Historical Materialism is the application of Marxist science to historical development. The fundamental proposition of historical materialism can be summed up in a sentence: “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Marx, in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.)
Marxism, or Scientific Socialism, is the name given to the body of ideas first worked out by Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895). In their totality, these ideas provide a fully worked-out theoretical basis for the struggle of the working class to attain a higher form of human society – socialism.
The study of Marxism falls under three main headings, corresponding broadly to philosophy, social history and economics – Dialectical Materialism, Historical Materialism and Marxist Economics. These are the famous “Three component parts of Marxism” of which Lenin wrote.
The Education for Socialists series was launched to promote the study of Marxism. They are intended to assist the student of Marxism by providing an introduction to the subject matter, with suitable Marxist texts that we hope will whet their appetite for further reading and study. In the second of these Education for Socialists study guides, we provide a selection of material on Historical Materialism. The remaining “component part”, as well as other fundamental questions, will be dealt with in future issues. The guides are suitable for individual study or as the basis of a Marxist discussion group.
In this study of Historical Materialism the editors are publishing an introductory article by Mick Brooks. While this is a good beginning to the subject, there is no substitute for proceeding from there to tackle the historical works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Plekhanov and others. Marx and Engels wrote extensively about Historical Materialism from the German Ideology onwards. The Communist Manifesto is a masterpiece in this regard.
The newer reader should not be put off by the sometimes difficult and abstract ideas expressed in these writings. Whatever the initial difficulty, a certain perseverance will pay just rewards. Marxism is a science with its own terminology, and therefore makes heavy demands upon the beginner. However, every serious worker and student knows that nothing is worthwhile if attained without a degree of struggle and sacrifice.
The theories of Marxism provide the thinking worker with a comprehensive understanding. It is the duty of every worker and student to conquer for himself or herself the theories of Marx and Engels, as an essential prerequisite for the conquest of society by working people.
We recognise that there are real obstacles in the path of the worker’s struggle for theory. A man or woman who is obliged to toil long hours in work, who has not had the benefit of a decent education and consequently lacks the habit of reading, finds great difficulty in absorbing some of the more complex ideas, especially at the outset. Yet it was for workers that Marx and Engels wrote, and not for “clever” academics. “Every beginning is difficult” no matter what science we are talking about. To the class conscious worker who is prepared to persevere, one promise can be made: once the initial effort is made to come to grips with unfamiliar and new ideas, the theories of Marxism will be found to be basically straight-forward and simple.
Once the basic concepts of Marxism are conquered, they open up a whole new outlook on politics, the class struggle, and every aspect of life.
As a further introduction to Historical Materialism, we are also republishing the preface to Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, an extract from Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German Philosophy, his introduction to the Dialectics of Nature, and an extract from Marx’s Preface to A Contribution of Political Economy.
For further study, we recommend The German Ideology by Marx and Engels, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Marx and The History of the Russian Revolution by Trotsky.
Those who wish to go into greater depth should try reading Karl Kautsky’s Foundations of Christianity, Plekhanov’s The Materialist Conception of History and his Role of the Individual in History. In addition, Plekhanov’s The Fundamental Problems of Marxism is highly recommended, as is other material in the suggested reading at the end of this study guide.
The editors, November 2002
What is Historical Materialism?
Historical Materialism is the application of Marxist science to historical development. The fundamental proposition of historical materialism can be summed up in a sentence: “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Marx, in the Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.)
What does this mean? Readers of the Daily Mirror will be familiar with the “Perishers” cartoon strip. In one incident the old dog, Wellington wanders down to a pool full of crabs. The crabs speculate about the mysterious divinity, the “eyeballs in the sky,” which appears to them.
The point is, that is actually how you would look at things if your universe were a pond. Your consciousness is determined by your being. Thought is limited by the range of experience of the species.
We know very little about how primitive people thought, but we know what they couldn’t have been thinking about. They wouldn’t have wandered about wondering what the football results were, for instance. League football presupposes big towns able to get crowds large enough to pay professional footballers and the rest of the club staff. Industrial towns in their turn can only emerge when the productivity of labour has developed to the point where a part of society can be fed by the rest, and devote themselves to producing other requirements than food.
In other words, an extensive division of labour must exist. The other side of this is that people must be accustomed to working for money and buying the things they want from others – including tickets to the football – which, of course, was not the case in primitive society.
So this simple example shows how even things like professional football are dependent on the way society makes its daily bread, on people’s “social existence”.
After all, what is mankind? The great idealist philosopher Hegel said that “man, is a thinking being.” Actually Hegel’s view was a slightly more sophisticated form of the usual religious view that man is endowed by his Creator with a brain to admire His handiwork. It is true that thinking is one way we are different from dung beetles, sticklebacks and lizards. But why did humans develop the capacity to think?
Over a hundred years ago, Engels pointed out that upright posture marked the transition from ape to man, a completely materialist explanation. This view has been confirmed by the more recent researches of anthropologists such as Leakey. Upright posture liberated the hands for gripping with an opposable thumb. This enabled tools to be used and developed.
Upright posture also allowed early humans to rely more on the eyes, rather than the other senses, for sensing the world around. The use of the hands developed the powers of the brain through the medium of the eyes.
Engels was a dialectical materialist. In no way did he minimise the importance of thought – rather he explained how it arose. We can also see that Benjamin Franklin, the eighteenth-century US politician and inventor, was much nearer a materialist approach than Hegel when he defined man as a “tool-making animal.”
Darwin showed a hundred years ago that there is a struggle for existence, and species survive through natural selection. At first sight early humans didn’t have a lot going for them, compared with the speed of the cheetah, the strength of the lion, or the sheer intimidating bulk of the elephant. Yet humans came to dominate the planet and, more recently, to drive many of these more fearsome animals to the point of extinction.
What differentiates humanity from the lower animals is that, however self-reliant animals such as lions may seem, they ultimately just take external nature around them for granted, whereas, mankind progressively masters nature.
The process whereby mankind masters nature is labour. At Marx’s grave, Engels stated that his friend’s great discovery was that “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, and therefore work before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion etc.”
While we can’t read the minds of our primitive human ancestors, we can make a pretty good guess about what they were thinking most of the time – food. The struggle against want has dominated history ever since.
Marxists are often accused of being ‘economic determinists’. Actually, Marxists are far from denying the importance of ideas or the active role of individuals in history. But precisely because we are active, we understand the limits of individual activity, and the fact that the appropriate social conditions must exist before our ideas and our activity can be effective.
Our academic opponents are generally passive cynics who exalt individual activity amid the port and walnuts from over-stuffed armchairs. We understand, with Marx that people “make their own history…but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past”. We need to understand how society is developing in order to intervene in the process. That is what we mean when we say Marxism is the science of perspectives.
We have seen that labour distinguishes mankind from the other animals – that mankind progressively changes nature through labour, and in doing so changes itself. It follows that there is a real measure of progress through all the miseries and pitfalls of human history – the increasing ability of men and women to master nature and subjugate it to their own requirements: in other words, the increasing productivity of labour.
To each stage in the development of the productive forces corresponds a certain set of production relations. Production relation means the way people organise themselves to gain their daily bread. Production relations are thus the skeleton of every form of society. They provide the conditions of social existence that determine human consciousness.
Marx explained how the development of the productive forces brings into existence different production relations, and different forms of class society.
By a ‘class’ we mean a group of people in society with the same relationship to the means of production. The class which owns and controls the means of production rules society. This, at the same time, enables it to force the oppressed or labouring class to toil in the rulers’ interests. The labouring class is forced to produce a surplus which the ruling class lives off.
“The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the entire formation of the economic community which grows up out of the production relations themselves; thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers-a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity-which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short the corresponding specific form of the state.” (Capital, Vol. III.)
In the earliest stages of society people did not go into factories, work to produce things they would not normally consume, and be ‘rewarded’ at the end of the week with pieces of coloured paper or decorated discs which other people would be quite prepared to accept in exchange for the food, clothing, etc., which they needed. Such behaviour would have struck our remote ancestors as quite fantastic.
Nor did many of the other features of modern society we so much take for granted exist. What socialist has not heard the argument “People are bound to be greedy and grabbing. You can’t get socialism because you can’t change human nature?” In fact, society divided into classes has existed for no more than about 10,000 years-one hundredth of the time mankind has been on this planet. For the other 99% of the time there was no class society, that is, no enforced inequalities, no state, and no family in the modern sense.
This was not because primitive people were unaccountably more noble than us, but because production relations produced a different sort of society, and so a different ‘human nature’. Being determines consciousness, and if people’s social being changes – if the society they live under changes – then their consciousness will also change.
The basis of primitive society was gathering and hunting. The only division of labour was that between men and women for the entirely natural biological reason that women were burdened much of the time with young children. They gathered vegetable foods while the men hunted.
Thus each sex played an important part in production. On the basis of studying tribes such as the !Kung in the Kalahari desert, who still live under primitive communist conditions, it has been estimated that the female contribution to the food supply may well have been more important than the male’s. Women were held in high esteem in such societies. They contributed at least equally to the wealth of the tribe. They developed separate skills – it seems women invented pottery and even made the crucial breakthrough to agriculture
All these tribal societies had features in common. The hunting grounds were regarded as the common property of the tribe. How could they be anything else when hunting itself is a collective activity? The very insecurity of existence leads to sharing. It’s no good hiding a dead hippo from your mates–you won’t be able to eat it before it rots anyway, and there may well come a time when other tribe members have a superfluity while you’re in distress. It’s common sense to share and share alike.
