Down through the ages there have been various interpretations of history. For example, there are the theories which see in history the working out and realization of some sort of divine plan - like Hegel’s philosophy of history, which sees the whole historical development of society as the realization stage by stage of the so-called Absolute Idea. Again, there are the various theories which see history as moving through “cycles,” every civilization passing by some inescapable necessity through the cycle of rise, plentitude of power and decline - as in Spengler’s Decline of the West or Toynbee’s Studies in History. These are idealist theories and socialists are opposed to them. The idealism of such theories lies in the fact that they see the laws of development of society as a “fate” imposed upon society from outside, so that men and women are mere instruments of fate, the tools of external necessity. If such theories are accepted, then we are driven to fatalism. If what takes place is in the hands of God, or is decreed by fate, or follows by some iron necessity - it makes little difference in practice which you say - then it follows there is little we can do to determine our own destinies for ourselves.
Until the advent of Marx the various interpretations of history might be listed under five headings - religious, political, hero, ideas, and war. The elaborations found under these headings make interesting reading but they all contain serious shortcomings. The war or military interpretation of history, for instance, fails to recognize that war, a phenomenon that has been present in all phases of human development, is a result rather than a cause of events. With the coming of Marx and his theory of the materialist conception of history, history took on new meaning - it became rooted in the material conditions of life.
This interpretation of history holds that in any given epoch the economic relations of society, the means whereby men and women provide for their sustenance, produce, exchange, and distribute the things they regard as necessary for the satisfaction of their needs, exert a preponderating influence in shaping the progress of society and in molding political, social, intellectual, and ethical relationships. In his Charles Darwin and Karl Marx, Edward Aveling, Marx’s son-in-law defines this theory:
“The materialist conception of history is that the chief, the fundamental factor in the development of any nation or any society, is the economic factor - that is, the way in which the nation, or the society, produces, produces and exchanges its commodities…
“Now, whilst it (the economic factor) appears to be the fundamental one, there are others developed from it and reflexes of it, that also play their parts, acting and reacting upon their parent, the economic factor, and one another. The art, the science, the literature, the religion, the legal and juridicial formulae of a country, although they all spring directly from economic conditions of the country, have to be reckoned with.”
The most complete and most significant statement of the main elements of the materialist conception of history are formulated in Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy. There one learns that the subject matter of history is man himself, his economic and social conditions and not his ideas. The relations between men’s material conditions of life and their ideas are described in this general fashion by Marx: it is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence, but, on the contrary, it is their social existence which determines their consciousness. William Ebenstein in his Today’s Isms illustrates this concept:
“In a nomadic society… horses might be considered the principal means of acquiring and accumulating wealth. From Marx’s viewpoint, this foundation of nomadic life is the clue to its superstructure of law, government, and dominant ideas. Thus, Marx would say that those who are the owners of the greatest number of horses in such a nomadic society would also be the political cheiftans who make and interpret the law; they are also likely to receive the highest response and deference from the tribe’s members who own no horses. In the realm of ideas, the predominant social and cultural concepts would reflect the dominant economic position of the owners and horses. Even in religion the impact would not be missing. God might, for instance, be represented in the image of a swift and powerful rider, and the concept of divine justice and rule would be, in a sence, an extension and magnification of human justice as determined by the horse-owning chiefs.”
Even as the above horse-owning class determined the political, social, legal, and cultural institutions in its society, so, too, do we find, on looking back, that the landowners in a settled, agricultural society set its society’s values. Today in our industrial society the owners of the means of production are in the saddle and have been for the last two hundred years. No matter the formal and legal facades, this owning class, the capitalist class, rules contemporary society. This class conceives that “the ultimate purpose of the law, education, the press, and artistic and literary creation is to maintain an ideology that is embued with the sanctity and justice of capitalist property ownership.”
The misrepresentations and distortions of Marx’s writings are legion. They perhaps are paralleled only by the slanders and vilifications on Marx’s person. For instance, critics love to reproach Marx that the materialist conception of history disregards the influence of non-economic factors. This is not so. There is nothing in Marx’s theory to indicate such an assertion, though it is true that he failed sufficiently to safeguard himself against this charge, Engels repeatedly acknowledged that many interacting forces give rise to an historic event. Again, some critics would have one believe that Marx’s “materialism” is but a depiction of mans wish for monetary gain and comfort, of his desire for material goods, and this charge is sometimes coupled with the distortion that Marx was an advocate of the barracks, that is, the giving up of ones individuality and entrusting oneself to an all-powerful state bureaucracy. Again not so. Relative to this Erich Fromm writes in Marx’s Concept of Man:
This “description… fits almost exactly the reality of present-day Western capitalist society. The majority of people are motivated by a wish for greater material gain, for comfort and gadgets, and this wish is restricted only by the desire for security and the avoidance of risks. They are increasingly satisfied with a life regulated and manipulated, both in the sphere of production and of consumption, by the state and the big corporations and their respective bureaucracies; they have reached a degree of conformity which has wiped out individuality to a remarkable extent. They are, to use Marx’s term, impotent ‘commodity men’ serving virile machines. The very picture of mid-twentieth century capitalism is hardly distinguishable from the caricature of Marxist socialism as drawn by its opponents.”
The materialist conception of history is not only a theory about how to interpret history, but also a theory about how to make history. This theory was arrived at by Marx by applying the materialist world outlook to the solution of social problems. And in making this application materialism was no longer just a theory aimed at interpreting the world, of building a society free of the exploitation of man by man.
From our magazine The Western Socialist, Fall 1979