Marx’ Materialist Conception of History

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What is ‘materialist’ about Marx’s view of history?

Introduction

Marx himself never fully outlined his materialist theory of history, though ‘it occurs in fragmentary form in all his early work written during the years 1843-48, and is taken for granted in his later thought’ (Berlin, 1979: 56) thus it was left to later theorists to deduce it from his early work. In order to understand what is ‘materialist’ about Karl Marx’s view of history we must first situate his theory within the context in which he worked, for in developing his materialist theory of history Marx was heavily influenced by the theories of Hegel: for not only was Hegel the dominant philosopher in Prussia at the time, but Hegel also

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influenced Marx in his choice of doctoral dissertation. He chose a study of the materialist philosophies of Democritus […] and Epicurus, a Hellenistic philosopher who wrote under the shadow of Aristotle in precisely the same way as the Young Hegelians seemed to be under the shadow of Hegel (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 487).

Indeed, Marx has often been linked to the group referred to as the ‘Young Hegelians’ (Williams, 2003: 489) and which included Bruno Baure, Max Stirner, Ludwig Feuerbach and David Strauss (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 485-489) even though Hegel was long dead by the time Marx started his studies. Believing, as I do, that it is not possible to understand Marx’s materialism without first understanding Hegel’s idealist view of history, in the first section I provide a, very brief, overview of Hegel’s philosophy of history. In the second I examine Marx’s theory of history, demonstrating how he overturns Hegel’s idealist schema so that instead of being driven by ideas for Marx history is driven by inherent tensions within the mode of production: it is class based (Berlin, 1979: 59) and therefore materialist. In the conclusion I summarise my argument, highlighting the commonalities between the thought of Hegel and Marx whilst concluding that whilst Hegel was indeed an idealist, Marx’s view of history was undeniably materialist in that it was ultimately concerned with productive relations but, nonetheless, Marx remained idealistic in his methodology due to the influence of Hegel on his work.

Hegel and Historical Idealism

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), pre-eminent philosopher at Jena, Heidelberg and later Berlin Universities (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 409) came to dominate German Philosophy in the Nineteenth Century. He was himself heavily influenced by previous philosophers, including Rousseau (1712-1778), Descartes (1596-1650), Kant (1724-1804), Herder (1744-1803) and those thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment (see Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 412-421). Hegel developed his ‘comprehensive’ theory of history through an in-depth examination of religion,[1] for he believed that religion, rather than being irrational, was ‘the way in which men generally achieve the consciousness of their being’ (Hegel in Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 416). For Hegel, history is the process of the unfolding of the ‘eternal, universal Spirit’ (Berlin, 1979: 57) toward absolute knowledge or self-consciousness: that is, down through history man has been increasingly freed from nature or necessity via the dialectic, ‘a constant logical criticism’ (Berlin, 1979: 58; Taylor in Marx and Engels, 1985: 8). Hegel thus argued that it was possible to identify in each historical epoch a dominant set of ideas and its negation (Taylor in Marx and Engels, 1985: 8), later termed thesis and anti-thesis, the emerging synthesis being progress. His view of history is therefore teleological and stagist; he believed it to be rational and progressive, moving toward improvement in distinct steps through the actions of ‘world historical individuals’ (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 419; 480).

For Hegel then, history is driven forward by ideas; it is, ultimately, idealist: ‘all change is due to the movement of the dialectic, that works by a constant logical criticism, that is, struggle against, and final self-destruction of, ways of thought and constructions of reason and feeling’ (Berlin, 1979: 58). Further, Hegel, following Rousseau and influenced by the Ancient Greeks, believed that true freedom was to be found through, rather than against the state, thus opposing the negative freedoms of liberal thought (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 415, 424; 463): he argued that law and rights are products of man’s mastery over nature, rather than a continuation of the rights of nature as in Locke (Hinchman, 1984: 25), and that therefore equality is created in society via the act of mutual recognition (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 440) and which he illustrates with the mythical encounter between the master and the slave.[2] Therefore, for Hegel, the state is not oppressive, but liberating as it presents the means by which ‘man’ is able to realise his own freedom. It was both this idealism and this freedom via the state that Marx, following Feuerbach, sought to invert.

Marx and Historical Materialism

So, for Hegel, history or social change was the result of tensions between different ideas, between thesis and anti-thesis. Karl Marx (1818-1883) however, via his critique of Hegel, was to overturn this theory, turning the idealist schema into a materialist one: for Marx, rather than history being the result of ideological tension it was the result of tensions between the classes (Berlin, 1979: 59): in short, he sought to invert Hegelian idealism ‘the weapon of criticism cannot replace the criticism of weapons, and material forces must be overthrown by material force (Marx, 1975: 251) in that he believed it was not ideas that drives history but the relations of production (Marx, 1975: 384). In short, Marx believed that it is practical activity by real humans that counts, and not the conceptual activity of Hegel, and it is economic history that is most important of all (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 500; 513): in short his history was materialist.

Following Hegel, Marx believed that the ‘history of humanity is a single, non-repetitive process, which obeys discernable laws’ (Berlin, 1979: 57), but he disagreed with Hegel’s idealism, following the critique of Hegel by Feuerbach in believing that such idealism was in fact a ‘mystification’ (Berlin, 1979: 57) he instead argued that the point of philosophy was to change the world (Marx, 1975: 244-245): ‘Philosophers have only interpreted that world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it’ (Marx in Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 512) via praxis, or practical philosophy (Bottomore, 1979: 6). Further, unlike Hegel, Marx did not believe that Religion was ‘the way in which men generally achieve the consciousness of their being’ (Hegel in Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 416), but instead was made by man; it is an ‘inverted consciousness of the world […] at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering […] it is the opium of the people’ (Marx, 1975: 244, original emphasis). He also distanced himself from Hegel’s dislike of the empirical sciences (Berlin, 1979: 67); instead his practical philosophy seeks, like the empirical sciences, to be emancipatory.

