What is history?
Why should we accept that the entire universe, from the smallest particles to the most distant galaxies are determined, and the processes that determine the evolution of all species, are governed by laws, and yet, for some strange reason, our own history is not. The Marxist method analyses the hidden mainsprings that underpin the development of human society from the earliest tribal societies up to the modern day. The way in which Marxism traces this winding road is called the materialist conception of history.
Those who deny the existence of any laws governing human social development invariably approach history from a subjective and moralistic standpoint. But above and beyond the isolated facts, it is necessary to discern broad tendencies, the transitions from one social system to another, and to work out the fundamental motor forces that determine these transitions.
Before Marx and Engels history was seen by most people as a series of unconnected events or, to use a philosophical term, "accidents". There was no general explanation of this, history had no inner lawfulness. By establishing the fact that, at bottom, all human development depends on the development of productive forces Marx and Engels for the first time placed the study of history on a scientific basis.
This scientific method enables us to understand history, not as a series of unconnected and unforeseen incidents, but rather as part of a clearly understood and interrelated process. It is a series of actions and reactions which cover politics, economics and the whole spectrum of social development. To lay bare the complex dialectical relationship between all these phenomena is the task of historical materialism. Humankind constantly changes nature through labour, and in so doing, changes itself.
A caricature of Marxism
Science under capitalism tends to become less and less scientific, the closer it gets to analysing society. The so-called social sciences (sociology, economics, politics), and also bourgeois philosophy, in general do not apply genuinely scientific methods at all, and therefore end up as ill-concealed attempts to justify capitalism, or at least to discredit Marxism (which boils down to the same thing).
Despite the “scientific” pretensions of bourgeois historians, the writing of history inevitably reflects a class point of view. It is a fact that the history of wars – including the class war – is written by the winners. In other words, the selection and interpretation of these events are shaped by the actual outcome of those conflicts as they affect the historian, and in turn his perception of what the reader will want to read. Moreover, in the last analysis, these perceptions will always be influenced by the interests of a class or grouping in society.
When Marxists look at society they do not pretend to be neutral, but openly espouse the cause of the exploited and oppressed classes. However, that does not at all preclude scientific objectivity. A surgeon involved in a delicate operation is also committed to saving the life of his patient. He is far from neutral about the outcome. But for that very reason, he will distinguish with extreme care between the different layers of the organism. In the same way, Marxists will strive to obtain the most scientifically exact analysis of social processes, in order to be able to successfully influence the outcome.
Very often attempts are made to discredit Marxism by resorting to a caricature of its method of historical analysis. There is nothing easier than erecting a straw man in order to knock it down again. The usual distortion is that Marx and Engels “reduced everything to economics.” This mechanical caricature has nothing to do with Marxism. If that were really the case, we would be absolved from the painful necessity of fighting to change society. Capitalism would collapse and the new society would fall into place of its own accord, as a ripe apple falls into the lap of a man sleeping under a tree. But historical materialism has nothing in common with fatalism.
This patent absurdity was answered in the following extract of Engels’ letter to Bloch:
“According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimate determining element in history is the production and reproduction of life. More than this neither Marx and I have ever asserted. Hence, if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract and senseless phrase.” ( Engels to Bloch, 21 September 1890, Selected Correspondence, p. 475)
In The Holy Family, written before the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels poured scorn on the idea of “History” conceived apart from individual men and women, explaining that this was merely an empty abstraction:
“History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; ‘history’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.” (Marx and Engels, The Holy Family, Chapter VI)
All that Marxism does is to explain the role of the individual as part of a given society, subject to certain objective laws and, ultimately, as the representative of the interests of a particular class. Ideas have no independent existence, nor their own historical development. "Life is not determined by consciousness," Marx writes in The German Ideology, "but consciousness by life."
The ideas and actions of people are conditioned by social relations, the development of which does not depend on the subjective will of men and women, but which take place according to definite laws. These social relations, in the last analysis, reflect the needs of development of the productive forces. The interrelations between these factors constitute a complex web that is often difficult to see. The study of these relations is the basis of the Marxist theory of history.
