Part of a Series on the Philosophy of History
Today is the 204th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx (05 May 1818–14 March 1883), who was born on this date in 1818.
It would be difficult to overstate the influence of Marx on the philosophy of history, though Marx himself would not have been impressed by such a claim. The famous final line of the Theses on Feuerbach — The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it — tells us that Marx valued changing the world over interpreting the world. However, according to this practical criterion, the influence of Marx is still outsized. We could reasonably ask whether Plato, Aristotle, or Marx had the greater influence on shaping history, and it would honestly be an open question as to the correct answer to this question.
The philosophy of history for which Marx is famous is historical materialism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy notes:
“Marx did not set out his theory of history in great detail. Accordingly, it has to be constructed from a variety of texts, both those where he attempts to apply a theoretical analysis to past and future historical events, and those of a more purely theoretical nature.”
This article cites G. A. Cohen’s Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defense as a definitive (but not universally accepted) contemporary exposition of Marx’s theory of history. Cohen begins with a chapter on Hegel’s philosophy of history, and makes this contrast between Hegel and Marx:
“Both Hegel and Marx faced and commented upon humanity’s most serious and persistent afflictions: war, oppression, exploitation, and indignity. Hegel explained the evils by urging that humanity had not yet come to know itself fully, and justified them by maintaining that only through strife could men be introduced to themselves. For Marx the answers lay elsewhere, in the domination over human beings of the world around them, in their as yet unfulfilled attempt to prevail over what surrounded them. Men would relate in connections of mastery and servitude until they were masters of the physical world.” (p. 23)
While Marx’s exposition of his own understanding of history is unsystematic, Both Cohen and Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm, identify the following statement from the Preface of The Critique of Political Economy as the locus classicus of historical materialism:
“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 basis, 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 formation 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 task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation. In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from 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 human society to a close.”
The scholarship and commentary on Marx is vast. Any number of philosophers, equal in stature to Marx, have chosen to comment on Marx and Marx’s philosophy of history because of its influence. It would take a specialist in Marx studies to make some coherent generalization about this body of scholarship; I will not attempt to do so.
However, one point that I will raise, that I believe to be overlooked to some extent both by Marxists and by philosophers of history, is the place that Marx has in debates over cultural evolutionism. Marx stated a classical position of cultural evolutionism, and he might be called the father of the tradition (though he was proceeded by Tylor and Morgan, though there work was primarily influential as an influence on Marx). Like Marx’s theory of history, his exposition of cultural evolutionism is scattered across many texts and appears in a fragmentary form, but it is well enough established that the idea that human society passes through stages from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, and capitalism, with Marx positing a further stage of industrialized communism after capitalism. Because Marx’s exposition is unsystematic, there are many slightly different accounts of the stages in Marx’s cultural evolutionism, for example, an “Asiatic mode of production” is sometimes cited. Here is one of Marx’s colorful expositions of the Asiatic mode of production:
“We must not forget that these idyllic village communities, inoffensive though they may appear, had always been the solid foundation of Oriental despotism, that they restrained the human mind within the smallest possible compass, making it the unresisting tool of superstition, enslaving it beneath traditional rules, depriving it of all grandeur and historical energies… We must not forget that these little communities were contaminated by distinctions of caste and by slavery, that they subjugated man to external circumstances instead of elevating man to be the sovereign of circumstances, that they transformed a self developing social state into never-changing natural destiny, and thus brought about a brutalizing worship of nature, exhibiting its degradation in the fact that man, the sovereign of nature, fell down on his knees in adoration of Hanuman, the monkey, and Sabbala, the cow.”
The rival to Marx’s cultural evolutionism is Franz Boas’ cultural relativism, which, like Marx’s cultural evolutionism, has become so familiar to us that we scarcely realize when we are invoking it, but we should be clear about when our historical thinking is implicitly invoking either evolutionism or relativism, or both. For example, Spengler’s influential philosophy of history has elements in it that are derived from both cultural evolutionism and cultural relativism, and so we can find in his philosophy echoes of both Marx and Boas. For instance, Spengler’s idea that all civilizations rise up from an undifferentiated mass of history and are incommensurable with any other civilization is akin to cultural relativism, while Spengler’s contention that all civilizations pass through definite stages in a determinate order is akin to cultural evolutionism.