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  • Published in Marx 101

Neil Faulkner provides an overview of the main terms and concepts plus basic reading material for his Marx 101 session on the Marxist theory of history.

Download notes as Adobe Acrobat PDF [152Kb]

Main terms and concepts

Contradiction, the dialectic, exploitation, surplus, social class, ruling class, producing class, intermediate classes, class struggle, structure, agency, mode of production, means of production, forces of production, relations of production.

Advanced readings

Questions for discussion

  • Is history economically determined?
  • Do human beings make their own history?
  • Is progress inevitable?

Marxism 101: How History Works: Basic Readings

From: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels

The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

Karl MarxThe history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these classes, again, subordinate gradations.

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burgesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed.

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.

The feudal system of industry, in which industrial production was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The manufacturing system took its place. The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class; division of labour between the different corporate guilds vanished in the face of division of labour in each single workshop.

Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacturer no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and machinery revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry; the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and of exchange.

From: Karl Marx

Preface to a Contribution to Political Economy (1859)

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish 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, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.

Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals' social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.

From: Neil Faulkner

A Marxist History of the World: how history happens (2011)

A Mycenaean palace

Three engines drive the historical process.

First, there is the development of technique. Progress can be defined as the accumulation of knowledge that makes possible better control over nature, increases in labour productivity, and an enlarged store of economic resources available for the satisfaction of human need.

Progress in this sense is not inevitable. Entire generations of peasants in, say, Shang China, Mycenaean Greece, or Norman England might live out their entire lives without ever experiencing a significant innovation in either agricultural or domestic equipment.

Only in modern capitalist society is the development of technique inherent in the mode of production. Marx, when making this point, explicitly states: ‘Conservation of old modes of production in unaltered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence of all earlier industrial classes.’

Progress in pre-capitalist society was accidental, not something intrinsic to the dynamic of the socio-economic system. In pre-class society, ecological crisis threatening the survival of human groups was probably of critical significance. The Neolithic Revolution seems to have been a response to global warming and a sharp decline in game.

In pre-capitalist class society, the development of technique is subject to a wider variety of influences, some catalysts of innovation, others barriers to progress. To understand this, we need to review the other two engines of the historical process.

The second is competition among rulers for wealth and power. This takes the form of both conflict within ruling classes, among rival aristocratic factions for example, and conflict between ruling classes, as in wars between rival states and empires.

In modern capitalist society, such competition has both economic and politico-military dimensions. The two world wars of the first half of the 20th century were essentially wars between rival national-capitalist blocs.

In pre-capitalist class society, by contrast, all competition between rulers was essentially political. It took the form of competitive military accumulation. The world was divided into rival factions and polities. Political insecurity was a permanent condition. Military competition was the result: a relentless drive to accumulate soldiers, fortifications, and armaments faster than one’s rivals.

The third engine of the historical process is the struggle between classes. In the ancient world, competitive military accumulation required the ruling class to increase the rate of exploitation and extract more surplus from the peasantry.

There were two limits to this process. One was that the peasantry and the economic system had to be able to reproduce themselves: over-taxation would (and sometimes did) destroy the material foundations of the social order. The other was the resistance of the peasantry to exploitation.

We know very little about the class struggle in the Bronze Age. One exception is provided by surviving documents of the 2nd millennium BCE (before the common era) from Thebes (modern Luxor) in Egypt. They concern the community of skilled quarrymen, stonemasons, and carpenters who made the temples and tombs of the elite.

The documents record class tension. Though the craftsmen were relatively well-paid and worked moderate hours, bullying managers sometimes tried to tighten the screws. On one occasion, those deemed ‘surplus’ to requirements were made to undertake forced labour. But the exploited sometimes fought back. One of the documents records that, in 1170 BCE, backed by their wives, the craftsmen went on strike – the first recorded example in history – when their rations were late and their families faced hunger.

Three engines: the development of technique, the competition among rival rulers, and the struggle between classes. Each engine is very different. Each operates in a different register, at varying speed, and with intermittent effect. Because of this, the historical process is immensely complex. Not only is each engine itself a nexus of contradictions, but all three engines are operating simultaneously, pulling sometimes in the same direction, sometimes in opposite directions.

For this reason, each historical situation is unique. Each one is a distinctive ‘conjuncture’ of economic problems, social tensions, political antagonisms, cultural differences, and personal influences.

The conjuncture provides the context in which historical action takes place. But the context does not determine the outcome. It is the clash of social forces – of organised human groups – that decides history’s future direction.

