How Marx made history: the development of historical materialism


At school and university, history is taught in certain ways. Either it is understood as the product of ‘Great Men’ or, as postmodernists would say, it is just a series of unconnected and unrelated events. Marxism, on the other hand, analyses the hidden mainsprings that lie behind the development of human society, from the earliest tribal societies up to the modern day.

The way in which Marxism traces this winding road is called the materialist conception of history. This scientific method enables us to understand history, not as a series of unconnected and unforeseen incidents, but as part of a clearly understood and interrelated process. It is a series of actions and reactions which cover politics, economics and the whole spectrum of social development.

Recommended Reading:


Jack: We are here today at the International Marxist University to discuss history. However, when I was 16, I decided that I would never study history again. I found it quite boring, and that’s because, in the schools and the universities, it is presented as one fact after another. There is no rhyme or reason to anything, it’s just a bland succession of events; and when causes are given, they are very superficial. 

To illustrate this, I found a British school textbook explanation as to why World War One started, and they gave a list of four causes of this war. Number one: Kaiser Wilhelm personally wanted an empire. Number two: alliances caused tensions and mistrust between countries. However, there’s no clue as to why these particular alliances were made at this particular time. Number three: the naval race created a conflict between Britain and Germany. Again though, you are left wondering why at this particular time there was a naval race. Then the final cause that is given is the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. In a certain sense, this did cause the war, as it acted as an initial spark. But if the archduke had had the flu that morning and hadn’t gone out on his ride – and so avoided assassination – there would still have been a war. 

You can’t explain major historical events by small details like this. There are plenty of political assassinations, and not all of them cause world wars. So what you can see is that history tends to be taught as being the result of either the wishes of great men or due to superficial accidents. Now, I did begin studying history again, but this was because I was inspired by a correct method of approaching it, and that’s the Marxist method of dialectical materialism: the philosophy of Marxism. And historical materialism is essentially the application of this method to the study of history. With this, history is not viewed as a series of isolated facts; instead, it encourages you to discover the general processes and laws that govern nature and society. 

It is funny that so-called historians deny that there are laws that operate in human history. I don’t think these people would deny the fact that there are laws that operate in nature; but for some reason humanity (according to them) is completely different and no general laws apply. Well, Marxism does accept that there are general laws operating in society, and that these can be studied and understood. 

There is another claim: that historians should be neutral in order to present history in a truthful manner. According to these people, Marxists are unable to reflect historical events accurately because they are incredibly biased. Now, we have to point out, first of all, that there are no neutral historians. Any writing of history represents a class point of view. You need to decide: are you on the side of the oppressed and the exploited, or do you take the side of the status quo, defending the ruling class? And you can clearly see what side this ‘impartial’ school textbook I mentioned was on. So-called impartial, because not only was everything, according to them, the fault of the evil German Kaiser, but their description of the British Empire is truly shameless. They say: “while people around the world had different experiences of the empire, it brought the UK huge amounts of wealth and power.” So all of the hundreds of millions of people who experienced the massacres, concentration camps, and enslavement that the British Empire brought just had a ‘different experience’ to the British ruling class, who enjoyed all the proceeds. Of course, this is not exactly a neutral, impartial view of the British Empire.

Marxists do take a stance in history, and we’re honest about it. We take a stance on the side of the oppressed and the exploited, but that doesn’t in the least make us unable to get to the truth. In fact, it makes us more able to do so. Partiality does not mean that you’re less interested in finding the truth. Is a doctor, for example, uninterested in effectively diagnosing their patient because they have an interest in doing so? No, I think it’s precisely because a doctor wants to treat the patient effectively that they work hard to find the causes for the symptoms a patient is experiencing. It is much the same with the Marxists: because we have a huge interest in learning from history – in order to avoid making the same mistakes as the past – we have to present a truthful account. This compares extremely favourably to bourgeois history. The British school curriculum has no interest whatsoever in uncovering the brutal crimes of the British state; and so, whenever possible, they will look to prettify it. 

If the schools and universities don’t present an impartial and truthful account of history, you certainly can’t expect them to present a truthful account of Marxism. Consistently, straw men are created in order to attack and discredit Marxist ideas. One of these is that Marxists reduce everything to economics. It is said that Marx believed that changes in the economic base automatically produce changes in the so-called superstructure. The superstructure is made up of the ideas, institutions, political parties, and things like this which form on top of the economic base. 

Another similar claim is that Marxists think capitalism will automatically collapse and be replaced by a communist society. However, Marxism does not view history as an automatic process. Marx said: “History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth, and wages no battles. Instead, it is real living man that does all that.” And he continues: “History is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims. However, these individuals pursue their aims as part of a particular society and are subject to certain laws.” So that means that their aims and ideas don’t just pop out of nowhere. World War One didn’t happen just because the Kaiser fancied it. And, in actual fact, explaining history as a product of the aims of individuals doesn’t really make any sense when you think about it. People may believe they are acting in a certain way and for certain reasons, but what they intend rarely actually happens as they planned it. 

We can look at the French Revolution: here, the leaders fought under the banner of liberty, equality, and fraternity. They believed they were fighting for a society based on justice and reason. But regardless of their intentions, they were actually preparing the way for the rule of the bourgeoisie in France. In fact, Marx actually said the subjective approach to history is like trying to get a good picture of someone’s character by asking them what they think of themselves. Instead, using a materialist approach, Marx says: “Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.” But what does this mean? Well, before human beings can develop art or philosophy or science, they first need to satisfy their basic needs of food and shelter. But in order to produce these things, Marx says that humans need to enter into certain relations with others. And these relations don’t just purely depend on our own subjective will, they depend ultimately on the stage of development of the material productive forces. 