Private property did exist in personal implements, but in the most different tribal societies there existed similar rules to burn or bury these with the body of the owner, in order to prevent the accumulation of inequality.
No such institution as the state was necessary, for there were no fundamental antagonistic class interests tearing society apart. Individual disputes could be sorted out within the tribe. Old men with experience certainly played leading parts in the decision-making of the tribe. They were chiefs, however, and not kings–their authority was deserved or it did not exist. As late as the third century AD (when it was ceasing to be true) Athanaric, leader of the German tribe, the Visigoths, said: “I have authority, not power”.
Society developed because it had to. Beginning in tropical Africa, as population grew to cover more inhospitable parts of the globe, people had to use their power of thought and labour to develop – or die. From gathering fruit, nuts, etc., it was a step forward to cultivating the land – actually ensuring that vegetable food was to hand. From hunting it was a step to husbandry, penning in the animals. Tribal society remained the norm.
The First Revolution
The first great revolution in mankind’s history was the agricultural, or neolithic revolution. Grains were selected and sown, and the ground ploughed up with draught animals. For the first time a substantial surplus over and above the subsistence needs of the toilers came into existence.
Under primitive communism there had been simply no basis for an idle class. There was no point in enslaving someone else, since they could only provide for their own needs. Now the possibility arose for idleness for some, but mankind could still not provide enough for everyone to lead such a life. On this basis, class societies arose – societies divided between possessing and labouring classes.
The main issue in the class struggle down the ages has been the struggle over the surplus produced by the toilers. The way this surplus was appropriated – grabbed – depended on the different mode of production inaugurated by agriculture. This change provided the base for the complete transformation of social life.
Agriculture, unlike hunting, could be more an individual activity. By working harder you could get more and, when everyone lived on the margin of survival, that was important. Moreover, the agricultural revolution – involving the use of draught animals in ploughing, etc., mainly handled by men – relegated women to the home, working up materials provided by the man. It was the lack of a direct role in production that led to the ‘world-historic defeat of the female sex’.
Men wanted to pass on their unequal property to a male heir. In primitive communist society descent had been traced through the female line (inheritance had been unimportant). Now inheritance began to be traced through the male line.
We do not know exactly how class society came into being, but we can piece together the story from bits of evidence available to us. We call this process a revolution, and so it was in the profoundest sense of the word.
But we must remember that transitional forms between the different types of society were in existence for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years before the new type definitively replaced the old. Human progress did not proceed evenly but according to the law of combined and uneven development.
We have spoken of agriculture as being the breakthrough to a society where a surplus could be produced. In fact the raising of the productivity of labour made possible by agriculture allowed a more extensive division of labour – people could turn their hands to producing other things. So the agricultural revolution brought in its train associated revolutions in technique (such as in pottery and metal-working) and in the whole social structure.
Trade developed from ritual gifts between tribes. What was the measure of the value of a gift? As soon as people could form some conception of how long it took to produce the gifts they got, they would attempt to outdo the donors in generosity by giving the product of more labour in return.
As trade became more regular, the need naturally arose for a universal equivalent – something which could readily be exchanged in trade and which would be accepted generally as a measure of value. At first this need was met by cattle. (The Latin pecunia meaning ‘money’ is derived from pecus meaning cattle) Later this need was fulfilled more conveniently by ingots of metal, in which there was a burgeoning trade, and which were stamped by the monarchs as a guarantee of weight.
The Asiatic Mode of Production
Civilisation developed differently in different places. So far as we know, it arose first in the Nile delta of Egypt and in Mesopotamia (in what is now Iraq), though recent discoveries suggest it may also have developed independently in India and in South-East Asia at around the same time.
In both Egypt and Mesopotamia the ruling class seems to have sprung from the elevation of a stratum of priests, above the rest of society. This is because the priests had the leisure to develop a calendar, allowing them to foretell the coming of the Nile floods, and arithmetic to develop the centrally planned irrigation works which first produced a massive surplus. The interest of Egyptian priests in maths and astronomy was thus not accidental, but rooted in the requirements of production.
Because of the requirements of planned irrigation, as Marx explains: “The communal conditions for real appropriation through labour, such as irrigation systems (very important among the Asian peoples), means of communication, etc., will then appear as the work of the superior entity – the despotic government which is poised above the small communities.”
The Asiatic state, which was not accountable in any way to the village communities, will feel entitled to appropriate the surplus as a tribute. This tribute is exacted through state ownership of the land: “…the integrating entity which stands above all these small communities may appear as the superior or sole proprietor, and the real communities therefore only as hereditary possessors.’”
The villages were largely self-sufficient, rendering tribute to the Asiatic despotism in order for the “general conditions of production’” (irrigation, etc.) to be maintained. Handicrafts and agriculture were combined within each village. The dispersed villages were unable to organise effectively against their exploitation, so the whole system was very resistant to change.
This is what Marx and Engels meant when they said that such societies were “outside history’”. India, for instance, was invaded by one set of conquerors after another, but none of these political changes reached beneath the surface.
It was only after thousands of years, when British capitalism conquered India and strove to introduce private property in land in order to destroy the unity of native agriculture and handicrafts, and develop the preconditions for capitalism, that the Asiatic mode of production was finally destroyed. The result was the decline of the irrigation systems and a series of horrible famines throughout the nineteenth century.
The Asiatic mode of production saw the first development of class society, though retaining certain features of primitive communism, such as collective tilling of the soil. It raised production to a higher level than it had ever been before, and then stagnated.
Thus, in vast areas of the globe, there arose a form of society completely different from anything seen in Western Europe. Slavery was known, but it was not the dominant mode of production. In contrast with western feudalism, the surplus was extorted by the central state rather than by landlords.
Once civilisation was established and maintained, it was bound to radiate its effects all around it, whether through war or trade. Egypt was always dependent on outside areas for trade, thus stimulating the advance of civilisation in Crete and thereby giving an enormous impetus to the trading communities on the Greek coast to develop. Here civilisation found relations of production – private land-ownership providing an unlimited spur to private enrichment – which could take humanity forward again.
Ancient Greece: Slavery and Democracy
All city states in Greece and Rome were organised around the same principles. The whole city-state (‘polis’ in Greek) was unified against every other city-state, but divided within itself. It was divided on class lines – and between citizens and slaves.
At first the poor citizens (‘plebeians’ as they were called in Rome) were blocked from all political rights. Their struggle was political – to gain a say in the decision making of the state. In Athens, a predominantly trading centre with a higher concentration of merchants and artisans, the small people were eventually able to win full democratic rights. Poor men were paid for public service, and over 5,000 citizens regularly met in the assembly to discuss policy.
But Athenian democracy – democracy for the citizens – had as its foundation the exploitation of a class of non-citizens: slaves who were without political rights. Athenian democracy was in fact a mechanism for enforcing the interests of the ruling class over the exploited slave class – and for defending the interests of the ruling class in war.
The polis was an institution geared up for permanent war. The power of the city state was based on independent peasants capable of arming themselves (‘hoplites’). The victory of democracy was inevitable in Athens after the poor citizens won the naval battle of Salamis against the Persians for the city. Though too poor to arm themselves, they provided the rowers for the Athenian navy. A precarious unity of interests was established between rich and poor citizens through expansion outwards and the conquest of slaves.
By comparison with later Roman slave society the Greek slave mode of production was relatively “democratic” – as far as the citizens were concerned. Even poor citizens could own a slave to help around the farm or workshop, or lease them out to work on slave gangs.
Slavery itself was only possible because labour was now capable of yielding a surplus. That surplus was appropriated by a ruling class who owned the means of production – in this case the slaves themselves. The state was the state of the ruling class. The whole structure of society was based upon slave labour – all the miracles of art, culture and philosophy were only possible because an exploited class laboured so slave-holders could have leisure.
Slave society had its own dynamic. Its success depended upon the continual appropriation of more slaves, more unpaid labour.
“Wherever slavery is the main form of production it turns labour into servile activity, consequently makes it dishonourable for freemen. Thus the way out of such a mode of production is barred, while on the other hand slavery is an impediment to more developed production, which urgently requires its removal. This contradiction spells the doom of all production based on slavery and of all communities based on it. A solution comes about in most cases through the forcible subjection of the deteriorating communities by other, stronger ones (Greece by Macedonia and later Rome). As long as these themselves have slavery as their foundation there is merely a shifting of the centre and a repetition of the process on a higher plane until (Rome) finally a people conquers that replaces slavery by another form of production.” (Engels, in his preparatory writings for Anti-Duhring)
To illustrate this explanation, let us turn to Rome, where slavery exhausted its potential, and Western European society finally blundered out of the blind alley it found itself in.
Roman society, after the expulsion of its early kings, presents at first the same aspect as the Greek city states, when they were dominated by landlords (in Rome called “patricians” and organised in the Senate). Initially they monopolised all political rights.
The difference with Greece was that the Roman patricians hung on to power, despite the concessions wrung from them, and monopolised the benefits of this influx. They linked slave labour to the exploitation of the great farms (latifundia). In so doing they inevitably undercut the plebians who, organised in legions, provided the basis for Roman military greatness.
The dispossessed legionaires could come back after twenty years of military service to find their farms choked with weeds. Inevitably they were ruined and drifted into the town to form a rootless, propertyless proletariat. But as the nineteenth century anti-capitalist social critic Sismondi said, “whereas the Roman proletariat lived at the expense of society, modern society lives at the expense of the proletariat”.