He argued that, when examining each historical epoch, it was possible to isolate the key tension; that is, like Hegel who argued that thesis and anti-thesis pushed history forward, for Marx it was a key socio-economic tension which led to revolution and so pushed forward history: ‘the ancient world gave way to the medieval, slavery to feudalism, and feudalism to the industrial bourgeoisie’ (Berlin, 1979: 64). In short: ‘all history has been a history of class struggles, of struggles between dominated and dominating classes at various stages of social development’ Marx and Engels, 1985: 57). Thus, rather than the actions of the ‘world historical individuals’ of Hegel (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 480) for Marx it was the actions of an entire class – in the future this was to be the proletariat – that drives progress: ‘one particular class undertakes from its particular situation the universal emancipation of society (Marx, 1975: 254). Each revolution in the past, itself the result of the classes’ material circumstances, or the mode of production, had contributed to historical progress. Thus, rather than the idealist history of Hegel, for Marx history is materialist; it is the result of actual conflict in the real world, conflict which is the result of material forces (Taylor in Marx and Engles, 1985: 9; 18). Hegel’s idealism becomes, under Marx, a method (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 489) which reveals that while the state may make men formally free, this freedom is in fact only abstract (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 492-493) as people are actually embedded in the relations of production and are therefore unequal.

Conclusion

I have simplified Marx’s philosophy here, and thus missed the importance of thinkers such as Rousseau, Voltaire, Saint-Simon, Bauer and the Scottish Enlightenment on the development of this thought (Bottomore, 1979: 4-11; Hampsher-Monk, 2001). Also, some authors, including Althusser, have argued that Marx should be divided into early and later Marx (Williams, 2003: 491); with the early stage representing his humanist phase, whilst the later his ‘mature’ work, being where he developed his materialist, social scientific view of history (Williams, 2003: 491). In this essay, however, I have concentrated on his early work in order to demonstrate the materialist nature of his understanding of history: I have done this for two reasons; firstly, I feel that to divide Marx’s philosophy into early and late stages misses the continuity of his thought; secondly, by concentrating on his critique of Hegel, a critique to which he does not return to in his later work, I have been able to demonstrate both his continuation of, and opposition to, the idealism of Hegel’s philosophy of history: for while Marx undeniably sought to overturn Hegelian philosophy, ‘the framework of the new theory is undeviatingly Hegelian’ (Berlin, 1979: 57). Indeed, recent scholarship appears to stress the continuity between Marx’s and Hegel’s thought: ‘Marx and Hegel can be usefully read as sharing a common emancipatory theory of human social history, tempering any putative epistemological break between them’ (Williams, 2003; 495-495). Both believed that poverty was the result of commercial society, rather that the result of misfortune or individual failings and that such poverty entails alienation (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 456-457); both are positive when describing organizations in which men pursue common goals, for Hegel via the corporation (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 459) for Marx via the establishment of communism (Marx and Engles, 1985). However, whereas for Hegel history was driven forward by ideas and the actions of ‘world historical individuals’ (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 480), for Marx it was to be the actions of an entire class, the proletariat, that would drive progress and bring about communism and whilst both theorists share a concern with alienation, for Marx this alienation is the result of material forces: ‘the process by which man creates things out of nature, comes to be dominated by those creations, but will finally overcome that alienation through recovering control of his own (material) creations’ (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 499). For Marx, therefore, history is ultimately materialist.

Bibliography

Berlin, Isaiah (1979 [1973]) ‘Historical Materialism’, Karl Marx, Bottomore, Tom (Ed.), Oxford: Basil Blackwell, pp. 56-68.

Bottomore, Tom (1979 [1973]) ‘Introduction’, Karl Marx, Bottomore, Tom (Ed.), Oxford: Basil Blackwell, pp. 4-42.

Hampsher-Monk, Iain (2001 [1992]) ‘G.W.F. Hegel’ and ‘Karl Marx’, A History of Modern Political Thought: Major Thinkers from Hobbes to Marx, Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 409-482; 483-561.

Hinchman, Lewis P (1984) ‘The Origins of Human Rights: A Hegelian Perspective’, The Western Political Quarterly, Vol.37, No. 1, pp. 7-31.

Marx, Karl and Engles, Friedrich (1985 [1888]) The Communist Manifesto, Introduced by Taylor, A.J.P. (Ed.), Moore, Samuel (Trans.), London: Penguin Classics.

Marx, Karl (1975) ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Introduction (1843-4)’ and ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’, Early Writings, Colletti, Lucio (Ed.), Livingstone, Rodney and Benton, Gregory (Trans.), London: Penguin, pp. 243-257; 279-400.

Williams, Michael (2003) ‘Review Article: Marx and Hegel: New Scholarship, Continuing Questions’, Science and Society, Vol. 67, No. 4, pp. 489-496.

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Footnotes

[1] Art, religion and philosophy all represented, for Hegel, the development of the consciousness, with art being intuition in material form, religion ‘truth in a veil’, while philosophy was self-reflection (Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 476).

[2] In this encounter, which is a life and death struggle for mutual recognition, the loser becomes the ‘slave’ as he submits to the others will rather than face death, while the winner becomes the ‘master’: he has obtained the recognition of the slave but only by becoming dependant on the slaves labour. The slave becomes a labourer, but recognises his own worth through his own labour: he experiences self-hood through his impact on the physical world. The master’s selfhood is confirmed by the slave’s submission, but it is a negative identity; in order to attain true self-hood the master must recognise the other as equal. Society is thus the result of mutual recognition (see Hampsher-Monk, 2001: 426-427; Hinchman, 1984).

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