But if men and women are not the puppets of “blind historical forces”, neither are they entirely free agents, able to shape their destiny irrespective of the existing conditions imposed by the level of economic development, science and technique, which, in the last analysis, determine whether a socio-economic system is viable or not. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx explains:
"Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living […]."
Later Engels expressed the same idea in a different way:
“Men make their own history, whatever its outcome may be, in that each person follows his own consciously desired end, and it is precisely the resultant of these many wills operating in different directions and of their manifold effects upon the outer world that constitutes history.” ( Ludwig Feuerbach).
What Marxism does assert, and it is a proposition that surely nobody can deny, is that in the last analysis, the viability of a given socio-economic system will be determined by its ability to develop the means of production, that is to say, the material foundations upon which society, culture and civilization are built.
The notion that the development of the productive forces is the basis upon which all social development depends is really such a self-evident truth that it is really surprising that some people still question it. It does not require much intelligence to understand that before men and women can develop art, science, religion or philosophy, they must first have food to eat, clothes to wear and houses to live in. All these things must be produced by someone, somehow. And it is equally obvious that the viability of any given socio-economic system will ultimately be determined by its ability to do this.
In The Critique of Political Economy Marx explains the relation between the productive forces and the “superstructure” as follows:
“In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production... The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence (which) determines their consciousness.”
As Marx and Engels were at pains to point out, the participants in history may not always be aware of what motives are driving them, seeking instead to rationalise them in one way or another, but those motives exist and have a basis in the real world.
From this we can see that the flow and direction of history has been— and is—shaped by the struggles of successive social classes to mould society in their own interests and the resulting conflicts between the classes which flow from that. As the first words of the Communist Manifesto remind us: “ The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggle.” Historical materialism explains that the motor force of social development is the class struggle.
Marx and Darwin
Our species is the product of a very long period of evolution. Of course, evolution is not a kind of grand design, the aim of which was to create beings like ourselves. It is not a question of accepting some kind of preordained plan, either related to Divine intervention or some kind of teleology, but it is clear that the laws of evolution inherent in nature do in fact determine the development from simple forms of life to more complex forms.
The earliest forms of life already contain within them the embryo of all future developments. It is possible to explain the development of eyes, legs and other organs without recourse to any preordained plan. At a certain stage we get the development of a central nervous system and a brain. Finally, with Homo sapiens, we arrive at human consciousness. Matter becomes conscious of itself. There has been no more important revolution since the development of organic matter (life) from inorganic matter.
Charles Darwin explained that the species are not immutable, and that they possess a past, a present and a future, changing and evolving. In the same way Marx and Engels explain that a given social system is not something eternally fixed. Evolution shows how different life forms have dominated the planet for very long periods but have been made extinct as soon as the material conditions that determined their evolutionary success changed. These previously dominant species have been replaced by other species that were seemingly insignificant and even species that seemed to have no prospect of survival.
Nowadays the idea of “evolution” has been generally accepted, at least by educated persons. The ideas of Darwin, so revolutionary in his day, are accepted almost as a truism. However, evolution is generally understood as a slow and gradual process without interruptions or violent upheavals. In politics, this kind of argument is frequently used as a justification for reformism. Unfortunately, it is based on a misunderstanding. The real mechanism of evolution even today remains a book sealed by seven seals.
This is hardly surprising since Darwin himself did not understand it. It was only as recently as the 1970s, with the new discoveries in palaeontology made by Stephen J. Gould, who discovered the theory of punctuated equilibria, that it was demonstrated that evolution is not a gradual process. There are long periods in which no big changes are observed, but at a given moment, the line of evolution is broken by an explosion, a veritable biological revolution characterised by the mass extinction of some species and the rapid ascent of others.
We see analogous processes in the rise and fall of different socio-economic systems. The analogy between society and nature is, of course, only approximate. But even the most superficial examination of history shows that the gradualist interpretation is baseless. Society, like nature, knows long periods of slow and gradual change, but also here the line is interrupted by explosive developments—wars and revolutions, in which the process of change is enormously accelerated. In fact, it is these events that act as the main motor force of historical development. And the root cause of revolution is the fact that a particular socio-economic system has reached its limits and is unable to develop the productive forces as before.