In Rome the Gracchus brothers led a last desperate struggle to save the independent plebeians. Both were cut down by the bought mob of the patricians.
Decline of the Roman Empire
In this situation the limits of slave production showed themselves. The slave has no incentive to develop production. He only works under threat of the whip. Free men for their part despised labour, which they associated with being an “instrumentum vocale”, an “item of property with a voice”, as the Roman jurists called slaves.
The tragedy of Roman society was that the class struggle was three-cornered. The poor freemen had their quarrel with the great slave-holders, but the only pathetic bit of dignity they had to hang on to was that they were free, and thus they always made common cause with their oppressors in the army of the polis in conquering lands for slaves and holding down slave rebellions.
The slaves for their part lived in a world where slavery was universal, and so dreamed for the most part of “’enslaving the slave-holders”, not creating a world without slaves.
Slavery was beginning to die out, not because of humanitarian ideas supposedly introduced by Christianity, but because it simply did not pay. The only way slave production could take society forward was through the conquest of enormous numbers of slaves who could be worked to death in a few years and replaced.
These conquests had been made possible by the Roman legions of armed plebeians. But the plebeians had been destroyed by the very success of big slave-worked farms.
By this time the Romans could only find barbarian mercenaries to man their armies. Thus Rome was defended from the barbarians by barbarians! Clearly the empire was living on borrowed time.
Slavery was still important, particularly in domestic service to the rich, but it gradually ceased to be the dominant mode of production. As production and trade shrank, it became clear to the landlords that it was pointless feeding men to work on the fields all the year round when, because of the natural rhythms of agricultural work, they were idle half the time. Much better to get them to fend for themselves in periods of slack!
Former slaves were rented plots of land from which they had to pay a regular part of their produce to the landlord as well as wrench a subsistence for their family. In time, because of the natural tendency for peasants to get into debt in times of bad harvest, they were bound to the soil in a serf-like condition. This is called the period of the “colonate”.
Eventually the Western Empire was overthrown, not because the barbarians had become more aggressive and threatening, but because of the inner rottenness of the empire. We have seen that the productive forces were already in decline; and in the colonate some of the tendencies, that were to come to fruition under feudalism, were in the process of coming into existence.
Feudal society thus emerged in the form of a pyramid of military obligations to those above in exchange for command of the land to those below.
The whole structure relied on the unpaid labour of the peasants working on the lords’ land. Unlike slaves, they were not the property of the lord. Feudalism developed untidily. Some in the village were in possession of very little land and either existed still as slaves or as household servants working on the lord’s land. Freer peasants had land to till and had to pay a rent in kind. Others had an intermediate status, working small plots to gain their own subsistence and forced to pay labour services the rest of the time, on the lord’s land.
Exploitation under feudalism is clear and unveiled. The peasants pay services in money, labour or produce to the lords. Everyone can see what is going on. If the lord is in a position to force the peasant to work four days instead of three on his land, then it is clear to both parties that the rate of exploitation has been increased.
Under slavery, on the contrary, even the part of the working week which the slave has to work to gain his own subsistence seems to be unpaid. He therefore seems to work for nothing. Under capitalism, the wage worker is paid a sum of money which is presented as being the value of his labour. All labour seems to be paid.
In all three systems the producer is exploited: but the particular form of exploitation ultimately determined the whole structure of society.
Under feudalism the ‘bodies of armed men’ which comprised the state were mainly drawn from the ruling class, who had a monopoly of armed might. So political and economic power were in the same hands. Justice in the village was largely in the hands of the lords’ manorial courts. The feudal lord and his men-at-arms were police, judge, and executioners all rolled into one.
Looking back, we tend to regard feudalism as a static system. But, compared with slavery, feudalism provided a limited incentive for the producer to expand production for his own advantage. Sometimes the lord took the lead in developing agriculture, sometimes the peasants. This depended on the class struggle. Whether the incentive to produce more came from the lord’s desire for more revenue for luxuries, or from the ambition of the peasants to set themselves up in business as independent farmers, production crept up.
But feudalism, like slavery before it imposed limits on the development of productivity. From generation to generation agricultural productivity was largely stagnant. The easiest way for the feudal lords to gain more wealth was to exploit more people. There was therefore a perpetual impulse to warfare, the net effect of which was to waste and destroy the productive forces.
Like previous forms of class society, feudalism in its development produced the germs of a new society in the towns.
Medieval cities were centres of trade and handicrafts. As productivity developed, trade necessarily grew. Artisans, who had been attached to aristocratic households and monasteries in the dark ages, gathered together to trade with the rural areas in goods that could be produced quicker and therefore cheaper, or could only be produced by skilled specialists.
These towns represented a new principle. Unlike the universal relations of dominance and subservience of feudalism, they were free associations of trading people, producing what one representative of the feudal lords called that “new and detestable name”, the commune. Within the towns production and trade was organised in guilds, divided on craft lines. These attempted to regulate production, price and quality.
As the productivity of labour grew, so did trade, and production for the market, commodity production, and a money economy. Increasingly, grain crops were produced for sale to feed the towns. A stratum of peasants grew rich at their fellows’ expense, and aspired to become land-owning farmers producing for a market.
Serfdom had largely died out in England by the end of the fourteenth century, but bondage to the soil was replaced by short-term leases and an increasing stream of poor peasants being pushed out altogether and forced into vagabondage (roaming the land in search of a living). By the seventeenth century, it was reckoned that up to quarter of the population was without any means of livelihood other than begging. Progress, as ever, was achieved at the expense of the common people.
Class Struggle Under Feudalism
Whereas the class struggle between patricians and plebians was political, concerned with access to state power, the feudal class struggle was mainly waged on the economic plane.
A constant, unremitting struggle took place between landlords and peasants. Occasionally this spilt over into revolutionary strife. The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 was the most notable such occasion in England.
After the Black Death, the peasants were in a strong position because of the shortage of labour. The landlords attempted to recoup their losses by enforcing traditional obligations all the harder. This produced a social explosion.
The revolt failed at bottom because the peasantry were a scattered class divided against themselves. King Richard II urged them to “go back to their haymaking”, and he hit them on their weak point. It was impossible to maintain the peasantry in a permanent state of mobilisation. Production had developed to a point where only a minority of the population could be maintained as fighting men, while the majority had to work on the land.
From Feudalism to Capitalism
Marx called the process of the dissolution of feudalism and emergence of capitalism “primitive accumulation’”. This process is one of piling up of fortunes in money rather than land on the one hand, and the creation of a propertyless proletariat on the other. It is the separation of the producers from the means by which they can maintain themselves.
We have seen that the feudal peasantry was attached to the land. This guaranteed them a modest subsistence except in times of famine.
Nobody will work for money, with all the insecurity that entails, unless they have to. That is why the imperialists in Africa introduced money poll taxes and, in the case of South Africa drove the Africans on to barren reserves, to force them to provide a supply of wage labour. That is why a monopoly of land in the hands of private owners is a condition for the development of capitalism.
The main lever of dispossession of the peasantry in England was the passing of private Acts of Parliament through a parliament of landlords, called Acts of Enclosure. This was simply legalised robbery. It came at a time when the wool trade was expanding, and the landlords wanted more land in order to graze flocks of sheep. Land formerly occupied by perhaps five hundred people was decreed to be the squire’s land, and a couple of shepherds took the villagers’ place.
Brutal as this process was, it advanced production on the land by doing away with the old inefficient strip system and laying the basis for rational agriculture. Later, the advantages of the industrial revolution – modern machinery – could be applied to these big farms.
The other pole of the process of primitive accumulation was the accumulation of money. The first forms of capital, before industrial capital transformed production, were merchant capital and money-lending capital.
The ‘discovery’ of America by Spanish plunderers shifted the axis of world trade. Huge fortunes were made in the ‘New World’.
At the end of the middle ages absolutist monarchs like the Tudors in England sprang up in most of the West European countries. These monarchies balanced between the old landed ruling class and the up-and-coming capitalists. To start with they took society forward by forming strong, stable nation-states within which trade, and hence capitalism, could develop. They defended the interests of merchants abroad in wars of conquest for colonies.
Yet, at bottom, they were out for themselves, and could only flourish because of a deadlock in the class struggle between the capitalists and the landowners. As capitalism developed further, the rising capitalist class conceived ambitions for political power to match their growing economic power. Bourgeois revolutions aimed against the reigning absolute monarchs would become necessary for capitalism to consolidate its rule.
Merchants began to turn their attention to the peasants half-employed on tiny plots of land. They began to ‘put out’ weaving to these households. The peasantry became more and more dependent on their weaving income. The merchants were able to move from just supplying raw materials and supplying sales outlets, to possession of the peasants, looms and even their cottages. Through their control over outlets they held the whip hand. This was another important process whereby the feudal peasantry was reduced to proletarian status.
Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, handicraft workshops were set up. It was found that the job could be broken down into simple processes. Adam Smith begins his Wealth of Nations by explaining the division of labour in making pins, through which an enormous amount of pins could be cheaply produced compared with the old skilled processes.
More than that, the breaking down of the job into simple repetitive tasks provided the possibility of replacing manual labour with machines. Starting by taking production as it found it, capitalism was beginning to revolutionise the instruments of production.
Capitalism could not move straight into domination of the world economy without hindrance. The newly awakened productive forces were in revolt at the old relations of production. These had to be overcome and new production relations installed which corresponded to the stage of development of the productive forces.
