Richard M. Stallman and his band of hackers have unwittingly ushered in the class consciousness of the new proletarian class as described by Marx. Marx's historical materialism describes the transition from one segment of society to another. For example, the transition from the political system of aristocracy to the current liberal capitalist democracy. Capitalist democracy would not have been possible if our primary means of sustenance was agriculture due to the fact that it was outright dangerous to venture outside of quick travel distance of one's city Keep. Pre-Industrial western society revolved around the city keep. Outside the protective walls of the keep lay pirates, bandits, and other landlords. As these pirates raided cities, the people of the city could simply run in to the keep, and although their crops may be stolen and devastated, they would remain relatively unscathed. Then came gunpowder and the metallurgical techniques required to create ever larger church bells.
A side effect of these metallurgical techniques was that, when combined with the newly discovered gunpowder, people, generally landowners, were capable of creating cannons. Cannons were the beginning of the end for the aristocratic system which had, properly understood, existed since well before the fall of the Roman empire. Cannons meant that running to the keep was no longer an efficient means to protect ones self from the periodic barbarian raids. In order to protect themselves, landowners had to submit control to the Kings, the largest landowners. The kings ensured that the law was applied throughout the kingdom, rather than dukes and princes protecting their own lands.
A side effect of protection of the entire kingdom was that one could now be safe traveling outside the borders of the duke's land. One powerful effect of traveling was increased commerce. No longer did one have to scrape out a meager living from the land immediately outside the keep walls, one could become a merchant. Since peasant life was nasty, brutish, and short, it made quite a bit of sense to become a merchant. As a result the new middle class began to gain in number, and therefore power. The middle class became tired of the dictatorial control by the landowners and their backers, the Catholic priests. In the interest of saving their immortal soul, they remained subjugated by the theological interpretation available, that of the Catholic church, which was so intertwined with the aristocratic system it may as well be called an advertising agency of the kings.
Then came the Gutenberg printing press. It is no mistake of history that the first document produced by the press was the Bible. Since before movable type printing, bibles had to be laboriously copied by monks , there were usually only enough produced to satisfy the demand of the priests of particular parishes. Now that the Bible could be mass produced and disseminated throughout Christendom, it allowed Martin Luther to propose the idea of the priesthood of all believers, that is to say, everyone could read the Bible and come up with their own interpretation of it. This would have been impossible before movable type since simply as a problem of logistics not everyone could read the Bible.
The merchant class took to this quickly. If they could interpret the Bible as they wish, nothing stopped them from interpreting the Bible to exclude the divine right of kings. Since it was no longer a recognized fact that kings were God's appointed men, it was no longer a sin to overthrow them. This is the theological basis for the French and later British revolutions, which put the middle class merchants in the position of power, the position they have occupied since.
This interpretation of history is very clear from Marx's writing. Marx's historical theory seems a sound basis to interpret history. Where Marx made the mistake was to take his historical perspective and apply it to the world he was living in to make predictions about the future. Marx saw the two antagonistic classes in his society as the Proletariat, the working class, and the Bourgeoisie. This is a parallel to the aristocratic two classes of the aristocrats and the peasants. This much we can give to Marx. However, where Marx's mistake lies is that he fails to properly examine his own historical perspective. The capitalist revolution was not a revolution by the peasants to overthrow the aristocrats. The bourgeoisie were formerly peasants, that is to say, they evolved from the peasants. Marx's infers from his historical theory that it will be the proletarian factory workers that, when exposed to the spatially tight working conditions of factories, would become class-conscious, they would start to look at themselves not simply as workers as individuals, but rather as the working class. This class consciousness is supposed to result in wide scale revolt and eventual socialist revolution. Marx again makes improper inferences from history to future. When the merchant class was growing, a new system of economics was already being put in place. These merchants did not simply work for the aristocrats, but worked for themselves and paid the aristocrats in taxes. Essentially, a capitalist system was growing from beneath the aristocrat's feet. The socialist system of sharing, contributing what one can and profiting equally from the labors of others, had never begun to grow from underneath the capitalists feet.
Until now. Just as the metallurgical techniques which gave rise to cannons fundamentally shook up the system of politics and therefore economics by forcing landowners to yield control to the king, as the computer age matured, the system of economics has also matured to become primarily a function of so-called intellectual property. Recorded music, Books, and specifically computer software are all examples of intellectual property. During the 1970's, as computers were becoming no longer the domain of massive business and government organizations, computer software was added to the domain of intellectual property. This in and of itself is not an issue which we can examine in terms of Marxism, but what is important is this: The prevalence of home-brew and personal computers meant that anyone marginally well off could now own a computer. As a result, anyone who owned a computer owned not only the means to use a piece of intellectual property, but more importantly, that same device gave it's owner the ability to create intellectual property. No longer was capital, those possessions which create wealth, the exclusive domain of the capitalists. Still, the computers of the time were severely limited, If one wanted a piece of software, generally one had to find a vendor to sell it, just as if one wanted a piece of music, the only option was to buy it. Other technological advances developing at the time were those of recordable media. Cassette tapes and Video tapes, specifically. These were simply the harbingers of the future. The most important technological advance of the last 50 years is the Internet. The Internet allows for the rapid, worldwide distribution of information. Intellectual property is, by definition, information. The economy of information meant that one could now make copies of commodities without any investment in raw materials, manufacturing costs, etc. Then, in the 1980's came a paradigm shift. Richard M. Stallman (creator of the Free Software Foundation) began to create software replacements for all the common pieces of software in Unix systems. These rapidly spread through bulletin board systems (the precursor to the Internet). When the Internet, with it's multi-user capabilities and faster speeds became popular in 1995, it allowed not only software to be disseminated, but also other forms of intellectual property. Along with the development of the Internet was the rising class of professionals, particularly in the field of computers. These computer professionals could create intellectual property on their spare time with no capital investment. This meant that during their spare time they could contribute to projects included in the free software foundation's library. This roving band of hackers, swapping or outright giving away their intellectual property is, in a sense, the embodiment of Marx's quote “from each according to ability...”. The computer users who need software to run on their computers complete the quote “... To each according to need”.
The swapping of music files, software, movies, books, all things that the economy has come to depend on with no regard to profit motive suggests to this author at least that the class with which the socialist revolution shall arise from is not the peasants working in auto factories, but rather the computer professionals which have created massive amounts of product which they freely give away to anyone wishing to copy it. Stallman's GNU GPL, the contract that open source software is commonly released under states:
You may copy and distribute the Program (or a work based on it, under Section 2) in object code or executable form under the terms of Sections 1 and 2 above provided that you also do one of the following:
a) Accompany it with the complete corresponding machine-readable source code, which must be distributed under the terms of Sections 1 and 2 above on a medium customarily used for software interchange; or,
b) Accompany it with a written offer, valid for at least three years, to give any third party, for a charge no more than your cost of physically performing source distribution, a complete machine-readable copy of the corresponding source code, to be distributed under the terms of Sections 1 and 2 above on a medium customarily used for software interchange; or,
c) Accompany it with the information you received as to the offer to distribute corresponding source code. (This alternative is allowed only for noncommercial distribution and only if you received the program in object code or executable form with such an offer, in accord with Subsection b above.)
Source code is the intellectual property which allows the program in question to be modified by all according to ability. The economics of socialism are arising from underneath the aristocrat's feet. Marx's predictions have failed; however, his predictions were wrong. His historical observations are, on the other hand, coming to fruition as we speak.