How history is made

August 28, 2009

Far from being "mechanical," Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' view of society stresses how people make history, though not in conditions of their choosing.

IT IS often argued that the Marxist view of history allows no room for conscious human intervention--that to Marxists, everything which happens in the realm of political conflicts and class struggle is merely a passive reflection of what goes on at the economic "base," and history charts a predetermined course according to historical laws, irrespective of the actions of individuals or groups.

In short, Marxism is often accused of being mechanical, fatalist and "reductionist" (that is, reducing everything to economic changes).

Many of these critiques trace the roots of this "mechanical" Marxism back to Marx's close collaborator Frederick Engels, who, it is claimed, diverged from Marx's ideas and laid the groundwork for the mechanical materialism of Stalinism, which viewed history as merely a succession of modes of production, each automatically sprouting from the previous.

We should be wary of such judgments. The whole train of academic "Western Marxism" in the last several decades has been in the direction of renouncing the idea that the class struggle is the motor of history--toward the belief that material circumstances in no way determine the course of historical development, and that history is simply a welter of innumerable random and chaotic events.

We will only note here that one of the texts in which Engels allegedly diverged from Marx is Anti-Duhring, written while Marx was still alive--which Marx read and approved, and for which he wrote one chapter!

It is nothing new to accuse Marxism of "fatalism" and "reductionism"--the Russian populists accused the founder of Russian Marxism, Plekhanov, of this in the late 1800s on the basis of his assessment that capitalist development in Russia was inescapable.

In response to his critics, who attributed to him the idea that ideas passively reflect economic development, Plekhanov argued that ideas arise on "the basis of social being...However, once they have arisen on the basis of social being, the forms of human consciousness become part of history. Historical science cannot limit itself only to society's economic anatomy."

Eduard Bernstein, the German socialist who developed the first reformist "revision" of Marxism, criticized all materialists as "Calvinists without God" (because Calvin argued that everything was predetermined).

Bernstein believed that capitalist contradictions were getting weaker, and that socialism, rather than being an imperative born out of the material contradictions developing within capitalism, was merely an ethical goal. Thus, the first to attempt to transform Marxism into a theory of peaceful social reform criticized all of Marx's alleged philosophical problems much in the same way that Marxism is attacked today.

The confusion about "reductionism" is in part the result of an attempt to associate Marx's Marxism with the somewhat distorted ideas of certain Second International thinkers and the further twists at the hands of Stalinism. Marxism after Marx and Engels did develop an element of fatalism. For example, the German socialist Karl Kautsky, the most prominent theoretician in the Marxist movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, wrote:

We know that our objectives can be attained only through a revolution, but at the same time, we know that it is just as little in our power to make this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it...The proletariat is constantly growing in numbers and in moral and economic its victory and the defeat of capitalism are inevitable.

The steady growth of the German Social Democratic Party in the early 1900s, the trade union movement and electoral success, all in conditions of relative class peace, convinced Kautsky that history was inexorably leading to the victory of socialism, and that the party should work to avoid any precipitate action to threaten that progress.

However, in the same period, the Marxism of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky was anything but fatalistic, emphasizing the active role of the working class in its self-emancipation--and the necessity for revolutionary, conscious mass action as a precondition for socialism and the only way of preventing a descent into barbarism.

THERE WAS nothing mechanical about Marx or Engel's materialism. On the contrary, it was founded on the rejection of any static or one-sided understanding of history.

History is made by people, Marx and Engels argued, not for them. However, as Marx famously put it, people do not make history in conditions of their own choosing. They do so in conditions inherited from the past (also created by humans), and these conditions shape the possibilities and limitations of what humans are capable of achieving at any particular moment.

Human life, and therefore human history, begins with subsistence. As Marx and Engels wrote, "men must be in a position to live in order to be able to 'make history.' But life involves, before everything else, eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself."

This is the material foundation that shapes human behavior, its limits and its possibilities. The social production of necessities leads to new needs and wants, which in turn leads to new developments in ways of procuring the means of life, which in turn, engender new ways of cooperating and organizing life. As Marx and Engels put it:

It follows from this that a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a "productive force." Further, that the multitude of productive forces accessible to men determines the nature of society, hence, that the "history of humanity" must always be studied and treated in relation to the history of industry and exchange.

Engels summed up this view of history many years later: "The key to the understanding of the whole history of society lies in the history of the development of labor."

It follows from this that human beings cannot leap over the particular stage of historical development they find themselves born into. Changes in a social system, while they must be thought of, desired and brought about by the actions of individuals, and especially groups of individuals, can only come about if the conditions exist materially that make the realization of those thoughts and aspirations possible.

Human liberation from inequality and class division, Marx and Engels argued, could not flow merely from the idea of liberation, but required certain material conditions to make such an outcome a real possibility.

Yet this did not mean that ideas simply reflected reality. Though shaped by inherited conditions of life, ideas can themselves become a material force under the right conditions, and reshape society in a new way.

In a different context, Engels answered those critics who claimed he and Marx were "crude" materialists:

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this, neither Marx nor 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, senseless phrase.

The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure--political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after successful battle, etc, judicial forms and then even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas--also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles, and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.

Further Reading

From the archives