This was the task of the bourgeois revolutions. The English Revolution of the 1640s, the American Revolution of 1776, and the French Revolution of 1789-94 were the decisive struggles that laid the foundations for the domination of capitalism on a world scale.
What precisely were the tasks of these bourgeois revolutions? Though feudalism was no longer dominant, the landed interest remained a fetter on commodity production.
Though in England the land-owning gentry switched to production for the market, in France up till 1789 the aristocracy guzzled a large part of the surplus in rents, and used their privileged position to impose all kinds of tolls on the free movement of goods.
This raised prices for everyone and enabled the bourgeoisie, in opposing the aristocracy, to claim to represent the interests of the nation as a whole. Up till the storming of the Bastille by the Parisian masses in 1789, for instance, food entering Paris was subject to a toll as a feudal privilege.
France was the classic country of the bourgeois revolution, where the old aristocracy was completely swept aside. The peasantry, increasingly producing for a market, had a tendency after the bourgeois revolution of 1789 to become divided into an aspiring capitalist class and a propertyless class of rural wage labourers.
Capitalism also had the task of setting up centralised national economies as an envelope within which the new mode of production could develop.
The capitalist class as a whole was now strong enough to bid for political power, which it needed to complete its revolution. The absolutist monarchies, from being a shield to defend the expansion of trade, had become an obstacle. They had to be done away with; and the masses of artisans and yeomen were mobilised to do the job for the capitalist class.
Capitalists measure their wealth not in land or slaves, but in money. The money fortunes found their way into production in the industrial revolution, a period as significant for mankind as the agricultural revolution thousands of years earlier.
Capitalism is a system of exploitation like feudalism or slavery. Its distinctive feature is that rather than just consuming the surplus, the capitalists are forced by the nature of their system to plough the bulk of it back into production.
Capitalism thus achieves a dynamic unheard of in earlier epochs. Instead of just exploiting more people, as feudal lords strove to do through never-ending wars, capitalism exploits people more – it develops the productivity of labour.
In so doing it provides the possibility of a society of abundance, and so for doing away altogether with the division between exploiter and exploited. It provides, in other words, the possibility of a higher stage of society than capitalism itself.
Capitalism bases itself on the monopoly of the means of production in the hands of the ruling capitalist class. The vast majority of people are cut off from the means of life unless they work on terms dictated by the capitalist class.
Formally, wage workers seem to be paid for the work they do. In reality they are exploited as much as the feudal serf or the slave.
Under capitalism, labour-power (the capacity of the worker to labour) is a commodity like any other, in that it is bought and sold on the market. It is sold by its owner, the worker, and bought by the owner of money, the capitalist.
But labour-power is different from other commodities in this respect: it has the unique property of being able to create value. This is its usefulness to the capitalist, this is why the capitalist buys labour-power (employs workers).
As labour-power is consumed in production (as workers are put to work) value is created far in excess of what the capitalist has paid (as wages) for the labour-power. This is the source of the capitalist’s profit.
If labour-power is to be available in the market place, so that the capitalist can buy it, labour-power must be produced. “Given the individual,” Marx wrote, “the production of labour-power consists in his reproduction of himself, or his maintenance”. Marx adds immediately that this maintenance contains “a historical and moral element” – i.e., what a working-class family require for their maintenance, and for the raising of children as a new generation of wage-workers, will depend on standards of living which have been established through struggle as acceptable to the working class in that society.
The essence of capitalist exploitation is this: The worker is paid wages not for his/her labour but for his/her labour-power – his/her keep. The difference is taken by the capitalist.
Thus the worker’s daily work is divided into “necessary labour” and “surplus labour”. The worker performs “necessary labour” during that part of the day spent in producing value which, when sold, will cover the cost of the wages. The worker performs “surplus labour” during the remainder of the working day, producing value which, when sold, will cover the rent, interest and profit which goes to the capitalist class.
Capitalists vie with each other to increase the rate of exploitation of the workers. The detailed way they do this is dealt with in our companion pamphlet on Marxist Economics, which deals specifically with the dynamics of capitalism.
The motor of capitalism is competition. Each capitalist has to undercut his competitors if he is to survive. The best way to sell cheaper is to produce cheaper. Since labour-time is the measure of value, that means producing with less labour-time.
Mechanising is the main means of continually raising the productivity of labour. Perhaps the best example of the process is the one supplied by Marx-the case of the hand-loom weavers. The invention of the spinning jenny, and the mass-production of cheaper yarn, led to the mechanisation of cloth-making. Weaving, up to then, had still been a handicraft process. As demand for weavers expanded in the early years of the industrial revolution, the hand-loom weavers were able to bid up their wages and become a regular ‘aristocracy of labour’. For capitalism they represented an obstacle to cheap production. Inevitably, as a result, the power loom was invented, for capitalist necessity is the mother and father of invention.
It would be quite clear to any casual observer that the power loom took much less labour-time to produce an equivalent amount of woven cloth.
In vain did the hand-loom weavers bid the price of their product down. In no way could they compete with the power loom. At their peak there had been a quarter of a million hand-loom weavers. Over a generation they were wiped out with thousands actually dying of starvation. A much smaller number were able to get jobs, at lower rates of pay, supervising the power looms.
That has ever been the way with capitalist progress. But in this way capitalism has developed the fantastic productive powers of modern industry.
Capitalism also develops a form of the state appropriate to its own rule. Different forms of state can exist under capitalism, each corresponding to a different stage in the development of the class struggle – from parliamentary democracy to fascism and bonapartist military-police dictatorships of the most variegated kinds.
All these forms of state have one thing in common – in the last analysis they defend private property in the means of production, and therefore the rule of capital.
Marx and Engels often emphasised that democracy is the ideal form of capitalist class rule, first because it enables the capitalists to sort out their differences; and secondly because it gives the working-class parties a semblance of a say of running society. Changes necessary for the continued existence of the system can thus more easily be made.
At the same time bourgeois democracy provides the most favourable ground for the workers to organise to overthrow their exploiters.
Capitalism has required, as a precondition of its existence, a new class of propertyless toilers. Throughout its development capitalism has created a bigger and bigger pool of wage-workers.
Even since the second world war, millions of small farmers have been driven from the land in countries such as France, Italy and Japan. This has been a progressive step in so far as it tears these people away from the isolation and backwardness of rural life, and in so far as it represents a raising of the productivity of labour, so that less people are needed to grow food and more can set their hands to producing other things.
But, at the same time, capitalism has no regard for the interests of people, and relentlessly searches out surplus value at any cost to the masses.
The Capitalist World Market
As we have seen, though it has created misery for the masses, capitalism has been a dynamic system. Its aim and impulse is more and more surplus value.
Thus industrial capitalism strives to conquer the world. Merchant capital had contented itself with exacting tribute from the existing modes of production in other countries; industrial capital, in the empires it created after the industrial revolution, flooded these countries with cheap manufactured goods.
These goods necessarily destroyed the existing system of handicrafts, which was united with agriculture in the villages.
Existing societies were forcibly broken up. Moreover agriculture was increasingly switched towards the requirements of the world market. Capitalism was striving to create a world after its own image.
This process was brought to its highest stage in the imperialist phase of capitalist development. After the Indian Mutiny, which began in 1857, the British rulers saw the need to build up a network of railways, to allow rapid troop movements, in order to keep the population pinned down. This marked the beginning of the imperialist phase of the exploitation of India. Export of capital rather than of goods became the predominant feature.
This development was the result of the growth of monopoly capitalism in the metropolitan countries, involving the fusion of finance with manufacturing capital-the epoch of imperialism, which was analysed by Lenin. National markets became too small for the giant monopolies as they swallowed up their weaker competitors, expanded production to new heights, and looked for new and profitable areas for investment.
In the case of India, this process really got going at the end of the nineteenth century when capital was exported from Britain to build up a modern Indian-based textile industry, mainly under British ownership.
“One capitalist kills many”, as Marx says. Capitalism destroys not only petty production, but also continually bankrupts the weakest of its own brethren and jettisons them into the ranks of the propertyless.
This is a two-sided process – progressive in its objective economic content, by piling up enormous productive resources for the potential benefit of mankind, but, under capitalism, concentrating colossal power in the hands of a tiny handful of rich magnates. At the end of the nineteenth century we saw the development of monopoly out of competition itself.
The banking system, Marx wrote, “places all the available and even potential capital of society that is not already actively employed at the disposal of the industrial and commercial capitalists, so that neither the lenders nor users of this capital are its real owners or producers. It thus does away with the private character of capital and thus contains in itself, but only in itself, the abolition of capital itself… Finally there is no doubt that the credit system will serve as a powerful lever during the transition from the capitalist mode of production to the mode of production of associated labour, but only as one element in connection with other great organic revolutions of the mode of production itself.”
Capitalism continually requires infusions of money capital in order for profit-making to continue uninterruptedly. Once a stock of commodities has been produced, a single capitalist would either have to wait till he had sold them before he once again had money in his pocket to restart production; or he would have to keep stocks of money-capital idle much of the time as a reserve for investment when needed; he would have to continually pay money into a fund to renew stocks of fixed capital which might be idle for ten or twenty years.
In reality, a stratum of capitalist hangers-on develop, not prepared to invest directly in production, but quite prepared to lend their money in order to cut themselves a slice of the pie of surplus-value. So there is a tendency for competition to generate unused reserves of money capital. These reserves are collected in a few rich hands – concentrations of finance capital.
