I believe Marx’s foremost error was his propagation of the older philosopher Hegel’s linear march of history. This theory characterizes human society as constantly evolving to higher stages of development, such that each successive epoch is supposedly more “ideal” or “rational” than what came before. Marx’s carrying forward this deterministic narrative into the anti-capitalist struggle created the confusion that capitalism, although terrible, is a necessary “advance” that will create the conditions for a free society by the “development of productive forces.” This mistaken conception often put Marx, and his uncritical descendants, on the wrong side of history – arguing that in order to achieve the ideal of socialism or communism, countries first had to follow the Western European model of becoming capitalist first.
Hegel’s framework of linear progression blinded Marx to non-European, feminist, and ecological critiques of capital’s violent conquest of the world. Without this knowledge, Marx charted a flawed strategy for radical social change that missed the core of what human freedom is all about. Instead of vocally, unambiguously opposing European colonialism and the displacement of small farmers from their land, Marx construed the proletarianization of the world as a matter of capitalism “producing its own grave-diggers.” Focusing narrowly on the economic “misery” of capitalism and upholding the proletariat as the agent of history, Marx simplified the aims of the anti-capitalist project to a matter of the working class seizing state power to “increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible” (Marx-Engels Reader 490).
This mechanical focus on the hardships of workers led Marx to overlook the many other ways that capitalism threatens life on this planet, and therefore also the resistance coming from those outside his framework: peasants, indigenous cultures, women, youth, queer and trans people, students and intellectuals, immigrants, people of color, artists, and more.