Historical Materialism

The last century has witnessed immense developments in the technology of production. Modern machines can do much of the arduous work which once had to be done by humans; computers can make calculations and pass on information in a fraction of the time it took one hundred years ago; industry can be liberated from the dirty, dangerous, time-wasting methods which accompanied its emergence. The “impossible” has been achieved; the productive ingenuity of modern society has defied the imaginations of even the most advanced scientists at the time of Marx’s death.

But there is a contradiction: although technologically we are in the Space Age — the age of science and rationality – socially, our society is still entrenched within the rut of the capitalist system. The way we organise wealth production and distribution is in conflict with our ability to produce enough for everyone. This contradiction is not a modern phenomenon; it is the driving force of all history. For Marx, contradiction is the generator of change – it is out of the antagonism between the way things are and the way things could be that new situations arise.

Non-Marxist historians see social phenomena in terms of design or accident. They regard the study of history as an empirical investigation, and see their role as simply to tell the story of the past without any need to explain the interconnections and classes and forces which occur and reoccur throughout the historical narrative. Such historians often tell us what happened in the past, but they are without an answer when it comes to why social events happened. The “design” historians try to explain the “why”, but they do so in an idealist, metaphysical manner; they seek non-material causes for material changes. The theocratic historians, who dominated the study of the past for hundreds of years, were quite clear about why phenomena occur: it was because God wills them to. This divine determination was not only supposed to relate to natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, smallpox epidemics and cancer, but also to social events, such as wars, famines and poverty. If such a myth were true, we should have to seriously consider whether the “all-loving father” should be reported to the NSPCC. Other idealists, such as the German philosopher of history, Hegel, argued that historical change was a process of the gradual enactment of a Universal Idea. Marx spent volumes demonstrating the absurdity of this metaphysical nonsense; in The German Ideology, for example, Marx mocked the Hegelian idealists who conceived their role as freeing people from their false perception of the world, as if the problems of material existence were the result of an error on the part of human consciousness. Imitating the Hegelians, Marx wrote:

    “Let us liberate them from the chimeras, the ideas, dogmas, imaginary beings under the yoke of which they are pining away. Let us revolt against the rule of thoughts. Let us teach men, says one, to exchange these imaginations for thoughts which correspond to the essence of man; says the second, to take up a critical attitude to them; says the third, to knock them out of their heads; and existing reality will collapse.”

Marx turned Hegel on his head. This does not mean that Marx was an expert at martial arts, but that the Marxist approach to history employs a methodology which is reverse to that of Hegel: the latter asserted the primacy of ideas, in the manner of Descartes (“I think, therefore I am”); Marx asserted the primacy of matter: “I am, therefore I think”. This is how Marx put it:

    “Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men in their actual life-process. If in all ideology men and their circumstances appear upside down as in a camera obscura. this phenomenon arises just as much from their historical life-process as the inversion of objects on the retina does from their physical life-process.

    In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real-life process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and material intercourse, alter, along with their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”

The material environment determines our ideas; we are the creatures of historical circumstance. So, according to Marxism, social change is neither accidental nor designed, but determined by material conditions. When we refer to Marxism as historical materialism we are stating that Marxism takes into account four crucial factors: 1. That matter and energy are independent of control by the human mind or supernatural forces; 2. That all ideas, actions and social phenomena are derivative from matter; 3. That a specific cause, or combination of causes, will always have the same effect; 4. That no accident can exist without causation in material terms, even if knowledge is insufficient to provide a material explanation. These principles are not exclusive to Marxist social science: they are the essential principles of post-Cartesian science.

In explaining why social change occurs historical materialists are concerned with cause and effect. What is the causation of social motion, if it is not pure accident or the will of God or the unfolding of the Universal Idea? In the passage from The German Ideology quoted above, Marx suggests that it is the process of “men, developing their material production and material intercourse” who make history. Why do humans exist socially? Because it is only by existing in relation to one another that we can survive. What must we do to survive? Produce and distribute what we need to survive. So. it follows, that the most important aspect of social organisation — the first characteristic which we must look at when examining a society — is the way in which production and distribution of wealth is organised. Idealists may turn their noses up at such a way of looking at history; they would prefer to examine ideas, which are ultimately only the reflection of economic conditions, rather than the economic structure (what Marx called “the mode of production”) itself. Idealist historians far prefer to waste their (and our) time debating the matrimonial affairs of Henry VIII than explaining the growth of mercantile capitalism in mid-sixteenth century Europe.

When Marxists look at history our first question is, What was the social system? A system is simply a network of relationships to the means of wealth production and distribution. For many thousands of years — indeed, most of human history — the system was a primitive form of communism: the means of living were owned in common. With the advent of private property (a process which is well described in Engels’ classic work The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State) came a new social phenomenon: Class. Ever since then these wretched divisions between human being and human being have been with us. The history of property society is the history of class struggle.

