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In this essay I will seek to assess the contribution of Karl Heinrich Marx, to the writing of History in this present day. To do that I will look at the factors that influenced the man such as the thinking during the period he grew up in, the political atmosphere at the time, the persons who Karl Marx associated with and those who influenced him and finally I will look at how the writings and theories of Karl Marx changed the way History is written today.
Karl Marx was born on the 5th of May 1818 in Trier in Prussia in the geographical area of what is now Germany. He studied at the universities of Bonn, Berlin and Jena. After finishing school he went and wrote for the Rheinisch Zeitung. Marx married his girlfriend Jenny von Westphalen and then he moved to France, it was while in Paris that Marx began to mingle with the working class, while appalled at their poverty while at the same time he was surprised and impressed by their comradely. It was also in Paris that Marx met and became close friends with Friedrich Engels; they both shared similar views on capitalism.
Karl Marx had numerous influences and to understand his reasoning we would have to understand his influences, perhaps the greatest influence on Karl Marx was Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. He was one of the foremost philosophers in Germany, with his opinions being widely thought, however his followers were divided into ‘right wing and left wing Hegelians’. The Left Wing Hegelians of which Karl Marx associated with were mostly revolutionary figures in politics. Marx did not interact with Hegel on a face to face basis but rather studied under one of his pupils who was Bruno Bauer. Marx was also influenced by his close friend Engels’ book, “The Condition of the Working Class”, which had led to the Marx’s conception of the historical dialectic of class struggle.
“Social classes develop on the basis of the different positions that individuals fulfill in the prevailing ‘mode of production’-that is, the economy” as quoted from Power and Society: An Introduction to the Social Sciences by Brigid C. Harrison, Thomas R. Dye. The central theme of Marx’s thinking was the issue of class struggle, he was not the first to understand that society was divided into stratified classes, however he was the first to discover that the existence of classes were interlaced to the forms of production or economic structure in place and that the proletariat which has it meaning in the Latin word proletarius which means the lowest class in society could revolt and lead to the creation of a society without classes. “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” As quoted from The Communist Manifesto and Other Writings by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels which basically meant that Marx viewed all forms of society before and up to his time as stratified ones with persons of the lower classes fighting for a more prominent or higher social class than the one they currently occupied. Karl Marx noted in The Germany Ideology that “the class which is the dominant material force in society is at the same time it’s the dominant intellectual force”. Which simply meant that the persons in a position of authority at any period in time are the ones who determine the goals of that age and if we delve deeper into that we can comprehend that if a select group of persons control the thought patterns they will basically use that intellectual advantage to forward progress in their favor or use it to keep to lower classes under subjection or in perpetual poverty unless those lower classes collectively come together to overthrow the ruling classes and ensure that advancement is in favor of all.
The contribution of Karl Marx to historiography created a different way of analysis of the past. Historical Materialism was a theory of Marx that afforded the opportunity to use a methodological approach to historians as well as bringing to the forefront, the predicament of persons in the lower classes of society which also ties into History from Below which simply means observing and commenting on historical progress from the view of ordinary persons in society as opposed to the ‘Great Man View’ which means only writing history from the perspective of kings and other such persons of great influence in society. His reasoning was that, changes in history occurred not by a series of accidents but were the outcome of relationships between people.
The hypothesis of Historical Materialism was first originated by Marx in the book “Das Kapital: A Critique of Political Economy”. He maintained that division of labor is not equal therefore it would lead to some having more than others and out of that would arise conflict and the only path to the complete change and abolition of societal hierarchy would be through social or political upheaval.
The theory of Historical Materialism is divided into a three-part social structure, which are: the productive forces, the relations of production, and the political and ideological superstructure. The ‘Functional Explanation’ is what is put forward by the theory in an attempt to explain why these three parts are an asset to each other and are essential for progress. An example of this view in use by a historian can be seen in the works of F.W. Walbank who speculated that these productive forces were responsible for the fall of the Roman Empire, who’s rate of production remained the same whilst the cost of maintenance and expansion increased and that when combined with the use of slaves who were offered no incentives and viewed all forms of labor with contempt was what kneelt the death blow to the roman empire.
Marx deemed that to prevent a repeat of the fall of the Roman Empire in modern societies, society would have to develop and move forward in a series of stages. Some of which had already come to pass and the present one in which he lived. These stages in order of appearance were; Communalism or Primitive communism because of the lack of individual ownership of property and the lack of social hierarchy, where persons who lived under this system shared everything and life was not looked at from an individual stand point but rather from the stand point of the group as a whole as they hunted and gathered together, The stage that followed was the Slave Society, this was such as it was the emergence of classes where there was a section of society that owned slaves and then there was the slaves themselves, agriculture was developed to a point where it could support large populations also persons no had private property and such some persons had more than others and possess the wealth to buy even persons and view them as property, after came Feudalism which came to prominence during the European middle ages, where the lands were ruled by a small land owning nobility who got their positions of power by; inheritance, conquest or marriage, the major classes during Feudalism were; Kings, Lord and Serfs who were on par with slaves with the difference mainly being in the name and the fact that they were not legally owned by the landlords, nest came Capitalism which had an economy based on mechanical production, most individuals had personal property, it was not ruled by monarchs but it was a democracy where power was awarded by the people through election, this however does not mean that there was universal suffrage, also in a capitalist system workers were paid wages for duties performed which in turn led to the existence of financial institutions, however Marx viewed capitalism as an evil to be abolished for a better for of society because capitalism still had a minority owning most of the resources while the majority had none and labored for miniscule wages in deplorable conditions, Socialism was the next best thing as it had a planned economy with no personal ownership of property with the ruling being done by groups of the common people who had no real higher social status than the persons who they governed and finally came Pure Communism which was basically the same as socialism but without any remnants of capitalism.
The contribution that Marx therefore had on history was that Historians who used his theories in research focus on specific points such as ‘the growth of productive forces in society’, ‘civilizations characterized by the dominate classes and their relationship to production’, ‘and the view of political institutions in a broader social context’. Marx also was criticized heavily for is theory on history, in Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern by Ernst Breisach it was said that “the theory was destructive to the existing social order, to empirical research, and to a truly historical view of the world”. This was due to the strict guidelines by which Marx viewed history as in there was no leeway to explore other reasons for the way things happened and the way they are now.
In conclusion, the theory of Historical Materialism by Karl Marx was influential the world over to both historians and on-historians alike, it offered tools and definitions that aid the study of history today. He brought to history the focus on the classes of society and the effect they have on civilization also he started to shift away from the notion that history was only to be written about ‘Great Men’ but instead can also be written from the perspective of common folk. It was said of Marx by Che Guevara “he suddenly produces a qualitative change in the history of social thought. He interprets history, understands its dynamic, predicts the future, but in addition to predicting it, he expresses a revolutionary concept: the world must not only be interpreted, it must be transformed”.
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