What are productive forces? In producing things that they need to, humans innovate and they create in order to make themselves more efficient and make their lives easier. This includes everything from the introduction of the hand axe 1.7 million years ago, to the introduction of large-scale production in factories with the industrial revolution. And what Marx says is that the way we produce our means of subsistence ultimately influences the relations between producers. He says that the sum total of all of these relations is what constitutes this economic structure of society. And it’s on this foundation that this so-called superstructure is formed. We can take the state as an example: it is formed ultimately due to the existence of separate classes in society. There is basically the need for a power that, to some extent, stands above society but equally is born out of that society itself, and ultimately exists in order to keep the conflict of the classes within a certain order, with that order of course being in the interest of the ruling class at the time. 

States can take on many different forms, even within one mode of production. Under capitalism, for example, we've had everything from the welfare states that formed in many countries, right up to Bonapartist dictatorships i.e police states or military dictatorships. These are states that are able to rise above the class struggle to a much greater degree. We can take Chile under Pinochet as an example of this. This character murdered and attacked huge numbers of workers. Under his rule, the capitalists also had many freedoms taken off of them. Now, these two different examples of states had huge differences between them, obviously; but we can characterise them as being capitalist states because, ultimately, they were based on and defended the private ownership of the means of production. In Chile, the class struggle had reached such a pitch, and there was no class able to offer a way forward, so this allowed the state to gain this certain amount of independence; whereas, in the examples of the welfare states, the social democratic leaders were able to mollify the working class, and so maintain the ultimate role of the capitalist class. 

This relationship between the economic base and the superstructure is not a mechanical relationship, with a one-way and automatic influence from the base to the superstructure. Instead, it's a dialectical relationship, where the base and the superstructure interact back on each other. So superstructural elements, once formed, can interact and act back on the economic base. If you think about it, if Marxists denied this possibility, then we would all be wasting our time. We believe a revolutionary party is necessary to lead the working class to victory, overthrowing capitalism and changing the mode of production. What else is this, but an example of a superstructural element influencing the economic base? Of course, this can't be done in any situation and it doesn't just depend on our subjective will, but I'll come back to this. 

Marx says that humans pursue their own aims, but not in conditions of their own choosing. But what does this mean? Well, first of all, your outlook, your sensibilities, and even your morality is shaped to a very large degree by the mode of production that you live under. Before the existence of private property, for example, the idea of theft would be nonsensical. There would be no need to have this social pressure against stealing things if things were largely held in common. On top of this, your outlook is also shaped to a very large extent by your social class. If you're a capitalist, it makes moral sense for you to push down the wages and conditions of your workers. If you're a worker, on the other hand, it makes moral sense for you to push up your wages and fight for better conditions. So what is moral in both instances depends on your social class and, obviously, we do not choose which epoch we are born into or which class we are born into. 

Whilst there's no automatic relationship between the economic base and the superstructure, Marxists say that ultimately economic necessity asserts itself. Marxists say that the viability of any system depends on the ability to develop the productive forces. To put it simply, is there a general tendency towards producing more for less? If we look at the whole of human history, we can see that there has been a general chain of development from lower to higher forms of society. And this hasn't taken place in a slow and steady constant upward march. It's taken place in a dialectical manner. Again, what does this mean? Well, Trotsky said that dialectics is the logic of evolution, and if we look at the evolution of species we can see that there are long periods of no change whatsoever, which are interrupted by sudden leaps of development. On top of this, there can be periods of regression or stagnation as well. 

There are similarities here to the evolution of human society: there are long periods of very little change which are interrupted by these sudden leaps between different stages in society. This is what we would call a revolution. So whilst regression and stagnation are not ruled out by Marxists, we would say that the general line of human development has been in a progressive direction, and that would even include the emergence of class society. We can take as an example the emergence of slavery as the mode of production in Greece and Rome. From a Marxist point of view, this was progressive in that it freed up a section of society from the need to carry out manual labour; and this privileged section then went on to produce amazing developments. So despite the brutal nature of these regimes, we still owe a huge deal of our civilisation to Rome and Greece. 

But like all social systems, at a certain stage, this system reached its limits. So from being something that drove humanity forward, it actually became a drag on human progress and entered into a lengthy period of decline. And what Marxists do say is that, when society shows no way forward, we enter into a period of revolution and counter-revolution. You saw that in Rome, you had the slave uprisings under the leadership of Spartacus. Here, the slaves rose up and defeated the armies of this powerful empire again and again. However, ultimately this movement failed and was defeated. 

What we had here was a situation where the relations of production (the slave economy) had come into conflict with the further development of the productive forces. However, it didn't mean an automatic collapse of the system and its replacement with the next stage, feudalism, because what was required was real living human beings to show the way forward. Because this didn't happen there was deadlock and decline for about 400 years, and eventually the whole system collapsed in on itself as the barbarians ended up defeating Rome. And despite what these textbooks say, Marx did account for this, because he said that the class struggle can end either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large or in the common ruin of the contending classes. We can see here that Marxists don't discount the notion that human progress can stagnate or be thrown backwards.

There's a fashionable idea in academia to say that there's no such thing as progress, and some honest students can perhaps get taken in by this. If you consider how the idea of progress was used to justify imperialism, for example, then we can say a certain rejection of this notion is a bit healthy. However, we shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Who really can deny that the productive capability of humanity as a whole has progressed somewhat over time? Because, for most of human history, it was a real struggle just to produce enough food to survive. But now we produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. Of course, this progress does not mean that we think that the lives of all human beings have been improved equally. By progressive, what we mean is that these stages of society are laying the basis for a socialist society, which would be one free of all oppression and exploitation.

When a social system goes into crisis, you can react in one of two ways: you can decide to fight for something better, or you can retreat in on yourself in misery and give up. This latter outcome is why you tend to see the proliferation of mystical, irrational or subjective tendencies at times of crisis. In the long period of decline of the Roman Empire, you had the spreading of a whole host of religious sects; and Roman philosophy at that time was dominated by subjectivist ideologies i.e philosophies that reject or doubt the existence of the external material world. One law of historical materialism is that similar conditions produce similar outcomes; and we have a similar situation today, because the ruling class can see no way forward under their own system. It's for that reason that their ideologists promote the idea that there is actually no such thing as progress after all. It's for the same reason that philosophies which make us doubt or question the existence of objective reality are also promoted. This really is the ultimate reason for postmodernism – it's a reflection of the dead-end of the capitalist system.

