Karl Marx, part 2: How Marxism came to dominate socialist thinking

Peter Thompson (Writing in the Guardian)

The unique selling point of Marx's ideas, he argued, was their basis in scientific fact rather than notions of freedom, justice, fairness and equality

The question this week is how Marxism came to be the dominant theoretical apparatus of socialist thinking from the late 19th century onwards. Indeed, despite being constantly pronounced dead, it still manages to maintain itself in political, theoretical and academic debate in much of the world. It could be argued that whereas Marx himself said that all criticism starts with a critique of religion, all criticism today has to start with a critique of Marx.

As arrogant and dogmatic as it sometimes sounds to our ears now, Marx's USP was that his and Engels' approach to understanding history was the first to be based on truly scientific socioeconomic analysis. With a nod towards Darwin, Marx and Engels contended that their analysis of history was akin to a theory of evolution based on the concrete evidence of material facts. They argued that the theories of their rivals, the utopian communists and anarchists as well as the Hegelians and liberals, were based in idealist moral abstractions which dealt in notions of freedom, justice, fairness and equality in what they called the political superstructure of society, while theirs were based on an objective and scientific understanding of the real but largely invisible forces at work in the socioeconomic base.

Marx and Engels saw change and revolution as historical necessities emerging out of material contingent reality driven by socioeconomic forces. They saw their task as unmasking those forces, subjecting them to radical critique and proposing a possible way forward. Everyone else, they thought, was essentially carrying on in the idealist tradition, which saw the motivating force behind history as the unfolding of abstract human freedom as an idea, will or imagination.

For Hegel history was the Absolute Spirit moving towards absolute self-consciousness through a process which moved from the way things were, via rising conflict and tension, to a newer, "higher" stage. This process of negation and the negation of the negation produced new outcomes and new forms of social organisation which would only come to an end when the final liberation of humanity was achieved.

In Hegel this was the full coming to consciousness of the Absolute Spirit/Idea. In Marx it could only be achieved with the "withering away" of all the social antagonisms associated with class society. The higher stage would be the "naturalisation of man and the humanisation of nature" that would take place in a future communist society. However, Marx never provided a blueprint for that future society, and it is unlikely that he would have been a supporter of the regimes which did emerge based on his ideas – plenty of Marxists weren't. As he once said when reading some particularly reductionist French interpretations of his own economic theories: "All I know is that I am not a Marxist."

From Hegel, Marx had taken not only the dialectical method, which stated that history moved in a certain way because of its inherent antagonisms, but he also took the pattern and chronology of history too. Both Hegel and Marx maintained that human history began with the hunter gatherer, moved through an "Asiatic" and a slave-owning mode, out of which emerged feudalism, which in turn produced capitalism.

On some readings of Hegel the story ends there, in the post-reformation "Germanic" world, whereas for Marx this happy ending was only the end of human pre-history, or as Churchill might have put it, the end of the beginning. It was only after capitalism had been transcended, in a way as yet impossible to conceive, that true history could begin and socialism could emerge as a transitional stage on the way to the sunlit uplands of communism.

For Marx the motivating force behind history was the struggle for the control over material resources. It is the emergence of classes based on the ownership of a surplus and the means to produce it that kick-started history and allowed it to become a self-generating system of movement. Very soon ideologies began to emerge in every epoch which posited that those who had the surplus were specially selected, somehow naturally entitled to that surplus and were therefore entitled to hang on to it. From this, in Hegel, the concept of the master-slave dialectic emerged in which the idea plays itself out in reality via a constant struggle for recognition or thymos. For Marx, on the other hand, this master-slave dialectic was simply another way of describing class conflict – a basic struggle for control of the means of production.

Any existing order can continue for any given length of time, he says, but as long as there is class antagonism, it cannot last for ever. At some point both the material means of accumulating the surplus and the ideological justification for hanging on to it start to crumble and we move forward into a period of radical change in which the world turns upside down and the old subaltern class becomes the new ruler.

This is a constant and universal process but revolution can only come to the fore, let alone be successful, when both the objective material conditions and the subjective political conditions are ripe for it. This, then, was how Marx saw his theory of history as scientific, driven as it was by the material and political conditions of production and not by the working out of abstract ideas and spirits. Next week I shall address the traditional objections to the claims of scientific rigour which Karl Popper raised, as well as the charge that Marxism is simply a quasi-religious teleology.



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