Finance capital initially provided a stimulus to the capitalist system by gathering and siphoning money-capital into production. It did so, of course, only to cream off an increasing proportion of the surplus value for itself.
As Marx pointed out, finance capital also concentrates tremendous economic power in its own hands, and effectively integrates the individual manufacturing capitalist into the requirements of capitalist production as a whole through allocation and withdrawal of credits.
Imperialism is the epoch in which finance capital has fused with monopoly capital involved in production.
Under imperialism, while competition between capitalists within the boundaries of the nation-state has not been completely done away with, conflict has spilt over into the international arena.
The big monopolies and the banks exported capital rather than just commodities. A massive programme of railway building was undertaken in every continent and clime. Loans were floated for the most far-flung places. A systematic search was undertaken for every kind of raw material and mineral resource.
Conflicts now began between national capital blocs. The struggle was for nothing less than mastery of the world. Wars unparalleled in ferocity in the history of mankind broke out for colonies and a redivision of imperial spoils.
The first world war indicated that capitalism, like previous forms of class society, had ceased to be progressive. Instead of taking production forward, there was mass destruction and mass murder.
But at the same time, a new society was developing within the old. The Russian revolution served notice that the rule of the working class was at hand.
Revolutionary Role of the Working Class
The working class is unlike any other exploited class in history. We have seen how the three-sided class struggle within slave society necessarily led to the “common ruin of the contending classes”. We have seen how the feudal peasantry were for hundreds of years incapable of formulating a coherent revolutionary alternative to the system that exploited them.
This failure had not been accidental. The peasantry is an isolated class, scattered over the countryside and finding it very difficult to combine. But their problem is not just geographical, it is at bottom social. For as Marx put it, the peasantry is a class only in one sense:
“in so far as millions of families live under economic conditions of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as…the identity of their interests begets no community, no national bond and no political organisation among them, they do not form a class.”
For the peasantry are smallholders-a class divided against itself. They are like potatoes in a sack-destined for the chipping machine under capitalist progress.
The working class, on the other hand, is concentrated in great masses by the very nature of factory production. Unlike the peasantry, their only strength lies in collective action. Through collective exploitation, the working class are trained and educated by capitalism itself to act as the system’s grave-diggers.
Nor is the modern working class left to vegetate at a modest but constant standard of living. Insecurity is a condition of their existence.
Capitalism has produced many wonders inconceivable hitherto. It has also produced social disasters inconceivable under previous forms of society – crises taking the form of overproduction.
In pre-capitalist societies, the subsistence of the toilers was only interrupted by famine – physical shortage of necessities. Primitive people’s minds may well have been clogged with all sorts of superstition, but the spectacle of people starving, while sitting idly in front of the tools necessary to make the things they need, is a unique product of our society.
Capitalism is social production. It is social in two ways. Firstly, it ties the whole world up into one economic unit through the world market, a worldwide division of labour. Everybody is dependent on everyone else for the things they need.
Secondly it introduces large scale production only workable by collective labour.
Yet, at the same time, the system runs on private appropriation and private profit. It is anarchic – nobody knows how much of any commodity is needed at any time. The capitalist plans production within his own factory, but social production as a whole is unplanned.
“Capitalist production seeks continually to overcome these immanent barriers but overcomes them only by means which again place the barriers in its way and on a more formidable scale. The real barrier of capitalist production is capital itself”. (Capital, Vol. 3)
The laws of capitalism work, “despite anarchy, in and through anarchy”. Each capitalist is oblivious to the actual requirements of society for pig-iron or knicker-elastic at any time. They produce what they hope will make the maximum profit, whether pig-iron or knicker-elastic. They organise production within their factory; but anarchy reigns in production as a whole.
The possibility of crisis is inherent in such a system. All that socialists want to do is plan production in society at large in the same meticulous way the capitalists do within each separate factory.
The worker, unlike the exploited classes in pre-capitalist society, is a free person – free in that he is not subject to “relations of personal dependence” and can work for any boss he likes, and free from any attachment to the means of subsistence. But the workers’ expectations and feelings of security are continually shattered by plagues of mass unemployment.
Crisis poses over and over again before the working class the need to change society. Capitalism will never collapse of its own accord. It has to be overthrown.
It is a caricature of Marxism to suggest that the revolution will be made automatically by workers made destitute by the workings of the system. It will be overthrown by a conscious and determined class, not just by a desperate class.
What is true is that the perpetual insecurity of existence under capitalism will produce a questioning in the minds of workers. Just as we have to understand nature in order to master it, so workers will have to understand the nature of their enemy before they can overthrow it.
We have outlined the progress of mankind from primitive communism to capitalism. An objective look at the record shows also the world we have lost. Chief Sitting Bull, an outstanding defender of Native American tribal society, ended up miserably as a kind of freak in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. As he toured the Western capitals he was astounded at the wealth – but also at the poverty. He said, “The white man (by which he meant the capitalist system) knows how to produce wealth, not how to distribute it”.
Yet the possibility now exists for a society where enough can be produced for each to take according to their need. The possibilities posed before mankind by science and new technology were foreseen by Marx over 120 years ago. In one of his notebooks he wrote:
“No longer does the worker insert a modified natural thing as middle link between the object and himself; rather he inserts the process of nature, transformed into an industrial process, as a means between himself and unorganic nature mastering it. In this transformation it is…the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth. The theft of alien labour-time, on which the present is based, appears a miserable foundation in face of this new one, created by large-scale industry itself…
“The surplus labour of the mass has ceased to be the condition for the development of general wealth, just as the non-labour of the few, for the development of the human head… The free development of individuals and hence…the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific, etc., development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.” (Grundrisse)
The !Kung people in the Kalahari live lives of material want and intellectual backwardness by our standards, but they know better than to make labour for others the driving force of their society. In consequence they work a week of between 12 and 19 hours!
Now mankind has the resources and technical means to reach a society of abundance. The working class, organised and conscious, can overthrow capitalism and create such a society – a society where people can plan what they need and want, produce it, and then spend the rest of the time enjoying it. It’s as simple as that.
Preface to The History of the Russian Revolution
During the first two months of 1917 Russia was still a Romanov monarchy. Eight months later the Bolsheviks stood at the helm. They were little know to anybody when the year began, and their leaders were still under indictment for state treason when they came to power. You will not find another such sharp turn in history – especially if you remember that it involves a nation of 150 million people. It is clear that the events of 1917, whatever you think of them, deserve study.
The history of a revolution, like every other history, ought first of all to tell what happened and how. That, however, is little enough. From the very telling it ought to become clear why it happened thus and not otherwise. Events can neither be regarded as a series of adventures, nor strung on the thread of a preconceived moral. They must obey their own laws. The discovery of these laws is the author’s task.
The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business – kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.
In a society that is seized by revolution classes are in conflict. It is perfectly clear, however, that the changes introduced between the beginning and the end of a revolution in the economic bases of the society and its social substratum of classes, are not sufficient to explain the course of the revolution itself, which can overthrow in a short interval age-old institutions, create new ones, and again overthrow them. The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution.
The point is that society does not change its institutions as need arises, the way a mechanic changes his instruments. On the contrary, society actually takes the institutions which hang upon it as given once for all. For decades the oppositional criticism is nothing more than a safety valve for mass dissatisfaction, a condition of the stability of the social structure. Such in principle, for example, was the significance acquired by the social-democratic criticism. Entirely exceptional conditions, independent of the will of persons and parties, are necessary in order to tear off from discontent the fetters of conservatism, and bring the masses to insurrection.
The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of “demagogues.”
The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis – the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses – so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles. When it does, there begins a reaction: disappointments of the different layers of the revolutionary class, growth of indifferentism, and therewith a strengthening of the position of the counter-revolutionary forces. Such, at least, is the general outline of the old revolutions.
Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the rôle of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.
The difficulties which stand in the way of studying the changes of mass consciousness in a revolutionary epoch are quite obvious. The oppressed classes make history in the factories, in the barracks, in the villages, on the streets of the cities. Moreover, they are least of all accustomed to write things down. Periods of high tension in social passions leave little room for contemplation and reflection. All the muses – even the plebeian muse of journalism, in spite of her sturdy hips – have hard sledding in times of revolution. Still the historian’s situation is by no means hopeless. The records are incomplete, scattered, accidental. But in the light of the events themselves these fragments often permit a guess as to the direction and rhythm of the hidden process. For better or worse, a revolutionary party bases its tactics upon a calculation of the changes of mass consciousness. The historic course of Bolshevism demonstrates that such a calculation, at least in its rough features, can be made. If it can be made by a revolutionary leader in the whirlpool of the struggle, why not by the historian afterwards?
However, the processes taking place in the consciousness of the masses are not unrelated and independent. No matter how the idealists and the eclectics rage, consciousness is nevertheless determined by conditions. In the historic conditions which formed Russia, her economy, her classes, her State, in the action upon her of other states, we ought to be able to find the premises both of the February revolution and of the October revolution which replaced it. Since the greatest enigma is the fact that a backward country was the first to place the proletariat in power, it behoves us to seek the solution of that enigma in the peculiarities of that backward country – that is, in its differences from other countries.
The historic peculiarities of Russia and their relative weight will be characterised by us in the early chapters of this book which give a short outline of the development of Russian society and its inner forces. We venture to hope that the inevitable schematism of these chapters will not repel the reader. In the further development of the book he will meet these same forces in living action.
