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Marxism and history

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Understanding what forces drive human progress and change in society is crucial for all those who want a different world, writes Camilla Royle
Issue 2390
Marxism and history logo

Marxism and history logo

The question of history is  an important one for socialists.

It is clear from the ideological assault that surrounds the 100 year 

anniversary of the First World War that history is a battleground for the ruling class.

They need history for a number of reasons. 

One of these is to shroud the past in mystery to convince ordinary people that the present state of things is inevitable and unchangeable.

The way history is sometimes taught in schools can suggest that we just need to learn which royal was on the throne and when. 

We are taught by rote the dates and events that are significant to the ruling class. 

In this version, history is just a chain of events happening one after the other. There is no general pattern or process involved. 

Ultimately it means we can describe what happened but we can’t attempt to explain it.

The German revolutionary Karl Marx helped develop a materialist account of human history that runs counter to this.

The Marxist approach to history is often referred to as historical materialism. 

We start from an understanding that it is possible to organise society in very different ways. 

It is based on an understanding of the central role that human labour plays. 


Marxists reject the idea that history is nothing more than a sequence of events. 

The industrial capitalism we know in Britain today is very different from the feudal society we used to have. Each has its own distinctive characteristics.

The reason for these differences is rooted in the very different ways in which human labour is organised between societies. 

Since the earliest societies, humans have used labour power to find food, warmth and shelter. 

In feudal times people worked for a landlord. Now most people go to work for an employer for wages. 

The capacity or ability of any human society to produce goods and services is known as the forces of production. The way in which people are organised is the relations of production. 

If we can understand the labour process in a particular society we can start to understand how it works as a whole. 

 Marx referred to it as the “hidden basis of the entire social structure”. But that is just a starting point. 

Societies have different characteristics such as religious practices, cultural norms, the types of clothes people wear and food they eat that can’t be read off from the labour process. 

Historians still need to do detailed research to learn about these. 

Periodically a certain type of society will cease to be the most effective way of organising and a new one will overtake it. 

The forces of production periodically come into conflict with the relations of production. 

It’s these kind of upheavals that drive history forwards. Wars and revolutions can start up when one type of society comes into conflict with another. 

The change from feudalism to capitalism throughout much of Europe is an example of such a change.

Now capitalism has drawn ever more people into the ranks of the working class. 

 This class has the potential to unite and overthrow the capitalist system and bring about a different type of society.

But this is not meant to imply that history inevitably leads towards progress. 

Marxism has often been misinterpreted in this way—not only by its critics, but also by some of those who called themselves Marxists. 

For example, some of the thinkers of the Second International at the start of the 20th century thought that societies steadily evolve towards socialism. 

This left them unable to understand that capitalism in crisis could plunge humanity backwards, and that revolution is the only way to bring about a socialist society. 


The ruling class has an interest in keeping things as they are and will try to prevent change. 

Recently there have been attempts by right wing historians such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Marr to present the ruling class’s grand narrative of history.

Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest and Marr’s History of the World try to present an overarching account of the world as a triumph of the ruling class.

This is because the ruling class needs such illusions to  give the impression of endurance and stability.

In reality it takes class struggle to make the break between one type of society and another.  

Taking a broad view of history also doesn’t mean that chance events don’t matter. But events have to be taken in context. 

They exist within and relate to wider trends in history. As Marx argued, people “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please”. 

Whether you look at history as a series of chance events or look at the wider forces at work makes a difference to whether you think you can change society. 

The ruling class neglects the importance of the way production is organised in a society. 

In its version of history the most important aspects are whether politicians led their country effectively or details of the lives of kings and queens. 

We might learn about how many wives a king had or what clothes they wore. 

There is less of a focus on the wider questions of how kings and queens came to exist in the first place.

So we are given the impression that humans have always lived in societies run by a few rich people at the top with everyone else labouring at the bottom. 

They justify their position at the top of society by playing down the fact that things can be run in different ways. 

One of the earliest historical records we have are the Kings Lists drawn up by scribes documenting the Egyptian pharaohs. 

This was nothing more than a record of the supposedly heroic deeds of Kings themselves and their predecessors. It completely omits the thousands of workers who were conscripted to build the pyramids, instead focusing on a minority.

This is because ruling classes use history as a method for controlling people’s ideas.

Understanding where we have come from can lead people to understand the development of society and see how capitalism can only benefit the rich.

So the ruling class tries to keep a stranglehold on history to ensure that its ideas remain the dominant ones.

There are many examples of ruling classes trying to block people from understanding and accessing history for themselves.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany they burned books deemed to be “subversive”.

These included the works of theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, writer Franz Kafka and Karl Marx.

This is an extreme example of a ruling class blocking people’s access to ideas. 

But it stands as an example of how the ruling class can stop people from understanding the past.

Some might argue that socialists would be better occupied being out on the streets or workplaces agitating than discussing history. 


But understanding the past, the development of society and how to change it are part of the same struggle.

Some writers have tried to address the balance by writing histories told from the point of view of the oppressed rather than the oppressors. These are often called histories from below.

These historians ask questions like, what was life like for the poorest in society? What role did women play? 

What about the people who suffered due to imperialism? Who has been left out and how can we tell their story?

It’s important to understand what life was like for ordinary people throughout history. 

But these accounts can end up just describing people’s lives—rather than seeking a wider explanation of their role. 

They can see people as victims of their circumstances rather than political actors.

The best histories have not only described ordinary people’s lives but also pointed to the ways those people acted to change things. 

People fighting today need to know about the struggles of the past. So the political struggles of today involve a battle over history.

Liberals and conservatives will continue to attack the Marxist theory of history as outdated and unfashionable.

But historical materialism gives us an understanding of how the world we live in came into existence, and importantly, how we can change it.

Read more

Marxism and History by Chris Harman, £5.50

What is History? by EH Carr, £9.99

A People’s History of the World by Chris Harman, £12.99

The Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx by Alex Callinicos, £8

Land and Labour: Marxism, Ecology and Human History by Martin Empson, £12

Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to


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