The Marxian Interpretation Of History

Marx’s interpretation of history constitutes an integral part of Marxian doctrine. It was his intent to peer into the future and to determine what historical fate was in store for the capitalist system. Only by understand­ing the forces that had caused historical events could the forces that would cause future events be envisioned. For this reason Marx sought the ulti­mate or basic causes of historical events.

To seek out the creative forces in history was somewhat more novel and daring in Marx’s day than it is now, when so many historians are vitally interested in studying the causes of historical events. Marx at­tempted to do something neither historians nor economists had done. His­torians had recorded events and economists had explained causes of eco­nomic events in specific historical settings without analyzing the creation of those settings. Lenin has summarized as follows the questions Marx felt had to be answered:

People make their own history; but what determines their motives, that is the motives of people in the mass; what gives rise to the clash of conflicting ideas and endeavors; what is the sum total of all of these clashes among the whole mass of human societies; what are the ob­jective conditions for the production of the material means of life that form the basis of all the historical activity of man; what is the law of the development of these conditions?

If history may be presumed to have a significant economic slant, it might be supposed that the economists would have sought out the laws of historical development, particularly in the field of economic phenom­ena. Marx found this not to be the case. He expressed this deficiency in “The Poverty of Philosophy” when he wrote: “Economists explain how production takes place in the above-mentioned relations, but what they do not explain is how the relations themselves are produced, that is, the his­torical movement which gave them birth.”

Marxist Views of Other Interpretations of History

Marx dealt briefly with two theories of history other than his own. These may be referred to as the “idealist” and the “providential.” The former held that historical events were the products of human ideas—that these ideas were the original creative stuff from which, in their complex inter­mingling, historical events flowed. Marx held this explanation to be en­tirely inadequate. He contended that ideas cannot exist as pure products of a brain, that “the idea is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.””

Engels, repeating the same thought, wrote that “the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis likewise products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature, but correspond to it.” Writing further, he described the idealists as forced to the untenable position “that spirit existed before nature,” and since they therefore have no explanation for the greatest of all historical events, the creation of the world, they “assume in one way or another that the world was created.”

Marx had only scorn for the theory that some providential person or force ruled the universe, creating historical events as mere extensions of its omnipotent will. In “The Poverty of Philosophy,” he gave this theory the brief attention he thought it deserved when he wrote: “Providence, providential aim, this is the great word used today to explain the move­ment of history. In fact, this word means nothing. It is at most a rhetori­cal form, one of the various ways of paraphrasing facts.”
To express his utter contempt for the providential theory, Marx wrote the following paragraph of what he held would be “providential history”:

It is a fact that in Scotland landed property acquired a new value by the development of English industry. This industry opened up new outlets for wool. In order to produce wool on a large scale, arable land had to be transformed into pasturage. To effect this transformation, the estates had to be concentrated. To concentrate the estates, small holdings had first to be abolished, thousands of tenants had to be driven from their native soil and a few shepherds in charge of millions of sheep to be installed in their place. Thus, by successive transformations, landed property in Scotland has resulted in the driving out of men by sheep. Now say that the providential aim of the institution of landed property in Scotland was to have men driven out by sheep, and you will have made providential history.

In the preface to his Critque of Political Economy, Marx wrote as follows:

My investigations led to the conclusion that legal relations as well as forms of state could not be understood from themselves, nor from the so-called general development of the human mind, but, on the contrary, are rooted in the material conditions of life . . . that the anatomy of civil society is to be found in political economy. . . . The general conclu­sion I arrived at—and once reached, it served as the guiding thread in my studies—can be briefly formulated as follows: In the social pro­duction of their means of existence men enter into definite, necessary relations which are independent of their will, productive relationships which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The aggregate of these productive relationships constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis on which a juridical and political superstructure arises, and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond. The mode of production of the material means of existence conditions the whole process of social, political, and intellectual life.

