As I have pointed out here, here and here Marx got it wrong about a lot of things. But that shouldn’t surprise anyone or give offence to those who genuinely want to understand Marx‘s contribution to politics rather than pay semi-religious homage to a minor deity. He was – like we all are – a creature of his own times and peculiar circumstances. Those who seek to defend every comma and full stop that he dashed out in his prolific and contradictory writing career are the intellectual descendants of cramped-minded medieval Cardinals rather than the European Enlightenment Marx identified with. He would not have approved of beatification and famously quipped that judging by the behaviour of some of his followers he most definitely wasn’t a Marxist.
I also get the feeling he’d have plenty to say if a time machine could carry him to the early Twenty First Century so he could witness his name being used to defend the obscurantism and particularism he spent most of his life railing against from behind his desk in the British Museum. Enough of the tragedy and farce though, let’s try to consider what should be dragged from the wreckage of the philosophical project which burned so bright throughout the Twentieth Century and which looks pretty much on the skids now. I want to consider Historical Materialism in this post.
A favourite Marx quote of mine is the one below – from the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon written in 1852:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it in circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.
The tradition of all the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brain of the living.”
I like that one because it seems to be a delicately balanced (and accurate) summation of the human condition. It might also – at a bit of a stretch – be considered a comment on the Marxist method of historical analysis or Historical Materialism as it came to be known.
In the Japanese language there are two paired words – hone and tatemae – the former describes the outward appearance of things and the latter the actual nature of things. Surface and substance in other words. The basics of the analytical method of Historical Materialism weren’t a new concept when Marx applied them to the study of human history and society. Despite recycling an observation which had occurred in various cultures and at various times before his birth Historical Materialism might be considered one of Marx’s more lasting intellectual bequests. Used with some delicacy it has contributed much to our understanding of hitherto existing society.
Marx’s central point was that society consists of two elements called base and superstructure. The superstructure consists of the particular type of State which actually governs the masses in addition to what we might today call the wider culture of that society. Feudal monarchy, oligarchy, liberal democracy and tyranny are examples of the first limb while popular sentiment, modes of thought and views of life are examples of the second. Superstructural ideas are to be found in novels, plays and the columns of newspapers as well as finding expression in the “common sense” of the epoch in which they are given expression.
The fundamental economic structure of society, what Marx and Engels called the Base, moulds the existence and forms of the superstructure. Economics – who gets what and why – are the important questions to ask about any society. To truly understand a society the state and culture of a place must be considered with reference to the economic Base. For example a feudal State functionary might have pontificated about encouraging the unity of Christendom or talked about giving expression to the glory of God when explaining what the state was actually for, but armed with Marx’s analysis it becomes clear that production beyond subsistence in the European Feudal era was mainly for luxuries and war-making equipment for the armed thugs who constituted our pre-modern governing class. Marxist historians, rather than concentrating on dynastic succession or what Pope so-and-so said to Count Whatsisname, have pointed to the way things were produced and consumed. In doing so they have illustrated the fetters on our ancestors lives . It wasn’t that the peasants were too ignorant and superstitious to make progress in the medieval period, more that the way the economy was structured held back all sorts of human interaction which more advanced forms of human society actually encouraged. Little pockets of capitalism began to poke through the holes of feudalism in the form of city states and once these were powerful enough to survive on their own and thrive Feudalism was doomed, though it took nearly 500 years to die and it’s arguable that it still exists in mutated form in much of the third world.
Marx also explained that the relationship between those who own the means of production and those who don’t has always been in contradicion. There is a fundamental conflict of interest between them. That class conflict has taken various forms throughout history, slave and peasant revolts, general strikes, outright civil war. This contradiction between the fundamental interests of classes in society is – as we have seen earlier – the, or perhaps one of the, driving forces of history and will always exist as long as society is divided into classes with different interests. How it reveals itself depends on the type of society. In a democracy it generally takes the form of party politics.
When a feudal Lord or Ayatollah seeks to invoke the Bible or Koran in defence of the existing order he is using superstructural arguments to disguise the economic set up which he finds himself placed at the top of. A Nineteenth Century manufacturer of Lancashire cotton may sincerely have believed that the Heathen in India would benefit from the Holy Book but the fact that he also stood to profit from the expansion of British influence would also need to be taken into account in determining his true motives.
Having approved in general terms of the Marxist method of understanding how human society has advanced it should be noted that there is a potential problem with the application of the method. Just as the new convert to Islam sees the work of God in all things, the Marxist neophyte is tempted to understand all human activity through the lens of the base/superstructure model. Most often he or she will not even know they are doing it because Marx’s ideas – which are more subtle than their later application might suggest – are so infrequently studied in the raw. They generally come filtered through some later interlocutor. Lenin, Mao, Trotsky, Stalin and most latterly Chomsky have each done the honours in their time.
The problem is called economic reductionism – seeing economic interests at all times and in every case as being the only phenomenon necessary to understand political decisions. It’s enormously seductive to – for example – cry “No war for oil” and assume that fact that because a country has oil this determines all the actions of politicians who have to weigh up what to do about failed states and nuclear proliferation. As if politics couldn’t exist without having a purely – and only – economic explanation. Those who bring all discussions to secret plans for pipelines are the present day economic reductionists. Rather than bang on about the distinction I would advise those who are interested in reading closely argued evidence-based Marxist analysis to buy one of these. To see examples of vulgar economic reductionism go here instead.
Where this leaves those with an interest in Historical Materialism is very much open to debate. Can Nineteenth and Twenty First Century Capitalism be considered the same phenomenon requiring the same old response? In a world where pension funds – including those run by trades unions – are the major shareholders in British industry who are the big Capitalists ? Is Capitalism really in it’s ‘late’ stage as Marxists have been saying ever since Trotsky deployed the phrase ‘over-ripe’ ? In light of the historic failure of state-organised socialism what might replace capitalism if and when it becomes a drag on human development ?
I don’t have the answers to any of these questions by the way. Knock yourselves out in the comments box in an effort to answer them.