In retrospect it’s obvious that something like socialism couldn’t have happened until the nation-state system had disintegrated (which it’s starting to do now), because the nationality principle conflicts with the class principle. Marx thought the latter was more powerful and important than the former, and in many ways he was right. But not in the way he wanted: business tended to be more loyal to class than to the nation, and it used the idea of nationality to divide the working class. Only when capitalism and the nation-state began to decline together according to their internal dynamics and not due to some voluntaristic, opportunistic Leninist coup from the outside would the wage-earning classes have the chance to supersede capitalism and its instrument the nation-state.
To say it more simply, Marx’s main mistake was not to foresee the twentieth-century apotheosis of the nation-state period of history. He didn’t foresee the welfare state. He overestimated the power—at least in the short run—of capitalism’s class-polarizing tendencies; he didn’t understand that other tendencies would for at least a hundred years be able to mitigate class inequality, tendencies such as that toward the assimilation of the working class into the dominant order, toward “pure and simple trade-unionism” (mere reformism), toward the state’s stabilizing management of the economy, as well as the pressures for workers to identify not only with the abstract notion of a social class that spans continents but also with the more concrete facts of ethnicity, race, occupation, immediate community, and nation. All these pressures interfered with the revolutionary dynamics Marx analyzed.
With respect to the very long run, though, he was always right that capitalism is not sustainable. There are many reasons for this, including the contradiction between a system that requires infinite growth and a natural environment that is finite, but the reason most relevant to Marxism is that ultimately capital can never stop accumulating power at the expense of every other force in society. It is insatiable; its lust for ever more profit and power condemns it to a life of Faustian discontent. It can never rest. Any accommodations, therefore, between the wage-earning class and capital—such accommodations as the postwar welfare state and the legitimization of collective bargaining—are bound to be temporary. Sooner or later capital’s aggressiveness will overpower contrary trends and consume everything, like a societal black hole (to change the metaphor). Everything is sucked into the vortex, including social welfare, the nation-state, even nature itself. The logic is that nothing will remain but The Corporation (in the plural), and government protections of the people will be dismantled because such protections are not in the interest of capital. This absurd, totalitarian logic can never reach its culmination, but it will, it must, proceed far enough, eventually, that an apocalyptic struggle between the masses and capital ensues. A relatively mild version of this happened once before, in the 1930s and ’40s, and a compromise—the mature welfare state—was the result. But then, as I said, capital repudiated the compromise (or is doing so as I write these words), and the old trends Marx diagnosed returned with a vengeance, and so humanity could look forward, this time, to a final reckoning. A final settling of accounts will occur in the coming century or so.