We speak about specific stages of human development: primitive communism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism etc. These stages are abstractions from reality. Every particular slave or feudal or capitalist society is different from the other. But that doesn't mean that these categories are useless. Any abstraction ignores what is particular to that individual example of a thing and looks at what unites them. So you might be sitting on a chair: it might be black, it might be brown, it might have four legs, it might have three, it might have wheels, it might not. But that doesn't mean that you reject the category of “chair” in general because no individual chair looks like this perfect conception in your mind. Because actually abstraction is incredibly useful for humanity. So when we say that the economy is a slave society, it doesn't mean that 100% of the population is either a slave or a master. What we are saying is that the dominant form of production in that society is slavery. Of course, reality is far more complicated than abstractions. You still have the existence of slavery in capitalist or feudal societies, and you had elements of capitalism in feudal or even slave societies. 

But there is also the opposite problem. So whilst we mustn't reject abstractions in general, we also must not use them in a mechanical way. If you maintain a formalistic way of looking at things you'll be unable to understand change, because there isn't a clear dividing line between, say, feudalism and capitalism. In actual fact, that is precisely how change takes place, because within the old society you have a new one struggling to be born. What we see is that changes between social systems don't really take place due to external pressures, but from changes within the social system itself. Under feudalism, you had the towns, industry, and the development of the working class and the bourgeoisie, and all of these were born within the old feudal society. As the bourgeoisie became more and more powerful, and wage labour more and more the dominant form of production, these new relations of production rebelled against the chains of feudalism. Eventually, this contradiction had to be broken through a revolution. 

It is much the same today: we can see the embryo of a socialist system being born within capitalism. Whilst capitalism used to be progressive, it has turned into its opposite. Free competition has given way to monopoly. You now have huge multinational corporations that cover the entire planet. And what you see actually is that, internally, these companies plan to an extremely high degree. So in normal times, Tesco or Walmart or any of these sorts of companies are able to plan exactly how much food will be needed in each community. They coordinate with farmers, they transport it to central warehouses, and they distribute it to different communities. It's an operation that very rarely goes wrong.

Of course, this planning has gone wrong in a rather spectacular way as of late; but the reason for this, ultimately, is that whilst there are elements of planning within capitalist companies, this isn't the case across society and across the globe as a whole. The main point here is that capitalism, by concentrating production into these massive companies, is actually laying the basis for socialism. Because rather than nationalising countless tiny little shops that aren't coordinated, what would be needed instead is only to nationalise the largest companies and put them under the democratic control of the working class. 

Earlier, I ridiculed a school textbook for reducing the entire role of starting World War One to the German Kaiser; but that's not to say that individuals play no role at all. Marxists deny that an individual, purely from the force of their personality, with nothing else required, can shape history as they please. However, when conditions are right, an individual can play an important, if not a crucial role. After all, Leon Trotsky said that without Lenin the Russian Revolution would have failed. That's because, on the verge of the revolution, it required Lenin to fight against most of the Bolshevik leadership to win the party around to the idea of taking power. Without Lenin's struggle, it's likely that the Bolsheviks would have prevaricated, and instead of the successful Russian Revolution, you would have had Russian fascism. So we can see that the individual role of Lenin was vital at that time.

But Lenin had been a revolutionary and a Marxist for a long time before 1917. So, therefore, the right conditions were needed in order for this great individual to be able to play this role. And it is common for great revolutionary leaders to only come to the fore in times of the heat of revolution. As well as Lenin, you have Cromwell, Robespierre, and Lincoln. But, on the other hand, in the time of downswing of the revolutionary movement, you have the rise of mediocrities: people like Stalin, and we can use the USSR as an example. 

Lenin and Trotsky hoped that the revolution would be a spark that set off revolutions across Europe. This did happen, but unfortunately these revolutions failed, and so Russia was ultimately isolated. With this isolation, with this continued poverty, backwardness, and the invasion of twenty-one of the most powerful countries in the world, eventually you had apathy set in amongst the mass of the working class and peasantry. I mean, how were you supposed to introduce workers' democracy when the mass of the population was starving or illiterate? It was this apathy that allowed a bureaucracy to rise to the top and they chose an individual to represent their interests. Stalin's individual personality matched this situation and that's really why he was able to rise to the top. So, as opposed to the idealist approach to history which explains everything as a product of great men, Marxism explains that great individuals are only great because of the social forces that they represent. If these forces don't exist, they are unable to be great. Trotsky once said: “The office of kingship doesn't lodge within the king himself, it is an interrelation between people. The king is only king because the interests and prejudices of millions are refracted through his person. When the flood of development sweeps away these interrelations, the king appears a washed-out man with a flabby lower lip.” So individuals can play a decisive role in history, but only in the right conditions. 

Now, whilst it is true that there are laws that operate in history just as in nature, these laws are not exact. The history of human society is a far more complex system than that of a simple chemical reaction. Additionally, we're not exactly able to carry out experiments as revolutionaries. So what we have to do instead is to study history in order to gain general lessons from it. But there's a problem here: each revolution has its own specific characteristics. The revolutions in England, France and the Netherlands were all bourgeois revolutions, but they all had their own particular characteristics. That's why the method of Marxism is so important. 

Marxism is not a study of texts and quotes, it's a study of reality. So whenever we are approaching a new phenomenon or an event, we need a cold hard look at the facts. But that doesn't mean we're empiricists, because we do make use of theory in order to help us understand. I’ll give an example to demonstrate this – because much like every bourgeois revolution has its own particular characteristics, the same can be said of socialist revolutions. Lenin said: “If you wish to see a pure revolution, you will never live to see one.” So we study past revolutions, not to gain a blueprint for exactly how one will take place in the future, but to gain general lessons which can then be applied in the future. 