Marx’s collaborator Engels has closely paraphrased Marx in his “Anti-Diihring.” There he describes the economic interpretation of history as follows:

According to this conception, the ultimate causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in the minds of men, in their increasing insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the mode of production and exchange; they are to be sought not in the philosophy but in the economics of the epoch concerned.

Many modern writers have sought to summarize lucidly this theory of history. Few, if any, have been able to improve upon the attempts of Marx and Engels. Harry W. Laidler, in his A History of Socialist Thought, gives a concise summary of the theory as follows:

The materialist or economic interpretation of history . . . means that in any given epoch the economic relations of society, the means whereby men and women provide for the sustenance, produce, exchange, and distribute the things they regard as necessary for the satisfaction of their needs exert a preponderating influence in shaping the progress of society and in molding political, social, intellectual and ethical relationships.

Professor Bober, who has devoted an entire volume to Karl Marx’s Interpretation of History, summarizes the theory as follows: “. . . Pro­duction is the alpha and omega of history, all else is a vexatious paren­thetical digression. Except for slight modifications, retardations or accelera­tions brought about by other agencies, the mode of production is the prime cause of history, the sole cause.”

Scientific Nature of the Interpretation of History

It is clear that Marx and Engels considered economic forces as operat­ing with the inevitability of natural law. Two brief statements emphasize this:

It is a question of the laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity toward inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.
The forces working in society work exactly like the forces operating in nature; blindly, violently, destructively, so long as we do not understand them and take them into account.
Marx and Engels thought of the economic interpretation of history as scientific and realistic. There is some justification for their attitude when this theory is compared with others of their day. In a joint work, “German Ideology,” Marx and Engels press this point as follows:

In direct contrast to German philosophy, which descends from heaven to earth, here the ascent is made from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not start from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as described, thought of, imagined, and conceived, in order thence and thereby to reach corporeal men; we start from real, active men, and from their life-processes also show the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process.
In more absolute terms, Engels refers to the Marxian method as “positive science”: If we deduce the world schematism not from our minds, but only through our minds from the real world, deducing the basic principles of being from what is, we need no philosophy for this purpose, but positive knowledge of the world and of what happens in it; and what this yields is also not philosophy, but positive science.

Mode of Production

The economic interpretation of history has sometimes been made to ap­pear absurd by a too narrow interpretation of the phrase mode of produc­tion. If this were taken to mean merely the technique of production—that is, the kind of tools and machinery used—it would be ridiculous to argue that all social institutions take their form and content from such a narrow base. There is plenty of evidence in Marxian writings that mode of pro­duction means something much broader than the technique of production. Professor Bober, a severe critic of the Marxian theory of history, holds that labor and land are just as much a part of Marx’s concept of mode of production as is the technique of production. “Thus the general nature of the laborer and the grouping of the workers in a scheme of division and of cooperation of labor characterize a mode of production and exert a powerful influence on it.” A change in the productiveness of the workers may exert powerful influences on the nature of production. The organiza­tion of workers is similarly important. The characteristics of the available natural resources—for instance, the abundance or lack of a certain type of power such as wind or water, or the presence or absence of raw ma­terials of good or poor quality—must be included in the Marxian mode of production. Moreover, each of these varying characteristics of technique, labor, and land reacts on the other so that the existing mode of produc­tion includes elements that are the results of interactions of the basic agents of production.

Engels, in summarizing his conception of the economic interpreta­tion of history, made “changes in the mode of production and exchange” the basis of change in social institutions and processes. The fact that Engels read to Marx the entire manuscript from which this quotation is taken is proof of Marx’s approval of this extension of the “mode of pro­duction.” Marx himself referred to an “aggregate of production relation­ships” as constituting the “economic structure of society, the real basis upon which a juridical and political superstructure arises, and to which definite forms of social consciousness correspond.”

