According to the historical materialist methodology, the base and structure of society (i.e., the productive forces and the relations of production) determine the essential qualities of the super-structure: the state, ruling class ideologies, and the entirety of the subjective forces. That is to say that the physical qualities of the elements of production (the base – including the means of production, available natural resources and their evident uses, and physical condition of the labor force) along with the derivative the relations of production (the structure – the relationships by which use-values are produced and distributed in a ‘world-economy’) are expressed in the ideas, ruling institutions, and popular movements in different ‘locations’ (the super-structure).
Revolution, in one sense, implies a historical moment in which the base has ‘outgrown’ the limitations set forth by the old structure and (by default) super-structure, thus setting in motion the destruction and re-composition of society’s latter two aspects upon the new basis of the new limits set forth by the newly advanced productive forces. That is: the possibilities created by the productive forces are not longer conducive to previous productive relations and in fact increasingly come into conflict with them.
On the other hand, revolution implies a moment in which a portion of the super-structure, i.e., the subjective forces of revolutionary opposition, have matured in a manner toward the point of intervening and altering the fundamental nature of the structure, super-structure, and, over time, the base of a given society.
This latter criterion of revolution implies a kind of paradox. How can a portion of the super-structure act against the base and structure, the very aspects of society from which it springs?
Marx’s preliminary solution to this paradox was part of his view of capitalism’s developmental processes. Increasing proportions of society would be pushed into the working class, subjected to exploitation, and face a common immiseration in contrast to the ballooning wealth of an ever-shrinking bourgeoisie. This would create the preconditions of international working-class consciousness capable of informing victorious struggles by workers against the bourgeoisie and the relations of production set in motion by capitalism. Capitalism would create the element of its own demise: the revolutionary proletariat.
We now know the world is much more complex than the vision set forth in the Communist Manifesto (which was a popular agitational essay meant for German workers of the period) or the analysis contained in Das Kapital (which proceeded from the assumption that commodities are traded at value, which is rarely the case in the real world). Capitalism has not spawned a uniform immiseration of workers. Instead, based on the growing concentration of capital in imperialist metropoles and the colonization and exploitation of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, capitalism has developed into capitalist-imperialism. Problematizing Marx’s basic solution to the historical materialist paradox of revolution, increasing parasitism and global wage-scaling under capitalist-imperialism have inhibited the revolutionary efficacy of the slogan, “workers of the world unite”.
But this isn’t the only possible answer to this paradox. To find a resolution to the dilemma presented by a historical materialist interpretation of revolution, it may be best to borrow and flesh-out ideas from Lenin and Mao, two Marxist theorists behind two historical revolutions.
Revolutionary class consciousness does not arise from the economic struggle between workers and capitalists. Rather, the struggle for the liberation of the proletariat from exploitation is the central focus of the struggle by whole people against the inevitable processes set in motion by capitalism. That is to say, at a certain points in history, the contradictions between the advancing base and lagging structure sharpen, creating a situation in which the extant productive relationship are no longer suitable for the developing forces of production. At this moment (which is better described as an era), the whole of society is thrown into increasing social conflict. For all classes, the old way of doing things become less tenable. The most reactionary and oppressive tendencies of capitalist-imperialism come the fore, and capitalist-imperialism increasingly sets itself against the interests of the vast majority of humanity. This creates the ability to create a wide coalition of class forces whose struggles are centrally focused on the liberation of the proletariat from capital, i.e. the destruction of capitalist-imperialism and the development of socialist productive relations.
This, of course, does not imply the creation of ‘revolutionary’ politics which amounts to chauvinistic universalisms or post-modernism. Rather, the development of revolutionary class conscious necessitates the existence of ‘occupational revolutionaries’ who not only draw appropriate lessons from history and understand significance of the proletariat, but who are also capable of imparting these into the struggles of exploited workers and the oppressed masses as part of the development of revolutionary offensives.
Historical materialism offers an accurate general lens by which to analyze of the development of society. At the same time, in offers an interesting conceptual paradox regarding revolutions, during which which a portion of the super-structure alters the structure and base from which it is founded. Nonetheless, as revolutionaries like Marx, Lenin, and Mao have understood, it is the inherent contradictions of capitalism which inevitably create the conditions for its own demise. By advancing the interests of the masses via the liberation of the exploited proletariat, Communist forces can play a conscious role in building the movement for socialism amid an increasingly decadent capitalist-imperialism.