Marx on Globalization

Scott Burchill



the 1850s, Karl Marx believed that the spread of capitalism, or what today we

would call globalization, was transforming human society from a collection of

separate nation-states to a world capitalist society where the principal form of

conflict would be between classes rather than nations. According to Marx, the

conflictual properties of capitalism could not be contained. A political

revolution led by the working classes would overthrow the capitalist order and

usher in a world socialist society free from the alienation, exploitation and

estrangement produced by capitalist structures.


to say, the pattern of historical change anticipated by Marx 150 years ago has

been thwarted by the persistence of the nation-state system, its propensity for

violence, and the grip that nationalism maintains upon our political identities.

Marx’s reputation has also been tarnished, perhaps unfairly, by the appalling

interpretation and application of his ideas in a number of failed communist



what, if anything of value, does Marx have to say about the current impact of

globalization upon our advanced industrial societies?


was the first theorist to correctly identify capitalism as the principal driving

force behind increasing levels of international interdependence, a process that

he believed was both transforming human society and uniting the species. With

remarkable prescience Marx argued that the very essence of capitalism is to

"strive to tear down every barrier to intercourse", to "conquer

the whole earth for its market" and to overcome the tyranny of distance by

reducing "to a minimum the time spent in motion from one place to



to the expansion of capitalism was, according to Marx, futile. National economic

planning would become impossible as barriers to trade and investment collapsed.

In a famous extract from The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels describe how

globalization prizes open national economies and how global markets determine

the pattern of economic development across the planet: "The bourgeoisie has

through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to

production and consumption in every country. Š All old established national

industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged

by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all

civilised nations. Š In place of the old local and national seclusion and

self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal

inter-dependence of nations".


according to Marx, was a progressive, if transient phase in human history. The

universalising processes inherent in capitalism promised to bring not only

unprecedented levels of human freedom, but also an end to insularity and

xenophobia. According to Marx and Engels, under globalization "national

one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible. Š The

bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the

immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian

nations, into civilization. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy

artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the

barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels

all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production;Š

In one word, it creates a world after its own image".


unlike liberals who regard the collapse of national economic sovereignty as a

positive development, Marx highlighted the darkside of interdependency, in

particular the social consequences of exposure to the rigours of market life. In

the 1840s, Marx was already observing a backlash against globalization. People

had "become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them (a pressure

which they have conceived of as a dirty trick on the part of the so-called

universal spirit, etc,), a power which has become more and more enormous and, in

the last instance, turns out to be the world market".


Marx also anticipated the de-regulation of the world’s capital markets in the

1970s and was convinced that the rapid and unrestricted flow of money across

territorial boundaries would disrupt many societies and exacerbate class

tensions within them. In 1848 he asked, "what is free trade under the

present conditions of society? It is freedom of capital. When you have

overthrown the few national barriers which still restrict the progress of

capital, you will merely have given it complete freedom of action. Š All the

destructive phenomena which unlimited competition gives rise to within one

country, are reproduced in more gigantic proportions on the world market. It

breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the

bourgeoisie to the extreme point".


David Hale recently claimed that opposition to free trade in the US is

"heavily influenced by perceptions that voters themselves now view trade

issues in terms of a domestic class struggle, not as promoting exports and

global integration". Marx wouldn’t have been surprised. Although he was

describing a world already being transformed by capitalism in the middle of last

century, Marx’s observations about the power of markets, class tensions and the

emergence of a universal capitalist society resonate even more loudly today.




Lecturer in International Relations

School of Australian and International Studies

Deakin University


Burwood Highway

Burwood Victoria 3125



(03) 9244 3947 (Burwood Campus)

Fax: (03) 9244 6755 (Burwood Campus)

Email: [email protected]

Website: arts.deakin.edu.au/sais/Staff/burchill


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