There are many instances where this kind of method has been forgotten. An example of this is the period of the post-war upswing. Revolutions don't happen just because we want them to, they happen because of the objective situation. This means that revolutions can happen without the existence of a mass revolutionary party – and this has happened, and it's led to all sorts of weird situations. So, in the post-war period, the advanced capitalist countries were seeing booming economies – but this wasn't the case in the less advanced countries. Capitalism could offer no way forward in these places. On the other hand, you had the example of the USSR. Even in its deformed state, it was a shining example of two very important things. First of all, how you could rapidly develop your economy. Secondly, how you could do this whilst maintaining the privileges of an elite. 

In the end, this resulted in many elites in these countries: intellectuals, generals, and so on. Many of these became attracted to Marxism in its Stalinist form. And so in one country after another, you had these elites abolish capitalism: in Syria, Ethiopia, Burma, and Afghanistan. This really confused many people who purported to be Marxists, and led them to abandon the Marxist method. Some people said that these regimes were entirely healthy and that they showed the way forward. Others took a moralistic approach, and this essentially consisted of the thinking: well, bad things are taking place in these countries and so they can't possibly be considered workers’ states. 

Ultimately, it was left to Ted Grant – one of the founders of the International Marxist Tendency – to analyse these states, which he described as deformed workers' states. He used the Marxist theory of Bonapartism. He characterised them as workers’ states because of the form of property they were based on. However, they were Bonapartist because the working class was not in political power from the beginning. It was similar to Pinochet's Chile. Pinochet’s Chile was a capitalist state because of the form of property it was based on – despite the fact that many capitalists, the ruling class, were oppressed. Of course, they were far less oppressed than the working class; but if you take a moralistic position and purely judge the class nature of a state based on whether bad things were done, you really would be unable to explain why Chile was capitalist whilst part of the ruling class was oppressed.

To finish up: the early humans were almost completely at the mercy of nature. As humanity has developed, we've attained more and more control over our existence. That doesn't mean that we're able to ignore the laws of nature. What it means instead is that we're better able to study and understand these laws, and so make them work for us. We can take the example of agriculture: with the development of science and technology, we've been able to produce a huge amount more food than in the past, so humanity today is far less held hostage by nature. Naturally caused famines no longer threaten the survival of humanity to the same degree, and so in a certain sense, this has made humanity more free. For Marxists, freedom doesn't mean freedom from laws; it means understanding them, and thus making them work for us. 

And yet, despite us producing enough food to feed 10 billion people, a child dies from starvation every 10 seconds. This is because, whilst we have increased our control of natural laws to a far higher degree than in the past, we live in an anarchic social system: the capitalist system. That's why we fight for a democratically planned economy. This wouldn't be the end of history, however; it would be the start of our real history as a species. The early humans would hear thunder coming from the sky and would have no conception as to what was causing it. They would put it down to Gods that could not be controlled. Today, too, many people throw their hands up in despair because of the poverty and hunger that we see amongst the plenty that this anarchic system brings about. 

A democratically planned economy, on the other hand, could effectively distribute work and resources. No longer would we be completely subject to these laws that we don't understand and can't control. We would instead be able to make them work for us. This would be, as Engels described it, the leap from the realm of necessity to that of freedom. That is what we are fighting for. 


Joel: The most, I think, dangerous books written against Marxism are not the openly right-wing ones. One of the latest such books published is called The Dawn of Everything. This is written by David Wengrow and David Graeber. David Graeber is famous for the role that he played in the Occupy Wall Street movement, and he's a well-known anarchist anthropologist. Many people have therefore been excited for this book, which promises a new science of history. The central thesis of The Dawn of Everything is that humans can choose their social structure, regardless of material conditions. They therefore draw the conclusion that the only laws governing historical development are those we make up ourselves. This is essentially an idealist history. They’re doing this to try to say that we can change society. They end up in reactionary conclusions. 

The book starts by arguing against egalitarian hunter-gatherer origins. The only problem is that the existence of our communistic past is very well established through hunter-gatherer studies. So what they essentially do is to ignore 95% of human history; and instead, they attack the word egalitarian or equality. They say that there's no common conception of what this word means, and so therefore there must not be an egalitarian past. But this is a common idealist trick. They change a word to try to change the material reality. When they actually start commenting on hunter-gatherer societies, the best argument they come up with is that some of them varied depending on the season. This is true, but it doesn't get much beyond material conditions, which is the weather, seasons. 

One of the biggest attacks on historical materialism in this book is the argument that the Neolithic Revolution is a myth that never happened. This was, as previously described, a transition from hunting and gathering to sedentary societies based on farming. It was a period which marked a huge development in the productive forces and a fairly abrupt transformation with the emergence of cities, creating the basis for the development of class society and the state. One of the main thrusts of The Dawn of Everything is that we should abandon the idea that society was egalitarian and then overthrown by class society, because this resembles a Garden-of-Eden-type argument. But the main question that they ask in the book is how we got stuck in an exploitative hierarchical society. They provide a map in the book that shows where agriculture developed independently. All of these areas developed into highly stratified class societies with states. None of the first major world empires appeared anywhere else. So it’s almost as if similar material conditions produce similar results, which just proves the theory of the Neolithic Revolution.

As idealists, the authors try to fit reality into their preconceived ideas. For example, they try to prove that things like private property and the state have always existed. They say: “If private property has an origin, it is as old as the idea of the sacred, which is likely as old as humanity itself.” They say that private ownership is almost identical to the concept that something is owned by a sacred being. In other words, private property existed as an idea first. But this argument makes very little sense. The common idea amongst hunter-gatherers that a sacred being owns the forest, the lakes, the rivers or the mountains means precisely the opposite of private ownership. It means that these things cannot be owned by anyone, because they're communists. 

Similarly, there's a chapter in this book called “Why the state has no origins.” Here, they say that because there's no agreed-upon definition of the state, searching for its origins is “little more than chasing a phantasm.” In an earlier book that David Graeber wrote, he says: “Most hunter-gatherers we know have plenty of kings, but they studiously avoid allowing sovereign powers to fall into the hands of mortal humans.” So, again, they're saying that hunter-gatherers had the idea of a king, and therefore, they had kings. But people can have ideas all they want; what is important is why ideas of class society and the state take form in the material reality. 

