Subject: [SocialistWorker.org] How history is made
View original article here:
Column: Paul D'Amato
======== HOW HISTORY IS MADE =================================================
Far from being "mechanical," Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' view of society
stresses how people make history, though not in conditions of their choosing.
August 28, 2009 | Issue 704
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
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
>strength...so 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
= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
Columnist: Paul D'Amato
Paul D'Amato is managing editor of the /International Socialist Review /
and author of /The Meaning of Marxism /, a lively and accessible
introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx and the tradition he founded. Paul can
be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Published by the International Socialist Organization. Material on this Web
site is licensed by SocialistWorker.org, under a Creative Commons (by-nc-nd
3.0) license, except for articles that are republished with permission.
Readers are welcome to share and use material belonging to this site for
non-commercial purposes, as long as they are attributed to the author and
Sign up for e-mail alerts from SocialistWorker.org.
Published by the International Socialist Organization