'Who is the greatest thinker of the millennium?” asked a recent BBC poll. Karl Marx topped the list. Another survey, this time of the US Library of Congress—the world’s largest library—found that, with nearly 4,000 works, Marx was the sixth most written about individual ever.
In his speech at Marx’s graveside, Frederick Engels’ called him the “best hated” man of his time. For some Marx remains a monster, for others he is genius.
His legacy is an elusive riddle—either a vision of an Orwellian nightmare or a world rid of exploitation and oppression. His ideas are seen as either bankrupt or urgent and relevant.
Whatever their view of Marx, few would dispute that some of the greatest historians of the past few decades have described themselves as Marxists, and that he has exerted a profound impression upon history and social science.
Even social theorists like Max Weber defined themselves in opposition to Marx. The renowned Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm even claimed that Marx was “the main force in ‘modernising’ the writing of history”. At the same time Marx has undoubtedly remained academic history’s “best hated” thinker.
With textbook introductions to Marx, first impressions count. Too often, students are stranded in a dark and sinister labyrinth. In the shadows lurk unfamiliar terminology, ugly translations and menacing figures.
While Marxism can be made very complex and technical, the basics are relatively straightforward and, it might be argued, connect with our own experiences of life.
DNA of history
Marx’s most basic observation was that labour set humans apart from the animal kingdom. Adult life for most people on the planet has always consisted of a daily routine of toil.
Most readers will be very familiar with the monotonous cycle of sleep...commute....work. Who we are and how we are perceived are wrapped up to a considerable extent with the labour we perform. Labour is like the DNA of human history—ever present, imperceptibly shaping and reshaping society.
For much of human history, labour consisted of gathering, scavenging and hunting in small egalitarian bands. At a certain point in history, that all changed. As labour became more productive, with innovations such as settled agriculture and the domestication of plants and animals, communities were able to produce a surplus of goods above and beyond the bare necessities of food, shelter and clothing.
From this moment, it was no longer necessary for everyone to work because some individuals or groups could live off the work of others. After this profound transition, human societies divided into rulers and ruled, exploiters and exploited—class-based societies emerged.
Class society is so much part of our experience that we do not usually give it a second thought or, if we do, we accept it as part of human nature. The boss at work, the stark contrasts between rich and poor, the social pecking order, even the authority of the police or the school head—these are all expressions of a society divided by class.
The humdrum of work-a-day life masks the way in which others benefit from our toil through profits, dividends and executive bonuses.
Even the term “exploitation” is reserved in common parlance for exceptionally low wages, rather than the norm. For Marx, exploitation was a legally accepted robbery conducted by every employer, every lord of the manor and every slave master.
But crucially the process of exploitation does not go on unchallenged. Classes have opposing interests. While ruling classes in history have often wanted lower wages, greater tribute or harder work on the plantation, the exploited have wanted the reverse.
Class conflict is therefore an inherent part of class society, hence the famous opening line of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
Modes of production
This is not to say that things have always been the same. Far from it. Contemporary global capitalism is very different from ancient Rome or medieval France.
As human technology, knowledge, and skills have advanced, society has changed dramatically. To understand these great shifts, Marx again turned to the character of labour, exploitation and production.
In ancient Rome the exploitation of slave labour predominated. In medieval France feudal lords exploited peasants. In modern capitalism large capitalist employers exploit people who are personally free but who work for a wage.
Different class divisions, forms of conflict, levels of productivity and historical possibilities belong to these different stages of social and economic development.
History can be divided accordingly into modes of production—the ancient or slave mode, the feudal mode, the capitalist mode, etc.
After a long human odyssey, taking many different paths, passing through different phases of development, we have ultimately reached modern capitalist society.
Because of the abundance created by capitalist society, Marx and Engels maintained that this mode of production opened the new possibility of a classless society—socialism. They devoted their lifes’ work to the achievement of this goal.
It would be wrong to underestimate the significance of history to Marxism. Marx and Engels did not consider history to be a distinct sub-division of their thought. Their view of the world was historical in essence.
They attempted to explain the entire human experience in a historical sense. For example, both enthusiastically seized on the insights of Charles Darwin and early anthropologists in order to explain the role of labour in the transition from apes to humans.
Marx and Engels did not just meditate abstractly upon history but applied their theory to historical writing and research—indeed, these two aspects developed hand in hand. History was not simply a distant past but also a contemporary process that Marx and Engels sought to shape.
Confronting the past that “hangs like a nightmare on the minds of the living” and dispelling inherited inhibitions was necessary for the revolutionary transformation of the present.
The philosopher Walter Benjamin summed up the overriding task of Marxist history—to challenge mainstream history that is written to glorify our rulers and seeks to make the present system seem acceptable, obliterating the memory of the struggles of the ruled.
Benjamin wrote, “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it… Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
Three generations of Marxists, three different worlds to analyse
Marx and Engels might be considered the first of three broad “generations” of Marxists, living in ages shaped by different historical processes.
So Marx and Engels witnessed the spectacular growth of smokestack and railway capitalism in a world dominated by European empires. They saw the rise of mass trade unions and socialist parties across Europe.
The middle generation of Georg Lukacs, Leon Trotsky and Antonio Gramsci had to grapple with quite different problems in an age of extremes. This generation witnessed two world wars, the Russian Revolution and the economic depression of the 1930s.
In contrast, the third generation had to make Marxism relevant to a world dominated by Cold War divisions, the long economic boom following the Second World War, the radicalisation in the 1960s and right wing reaction of the 1980s.
The close of this third generation was marked by the fall of the Stalinist regimes of Russia and Eastern Europe, and the triumphalist claims of neo-liberal supporters of global capitalism.
The twilight of the third phase leaves us wondering about the dawn of a new fourth generation of Marxist historians, under what conditions it might develop and prosper, and what signs exist at present.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Marxist history lost some of the momentum it once had. This is not because it no longer provided perceptive insights into the past.
It had much more to do with the changing intellectual fashions in academia. This period saw the rise of a new school of thought such as postmodernism that struggled to answer even rudimentary historical questions.
Many Marxist historians were unable to respond to this challenge because of their illusions in Stalinist regimes, which were in fact state-based variants of modern capitalism.
However, inspired in part by new movements against global capitalism and imperialism, there are some signs of recovery in Marxist history.
Matt Perry’s latest book, The Jarrow Crusade: Protest and Legend, is available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848, or go to the website.