Students of parliamentary history are familiar with the idea of ‘Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition’. Marxism, as a social-historical phenomenon, has been Her Modern Majesty’s Opposition to modernity.footnote1 Always critical of and fighting against her predominant regimes, but never questioning the legitimate majesty of modernity and, when needed, explicitly defending it. Like many oppositions, Marxism has also had its stints in power, but its spells of government have been short-lived in their attractiveness and creativity, rather prone to produce doubt and disillusion, and only through the exercise of the pragmatics of power have they persisted.

Marxism is nevertheless the major manifestation of the dialectics of modernity, in a sociological as well as theoretical sense. As a social force, Marxism was a legitimate offspring of modern capitalism and Enlightenment culture. For good or bad, rightly or wrongly, Marxist parties, movements, and intellectual currents became, for at least a hundred years from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, the most important form of embracing the contradictory nature of modernity. It simultaneously affirmed the positive, progressive features of capitalism, industrialization, urbanization, mass literacy, of looking to the future instead of past and of keeping one’s eyes fixed on the earth of the present, and, on the other hand, denouncing the exploitation, the human alienation, the commodification and the instrumentalization of the social, the false ideology, and the imperialism inherent in the modernization process.

Liberalism and Enlightenment rationalism, including, more recently, post-Marxist social democracy and post-traditional conservatism, have represented the affirmation of modernity, and have raised no questions of science, accumulation, growth and development. Traditional conservatism, religious or secular, girded itself against the negativity of modernity. The Nietzschean intellectual tradition, from Nietzsche himself to Michel Foucault, has been sniping at modernity, Christian or—to a much lesser extent—Islamic democracy, fascism, and Third World populism. Marxists were, on the whole, alone in both hailing modernity—and its breaking of the carapace of ‘rural idiocy’ and airing the fumes of ‘the opium of the people’—and in attacking it. Marxism defended modernity with a view to another, more fully developed modernity.

Marxism was the theory of this dialectic of modernity, as well as its practice. Its theory centred on the rise of capitalism, as a progressive stage of historical development, and on its ‘contradictions’, on its class exploitation, its crisis tendencies, and its generation of class conflict. After its main lines had been drawn in bold strokes, in The Communist Manifesto, the Marxian dialectical method also paid attention to the gender and national dimensions of modern emancipation. ‘The first class antagonism’, Friedrich Engels wrote in his The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and of the State, is that between man and woman, ‘the first class subjection’ that of women by men.footnote2 One of the most widely diffused books of the early Marxist labour movement was August Bebel’s Woman and Socialism (1883).footnote3

As passionate political analysts, Marx and Engels closely followed the national politics of their time, although most of their writings about it were responses to particular circumstances. From the late 1860s onwards, however, they did focus on a problem with far-reaching implications: how one nation’s oppression of another affected the class conflict in each. The concrete case was England, the most advanced capitalist country, where, Marx and Engels concluded, social revolution was impossible without a preceding national revolution in Ireland. Marxists of the multinational Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires soon had to pay more systematic theoretical attention to the concept of nation and its relation to class. The major theoretical work to emerge from this effort was Otto Bauer’s The Nationalities Question and Social Democracy (1907). But the strategic vision and the political practice connecting Marxism and capital–labour conflict with anti-colonial and other struggles for national self-determination were first fully developed by Vladimir Lenin, in a series of articles written just before World War I, and then consolidated in his wartime study Imperialism (1917).footnote4

To see Marx and Engels as dialecticians of modernity is a late-twentieth-century reading, an expression of a period in which critical social theory is asserting its relative autonomy from economics and in which, above all, the very value of modernity itself is being questioned from a perspective of post-rather than pre-modernity. However, it should be emphasized that, although such readings, pioneered by Berman, are new, they are not arbitrarily imposed.footnote5 While never theorized nor admitted into the classical Marxist canon, a conception of modernity pervaded Marx’s thought. In the first eight pages of the Werke edition of the Communist Manifesto, we learn about ‘modern industry’ (three times), ‘modern bourgeois society’ (twice), the ‘modern bourgeoisie’ (twice), ‘modern workers’ (twice), and once about ‘modern state power’, ‘modern productive forces’, and of ‘modern relations of production’.footnote6 And Marx’s ‘ultimate purpose’ in Capital, as he put it in his preface to the first edition, was to ‘disclose the economic law of motion of modern society’.

Keeping hold of the two horns of modernity, the emancipatory and the exploitative has been an intrinsically delicate task, more easily assumed by intellectuals than practical politicians. The Marxist tradition has therefore tended to drift from one characterisation to another in its practice of the dialectics of modernity. In the Second International (1889– 1914) and in the later social-democratic tradition, the negative aspect increasingly tended to be overshadowed by an evolutionary conception of growing countervailing powers, of trade unions and working-class parties. The Comintern or Third International (1919–43) and the subsequent communist tradition, by contrast, focused on the negative and its peripeteia, by denouncing the increasing evils of capitalism and holding out the hope for a sudden revolutionary reversal.