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IT provides not so much a guide, but a tool. And it depends what you mean by “history.”
If you mean simply “the facts” — dates, happenings, actors, the when, what and who — then the strength of a Marxist approach is that it helps you look beyond the prominent individuals or events celebrated in “popular” historical accounts (and much teaching in educational institutions) to answer the question “why” — and in particular to understand the dynamic of historical change.
Engels put this as well as anyone in his speech at Marx’s graveside in 1883: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that humankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc; that therefore the production of the immediate material means, and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as has hitherto been the case.”
That approach — examining the relationship between what Marx called the forces of production, human (manual, intellectual, skills and knowledge) and technical (land, tools, machinery and infrastructure) on the one hand and the relations of production (social, economic and institutional structures relating to property, power and control) on the other is the key to history.
In particular it helps to understand the way in which human societies change — from early tribal communities (which Marx called “primitive communism”) through the slave societies of classical Greece and Rome through feudalism to capitalism.
This materialist view of history is in direct contrast to the (“bourgeois,” liberal or popular) one which sees historical change as based on the actions of individuals — rulers, generals or politicians (usually men) motivated by personal self-interest or by free-floating ideals of religion, nationhood or social “progress.”
Central to historical materialism is the notion of class, defined as sections of a population who get their living in the same way and who have interests in common.
In contrast to the genetically determined caste distinctions within animal species (bees, ants) human society with its class distinctions has changed through history — and continues to do so.
All species are, by definition, unique but hominids are unlike all others in their combination of technology, learning, cultural transmission of knowledge and social development.
Labour (work), the production of useful goods and services, is central not just to historical change but (as Engels argued in The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man) to our own emergence as a species.
The transition from early hunter-gatherer tribes to settled Neolithic agricultural and pastoral communities (in Europe, some 5,000 years ago) allowed the production of a surplus beyond what was required for immediate subsistence.
This led in due course to the emergence of private property (beyond subsistence tools and clothing).
The patriarchal family replaced the earlier (and probably matrilineal) tribal clan. Engels termed this the “the world-historic defeat of the female sex.”
And in due course, further technological and social developments led to socioeconomic distinctions — most importantly, between producers and those who appropriated the “surplus” products of their labour — distinct classes (the earliest were probably slaves and slave-owners) protected by forms of governance that comprised the relatively stable “state.”
The details are a matter of research; Engels’s Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State was based on the work of the lawyer-anthropologist Lewis Morgan, a champion of First Nation Americans who lived with the Seneca Iroquois tribe and whose work is contested.
The precise processes almost certainly varied from place to place and transitions were not unilinear.
When the (Iron Age) Romans “left” Britain their slave-state enclaves were at least partly replaced by the tribal clan structures with which they had coexisted and the lack of written evidence for what used to be called the Dark Ages (in which however there was considerable technical advance) means that the details of Anglo-Saxon society (before feudalism was consolidated under the Normans) are unclear.
And alongside the characteristic European feudal structures were others including what Marx termed the Asiatic mode of production.
What is clear — and what is generally accepted by most serious historians — is that what Marx called the “forces of production” and the “relations of production” are interrelated within distinct but dynamic historical stages of development (“modes of production”).
Marx declared: “In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society.”
Each of those stages contains internal contradictions which act as drivers of change, in particular struggles between different interests (feudal lords and serfs; landowners and capitalists; capitalists and workers), which lead to strains which are eventually resolved by a shift to another mode of production and associated socio-political structures.
Alongside (and connected to) the internal contradictions, change could be accelerated (and sometimes inhibited) by “external” events and contingent factors — technology, resource shortages and war.
Again the processes differ from place to place and in time and each is different in detail.
Within Europe for example, the mid-14th-century bubonic plague (the black death) killed some 30 to 60 per cent of the population, creating a huge shortage of labour and hastening the transition from tied feudal serfdom to waged agricultural — and urban — work.
The English civil war of the mid-17th century was not, ultimately, to do with religion, principles or ideas.
It was a struggle between a (still semi-feudal) landed aristocracy and a rising capitalist (or “bourgeois”) class.
It involved groups (Levellers, the Diggers) associated with neither class and despite the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 (which replaced the Catholic James by his daughter Mary and the Protestant William of Orange, more amenable to a new bourgeois “parliamentary democracy”) it was incomplete — which is why we still have a House of Lords and a monarch as head of both state and church.
By contrast the French Revolution a century later succeeded in establishing “liberty, equality and fraternity” as the slogans of a new bourgeois order.
Naturally, these principles didn’t extend to the working class, although the Paris Commune almost a century later still did succeed in securing some reforms which contributed to the fact that French politics and society today is in some respects very different from those of Britain (both remain hospitable to capitalism, of course).
The differences are reflected not just in political life but also in the landscape.
Today the “kings and queens” view of history popularised in TV programmes like Monarchy is rubbished by most serious historians who, if pressed, acknowledge their debt to historical materialism — and to the towering figures of Marxist history all of whom engaged in not just interpreting the world, but trying to change it.
This article was edited collectively by participants in the Introduction to Marxism series at the Marx Memorial Library and Workers’ School. Tomorrow’s meeting will focus on Marxist economics. Details of this and other courses can be found on www.marx-memorial-library.org.uk/education.
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