The History of History 8: Marx & Engels, A Closer Look

My papers for the first three weeks of this course fell into a clear pattern. The first weekly entry probed the readings, while the second weekly entry tied them to public history or current affairs. Last week, in the wake of Herder and Hegel, I really had nothing else to add regarding their ideas, so I instead considered philosophy and the classics’ place in the school system. While fun, that piece didn’t contribute the most to my graduate education, so I want to make a real effort in this paper to engage with the ideas of Marx & Engels. It’s important to identify a classic book’s implications, but you can’t do that if you lack a firm grasp of the text’s contents.

Our discussion of Marxist literature revolved around questions of passion and objectivity in Marx’s approach to writing history. For instance, Marx & Engels don’t rely heavily on case studies or historical examples to support their ideas. In Principles of Communism and The German Ideology, Marx & Engels speak of class struggles through the ages — Roman elites vs. slaves, feudal lords vs. serfs, bourgeoisie vs. proletariat — but they don’t cite a particular Roman estate, or a particular feudal kingdom, to support their arguments. Marx’s lectures on the Paris Commune identify the Communards as aspiring communists, but Marx is superimposing his ideas onto the rebels after their rebellion. Separate from their lack of traditional historical evidence, Marx & Engels viciously lampoon their enemies and exhort working people to revolt. This is passionate literature, more so than the typical academic publications of 2016. As my classmate Carrie commented, “We’re trained to be suspicious of fervor.” Fervor or vehemence is associated with a lack of objectivity. Of course, total objectivity is impossible, but it is true that modern historians, with their techniques of evidence gathering and analysis, rarely write with Marx’s degree of certainty.

When we look at Johann Herder and Georg Hegel, we don’t find a lot of historical evidence in their texts, either. Herder describes how Nature and climate bring out certain characteristics in humans, while Hegel believes that patterns of thesis/antithesis/synthesis recur in history, resulting in a spiral-like model of progress as the World Spirit emerges. These are vast, abstract visions of the world, without empirical data to support them. Hegel and Herder lack the kind of evidence that proliferates in Edward Gibbon’s footnotes, or in Leopold Ranke’s late-nineteenth-century study of British diplomacy. So it seems that two different strains of historical writing existed in the early modern European/Atlantic world of letters. One strain, the Marx, Hegel, and Herder approach, produced what the religion scholar Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures” — total ways of interpreting and understanding the world. Acolytes accept the plausibility structure’s premises; the author writes for a sympathetic audience; and any data that gets cited drives the argument, instead of the argument being derived from data. The other strain is the evidence-based Gibbon, Lorenzo Valla, and Ranke approach (although Gibbon footnotes better than Ranke). The evidence-based historians can still be emphatic. Gibbon regards most of the early Catholics as superstitious and ignorant ninnies, and he bemoans the arrogant emperors whose infighting hurt Rome, but he bases his polemical arguments on historical incidents. In contrast, writers like Marx & Engels, Herder, Hegel, and James Hosmer use history as a canvas upon which to paint philosophical and metaphysical claims about the world, time, and progress. These two camps use history for different purposes.

In the second half of class, Prof. Lenoe helped us dig beneath Marx’s convoluted prose and understand Marx’s narrative of history. Aside from proposing historical materialism, Marx (with Engels) describes history as unilinear, a straight-line path that leads to communism. The means of economic production provide the lens through which Marx views history. He alludes to a hunter-gatherer phase, but his narrative begins with the slave economies of the Mediterranean, such as the Romans’ use of slaves to harvest grain on latifundia estates. The next phase was feudalism, as small-scale lords used serfs to till the lands of Europe. (Yes, the Marx & Engels version of history seems to occur only in Europe.) Serfs represented a marginal improvement from Roman slaves, as serfs were technically free and had contracts to farm their plots. This phase also included serfs who left their plots, moved to towns, learned trades, and created guilds. After a transitional phase including the French Revolution and British Civil War (Marxist transitions are always bloody), capitalism replaced feudalism. The bourgeois class rose to power by owning factories and other industrial sites. By controlling the means of production, the bourgeoisie denied laborers the tools to run their own workshops. When Marx began writing in the 1840s, the bourgeoisie were firmly in control, despite cyclical economic crashes.

Looking forward, Marx believed that the proletariat — the laborers who didn’t own the factories — would become exasperated with selling their time for others’ profit. Communist intellectuals would emerge to organize the proletariat and lead them to the next stage of cultural evolution. As my classmate Sheila noted, there is no easy explanation of the communist intellectuals’ social class. Academics and intellectuals seem like proles because they work for hourly wages, but they invent new ideas, so they might be bourgeois for owning their minds, the means of academic production. At any rate, the communists structure the proletariat, enabling the laborers to wage a violent revolution and take over society. The surviving bourgeoisie have their rights restricted and are taxed until they cease to exist as a class. The clergy and other professions that justified the bourgeoisie’s power are abolished. Meanwhile, the proles receive expanded voting and political rights as industrialism scales up, to the point that material want and crime vanish. At this point, much of the state apparatus will be dissolved, paving the way for a communist utopia in which the collective public educates children, people rotate jobs easily, the genders are equal, and history ends. This unilinear narrative, which Marx & Engels insist is going to happen, resembles Hegel’s model in that both stories end with paradise. The difference is that Hegel’s paradise is derived from Lutheranism and involves the World Spirit (geist) being realized fully. Marx’s atheistic paradise has industrialism filling the needs of the workers. Classical Marxism may be atheistic, but its happy ending resembles Christian millennialism.

Marx’s vision of history assumes that communism is inevitable and that the violent transitions of one era to another will always lead to (marginally) better things. The narrative asserts that capitalism, for all its problems, is a necessary evil on the road to communism. Of course, if you’re a mistreated worker in a capitalist society, hearing “wait it out” isn’t comforting. Perhaps this is why rural communist states like Russia and China tried to create heavy industry without passing through capitalism, although neither Russian nor Chinese industrialization eliminated want. Communist states have also gone astray when the leaders of the revolution decide to keep leading, instead of stepping aside and letting the proles rule through democracy. By saying that the people aren’t ready for a proletariat state, communist functionaries can justify their own power, creating states that are democratic in name only. Would Marx say that the Soviet Union, with its secret police and all-power Party oligarchy, was a true communist nation? Based on Marx’s own criteria, I think not.




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