This work will not rely in any degree upon personal recollections. The circumstance that the author was a participant in the events does not free him from the obligation to base his exposition upon historically verified documents. The author speaks of himself, in so far as that is demanded by the course of events, in the third person. And that is not a mere literary form: the subjective tone, inevitable in autobiographies or memoirs, is not permissible in a work of history.
However, the fact that the author did participate in the struggle naturally makes easier his understanding, not only of the psychology of the forces in action, both individual and collective, but also of the inner connection of events. This advantage will give positive results only if one condition is observed: that he does not rely upon the testimony of his own memory either in trivial details or in important matters, either in questions of fact or questions of motive and mood. The author believes that in so far as in him lies he has fulfilled this condition.
There remains the question of the political position of the author, who stands as a historian upon the same viewpoint upon which he stood as a participant in the events. The reader, of course, is not obliged to share the political views of the author, which the latter on his side has no reason to conceal. But the reader does have the right to demand that a historical work should not be the defence of a political position, but an internally well-founded portrayal of the actual process of the revolution. A historical work only then completely fulfils the mission when events unfold upon its pages in their full natural necessity.
For this, is it necessary to have the so-called historian’s “impartiality”? Nobody has yet clearly explained what this impartiality consists of. The often quoted words of Clemenceau that it is necessary to take a revolution “en bloc,” as a whole – are at the best a clever evasion. How can you take as a whole a thing whose essence consists in a split? Clemenceau’s aphorism was dictated partly by shame for his too resolute ancestors, partly by embarrassment before their shades.
One of the reactionary and therefore fashionable historians in contemporary France, L. Madelin, slandering in his drawing-room fashion the great revolution – that is, the birth of his own nation – asserts that “the historian ought to stand upon the wall of a threatened city, and behold at the same time the besiegers and the besieged”: only in this way, it seems, can he achieve a “conciliatory justice.” However, the words of Madelin himself testify that if he climbs out on the wall dividing the two camps, it is only in the character of a reconnoiterer for the reaction. It is well that he is concerned only with war camps of the past: in a time of revolution standing on the wall involves great danger. Moreover, in times of alarm the priests of “conciliatory justice” are usually found sitting on the inside of four walls waiting to see which side will win.
The serious and critical reader will not want a treacherous impartiality, which offers him a cup of conciliation with a well-settled poison of reactionary hate at the bottom, but a scientific conscientiousness, which for its sympathies and antipathies – open and undisguised – seeks support in an honest study of the facts, a determination of their real connections, an exposure of the causal laws of their movement. That is the only possible historic objectivism, and moreover it is amply sufficient, for it is verified and attested not by the good intentions of the historian, for which only he himself can vouch, but the natural laws revealed by him of the historic process itself.
The sources of this book are innumerable periodical publications, newspapers and journals, memoirs, reports, and other material, partly in manuscript, but the greater part published by the Institute of the History of the Revolution in Moscow and Leningrad. We have considered its superfluous to make reference in the text to particular publications, since that would only bother the reader. Among the books which have the character of collective historical works we have particularly used the two-volume Essays on the History of the October Revolution (Moscow-Leningrad, 1927). Written by different authors, the various parts of this book are unequal in value, but they contain at any rate abundant factual material.
The dates in our book are everywhere indicated according to the old style – that is, they are 13 days behind the international and the present Soviet calendar. The author felt obliged to use the calendar which was in use at the time of the revolution. It would have been no labour of course to translate the dates into the new style. But this operation in removing one difficulty would have created others more essential. The overthrow of the monarchy has gone into history as the February revolution; according to the Western calendar, however, it occurred in March. The armed demonstration against the imperialist policy of the Provisional Government has gone into history under the name of the “April Days,” whereas according to the Western calendar it happened in May. Not to mention other intervening events and dates, we remark only that the October revolution happened according to European reckoning in November. The calendar itself, we see, is tinted by the events, and the historian cannot handle revolutionary chronology by mere arithmetic. The reader will be kind enough to remember that before overthrowing the Byzantine calendar, the revolution had to overthrow the institutions that clung to it.
Prinkipo, November 14, 1930.
From Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy
Extract from Chapter Four by Frederick Engels, 1886
….What is true of nature, which is hereby recognized also as a historical process of development, is likewise true of the history of society in all its branches and of the totality of all sciences which occupy themselves with things human (and divine). Here, too, the philosophy of history, of right, of religion, etc., has consisted in the substitution of an interconnection fabricated in the mind of the philosopher for the real interconnection to be demonstrated in the events; has consisted in the comprehension of history as a whole as well as in its separate parts, as the gradual realization of ideas — and naturally always only the pet ideas of the philosopher himself. According to this, history worked unconsciously but of necessity towards a certain ideal goal set in advance — as, for example, in Hegel, towards the realization of his absolute idea — and the unalterable trend towards this absolute idea formed the inner interconnection in the events of history. A new mysterious providence — unconscious or gradually coming into consciousness — was thus put in the place of the real, still unknown interconnection. Here, therefore, just as in the realm of nature, it was necessary to do away with these fabricated, artificial interconnections by the discovery of the real ones — a task which ultimately amounts to the discovery of the general laws of motion which assert themselves as the ruling ones in the history of human society.
In one point, however, the history of the development of society proves to be essentially different from that of nature. In nature — in so far as we ignore man’s reaction upon nature — there are only blind, unconscious agencies acting upon one another, out of whose interplay the general law comes into operation. Nothing of all that happens — whether in the innumerable apparent accidents observable upon the surface, or in the ultimate results which confirm the regularity inherent in these accidents — happens as a consciously desired aim. In the history of society, on the contrary, the actors are all endowed with consciousness, are men acting with deliberation or passion, working towards definite goals; nothing happens without a conscious purpose, without an intended aim. But this distinction, important as it is for historical investigation, particularly of single epochs and events, cannot alter the fact that the course of history is governed by inner general laws. For here, also, on the whole, in spite of the consciously desired aims of all individuals, accident apparently reigns on the surface. That which is willed happens but rarely; in the majority of instances the numerous desired ends cross and conflict with one another, or these ends themselves are from the outset incapable of realization, or the means of attaining them are insufficient. thus the conflicts of innumerable individual wills and individual actions in the domain of history produce a state of affairs entirely analogous to that prevailing in the realm of unconscious nature. The ends of the actions are intended, but the results which actually follow from these actions are not intended; or when they do seem to correspond to the end intended, they ultimately have consequences quite other than those intended. Historical events thus appear on the whole to be likewise governed by chance. But where on the surface accident holds sway, there actually it is always governed by inner, hidden laws, and it is only a matter of discovering these laws.
Men make their own history, whatever its outcome may be, in that each person follows his own consciously desired end, and it is precisely the resultant of these many wills operating in different directions, and of their manifold effects upon the outer world, that constitutes history. Thus it is also a question of what the many individuals desire. The will is determined by passion or deliberation. But the levers which immediately determine passion or deliberation are of very different kinds. Partly they may be external objects, partly ideal motives, ambition, “enthusiasm for truth and justice”, personal hatred, or even purely individual whims of all kinds. But, on the one hand, we have seen that the many individual wills active in history for the most part produce results quite other than those intended — often quite the opposite; that their motives, therefore, in relation to the total result are likewise of only secondary importance. On the other hand, the further question arises: What driving forces in turn stand behind these motives? What are the historical forces which transform themselves into these motives in the brains of the actors?
The old materialism never put this question to itself. Its conception of history, in so far as it has one at all, is therefore essentially pragmatic; it divides men who act in history into noble and ignoble and then finds that as a rule the noble are defrauded and the ignoble are victorious. hence, it follows for the old materialism that nothing very edifying is to be got from the study of history, and for us that in the realm of history the old materialism becomes untrue to itself because it takes the ideal driving forces which operate there as ultimate causes, instead of investigating what is behind them, what are the driving forces of these driving forces. This inconsistency does not lie in the fact that ideal driving forces are recognized, but in the investigation not being carried further back behind these into their motive causes. On the other hand, the philosophy of history, particularly as represented by Hegel, recognizes that the ostensible and also the really operating motives of men who act in history are by no means the ultimate causes of historical events; that behind these motives are other motive powers, which have to be discovered. But it does not seek these powers in history itself, it imports them rather from outside, from philosophical ideology, into history. Hegel, for example, instead of explaining the history of ancient Greece out of its own inner interconnections, simply maintains that it is nothing more than the working out of “forms of beautiful individuality”, the realization of a “work of art” as such. He says much in this connection about the old Greeks that is fine and profound, but that does not prevent us today from refusing to be put off with such an explanation, which is a mere manner of speech.
When, therefore, it is a question of investigating the driving powers which – consciously or unconsciously, and indeed very often unconsciously — lie behind the motives of men who act in history and which constitute the real ultimate driving forces of history, then it is not a question so much of the motives of single individuals, however eminent, as of those motives which set in motion great masses, whole people, and again whole classes of the people in each people; and this, too, not merely for an instant, like the transient flaring up of a straw-fire which quickly dies down, but as a lasting action resulting in a great historical transformation. To ascertain the driving causes which here in the minds of acting masses and their leaders – the so-called great men – are reflected as conscious motives, clearly or unclearly, directly or in an ideological, even glorified, form – is the only path which can put us on the track of the laws holding sway both in history as a whole, and at particular periods and in particular lands. Everything which sets men in motion must go through their minds; but what form it will take in the mind will depend very much upon the circumstances. The workers have by no means become reconciled to capitalist machine industry, even though they no longer simply break the machines to pieces, as they still did in 1848 on the Rhine.