The class struggle is not a game invented by Marxists in order to bother the capitalist class. The class war is an inevitable consequence of the division of society between those who own and control and those who do not. The political conflicts of recent history (or post-property society) can be explained in terms of an unceasing war between minorities who possess the means of life and minorities who want to. The English Civil War was such a struggle; so was the French Revolution; often, the subject class has been recruited to support one minority class against another. Non-Marxist historians like to explain such phenomena in terms of individual characters (“Great Men”) or supernatural designs. As recently as the 1970s there were a number of reputable Israeli historians who claimed that the victory of the Israeli army over the Arabs was due to the will of god; and in Iran today the Islamic priests are sending off their armies in the war against Iraq with the blessing of Allah — a blessing which is also given by the Iraqi Moslem priests to their cannon fodder. Admittedly, there are fewer people now than there were a century ago who still believe that history is manipulated by an ever-caring string-puller in the sky. But even the most professedly “radical” of social thinkers still apply the “Great Man” theory to history; for example, there are Trotskyist historians of the Russian Revolution and its outcome who argue that if only Trotsky, and not Stalin, had succeeded Lenin. Russia might have been a “socialist country” today. Then there are the Leftist observers of recent economic history who, instead of examining the inherent economic tendencies of world capitalism, make silly condemnations of “Thatcher’s Britain” and “Heseltine’s attack on the working class”. The Marxist analysis of history shows that it is not individuals who govern the system, but the system which governs individuals.

But if the system governs individuals — if ideas reflect the material environment — if we think as we do because we are as we are, then is it not the case that, far from being a revolutionary theory, Marxism is a profoundly conservative doctrine? Like any revolutionary outlook, Marxism can be perverted into a theory which justifies doing nothing because there is nothing you can do. It is now necessary to show that Marx’s conception of history was not only about explaining the past, but provided a revolutionary theory for creating the future. Unlike all other conceptions of history Marxism does not stop at the present.

Let us return to the present, which was the point at which we started: in terms of the productive forces there is a current potentiality to satisfy human needs; in terms of the social relations there is mass deprivation of human needs under the capitalist system because use values must come second to exchange values — profits are more important than needs. This, we may say, is the fundamental contradiction of our present stage of history: we could produce for use, but we persist in producing for profit. How did Marx explain this contradiction?

    “In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which respond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal, and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production. . . From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.” (Marx, Preface to The Critique of Political Economy, 1859)

In the above passage can be seen the crucial weaving together of Marx’s theory of history and his theory of revolution. The purpose of present-day Marxists is to apply it to the great social contradiction of the present. “At a certain stage” the forces of production conflict with the relations of production. We are right in the middle of such a stage now. What, then, is the key to the social revolution?

If Marxism was a theory of economic determinism, as most of its critics have suggested, there would be no need to do anything about the social revolution except wait for it. To be sure, there are plenty of so-called Marxists whose ideas of social revolution involve no more than anticipating the imminent collapse of capitalism or looking forward to some far-off day when socialism will “come”, like an unexpected gift. However, Marxism without activity is not real Marxism, but a useless dogma — and we know from Marx himself (whose favourite motto was De omnibus dubitandum; Doubt everything) that the role of revolutionaries is not to endlessly survey the world as it is, but to actively change it.

All previous revolutions have changed the world in the interest of a class. The capitalist revolutions in Europe, for example, displaced the old monarchies and aristocracies, with their hereditary privileges and assumptions of divine right, and replaced them with rule of capitalists who obtained their right to live in idleness from the new Holy Trinity of rent, interest and profit. The next revolution will be no different from the others. The class which will expropriate the expropriators will not be another minority ruling class. The working class is a majority class and its role is not to climb from the position of the oppressed to that of the oppressor, but to enact the abolition of classes and oppression. Like all previous revolutionary classes, the working class must conquer the powers of government and the armed forces. But, again unlike previous revolutionary classes, the workers, being a majority, can assert revolutionary power by democratic means.

If workers are to make a social revolution we must make it consciously; history is made by those who are aware of the material conditions which they are in and the real possibilities for immediate revolutionary change. Class ignorance produces dreamers and poets at best, and do-nothings at worst, but never meaningful social change. The need for class consciousness does not mean that ideas make history, but that, because we can only develop within the material conditions that surround us, it is better to have a realistic consciousness of what can be done than an idealistic dream of what is impossible.

Socialism — a world without money or wages or states — is often attacked as being an idealistic dream of the impossible. Even a majority of those on the so-called revolutionary Left regard Marx’s conception of socialism as a Utopian fantasy which is not to be realised for at least five hundred years (this was Lenin’s view). An understanding of historical materialism shows that, although socialism may be as alien to the people of capitalism as capitalism was to the people of feudalism, there is nothing impossible about human society taking a step forward, out of the contradiction of capitalism and into the new system based on production for use. Indeed, the really unhistorical dreamers are the ones, of both the Right and Left, who want to retain the present system, but hope to eradicate its inevitable characteristics. It is the gang of confused reformists, who want to preserve the cause while wishing its effects away, who stand as political obstacles to the onward march of history. We Marxists have a history lesson to teach them; what is will not always be, and today’s proposals are tomorrow’s reality.

Steve Coleman

Leave a Reply