History has more than once furnished us with examples of apparently powerful states that collapsed in a very short space of time. And it also shows how political, religious and philosophical views that were almost unanimously condemned became transformed into the accepted views of the new revolutionary power that arose to take the place of the old. The fact that the ideas of Marxism are the views of a small minority in this society is therefore no cause for concern. Every great idea in history has always started as a heresy and that applies as much to Marxism today as it did to Christianity 2,000 years ago.
The “evolutionary adaptations” that originally enabled slavery to replace barbarism, and feudalism to replace slavery in the end turned into their opposite. And now the very features that enabled capitalism to displace feudalism and emerge as the dominant socio-economic system have become the causes of its decay. Capitalism is displaying all the symptoms we associate with a socio-economic system in a state of terminal decline. In many ways it resembles the period of the decline of the Roman Empire as described in the writings of Edward Gibbon. In the period that is now unfolding before us, the capitalist system is heading for extinction.
Socialism, utopian and scientific
By applying the method of dialectical materialism to history, it is immediately obvious that human history has its own laws, and that, consequently, it is possible to understand it as a process. The rise and fall of different socio-economic formations can be explained scientifically in terms of their ability or inability to develop the means of production, and thereby to push forward the horizons of human culture, and increase the domination of humankind over nature.
But what are the laws that govern historical change? Just as the evolution of life has inherent laws that can be explained, and were explained, first by Darwin and in more recent times by the rapid advances in the study of genetics, so the evolution of human society has its own inherent laws that were explained by Marx and Engels. In The German Ideology, which was written before the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote:
“The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. (…) Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.”
In Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, written much later, Engels provides us with a more developed expression of these ideas. Here we have a brilliant and concise exposition of the basic principles of historical materialism:
"The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in men's better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.”
As opposed to the utopian socialist ideas of Robert Owen, Saint-Simon and Fourier, Marxism is based upon a scientific vision of socialism. Marxism explains that the key to the development of every society is the development of the productive forces: labour power, industry, agriculture, technique and science. Each new social system – slavery, feudalism and capitalism – has served to take human society forward through its development of the productive forces.
The basic premise of historical materialism is that the ultimate source of human development is the development of the productive forces. This is a most important conclusion because this alone can permit us to arrive at a scientific conception of history. Marxism maintains that the development of human society over millions of years represents progress, in the sense that it increases humankind’s power over nature and thus creates the material conditions for achieving genuine freedom for men and women. However, this has never taken place in a straight line, as the Victorians (who had a vulgar and undialectical view of evolution) wrongly imagined. History has a descending line as well as an ascending one.
Once one denies a materialist point of view, the only motor force of historical events that one is left with is the role of individuals – "great men" (or women). In other words, we are left with an idealist and subjectivist view of the historical process. This was the standpoint of the utopian socialists, who, despite their brilliant insights and penetrating criticism of the existing social order, failed to understand the fundamental laws of historical development. For them, socialism was just a "good idea", something that could therefore have been thought of a thousand years ago, or tomorrow morning. Had it been invented a thousand years ago, humankind would have been spared a lot of trouble!
It is impossible to understand history by basing oneself on the subjective interpretations of its protagonists. Let us cite one example. The early Christians, who expected the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ at every hour, did not believe in private property. In their communities they practiced a kind of communism (although their communism was of the utopian kind, based on consumption, not production). Their early experiments in communism led nowhere, and could lead nowhere, because the development of the productive forces at that time did not permit the development of real communism.
At the time of the English Revolution, Oliver Cromwell fervently believed that he was fighting for the right of each individual to pray to God according to his conscience. But the further march of history proved that the Cromwellian Revolution was the decisive stage in the irresistible ascent of the English bourgeoisie to power. The concrete stage of development of the productive forces in 17th Century England permitted no other outcome.
The leaders of the Great French Revolution of 1789-93 fought under the banner of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity". They believed they were fighting for a regime based on the eternal laws of Justice and Reason. However, regardless of their intentions and ideas, the Jacobins were preparing the way for the rule of the bourgeoisie in France. Again, from a scientific standpoint, no other result was possible at that point of social development.