Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.
Karl Marx and the Discipline of History
In your mind, who are some of the most influential modern thinkers? If you know your philosophy, Karl Marx should come to mind. Arguably the most influential philosophers of the Modern Era, Karl Marx was a German intellectual who laid the philosophical groundwork of communism. In doing so, his ideas ultimately resulted in the formation of the Soviet Union and other communist countries that played a pivotal role in 20th century history.
While we rightly think of Marx in relation to communism, he also had much to say about the discipline of history. So what did Karl Marx believe about history? His view is best expressed in his own words. Marx famously stated: ''The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.'' In other words, Marx believed that class struggle was the driving force in the flow of history. Thus, economics, not religion or ideology, was the decisive force turning the ''wheels'' of historical development.
Let's unpack this to explore the Marxist view of history. We'll discuss the important components of Marxist historiography, notably power structures and materialism. Let's climb aboard the train of knowledge!
Marxist Historiography and Power Structures
By way of review, we know that historiography deals with the ways history has been interpreted and understood over time. We can think of historiography as the ''history'' of history. Marxists have a distinctly unique way of interpreting history. Marxist historiography stresses class conflict as the force propelling historical development. For example, Marxist historians might argue that the American Revolution was ultimately brought about by class struggle between the ''haves'' and the ''have-nots''. They would argue that republicanism or other ideological beliefs were secondary and ultimately rooted in economic concerns. The bottom line in Marxists historiography: it all boils down to economics!
Because of this emphasis on economics, the concept of power is critical to the Marxist view of history. Marx conceived of power as being held by a specific group of people, to the exclusion of others. In Marx's day, the bourgeoisie held power: this was the educated, fairly well-off class that owned property, and especially the means of production. These were the factory owners, the entrepreneurs, and the capitalists who made money off the labor of the masses. The masses, or the proletariat, were the laborers who were typically poor and held no real power. History thus unfolded because of power struggles, which were ultimately rooted in economics.
Marx thus conceived of the bourgeoisie as having a grip on social power, which is the ability to influence or control portions of society, or society at large. Unlike political power that is underpinned by a legal foundation, social power rests on social influence. Marxist historiography tends to be sensitive to social power. For example, labor vs. management, the uneducated vs. the educated, or the peasantry vs. nobility are social power structures that Marxist historians tend to emphasize.
In their historical methodology, Marxist historians typically research these kind of power structures to see how they contribute to the unfolding of historical events. Not surprisingly, the Russian Revolution is a prime example. The Russian Revolution of 1917 unfolded because the common people (notably the working class) were discontented with the power structure in place.
Marxist Historiography and Historical Materialism
For centuries the Catholic Church held considerable social power throughout Europe. Because of this and for other reasons, Marx and his followers tended to be anti-religious. Marx famously referred to religion as the ''opiate of the masses.'' Marxism has thus historically been atheistic and has tended to favor materialism (the belief that there is no spiritual realm and that only the physical universe exists). Atheistic materialism is an important component of the Marxist historiography.
The Marxist view of history does not allow for all-powerful, sovereign God who directs the flow of history. Matter in motion is essentially all there is. History unfolds in stages because of the physical, material conditions. Marx developed a theory of history that has been called historical materialism. This is basically a dialectic process in which history unfolds in a series of stages according to a predetermined end. Marx conceived of the final stage or epoch of history as communism. Basically he envisioned capitalism being overthrown because the working class would rise up and demand economic equality.
Marx's historical materialism was partly inspired by the Hegelian Dialectic, a process theorized by German philosopher G.F.W. Hegel. This process involved the formation of a thesis (idea), which was then countered by an antithesis (opposite idea), only to become a synthesis (new idea). Hegel asserted this process guided historical developments in a mystical sort of way. Marx rejected this mystical element, and applied materialism to it. And there we have it: historical materialism.
Among Marxist historians today there are a wide variety of views. Not all believe history is necessarily unfolding toward a final communist stage. That said, materialistic determinism tends to be emphasized. Marxist historians are likely to interpret strong cause and effect between economic conditions and important historical developments, such as revolutions, war, or regime changes.
Whew! This is a heavy lesson! Let's review our key terms and concepts.
- Karl Marx was a German philosopher who laid the intellectual framework for communism. He believed that history unfolded because of economic discrepancies between the ''haves'' and the ''have-nots''.
- Historiography deals with the ways history has been interpreted and understood over time. We can think of historiography as the ''history'' of history. Marxist historiography stresses class conflict as the force propelling historical development.
- In Marx's time, the bourgeoisie were the educated, fairly well-off class that the means of production. The masses, or the proletariat, were the laborers who were typically poor and held no real power.
- Social power is an important concept in Marxist historiography. Social power is the ability to influence or control portions of society, or society at large.
- Historical materialism is a view of history developed by Marx. It is basically a dialectic process in which history unfolds in a series of stages according to a predetermined end. Marx's historical materialism was partly inspired by the Hegelian Dialectic, a process theorized by German philosopher G.F.W. Hegel consisting of a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
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