It is not far from the original Marxian thought to phrase the economic interpretation of history as follows: In a given situation in which certain natural resources, human resources, and technical knowledge of processes prevail, the economic processes of production, exchange, distribution, and consumption will come to be organized into certain institutions primarily of a social sort, since they involve relationships among men. The totality of these relationships, including of course innumerable interactions among them, constitute as a whole the mode of production, which sets the form and content of all other social institutions. Changes in any one or more of the elements included within this mode of production will be reflected in changes in social institutions and processes; thus all historical events find their basic or prime causes in changes in the mode of production.

In passing, it should be noted that, as G. D. H. Cole has pointed out, this interpretation of history explains events only within a civiliza­tion. Engels refers to this theory as applicable to “a given historical pe­riod.” Thus the economic intepretation of history does not hold all history to be a continuous process dominated by changes in the mode of produc­tion. It does not, for instance, necessarily account for the historical change from ancient civilizations to modern on the basis of economic forces. It purports only to account for a continuity of historical events occurring within an historical era. It is a universal explanation of history only within these limitations.

It is exceedingly important to realize the comprehensiveness of the influence of the mode of production. Not just a portion of the social organ­ization but all of it is held to be determined by these economic relation­ships. Numerous passages from Marxian literature indicate that this was clearly Marx’s intent. For instance, he wrote: “In acquiring new produc­tive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production they change their way of earning their living—they change all their social relations.” Engels emphasized this aspect of the economic interpretation of history in the following passage: “. . . The eco­nomic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, the whole super­structure of juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical, and other ideas of a given historical period.”
Other references could be cited to show that Marx and Engels meant fully what they appear to say. Not only social institutions but man’s ideas and ideals spring from economic foundations. A few representative state­ments may be noted:

Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose es­sential character and direction are determined by the economical condi­tions of existence of your class.

My standpoint, from which the evolution of the economic formation of society is viewed as a process of natural history, can less than any other make the individual responsible for relations whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above them.

We maintain . . . that all former moral theories are the product, in the last analysis, of the economic stage which society had reached at that particular epoch.

What else does the history of ideas prove than that intellectual pro­duction changes its character in proportion as material production is changed.

But during this long period from Descartes to Hegel and from Hobbes to Feuerbach, the philosophers were by no means impelled, as they thought they were, solely by force of pure reason. On the contrary. What really pushed them forward was the powerful and ever more rapidly onrushing progress of natural science and industry.

Relation of Economic Forces to Other Forces

Students of Marxian theory have long been troubled by the question of whether Marx intended to make economic forces the sole determinants of historical events or merely the most important within a totality of heterogeneous forces. Marx’s intention is clear: He will not be satisfied with any causal explanation of history except that it be a prime, origi­nal, or ultimate cause. It was in this sense that the “relations of produc­tion” or mode of production became the ultimate factor in his interpreta­tion of history. To modify Marxian theory so as to weaken this tenet is to destroy that concept of history which is essential to consistency within the Marxian system as a whole.

And yet such fatally weakening interpretations of Marx are con­stantly being made. For instance, G. D. H. Cole, in discussing the point already noted—that man’s ideas are the product of economic forces— interprets Marx to mean that “the situation acts as a stimulus; for it suggests the starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explana­tion of problems, and arouses the sense of need. But a stimulus does not necessitate a response. The universe is full of abortive stimuli.” This would appear to be a complete negation of the Marxian theory, for Cole implies that some noneconomic force may determine which stimuli in the environment will induce a response and which will not. If on the other hand, we assume that economic forces determine which stimuli will be effective and which will not, the “situation,” presumably economic in Cole’s meaning, acts not only as a stimulus but also as the determinant of the idea. Either Cole rejects entirely the Marxian thesis of the origin of ideas in economic forces in this statement, or he admits it, merely choosing to state the thesis in more palatable phrases. In either case he adds no legitimate interpretation to the Marxian contention.