The authors try to redefine communism, describing it basically as people helping each other, or mutual aid. They say: “Communism is not some magical utopia and neither does it have anything to do with the ownership of the means of production. It is something that exists right now, that exists to some degree in any human society, although there has never been one in which everything has been organised in that way, and it would be difficult to imagine how there could be.” In another book that Graeber wrote, he actually is an active opponent of revolution, and I think this is a thrust of this book as well. He says: “Since the days of the French Revolution, it has inspired millions, but it has also done enormous damage to humanity. It is high time, I think, to brush the entire argument aside.” So no revolution: just mutual aid, people helping each other, and trying to build enclaves of communism within capitalism. But this is just a defence of the status quo, couched in pseudo-radical language.

In this book, they quote an indigenous North American leader called Kandiaronk, who is criticising the French for having separate material interests, for having money, and for having classes. He specifically states that such things did not exist in his society. This is because Kandiaronk was living in a communist society, so he was critical of capitalism and feudalism. But the authors of The Dawn of Everything say: “Recall how the indigenous critique of Kandiaronk was more interested in liberty and mutual aid than property.” However, this isn’t what Kandiaronk says at all, and this is a very dishonest method. 

So just to finish off: in this book, which is 700 pages, the authors never actually answer the questions that they pose. How did we get stuck? I guess some people just got stupid and lost their freedom for some reason. So, starting with the bold claim about ‘the dawn of everything’, you’re left with nothing; and I believe this is down to the idealist methods of the authors, which don't help to clarify anything. What they recommend is that we need to rediscover the freedoms that make us human in the first place. So, in order to be free, we need to learn how to be free, which is a complete tautology. I think we should not be surprised that we're seeing books like this that are an attack on Marxism. Capitalism is in deep crisis, revolution is on the order of the day, and the masses are revolting against the rising inequality. So it’s not surprising to see books which oppose revolution, oppose overthrowing capitalism. I hope this has helped people to see through this, and I invite everyone here to reject these ideas and to fight for a socialist revolution.

Alessio: It is clear enough how all these attacks against Marxism are made in the name of the complete freedom of the individual. They deny natural and social laws, are ultimately idealistic and provide no concrete alternatives. They therefore end up justifying the position of the ruling class, or your position in society. Historical materialism, on the other hand, gives a view and a concrete way to change reality, by knowing it. 

Identifying historical laws, which are an abstraction and a generalisation made from concrete processes, does not mean that everything in history should mechanically follow a script written in advance. It is a complex reality in which each element dialectically interacts with all the others and has an influence on their development. For example, not all countries follow the same stages of historical development, and we can see that very clearly in the development of the relations of imperialistic domination. But the development of some countries not only allows, but implies the backwardness of others, and these relationships themselves can change over time. As Lenin explained, that is something we are seeing precisely in the current epoch. Similarly, we can see elements of different modes of production combined, something that is explained by the law of uneven and combined development. Just think of the rediscovery of slavery in the modern era to develop the basis of American capitalism. 

But this can also mean that certain classes must fulfil the historical tasks of others. The theory of permanent revolution explains that in a backwards country the weak bourgeoisie is dependent on imperialism. It’s unable to fulfil the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. It is the workers who must do it; but, in doing so, they must seize power and immediately set themselves the task of the socialist revolution. This is a theory that was brilliantly proven by the October Revolution in Russia. This dialectical view is the complete opposite of the ossified distortion that the Mensheviks and later the Stalinists gave to historical materialism, which in fact led to uncountable defeats (as it would have done in Russia without the intervention of Lenin). Historical materialism, then, is a powerful theoretical instrument. It is a tool that must be used, in order to make – to use Lenin’s expression – “a concrete analysis of the concrete situation” and to be able to act on it consciously. So we see that, in fact, the existence of a subjective conscious factor to play this role is decisive. 

Also, the transition from the capitalist mode of production to socialism is in some way different to the previous one. For example, we can't have a protracted period of development of the elements of a socialist economy in the framework of a capitalist society. Capitalism develops the internal planning of big businesses and the world division of labour for its pursuit of profit. Under the control of the bourgeoisie, this is used to intensify the exploitation of the working class; but, at the same time, they express the full potential of a planned socialist economy. However, this potential can only express itself on the condition that there is a general overthrow of the entire system; that it becomes its opposite, in a typical dialectical overthrow. And that requires a conscious role of the working class. In other words, for the first time in history, there must be a conscious action by the majority of society to seize power. 

This brings us again to the role of the subjective factor, that is, a revolutionary party. The subjective factor is a product of historical development, because it brings together that layer that best understands the needs that arise in a given historical epoch, whilst at the same time being itself an actor in history. Its numerical strength, its influence on wider sectors, the political quality of its cadres, and its ability – using the general analysis, the general views given by Marxist theory – to respond to the concrete problems that arise in a real struggle are decisive in leading the working class to victory and giving humanity a future. Lenin played a decisive individual role in 1917. He was able to do so because he understood the historical tasks facing the Russian working class. But this alone would not have been enough. This understanding could combine with the objective process of the masses and turn into a material force because Lenin had built the Bolshevik party tirelessly over decades; and, without this work, the revolution would not have been victorious. 

Historical necessity, then, is not something passively guaranteed. but something that must be realised. It must be conquered, not in an academic salon, but in a real struggle between living forces. As Marx wrote in a letter: “It would be very convenient to make universal history if one only accepted battle on the condition of an infallible outcome.” So this is a task before us, and only in this way can we achieve a new level of freedom for mankind. Not an unreal, idealistic individual freedom from the laws of nature and society, but collective freedom which, to use Engels’ expression, consists of the understanding of the necessity to be able to use these laws. From a materialist point of view, this consists of the rational, democratic, planned use of the productive forces according to objective laws, and consciously using them for the realisation of human potential on an unprecedented level. And it must be emphasised again, this will not at all be the end of history; but, if anything, the beginning of the true history of the human race. 