From: Neil Faulkner

A Marxist History of the World: the cycles and arrows of time (2011)

Bark-art representation of Mother Nature and Time's Cycle

History is formed of cycles and arrows. History’s cycles reflect Nature’s character, a repeating sequence of life, growth, death, and new life. The production cycles of farmers and the reproduction cycles of families are examples.

History’s arrows are the linear progressions of innovation, evolution, and sometimes revolution, by which the social world is periodically transformed.

History necessarily consists of both. Nature, society, and humankind must at all times be reproducing themselves; the only alternative is extinction. Much of what we do is unavoidably repetitive and predictable.

But history never repeats itself exactly. Each historical conjuncture is unique. By ‘conjuncture’ – or ‘state of affairs’ – I mean a specific moment in historical time and geographical space in which related economic, social, and political events take place.

What accounts for the uniqueness of each conjuncture is the combination of continuity (history’s cycle) and change (history’s arrow). But there are critical differences of degree from one conjuncture to another. When history’s cycle is dominant, change is only quantitative and limited. When the arrow is dominant, it is qualitative and transforming.

Let us recall history’s three motors (discussed in ‘How history happens’): the accumulation of knowledge, technique, and productivity; the struggle between rival ruling classes for control of surplus; and the struggle between classes over the size and distribution of surplus.

It is the interaction of these three motors that drives the historical process. Iron tools transformed ancient agriculture, bringing new areas into cultivation, increasing the productivity of field labour, and massively enlarging the size of the social surplus. Technology was the prime mover. Human labour, after all, has its own dynamic. No worker chooses a blunt tool when there is a sharp one to hand.

The rise of the Roman Empire, on the other hand, though based on iron technology, was powered by the military struggle between rival ruling classes and rival factions within the Roman ruling class. Here, struggle at the top for control of surplus was prime mover.

The flowering of Classical Greek civilisation in the 5th century BCE – another Iron Age culture – is an instance of where the struggle between classes was decisive. It was the ‘hoplite revolution’ of the 6th century BCE that created city-state democracies and spawned naturalistic art, classical architecture, western drama, and the academic disciplines of natural science, philosophy, and history.

The motors always operate in specific natural and social frameworks. Geography both provides opportunities and imposes constraints, and the tradition of social institutions, practices, and customs inherited the past constitutes the context for further historical development.

Here are some examples. The geography of Eurasia spread people, resources, tools, and ideas much more effectively than did that of Africa. The strength of the centralised state prevented the development of an independent urban bourgeoisie in medieval China. The weakness of the feudal states of Europe allowed one to develop.

Sometimes the interaction of history’s three motors produces only a repeating cycle. Sometimes it produces more or less rapid change, and sometimes revolutionary crisis and radical social transformation.

Among the Arabs, Indians, Chinese, Africans, and Americans, history’s cycle was dominant through the long centuries from antiquity to modernity. There was change, but it was slow. Change was quantitative rather than qualitative.

The lives of peasant-farmers, who made up the overwhelming bulk of the population in ancient and medieval times, were dominated by history’s cycle. Even when they rebelled against their rulers, as they sometimes did when exploitation became intolerable, they merely installed new ones and then went back to their farms.

The lives of merchants were more changeable. Some were lucky and became rich. Some chugged along. Others messed up and went broke. But their individual fates did not affect how society as a whole worked, and generally, what merchants did could not alter this. Merchants oiled the wheels of the production process, they did not power it. They occupied the interstices of society, not its commanding heights.

The lives of rulers were more changeable still, with the rise and fall of dynasties, empires, and civilisations. But this historical ‘froth’ made little difference to the lives of those they ruled. The identities of rulers – personifications of the competitive logic of military imperialism – was a secondary matter. One king was pretty much like another.

Only in one part of the world did there arise a unique combination of circumstances and forces sufficiently powerful to generate a dynamic of change capable of producing radical social transformation.

In a sense, it has happened only twice in human history. The first transformation was the agricultural revolution which occurred in different parts of the world between about 7500 BCE and as late as the 20th century CE. All ancient and medieval civilisations were essentially the result of this revolution. The great majority of the population worked on the land, and the great bulk of the social surplus took the form of agricultural produce.

But in the last 250 years, the social world has been transformed a second time with the development of industrial capitalism. This second transformation has created the social world we inhabit today.

Tagged under: Socialism Marxism
Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.


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