But while in all earlier periods the investigation of these driving causes of history was almost impossible – on account of the complicated and concealed interconnections between them and their effects – our present period has so far simplified these interconnections that the riddle could be solved. Since the establishment of large-scale industry – that is, at least since the European peace of 1815 – it has been no longer a secret to any man in England that the whole political struggle there pivoted on the claims to supremacy of two classes: the landed aristocracy and the bourgeoisie (middle class). In France, with the return of the Bourbons, the same fact was perceived, the historians of the Restoration period, from Thierry to Guizot, Mignet, and Thiers, speak of it everywhere as the key to the understanding of all French history since the Middle Ages. And since 1830, the working class, the proletariat, has been recognized in both countries as a third competitor for power. Conditions had become so simplified that one would have had to close one’s eyes deliberately not to see in the light of these three great classes and in the conflict of their interests the driving force of modern history — at least in the two most advanced countries.
But how did these classes come into existence? If it was possible at first glance still to ascribe the origin of the great, formerly feudal landed property – at least in the first instance – to political causes, to taking possession by force, this could not be done in regard to the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Here, the origin and development of two great classes was seen to lie clearly and palpably in purely economic causes. And it was just as clear that in the struggle between landed property and the bourgeoisie, no less than in the struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, it was a question, first and foremost, of economic interests, to the furtherance of which political power was intended to serve merely as a means. Bourgeoisie and proletariat both arose in consequences of a transformation of the economic conditions, more precisely, of the mode of production. The transition, first from guild handicrafts to manufacture, and then from manufacture to large-scale industry, with steam and mechanical power, had caused the development of these two classes. At a certain stage, the new productive forces set in motion by the bourgeoisie – in the first place the division of labour and the combination of many detail labourers in one general manufactory – and the conditions and requirements of exchange, developed through these productive forces, became incompatible with the existing order of production handed down by history and sanctified by law — that is to say, incompatible with the privileges of the guild and the numerous other personal and local privileges (which were only so many fetters to the unprivileged estates) of the feudal order to society. The productive forces represented by the bourgeoisie rebelled against the order of production represented by the feudal landlords and the guild-masters. The result is known, the feudal fetters were smashed, gradually in England, at one blow in France. In Germany, the process is not yet finished. But just as, at a definite stage of its development, manufacture came into conflict with the feudal order of production, so now large-scale industry has already come into conflict with the bourgeois order or production established in its place. Tied down by this order, by the narrow limits of the capitalist mode of production, this industry produces, on the one hand, an ever-increasingly proletarianisation of the great mass of the people, and on the other hand, an ever greater mass of unsaleable products. Overproduction and mass misery, each the cause of the other – that is the absurd contradiction which is its outcome, and which of necessity calls for the liberation of the productive forces by means of a change in the mode of production.
In modern history at least it is, therefore, proved that all political struggles are class struggles, and all class struggles for emancipation, despite their necessarily political form – for every class struggle is a political struggle – turn ultimately on the question of economic emancipation. Therefore, here at least, the state – the political order – is the subordination, and civil society – the realm of economic relations – the decisive element. The traditional conception, to which Hegel, too, pays homage, saw in the state the determining element, and in civil society the element determined by it. Appearances correspond to this. As all the driving forces of the actions of any individual person must pass through his brain, and transform themselves into motives of his will in order to set him into action, so also all the needs of civil society – no matter which class happens to be the ruling one – must pass through the will of the state in order to secure general validity in the form of laws. That is the formal aspect of the matter – the one which is self-evident. The question arises, however, what is the content of this merely formal will – of the individual as well as of the state — and whence is this content derived? Why is just this willed and not something else? If we enquire into this, we discover that in modern history the will of the state is, on the whole, determined by the changing needs of civil society, but the supremacy of this or that class, in the last resort, by the development of the productive forces and relations of exchange.
But if even in our modern era, with its gigantic means of production and communication, the state is not an independent domain with an independent development, but one whose existence as well as development is to be explained in the last resort by the economic conditions of life of society, then this must be still more true of all earlier times when the production of the material life of man was not yet carried on with these abundant auxiliary means, and when, therefore, the necessity of such production must have exercised a still greater mastery over men. If the state even today, in the era of big industry and of railways, is on the whole only a reflection, in concentrated form, of the economic needs of the class controlling production, then this must have been much more so in an epoch when each generation of men was forced to spend a far greater part of its aggregate lifetime in satisfying material needs, and was therefore much more dependent on them than we are today. An examination of the history of earlier periods, as soon as it is seriously undertaken from this angle, most abundantly confirms this. But, of course, this cannot be gone into here….
From the Introduction to Dialectics of Nature
by Frederick Engels, 1875-6
With men we enter history. Animals also have a history, that of their derivation and gradual evolution to their present position. This history, however, is made for them, and in so far as they themselves take part in it, this occurs without their knowledge or desire. On the other hand, the more that human beings become removed from animals in the narrower sense of the word, the more they make their own history consciously, the less becomes the influence of unforeseen effects and uncontrolled forces of this history, and the more accurately does the historical result correspond to the aim laid down in advance.
If, however, we apply this measure to human history, to that of even the most developed peoples of the present day, we find that there still exists here a colossal disproportion between the proposed aims and the results arrived at, that unforeseen effects predominate, and that the uncontrolled forces are far more powerful than those set into motion according to plan. And this cannot be otherwise as long as the most essential historical activity of men, the one which has raised them from bestiality to humanity and which forms the material foundation of all their other activities, namely the production of their requirements of life, that is today social production, is above all subject to the interplay of unintended effects from uncontrolled forces and achieves its desired end only by way of exception and, much more frequently, the exact opposite.
In the most advanced industrial countries we have subdued the forces of nature and pressed them into the service of mankind; we have thereby infinitely multiplied production, so that a child now produces more than a hundred adults previously did. And what is the result? Increasing overwork and increasing misery of the masses, and every ten years a great [economic] collapse. Darwin did not know what a bitter satire he wrote on mankind, and especially on his countrymen, when he showed that free competition, the struggle for existence, which the economists celebrate as the highest historical achievement, is the normal state of the animal kingdom.
Only conscious organisation of social production, in which production and distribution are carried on in a planned way, can lift mankind above the rest of the animal world as regards the social aspect, in the same way that production in general has done this for men in their aspect as species. Historical evolution makes such an organisation daily more indispensable, but also with every day more possible. From it will date a new epoch of history, in which mankind itself, and with mankind all branches of its activity, and especially natural science, will experience an advance that will put everything preceding it in the deepest shade.
Extract from the Preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy
In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond 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, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.
Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.
No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation…. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonisms, but of one arising form the social conditions of life of the individuals; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of society to a close.
From Karl Marx
by Frederick Engels, 1877
Of the many important discoveries through which Marx has inscribed his name in the annals of science, we can here dwell on only two.
The first is the revolution brought about by him in the whole conception of world history. The whole previous view of history was based on conception that the ultimate causes of all historical changes are to be looked for in the changing ideas of human beings, and that of all historical changes political changes are the most important and dominate the whole of history. But the question was not asked as to whence the ideas come into men’s minds and what the driving causes of the political changes are. Only upon the newer school of French, and partly also of English, historians have forced the conviction that, since the Middle Ages at least, the driving force in European history was the struggle of the developing bourgeoisie with the fuedal aristocracy for social and political domination.
Now Marx has proved that the whole of previous history is a history of class struggles, that in all the manifold and complicated political struggles the only thing at issue has been the social and political rule of social classes, the maintenance of domination by older classes and the conquest of domination by newly arising classes. To what, however, do these classes owe their origin and their continued existence? They owe it to the particular material, physically sensible conditions in which society at a given period produces and exchanges its means of sustenance.
The fuedal rule of the Middle Ages rested on a self-sufficient economy of small peasant communities, which themselves produced almost all their requirements, in which there is almost no exchange and which received from the arms bearing nobility protection from without and national or at least political cohesion. When the towns arose and with them separate handicraft industry and trade intercourse, at first internal and later international, the urban bourgeoisie developed, and already during the Middle Ages achieved, in struggle with the nobility, its inclusion in the feudal order as likewise a privileged estate.
But with the discovery of the extra-European world, from the middle of the 15th century onwards, this bourgeoisie acquired a far more extensive sphere of trade and therewith a new spur for its industry; in the most important branches handicrafts were supplemented by manufacture, now on a factory scale, and this again was supplanted by large scale industry, possible owing to the discoveries of the previous century, especially that of the steam engine. Large scale industry, in its turn, reacted on trade by driving out the old manual labour in backward countries, and creating the present day new means of communication: steam engines, railways, electric telegraphy, in the more developed ones.
Thus the bourgeoisie came more and more to combine social wealth and social power in its hands, while it still for a long period remained excluded from political power, which was in the hands of the nobility and the monarchy supported by the nobility. But at a certain stage – in France since the Great Revolution – it also conquered political power, and now in turn became the ruling class over the proletariat and small peasants.
From this point of view all the historical phenomenon are explicable in simplest possible way – with sufficient knowledge of the particular economic condition of society (which it is true is totally lacking in our professional historians), and in the same way the conceptions and ideas of each historical period are most simply to be explained from the economic conditions of life and from the social and political relations of the period, which are in turn determined by these economic conditions. History was for the first time placed on its real basis; the palpable but previously totally overlooked fact that men must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, therefore must work , before they can fight for domination, pursue politics, religion, philosophy, etc. – this palpable fact at last came into its historical rights.