Serena: When Marx and Engels explained that the fundamental factor in history lies in the economic base, they always added “in the last analysis”. These few words are very important and have never been understood by all those accusing Marxism of being unilateral, one-sided, deterministic, and so on. Historical and dialectical materialism are two inseparable aspects when one deals with the Marxist view of history. In several writings and letters, Engels stresses this point. For instance, in a letter to Borgius, he says: “The political, legal, philosophical, religious, literary, and artistic development rests upon the economic. But these all react upon one another and also upon the economic base. It is not that the economic situation is the cause and alone active, while everything else only has a passive effect. Rather, there is a reciprocal interaction with a fundamental economic necessity, which in the last instance always asserts itself.” 

In another letter to Conrad Schmidt, Engels explains that this reaction by the superstructure on the economic structure is made possible by the division of labour in society, because the division of labour gives relative independence to superstructures like the state, ideology, philosophy and so on. For instance, the state with its relative independence – and I underline relative independence – can either promote or hinder economic development through its economic policies. A given ideology or philosophy prevailing among the intellectuals can either provide a fertile environment for the development of scientific technology, and therefore of production, or it can constitute an obstacle. We have to consider that this process of interaction between structure and superstructure unfolds not in a static way, but in a continuous motion of development, of change. 

Engels says that the philosophy of every epoch has as its presupposition certain definite intellectual material handed down to it by its predecessors. At a certain point, this intellectual material inherited from the past does not correspond anymore to the changes in the economic base. For instance, in Europe during the 16th century, the catholic counter-reform and inquisition were the ideological and religious representatives of the decaying system of feudalism and represented an obstacle for the further development of science – and, consequently, of the productive forces – in the epoch of rising capitalism. The rising bourgeoisie needed a more open and dynamic view of the world to develop technology, in order, in turn, to develop production. In the religious field, this found an expression in Lutheran reform. In the field of art during the Renaissance, the bourgeoisie also needed a materialistic outlook in philosophy. This was represented by the English empirical school of Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke, then by the French materialism, and finally, in the later stage, by the Enlightenment. 

In the living struggle between these conflicting visions of the world (on the one hand, the catholic, idealistic, and reactionary, and on the other, the materialistic), what was the main factor in asserting which one would prevail? The fact that the bourgeoisie was the new ruling class that was rising. Engels gave this answer: “The bourgeoisie, for the development of its industrial production, required a science which ascertained the physical properties of natural objects and the modes of action of the forces of nature. Now up to then science had been the humble handmaid of the Church, had not been allowed to overlap the limit set by faith, and for that reason had been no science at all. Science rebelled against the Church;  the bourgeoisie could not do without science, and, therefore, had to join in the rebellion.” But this must not be seen in a one-sided way, as the unfolding of a materialistic outlook in philosophy and of new scientific discoveries dialectically represents a threat for the ruling class, as it can free the masses from the religious prejudice that is a tool for the bourgeois’ domination of society.

We can see today the idealistic outlook that characterises many scientists, because this side of the coin – the dialectical role played by this ideology – has become particularly relevant in the declining stage of capitalism; and so we can have scientists with an idealistic outlook and with idealistic theories, like the Big Bang theory and the Heisenberg principle of [?]. Science as a superstructure develops following the needs of the economic structure; but at the same time, it is subjected to the political interests of the ruling class. In the period of a decay of capitalism, for example, the political interests of the capitalists represent an obstacle to the further rational development of the productive forces, and of humanity in general. Once again, then, we see the superstructure corresponding to a decaying economic system that reacts back on the economic base as a brake, as an obstacle to genuine progress. That doesn't mean that there can be no new discoveries at all; but in general, the prevailing factor is the counter-revolutionary interest of the ruling class for its survival.

All this has very concrete consequences for us, as we are called to engage in a struggle against all the ruling ideas, ideology, philosophy, and culture; all the ideas that are the reflection of a decaying, rotten system that can play no progressive role anymore. This struggle of ideas is not to be won by us in the academies or the universities, but among the vanguard of the working class and youth in the process of building the revolutionary party; the party that is needed to overthrow capitalism. That would mean freeing a new rational economic base, that is, building a socialist economy based on planning and the collective property of the means of production. This, in the last analysis, is what is needed for the full unfolding of the potential of humanity under all points of views. Not only for the development of the productive forces, but in everything: culture, art, knowledge – for the full unfolding of the potential of humanity in general.

Roberto: One of the features of the crisis of the capitalist system is the low intellectual level, the stupidity of the leaders of the ruling class. Although it is often joked about,it must be said that ideas and men do not come out of the sky. There is a sentence in The German Ideology by Marx and Engels which explains this situation very well: “Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc -real active men as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms.” 

In a period where a class cannot develop the productive forces as they did before (this is the case everywhere, but especially in Italy, where there is a real decay of society in the economy), it is more likely that the men and women who emerge from this kind of society will be second-rate, mediocre people. Not that other, cleverer people don't exist, but it is less likely they will be able to raise themselves to that level. In another page of this wonderful book German Ideology Marx and Engels say that “circumstances made men no less than men make circumstances.” It’s a very dialectical concept that is important to bear in mind. For example, even the cleverest representative of the bourgeoisie in Italy, the former prime minister Draghi, remains trapped in a system of decline. It is very unlikely, therefore, that from within the ruling class will rise a man of great depths. 

The decline of culture, the decline of ideas is also related to this decline of the productive forces. There is a very scientific explanation for what is happening in the clashes of the Italian ruling class. Our view of history is often stated, but it is always important to re-establish that it is dynamic, it’s not static. The notion we always hear – that human beings will never change or can never change (“Sure, revolution is a good thing, but how could it be done? Human beings are selfish”) – is not a scientific idea. Social relations have their own logic. As long as people live in a determined relationship, they will think in a given way. The relationships in society change every time, and that's why we discuss perspectives: to discuss when and where those breaking points come, and when there will be a change in the consciousness of the masses. And we are living now in an epoch like this, where changes happen quickly.

