From Tue Jan 15 07:43:43 2002
Date: Tue, 15 Jan 2002 07:43:10 -0500
From: Haines Brown <>
Subject: Re: Marx's Philosophy of History

Marx's Philosophy of History

Contribution to discussion on list by Haines Brown, 15 January 2002

> Does anyone on this list agree with Marx's Philosophy of History?

Vincent, as one whom you would probably expect a “yes” answer, I can't really answer this question simply.

First, while Marx had a lot to say about history and wrote some decent historical works, it is hard to define “Marx's philosophy of history.” Partly it is because his outlook evolved significantly over time; partly because he often wrote in an opaque manner that resists simple definition. It seems that Marx was at the bleeding edge of thought and so had to struggle mightily to express his ideas in terms that were intelligible; his points were often more intuitive than systematic and transparent.

Further, his ideas are hard to export from his intellectual milieu. But is this not true of all great thinkers of the past? We may identify ourselves as being indebted to such a figure, but don't we at the same time transform, interpret, and cull what seems of value?

So, while I suspect most historians are influenced by Marx, knowingly or not, few start from a coherent idea of Marx's outlook and then proceed to apply it to the historical record.

In fact, few historians start out from any coherent world view and then proceed to bring to bear on history. Rather, most historians experience a complex interaction between their world view and their study of history that evolves in complex ways under various influences. I regret to admit this, but there are Marxists who don't write Marxist history; there are non-Marxists who write decent Marxist history ;-).

But, having waffled, it is still tempting to stick my neck out and hazard a guess as to what defines Marx's (not the same thing as “Marxist”) view of history.

One thing is that he was a consistent materialist. That is, explanation must be naturalistic and not appeal to supernatural agencies. That must seem rather conventional today, for does this not describe the approach of most historians? Of course, but in Marx's time, his outlook was not at all so obvious, for the main tendency in “social studies” was idealist or even religious. Nevertheless, he tried his best to embrace the emerging scientific outlook of his day in a context that remained (and probably remains) anything but scientific.

Another is that he struggled toward a process view of history. A lot of ink has been spilled over the relation of Marx to “dialectical materialism” and just what the latter means, but a lot of this arises from trying to impose static categories on Marx and not appreciating that he was struggling toward a process view in which structures inherited from the past define the probability distribution of possible outcomes of struggle in the present. Most historians still cling to the superstition that the past has agency and acts upon the present, and the future exists as real potentials in the present.

Certainly a major thrust in Marx's outlook on history was the centrality of class as the primary social agency that constrains the outcome of the struggle for self-realization. The ruling class, of course, especially in the context of modern capitalist ideology, insists there are no classes or that “class” refers merely to an empirical continuum (which amounts to the same thing), but in terms of sociology, Marx can't be so readily dismissed. It is a vital link between ideas and social location that gives life to ideas and efficacy to social action.

Another very important component in Marx was his commitment to radical democracy, which he inherited from the French Revolution. However, he transformed that commitment by giving it a materialist dimension (making it both economic and political in a capitalist context) and class oriented (the modern working class, which does not possess productive property). The significance of this is that just as Marx's philosophy of history has class as its social dimension, it is also inextricably linked to action in the context of modern economic realities. It is not an “arm chair” outlook.

In objective terms, most historians are petite bourgeois, don't put capitalism to question, and most are not usually engaged in social struggle. This raises a difficult point. If Marx's philosophy of history can't be separated from social action based on one's class position, how many Marxist historians are really followers of Marx? As I suggested initially, while most historians have benefited from Marx's contributions to the philosophy of history, few can really say that are Marxist historians. What makes one a Marxist historian is primarily a commitment to class struggle and only secondarily does it mean an embrace of views associated in some way with Marx.

Haines Brown