This new conception of history, however, was of supreme significance for the socialist outlook. It showed that all previous history moved in class antagonisms and class struggles, that there have always existed ruling and ruled, exploiting and exploited classes, and that the great majority of mankind has always been condemned to arduous labour and little enjoyment. Why is this? Simply because in all earlier stages of development of mankind production was so little developed that the historical development could proceed only in this antagonistic form, that historical progress as all whole was assigned to the activity of a small privileged minority, while the great mass remained condemned to producing by their labour their own meagre means of subsistence and also the increasingly rich means of the privileged. But the same investigation of history, which in this way provides a natural and reasonable explanation of the previous class rule, otherwise only explicable from the wickednesses of man, also leads to the realization that, in consequence of the so tremendously increased productive forces of the present time, even the last pretext has vanished for a division of mankind into rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited, at least in the most advanced countries. That the ruling big bourgeoisie has fulfilled its historic mission, that it is no longer capable of the leadership of society and has even become a hindrance to the development of production, as the trade crisis, and especially the last great collapse, and the depressed condition of industry in all countries have proved. That historical leadership has passed to the proletariat, a class which, owing to its whole position in society, can only free itself by abolishing altogether all class rule, all servitude and all exploitation. And that the social productive forces, which have outgrown the control of the bourgeoisie, are only waiting for the associated proletariat to take possession of them in order to bring about a state of things in which every member of society will be enabled to participate not only in production but also in the distribution and administration of social wealth, and which so increases the social productive forces and their yield by planned operation of the whole of production that satisfaction of all reasonable needs will be assured to everyone in an ever-increasing measure.
From Engels’ Letter to J. Bloch
London, September 21, 1890
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other 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 a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and 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. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.
We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one. The Prussian state also arose and developed from historical, ultimately economic, causes. But it could scarcely be maintained without pedantry that among the many small states of North Germany, Brandenburg was specifically determined by economic necessity to become the great power embodying the economic, linguistic and, after the Reformation, also the religious difference between North and South, and not by other elements as well (above all by its entanglement with Poland, owing to the possession of Prussia, and hence with international political relations – which were indeed also decisive in the formation of the Austrian dynastic power). Without making oneself ridiculous it would be a difficult thing to explain in terms of economics the existence of every small state in Germany, past and present, or the origin of the High German consonant permutations, which widened the geographic partition wall formed by the mountains from the Sudetic range to the Taunus to form a regular fissure across all Germany.
In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting force, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant – the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals – each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general) – do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it.
I would furthermore ask you to study this theory from its original sources and not at second-hand; it is really much easier. Marx hardly wrote anything in which it did not play a part. But especially The Eigteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is a most excellent example of its application. There are also many allusion to it in Capital. Then may I also direct you to my writings: Herr Eugen Duhring’s Revolution in Science and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, in which I have given the most detailed account of historical material which, as far as I know, exists.
Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-á-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent “Marxists” from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too….
From The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
by Karl Marx, 1852
Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. Caussidiere for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the nephew for the uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances of the second edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire.
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an Alp on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language. Thus Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.
When we think about this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference reveals itself. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time — that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society — in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases. The first one destroyed the feudal foundation and cut off the feudal heads that had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parceled-out land properly used, and the unfettered productive power of the nation employed; and beyond the French borders it swept away feudal institutions everywhere, to provide, as far as necessary, bourgeois society in France with an appropriate up-to-date environment on the European continent. Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism — the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself.
Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle. But unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being. And in the austere classical traditions of the Roman Republic, the bourgeois gladiators found the ideals and the art forms, the self-deceptions, that they needed to conceal from themselves the bourgeois-limited content of their struggles and to keep their passion on the high plane of great historic tragedy. Similarly, at another stage of development a century earlier, Cromwell and the English people had borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, emotions, and illusions for their bourgeois revolution. When the real goal had been achieved and the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk.
Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again.
From 1848 to 1851, only the ghost of the old revolution circulated — from Marrast, the républicain en gants jaunes [Republican in yellow gloves], who disguised himself as old Bailly, down to the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon. A whole nation, which thought it had acquired an accelerated power of motion by means of a revolution, suddenly finds itself set back into a defunct epoch, and to remove any doubt about the relapse, the old dates arise again — the old chronology, the old names, the old edicts, which had long since become a subject of antiquarian scholarship, and the old minions of the law who had seemed long dead. The nation feels like the mad Englishman in Bedlam who thinks he is living in the time of the old Pharaohs and daily bewails the hard labour he must perform in the Ethiopian gold mines, immured in this subterranean prison, a pale lamp fastened to his head, the overseer of the slaves behind him with a long whip, and at the exits a confused welter of barbarian war slaves who understand neither the forced labourers nor each other, since they speak no common language. “And all this,” sighs the mad Englishman, “is expected of me, a freeborn Briton, in order to make gold for the Pharaohs.” “In order to pay the debts of the Bonaparte family,” sighs the French nation. The Englishman, so long as he was not in his right mind, could not get rid of his fixed idea of mining gold. The French, so long as they were engaged in revolution, could not get rid of the memory of Napoleon, as the election of December 10 [in 1848, when Louis Bonaparte was elected President of the French Republic] was proved. They longed to return from the perils of revolution to the fleshpots of Egypt, and December 2, 1851 [The date of the coup d’état by Louis Bonaparte], was the answer. Now they have not only a caricature of the old Napoleon, but the old Napoleon himself, caricatured as he would have to be in the middle of the nineteenth century.
The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped away all superstition about the past. The former revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to smother their own content. The revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead in order to arrive at its own content. There the phrase went beyond the content — here the content goes beyond the phrase.
The February Revolution was a surprise attack, a seizing of the old society unaware, and the people proclaimed this unexpected stroke a deed of world importance, ushering in a new epoch. On December 2 the February Revolution is conjured away as a cardsharp’s trick, and what seems overthrown is no longer the monarchy but the liberal concessions that had been wrung from it through centuries of struggle. Instead of society having conquered a new content for itself, it seems that the state has only returned to its oldest form, to a shamelessly simple rule by the sword and the monk’s cowl. This is the answer to the coup de main [Unexpected stroke] of February, 1848, given by the coup de téte [Rash act] of December, 1851. Easy come, easy go. Meantime, the interval did not pass unused. During 1848-51 French society, by an abbreviated revolutionary method, caught up with the studies and experiences which in a regular, so to speak, textbook course of development would have preceded the February Revolution, if the latter were to be more than a mere ruffling of the surface. Society seems now to have retreated to behind its starting point; in truth, it has first to create for itself the revolutionary point of departure-the situation, the relations, the conditions under which alone modern revolution becomes serious.
Bourgeois revolutions like those of the eighteenth century storm more swiftly from success to success, their dramatic effects outdo each other, men and things seem set in sparkling diamonds, ecstasy is the order of the day- but they are short-lived, soon they have reached their zenith, and a long Katzenjammer [crapulence] takes hold of society before it learns to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period soberly. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, constantly criticize themselves, constantly interrupt themselves in their own course, return to the apparently accomplished, in order to begin anew; they deride with cruel thoroughness the half-measures, weaknesses, and paltriness of their first attempts, seem to throw down their opponents only so the latter may draw new strength from the earth and rise before them again more gigantic than ever, recoil constantly from the indefinite colossalness of their own goals — until a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves call out:
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
[Here is the rose, here dance!]
(“Here is the rose, here dance!” From Aesop’s fable, “The Swaggerer,” referring to one who boasted that he had made a gigantic leap in Rhodes (which also means “rose” in Greek) and was challenged: “Here is Rhodes, here leap!” Marx’s paraphrase, “Here is the rose, here dance,” is from the quotation used by Hegel in the preface to his book Outlines of the Philosophy of Right (1821). — Ed. )
Questions on Historical Materialism
- What separates human beings from other animals?
- What determines our consciousness, our ideas, and view of the world?
- What role do Marxist explain is played by individuals in history?
- What do we mean by ‘class’?
- How long did human beings exist before society was divided into classes, and what caused that division?
- Which group of people constituted the first ruling class and why?
- What was the Asiatic Mode of Production?
- What was the cause of the decline and fall of Roman slave society?
- In what way did the exploitation of serfs differ from that of slaves?
- What ultimately undermined the class struggle of the peasantry against the landlords during feudal times?
- What did Marx mean by “primitive accumulation”?
- What part did the “revolutionising of the means of production” play in the development of capitalism?
- Describe some modern day examples of this process?
- What were the tasks of the bourgeois revolutions?
- What differentiates capitalism from earlier systems of exploitation?
- How does the exploitation of the wage worker differ from that of the serf?
- Explain what Marxists mean by “Imperialism”?
- During what period did capitalism cease playing a progressive role?
- Marx described the working class as the “gravediggers” of capitalism. Why?
- What are the tasks of the proletarian, socialist revolution?
Suggested Reading List
- The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels
- The German Ideology, Marx and Engels
- The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels
- Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels
- The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Man to Ape, Engels
- The Three Sources and Three Component Parts of Marxism, Lenin
- The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky
- The Civil War in France, Marx
- The Peasant War in Germany, Engels
- The Eigteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx
- The Holy Family, Marx
- Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Engels
- The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx
- The Development of the Monist View of History, Plekhanov
- The Foundations of Christianity, Kautsky
- On Marx and Engels, Lenin
- Preface and Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx
- The critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx
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