If we come back to that sentence of Marx and Engels (that circumstances make men, and also men make circumstances), we can better understand the situation of the leadership of the working class in Italy, as well as in other parts of the world. There is a big vacuum, yet the leadership does not put forward an alternative point of view from the ruling class. But why? One of the reasons is that class struggle, for a whole period, has been left in the background – and circumstances make men. The class struggle is that circumstance. It will be the circumstance that will provide the space where the best fighters – which up until now have been relegated to the background – and the new leaders of the working class could emerge. In the heat of the class struggle we see also the heat of the real processes whereby a new leadership of the working class can take form. It is a fight, not only for the leadership, but for the vanguard of the working class, that we must wage in the future, and I'm quite sure that we will succeed after this wonderful discussion and university.

Josh: Marx and Engels famously wrote: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” And it is interesting to see how the understanding of class struggle has developed over time. It is sometimes argued that ancient societies didn't recognize the class struggle, and therefore that Marx was wrong. But don’t take Marx’s word for it: take the following from Thucydides, an Athenian historian. In his work on the Peloponnesian war, written over 2400 years ago, he said: 

“About this time took place the rising of the commons at Samos against the upper classes. The Samian commons put to death some 200 in all of the upper classes and banished 400 more, and themselves took their lands and houses. And the commons henceforth governed the city, excluding the landholders from all shares in affairs.” 

That sounds like class struggle to me. The question of democracy and oligarchy in Ancient Greece was not an abstract, moral one, as the liberals tend to present it. It was class war. Livy wrote about the bitter struggle of the orders in the Roman Republic, and that struggle often broke out into bloodshed and even civil war. It was ultimately this struggle, or the impasse of this struggle, which led to the rise of the Caesars. Before Marx, bourgeois historians traced the class struggle beneath the various political parties and religious sects of the English and French Revolutions. 

Guizot, who was not a revolutionary in any way, wrote: 

“In order to understand political institutions, we must study the various strata existing in society and their mutual relationships. In order to understand these various social strata, we must know the nature and the relations of landed property.” 

There are two important differences between this view of the class struggle, and that of Marx. First, is the question: what is the division of society into different classes based on? The ancients saw it more as the inevitable product of human nature. You always had strong and weak, and so you always had rich or poor. Bourgeois historians tried to find the different forms of property in the different constitutions of society, but this actually led back to idealism because they couldn't explain where those constitutions came from. So, having explained that political ideas are determined by class, they then explained that class was determined by the ideas that people have about the constitution. And so they went around in circles, effectively.

The second question is: what impact does the class struggle have on social development? And again, the ancients didn't really see the class struggle having any impact on social development – because they didn't believe in social development at all. They had a cyclical view of history. The commons and democracy would win, the rich and the oligarchy would win, and so on, again and again, for all time. The class struggle was seen as an unavoidable evil that we just had to live through. Bourgeois historians, prior to Marx, saw the class struggle as a source of progress when it was a struggle of the bourgeoisie against the so-called idle classes of the nobility and the Church; but they treated the struggle between the workers and the capitalists as an avoidable evil to be suppressed in order to ensure development – which is essentially the liberal view of class struggle today.

This is a classic example of how the bourgeoisie was forced to abandon a scientific outlook the moment it was challenged by the rising working class. What Marx did is he gave the class struggle an objective foundation for the first time, and that foundation is the development of the productive forces. In a letter in 1852, Marx wrote: “I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. My own contribution was (1) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and (3) that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes into a classless society.

Now, some comrades might be shocked to learn that the overwhelming majority of academic Marxists actually reject the development of the productive forces as the determining factor in human history. They reject what Marx considered to be basically his only original contribution. They reduce it to technological determinism and claim it was a hangover of liberal materialism in Marx's analysis. Ironically, the alternative they put forward – of the class struggle as the determining factor in human history – is arguably closer to the bourgeois conception as explained earlier. Their mistake, among many, lies in isolating the development of the productive forces from the social being to carry it out. They fail to understand the dialectical relationship that exists between the productive forces and social relations. The different forms and distribution of property – as well as the concentration of the means of production – flow from the development and needs of production itself, such as the social division of labour. The very existence of the working class and its growing weight in the economy is clearly linked to the development of industry under capitalism, which is something that Marx observed in his lifetime.

Capitalist production is more international and more planned than it ever was before, which has an important influence on the class struggle. Note that Marx wrote that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, not possibly. The reason for this is nothing other than the development of production under capitalism. But the class struggle also reacts back on production. Critics of Marx point to the fact that technological progress under capitalism,  such as the development of artificial intelligence, has not resulted in the creation of a socialist paradise for humanity. But this proves Marx's point! The development of new technologies and so on do not automatically and directly transform social relations. The situation today is a clear example of the acute conflict between the development of the productive forces and the limits of capitalist relations. What Marx predicted is that these relations, these fetters, would inevitably be burst asunder by nothing other than the class struggle and revolution. 

This is why Marx wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy: “Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself.” Today, the further development of the productive forces, and with it, the future of the human race, depends on the victory of the working class. Let us go forward to that victory. 


Jack: A running theme through this discussion has been the importance of ideas – and this might seem strange in a session where we've emphasised the importance of a materialist understanding of history. Ideas are extremely important. On the one hand, they can hold back the class struggle. It’s for this reason that the ruling class promotes racism, sexism, homophobia, and all forms of hatred. It’s a way of dividing the working class and cutting across the class struggle. Now, of course, it can't hold back the class struggle forever – but it is an example of the role that ideas can play. Ideas can also play a progressive role. If we denied this then you would have to wonder what the point is of holding a Marxist university. Ideas can act as an incredible guide to action for revolutionaries. 

