In the first five of these columns I have set out some of Marx’s key political ideas on the working class, capitalism, revolution and internationalism. Although these ideas are important in themselves, they also form part of a wider system of thought, Marx’s theory of history which is usually called ‘historical materialism’.
Historical materialism is the backbone of Marxism as a whole. It provides an overview of the whole of human history from the Old Stone Age to the modern era and it is the method used by Marxists to analyse not only past events like the French Revolution and the Second World War, but also current developments such as the rise of China and the Lebanon War. And its not just a theory but also a guide to action.
Some people will say why bother with a theory of history at all, why not just stick to the facts. But this is an illusion. In history, indeed on any day in history, there are an infinite number of ‘facts’, of things that happen. ANY account of history, whether it admits or not, depends on a general theory in order to decide which facts are important for human development and which are not and what are the likely relations between these facts.
Mainstream history, the kind that dominates in the media and in school, is mainly based on the ‘theory’ that what shapes history is, first and foremost, the actions of powerful individuals – emperors, kings, politicians, generals and the like – particularly the battles they fought, the policies they pursued and the laws they passed. This theory, fairly obviously, expresses the standpoint of the ruling classes who naturally assume that it is they who make history.
An alternative theory, popular with intellectuals, is that history is shaped primarily by ideas – either the ideas of great philosophers like Plato, Aristotle , Confucius etc. or disembodied ideas like ‘order’, ‘nationalism’, ‘democracy’, ‘economic growth’ which mysteriously capture society at various times and express the ‘spirit of the age’. The great weakness of this approach is that it fails to explain where these ideas come from or why they arise when they do.
Then there is an approach which appeals especially to academics. It denies that history is driven by any single factor. Rather it says that history is shaped by various different ‘factors’ – a bit of economics, a bit of politics, an element of class, an element of religion and so on. In recent years ‘race’ and ‘gender’ are often added to the list. This method, sometimes called ‘pluralism’, sometimes ‘postmodernism’, suits those who do not want to make up their minds or take sides, but want to present their ideas as unbiased, sophisticated and profound. Its defect is that it explains neither how the different ‘factors’ arise nor how they interact – it simultaneously explains everything and nothing.
What unites all these approaches is that they tend to view society and history from the top down. Marx’s theory of history is quite different: it is history from below, from the standpoint of the working class, and openly acknowledges itself to be so. It does not deny that the deeds and ideas of powerful individuals play a role in history but it does not begin with them. It begins with the everyday actions, the work, of the many millions of ordinary working people struggling to make a life for themselves.
Historical materialism is not only more radical than the various mainstream, i.e. bourgeois, theories, it is also more coherent and more scientific. This is because it starts where history has to start, with real human individuals and their needs and what they do to meet those needs. ‘ The first premise of all history’, writes Marx, ‘ is that men must be in a position to live in order to “make history”. But life involves before anything else eating, drinking, clothing, a habitation and many other things.’ Of course animals also have material needs but the difference is that humans produce their means of subsistence through social labour.
Historical materialism, therefore, focuses first on production: on the technical means through which it is achieved, which Marx calls the forces of production, and the social relations between which it involves, which Marx calls the relations of production. Together the forces and relations of production form definite modes of production or economic systems, such as ancient slave society, feudalism and capitalism.
The mode of production, Marx argues, constitutes the ‘real foundation’ or economic base of society ‘on which arises a legal and political superstructure’ and which ‘conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness’.
Marx’s insight here turns upside down the way these things are usually put. To give some examples: we do not live in a capitalist society because people believe in capitalist ideas, people believe in capitalism because we live in a capitalist society (which began to develop spontaneously out of the soil of feudalism long before it was conceptualized by anyone); the Atlantic slave trade and western imperialism were not caused by racism, rather racism was caused by the slave trade and imperialism, which were part of the expansion of capitalism. Or, to be absolutely contemporary, Islamophobia is not the cause but the consequence of US imperialism’s desire to control Middle Eastern and Central Asian energy supplies.
It is important to point out that Marx was able to have these insights – so invaluable for understanding both past history and current politics – because he had already grasped the revolutionary potential of the working class. How he developed them into a full blown theory of social change and revolution will be discussed in the next column.