstances were favorable to revolution. For example, he allowed for the outbreak of revolution in less developed countries such as Russia where the state and ruling class were very weak, provided that the revolution quickly spread to the advanced industrial countries of Western Europe. He also suggested that in Germany, which was also relatively backward, a bourgeois revolution might take place immediately followed by a proletarian revolution forced through by the communists, who would create what he termed a “permanent revolution.” In addition, Marx, while in the main advocating and foreseeing violent revolution, seems to have allowed for the possibility of peaceful change in countries such as England where democracy was sufficiently developed to allow the possibility of a proletarian party being elected to power.
   Later Marxists developed and disputed Marx’s theory of revolution. Eduard Bernstein in the revisionist dispute argued for a peaceful, parliamentary road to socialism against the militant revolutionary line of Rosa Luxemburg. Leon Trotsky meanwhile, picked up the notion of “permanent revolution” to argue that bourgeois and proletarian revolutions could be telescoped together without having to wait for bourgeois social relations to fully develop before instigating the communist revolution. Trotsky’s view came to be one side of the dispute with Josef Stalin in the struggle for power after the death of Vladimir Ilich Lenin. Stalin, while not abandoning the goal of world revolution was less optimistic about the prospects of imminent revolution in Europe and so supported a more inward-looking doctrine of “Socialism in one country,” that country being Russia. Lenin had followed Trotsky’s argument in pre-revolutionary Russia, and supported by his own theory of imperialism and the vanguard party pushed through the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. Antonio Gramsci, seeing the failure of revolutionary attempts in Europe after the Bolshevik revolution, theorized a distinction between active and passive revolutions, with the former taking the form of violent uprisings and the latter referring to slow, patient “molecular change.” Eurocommunism moved further towards gradualism and reformism, pursuing a democratic parliamentary road to socialism, while China, particularly under Mao Zedong, zealously promoted revolution around the world.

Historical dictionary of Marxism. . 2014.

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