On top of this, as Marx said, ideas can become a material force when they grip the minds of the masses. The example of the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky is a good one. Their ideas chimed with the outlook of the mass of the working class and peasantry in Russia at that specific time. We are beginning to see the start of a similar situation today. 30 years ago, Marxists were huddling together for warmth in dark corners. For the mass of the working class, the ideas of Marxism didn't seem to correspond with reality. It seemed as though it was the end of history, as Francis Fukuyama put it. 

But now, capitalism really is reaching its limits, and that means that our ideas are becoming more and more relevant for larger numbers of people. This in itself, really, is only due to or possible thanks to the social crisis; which in itself is determined by the economic base. If you compare this approach to the one that Josh laid out, where you separate out the class struggle from the development of the productive forces, it would imply that you can have a revolution whenever and wherever. But that would be incredibly disarming because it would mean that we have no objective way of understanding history or society. We have to underline this point: that is, when there's a clash between the relations of production and the further development of the mode of production, that's when society goes into crisis and you see a period of revolution and counter-revolution.

Joel made a very important point when he said that the most dangerous books are those that are written by those who purport to be left. This David Graeber is certainly painted as having been a radical; but not only that, he's painted as being more intelligent and more nuanced than crusty, outdated Marxists. But you can really see – despite the fact that this nonsense is packaged up as being new ideas – that there are no new ideas under the sun. The idea that we can just decide what sort of society to live in out of our own free will is actually far older than Marxism. It’s that of the utopian socialists. But, really, to say that is a big insult to the utopian socialists; because what you can at least say about them is that they were actually fighting for a higher and better form of society, and not just justifying the status quo from a pseudo-radical position like David Graeber.

Graeber’s book proves Engel’s statement that the struggle on the ideological front is just as important as that of the struggle on the political and economic fronts. And we are engaged in a battle in a struggle of ideas. It's not just us saying that, either: our enemies are also very much concerned with this. A few years ago a CIA report from the 1980s was declassified. It, first of all, talks about criticisms of Marxism from a right-wing point of view; but then it goes on to say: “even more effective in undermining Marxism were those intellectuals who set out as true believers to apply Marxist theory but ended by rethinking and rejecting the entire tradition.” It also specifically praises theorists who “reject the hitherto dominant Marxist theories of historical progress.” 

Although it can be easily demonstrated that these ideas are nonsense, this is most likely why they are published; because the ruling class can offer no genuine way forward and so, instead, it has to promote the idea that there's no such thing as progress. It promotes theorists that reject the existence of an objective world and it promotes theorists, of course, who reject revolution as being a very bad idea.

It has been mentioned above that the theory of the permanent revolution was proved correct by the experience of the Russian Revolution. Now, in academia, you are encouraged to think of theories almost like different outfits. Maybe you try on Marxism today, realism tomorrow, you try whatever else the day after that; they’re all just different, equally valid ways of looking at the world. Clearly, this is wrong. A theory is a hypothesis about reality. You make a prediction given certain circumstances, and it's proved right or wrong by reality.

Another point raised has been the role of the individual; and we can ask ourselves, why is it that certain leaders rise to the top? In truth, it's because they reflect, better than others, social forces. Over the recent period in Britain, for example, you have had Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn as two different leaders that have risen to the top. Boris Johnson is an excellent reflection of the decrepit nature of the ruling class – especially the British ruling class – which is why all of his potential replacements look just as mad, if not more, than him. In the past, Trotsky once said that the British ruling class used to plan in terms of centuries and continents – but today they barely know what's going to happen next week. And so a ruling class that was once focused on long-term planning has developed into one focused on speculation and gambling; and chancers like Boris Johnson reflect this very well. 

Similarly with Jeremy Corbyn, his slogan was for kinder, gentler politics. He was presented as a dangerous radical, when really he was a mild reformist. But he was able to rise to the top because he acted as a lightning rod for a social movement. First of all, after years of austerity cuts and pressure on living standards, there was a crying demand for a radical change, for a different way of doing things. But at the same time as this, the working class in Britain was waking up after years and years of sleep. And so Jeremy Corbyn really reflected the quite naive character of the advanced layers of the working class at that time. What this shows is that, without the presence of a mass revolutionary party steeled in the ideas of Marxism, the working class has to learn and relearn lessons. The revolutionary party can be described as the historical memory of the working class; and so, if it exists in a mass force, it can act as a catalyst and it can accelerate the development of consciousness. 

To go back to the example of the Roman Empire: here you had a society going into crisis. But because there was no active social force that could show the way forward, there was a complete collapse of this civilisation, and human progress was thrown back for an extremely long period of time. We face a similar but actually far more pressing problem today. Maybe comrades know that this week it was 40 degrees in London. London was the hottest place in the entire world for those two days – something British people are not at all used to. And the reason for this, of course, is the climate crisis – a crisis capitalism is completely unable to solve. You don't have to take the Marxists’ word for it, though. An article from the The Economist (hardly a Bolshevik journal) has admitted as much, saying:

“Though renewable energy could profitably generate a fair share of the world's electricity, nobody knows how to get rich simply by removing greenhouse gases.” 

We have the technology in existence to be able to solve climate change, but it's not done because it's not profitable to do it. 

And so what we are faced with today is what Rosa Luxemburg warned of all those years ago: a choice between socialism or barbarism. This means that if you care about the continuation of the human race, you have a duty to join the fight against capitalism. But that's not as an individual; as an individual alone, we are powerless. Lenin was able to make a difference, not just because of his ideas and the time he was living in, but because he had a mass party that was able to transmit these ideas to the mass of the working class. 

In some sense, we do have an advantage today. The class struggle doesn't take place separate from the development of the mode of production; and the development of large-scale production and globalisation has been incredibly positive for us. We have previously mentioned the growing wave of trade union membership in the United States. Well, companies like Apple, Starbucks, and Amazon are all international companies; and so it's much easier today to have contagion, if you like, across the world. But in another sense, we are very far behind. Today, the Marxists are a small but growing minority. We are in a race against time, and we are falling behind. So if you are not a member of the IMT, join us; and together we can build an organisation that's capable of leading the working class to the overthrow of this decrepit system across the world.