Part Two: Historical Materialism
Historical materialism is the name given to Marx’s theory of history. As with Darwin’s theory of natural selection, when it arrived it was breathtakingly simple and elegant. Great solutions are that way being contained within the problem they are attempting to solve. Formulating the problem correctly is to virtually solve it. This tends to make even the more unenlightened wonder why they hadn’t thought of it themselves.
Prior to Marx, history was believed either to have no developmental logic at all, it merely proceeded mechanically or in metaphysical circles and could be taken at face value, or was heading towards some sort of god-given destiny or pre-determined absolute ideal. Marx answered the call for a scientific theory of history. He rejected these two contradictory approaches for an approach to contradictions. He sought a theory that could encompass and reveal history’s true inner dynamic.
Marx started from the empirically verifiable real activity and conditions of human existence examining the way in which humankind produces its means of subsistence which is the materialist side of the equation. He did not start from a collection of dead, unconnected facts or from human consciousness. `Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life,’ he argued. In producing their means of subsistence, human beings enter into social relations. History proper begins when those relations become class relations and unfolds by way of a reciprocal conflict between these social relations, or modes of production, and the ever expanding means of production.
Schematically speaking, primitive society gave way to the social relations of ancient slavery which gave a huge boost to the growth of the means of production at humanity’s disposal but these means eventually outgrew that mode. Great slave-based empires fell into ruin including the greatest of them all, Rome, to be replaced by great feudal empires in Europe and Asia. These were replaced by capitalism and its own great empires which now, in their turn, are facing their end. Capitalism is the last antagonistic form; the economic conditions having entirely outgrown the possibility of continued private ownership and control of the productive capacity by a minority ruling class. It must give way to socialism and finally a classless society.
At society’s base is the class struggle between two historically conditioned classes, a ruling class and a working class, corresponding to a particular mode of production and appropriate to the prevailing means of production. Slaves and slave owners, feudal lords and peasants, capitalists and proletariat, and all of society’s institutions, ideas, discourses etc are superstructural to this political-economic base.
Here nothing remains of the tedious notion of history as just a series of events to be simply reconstructed or of the equally tedious but opposite notion of human beings working their way towards a pre-determined perfection or pre-existing consciousness. Marx shows that consciousness itself evolves as a result of practical activity reflecting interests but in an ideological way because the logic is external and unknown to its participants.
There has always been a mode and a means of production but they haven’t always been in contradiction and in the future they will be in harmony again but on a whole new level. The new unity of opposites will be that of humanity with nature re-established on a conscious level.
The study of the hundreds of centuries of human existence prior to the process of class formation, or pre-history, whilst obviously of more than passing interest and relevance, is little more than a natural history of the species. History proper, as a discrete social process with its own logic and therefore a fit subject for study in its own right, begins with the production of surplus and the ensuing efforts of the first emerging ruling class to establish its rights to this surplus. It will end as an ongoing subject of scientific study when classes have finally disappeared and there is nothing driving humanity’s development outside of its own conscious activity. When there is nothing taking place that is not the result of conscious activity, or when results are consciously sought and attained, then there is no process outside of and separate from that purposeful activity that can be studied. That is the real end of history.
So much for history in general. What is attracting people now is Marx’s incredibly insightful analysis of capitalism.
Part Three: Capitalism (to follow)