Indirect Operation of Economic Forces

The unwillingness of certain students of Marx to admit that he means what he says concerning the place of economic forces in history may arise from their failure to realize that this causal relationship between the mode of production and social institutions and processes need not, in Marx’s opinion, be either immediate, direct, or generally understood. Marx emphasized the evolutionary nature of social institutions and processes, and it is an inherent feature of evolutionary change that it takes place gradually, in a sense indirectly, and certainly unconsciously in that the ulti­mate sources and ends of the evolutionary processes are not observed by onlookers at any one stage of the process.

The operations of economic forces have inherent in them an indi­rectness and an imperceptibility that Marx’s economic interpretation of history comprehends. For instance, it would not be consistent with the economic interpretation of history to expect a new invention to be fol­lowed immediately by the full-blown economic relations that may eventually result from it. The invention takes place within an environment that con­sists of institutions— moral, legal, political, and others—all of which, Marx contends, change slowly. Therefore it is perfectly consistent with Marxian theory to argue these noneconomic social institutions may have consider­able bearing on the time lag with which the changes ultimately to come from the invention are created. Thus noneconomic factors may be opera­tive in a time sense without affecting the vital causal connection between a change in the mode of production and the ensuing changes in social insti­tutions and processes.

In another sense noneconomic institutions may be operative without affecting the Marxian theory of history. There is nothing in this theory to deny the contention that, once noneconomic institutions have crystallized from basic economic forces, they operate as independent forces modi­fying the mode of production. Reverting to the realm of ideas, for instance, Engels points out that the very idea of equality is the product of historical development in which economic forces played the prime role.87 However, once an idea of equality takes a certain place in man’s mind, it may modify the result of some change in the mode of production. An idea of equality— itself the product of economic forces—may substantially modify the man­ner in which the inventor or the society uses a given invention. But note that in this case economic forces are still the prime forces, working indi­rectly by creating ideas, which in turn modify the operations of economic forces in determining social institutions and processes. When one allows for the almost infinite variety of interdependent relationships and reactions between existing institutions—formerly created directly or indirectly by economic forces—and changes in the mode of production, it becomes ob­vious that students of Marx may confuse the indirection of the effect of economic forces with the existence of what they believe to be independent noneconomic prime causal forces.

Engels has stated this point so clearly and authoritatively that a quo­tation from his writings is pertinent:
According to the materialistic conception of history, the production and reproduction of real life constitutes in the last instance the determin­ing factor of history. Neither Marx nor I ever maintained more. Now, when someone comes along and distorts this to mean that the economic factor is the sole determining factor, he is converting the former propo­sition into a meaningless, abstract, and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis. But the various factors of the superstructure—the political forms of the class struggles and their results, i.e., constitutions, etc., established by victorious classes after hard-won battles, legal forms, and even the reflexes of all these real struggles in the brain of the participants, political, jural, philosophical theories, religious conceptions which have been developed into systematic dogmas—all these exercise an influence upon the course of historical struggles, and in many cases determine for the most part their form. There is a reciprocity between all these factors in which, finally, through the endless array of contingencies (i.e., of things and events whose inner connection with one another is so remote, or so incapable of proof, that we may neglect it, regarding it as nonexistent), the economic movement asserts itself as necessary. Were this not the case the application of the theory to any given historical period would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.

Similar confusion arises from the fact that the evolution of social institutions and processes takes place by imperceptible stages with im­perceptible causal relationships. For instance, several writers have pointed out how the rise of Protestantism may have been a response in the field of religious institutions to economic forces at work in the world of that day. It is obvious that if such causal relations did exist, they were not per­ceived by the participants in this struggle. To them the religious issues were exclusive and the change was merely the self-evolution of an institu­tion to meet a higher need than the one it was serving. Yet the fact that this historical event may have been so overlaid with certain mental images conceived in terms of the institution itself as to make the real prime causes of the change imperceptible does not change the basic nature of the causal forces.


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