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Marx’s Theory of History



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History of the Vigneron: Languages Part 3.1, 1780-1880: Philosophy, Perception, and the Historian

Marx’s Theory of History

karl-marx-and-jenny-von-westphalen-1836Marx and Engels wrote that the first social organizations worked together for tribal food production (Marx, The German Ideology, part I, 1845).  The beginnings of slavery, and the establishment of private property would decay the pure “communism” of the tribal communities, and usher in a second developmental stage, which is referred to as “ancient communal and state ownership” (Harris 1997). It was at this point Marx and Engels write that the social classes would develop, and it would do so within two antithetical forms of government, the development democratic city-state as well as the authoritarian regime (wikipedia).

Small-scale agricultural and artisan production, and the lack of division of labor were the hallmarks of Feudalism (Marx 1845), the third of Marx’s historical stages. The inefficient production of the period of seigneurial farming and industry mean domestic commerce was virtually non-existent. Surplus would be necessary before the capitalist stage could begin, and that would require division of labor. Marx wrote that “the entire internal structure of the nation itself depends on the stage of development and international commerce” (Marx, The German Ideology, part I, 1845).

For France, the development of “productive forces” would begin before the revolution 18th century, with the growing Bourgeoisie class, developing international trade by investing in ships and crew, as well as capitalizing the first commercial farming with the development of good roads. The capitalization of large farms would accelerate in the early 19th century, and around 1930, these Bourgeoisie would capitalize industrialization. Capitalism, which is no more than paying others to work to produce a product, from which profit would be made by those that supplied the capital, was seen by Marxist as predatory, and required the “exploitation” of labor. People had become no more than a commodity. This brought of history to the then-present, and Marx predicted that the next stage, which was soon approaching, had to be some form of communal, worker-led, mutual self-governance. Governments would wither away for lack of need. This need not be a violent over throw. The ‘theory of the value of labor‘, produced ample labor power, but the workers must “rise up and unite” in order to make the future happen.

Historical materialism –

Conjoined within the stages of history, was another major jumping off point for debate and study; the concept of historical materialism. Here, man’s basic quest for of food, clothing and shelter, are never complete, and each need “leads to new needs”(Marx, The German Ideology, 1845), and that the particular “social existence that determines their consciousness” (Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859). When the historian, who is either actively, or even subconsciously applying these theoretical underpinnings, the direction of research, and the conclusions that are reached will have been influenced by those predispositions.

Inspiration for Marx can also be seen from Ludwig Andreas von Feuerbach, a contemporary German philosopher from whom he borrows and expands on the idea that “thought arises from being, not being from thought”(Feurebach 1817). In Marx’s 1845 writing, Theses on Feurebach, Marx pens this line: “The philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” While he is superficially dismissing philosophy for action, he is more deeply is reclaiming the use of philosophy for use within his own historical materialism: as one need is met, that of philosophy, a another need arises, that of action.  Historian Francis Wheen, then summarizes Marx’s Theses on Feurebach as thus: “Until humans can assert themselves as subjects of history rather than it objects, the is no escape from this tyranny.” (Wheen 2004).

Revolution, Violence and Force.

Force is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one. It is itself an economic power. Kapital, volume I, Chapter Thirty-One: Genesis of the Industrial Capitalist, 1867

Opening the door for a divergent forms of communism

In the later part of his life, Marx opens the door further for re-interpretation of his work, when in 1877, he is clearly angered by an article published by Russian scholarly journal, Otecestvenniye Zapisky. In response, Marx pens a letter to the challenge the criticisms of (presumably) a fellow Marxist, who Marx refuses to address by name, and referring to him simply as “the writer”. The issue at hand was whether Russia might bypass the stage of capitalism; saying that in cases such as “the plebeians of ancient Rome” he wrote, “different historic surroundings led to totally different results”(Marx, 1877).

He continued that the people of Russia “can without experiencing the tortures of this regime, appropriate all its fruits by developing the particular historic conditions already given her.” In a somewhat convoluted finale, Marx announces, that he will “come straight to the point”. “If Russia continues to pursue the path she has followed since 1861, she will lose the finest chance ever offered by history to a nation, in order to undergo all the fatal vicissitudes of the capitalist regime”(Marx 1877).

It appears that this concepts of optional paths of economic evolution was an idea that Marx had been fermenting for at least a decade. Steven Kreis, writes that Marx “delayed the publication” of many of his works, but given his lack of peer acceptance, it may have been the case that he simply did not have an avenue to get them published. One manuscript in particular, which was written between 1857 and 1859 called “Outlines of a Critique of a Political Economy”, was to become the most definitive source for understanding Marx’s “evolutionary periodization”(Harris 2001). However, the fact that it wasn’t published until 1941 limits its historical impact, meaning Marx’s words would not be read and be considered by revolutionaries such as Lenin, who had already died in seventeen years before.

Marvin Harris writes in his book, “The Rise of Anthropological Theory”, Marx opens up the transition from the tribal economic stage, to the possibility that development could follow “a number of different routes,” which were “apparently dictated by local conditions.”  Harris adds, woefully, that Marx’s leaves the specifics of these different routes “disappointingly obscure.” Such is the case with Marx’s   letter to the editor, where he fails to cite “the particular historic conditions” with which the Russian people need to develop in order to “appropriate all its fruits”.

Vladimir Lenin Sverdlov Square in Moscow, with Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev adjacent to the right of the podium. Wikipedia

Vladimir Lenin Sverdlov Square in Moscow, with Leon Trotsky and Lev Kamenev adjacent to the right of the podium. Wikipedia

To take the position that Russia is capable in 1877 to skip capitalist stage, however is to discredit his own evolutionary economic theories entirely. It suggests that after a lifetime of waiting for his proletariat revolution to happen, in the end, it would seem Marx would be at least partially satisfied that any socialist revolution to be successful.

No doubt this is how Russian Marxists of the era, had read this passage. Lenin (born 1870) and Trotsky (born 1879), who were just seven and eight years old at the time of this letter, would implement the most liberal run-and-gun adaptions of Marx’s ideas as they launched Russia into violent revolution against the Russian Provisional government in 1917. They would ignore the advice of Marx when he wrote of the communards in 1871: “But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”


With every justification these Russian “communists” allowed themselves to resort to the most despotic and brutal suppression of every form of opposition, including the murder of their own followers, and the workers they claimed to represent.


  1. Letter from Marx to Editor of the Otecestvenniye Zapisky, Karl Marx, 1877
  2. The German Ideology, part I, Karl Marx, 1845
  3. The Revolutionary Role of the Peasants, Nigel Harris,  Debate, International Socialism (1st series), No.41,December 1969
  4. The History Guide, Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History, Steven Kreis, historyguide.org, 2000

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