On Historical Materialism: A Theoretical Revival

Charles Wofford | Social Economics | Theory | May 30th, 2019

What is the responsibility of the historian? Historians show how those things often taken for granted, taken as a fact of life, are relatively recent developments. Alternately, they show how those things one may assume to be strange and unusual have, in fact, been present for a long time. That approach fits neatly into the broader critique of ideology, and there is a reason Marx was so invested in history and historical method. He revealed the historicity of "nature" in, among other places, his 1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which were not brought to public light until the mid-20th century, well after the developments of "orthodox" Marxisms and Marxism-Leninism (Claeys, 2018). The effort was to expose Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the other political economists of the eighteenth century for treating historical developments (from which they had conveniently benefited) as though they were eternal nature. Writes Marx, "Political economy starts with the fact of private property; it does not explain it to us. It expresses in general, abstract formulas the material process through which private property actually passes, and these formulas it then takes for laws" (Marx, 1844). If something is historical, that means it had a beginning. If it had a beginning, it can therefore have an end. Historical materialism - the exposure of capital's historical conditions of existence - was a sword forged to slay Mammon.

But a sword is only as good as the steel out of which it is made. Today, many introductions to historical materialism not only fail to show the real power of the Marxist analysis but obscure the nature of Marxist historiography. Some Marxist intellectuals (like Richard Wolff), acting out of the best intentions, recapitulate capitalist historiography. The purpose of this essay is to introduce historical materialism with academic rigor, and to get at its deeper project, i.e. setting a general theoretical foundation for a revolutionary understanding of historical development, with the specific purpose of thinking past capitalism. What is historical materialism, and what is not historical materialism? There are several issues, each to be framed as a critique: The critique of teleology, the critique of "modernity," the critique of technological determinism, and the ideological self-critique.

First, historical materialism is not a theory of history that sees "primitive communism" necessarily leading to "slave" systems, necessarily leading to "feudal" systems, necessarily leading to "capitalist," then to "socialist" and "communist" systems. Any thesis of overarching historical development following from some "necessary" internal logic ought to be seen as outmoded and historiographically suspect. Teleological views of history have been rightly abandoned by academic historians, and Marxism has shown itself flexible and powerful enough to outgrow its nineteenth-century trappings.

"The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle." But class struggle is not some mechanical, deterministic thing, like a clock. It is rather a dynamic process that may yield any number of results. Feudalism did not have to lead to capitalism, and capitalism arose not from feudalism itself, but from the ruins of feudalism. It is true that feudalism was only formally abolished (in France anyway) on August 4th, 1789, at the beginning of the French Revolution. But feudalism, throughout the Medieval ages with which it is associated, was a largely decentralized mode of production. It was not the same thing as the absolutism of the French ancien regime, overthrown in the revolution of 1789, which aimed to consolidate power into the monarch (indeed, the entire concept of "feudalism" has been challenged by academic historians, and with good reason. Marxist intellectuals have been slow on the uptake, with even people like Richard Wolff casually referring to "feudalism" as though it is a widely agreed upon concept). Wood and Brenner note that absolutism, and the enlightenment which supported it, may be seen as a defeated historical alternative to the rise of capitalism. In any case, it is a mistake to see feudalism as flowing directly into capitalism by means of a bourgeois revolution; rather, feudalism was already on the decline, and capitalism and absolutism of the French monarchy were alternative ways out of the medieval era.

Capitalism did not have to emerge, and that is the fundamental lesson of historical materialism: capitalism is not necessary or natural, and therefore it is not something that any country or society "needs." The idea that certain modes of production must pass into others is an example of the old historian's fallacy of projecting the present onto the past, fallaciously assuming a greater homology between "modern" and "pre-modern" society than may be justified. It also justifies imperialist expansion against non-capitalist societies, as one believes that the imperialist may be acting to bring those societies "forward" in some greater sense, and that any suffering is justified in the name of "progress." Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood (1942-2016) had it right when she identified the point of historical materialism to be isolating what makes capitalism specific, what makes it unique, not how it may manifest age-old human practices like commerce. The job of the Marxist historian, then, is not to show how modern capitalist society has its seeds in the ancient past, but to show how things became the way they are in the relatively recent past. Marxist historiography, understood in this way, is empowered, rather than challenged, by the postmodern polemic against "grand narratives." "We agree, there are no 'grand narratives'" says the Marxist. "That is why we doubt the Thatcherite declaration that 'there is no alternative.'" Are capitalist triumphalism and capitalist realism (Fisher, 2009) not the ultimate "grand narrative?" Historical materialism is about creating a "theoretical foundation for interpreting the world in order to change it" (Wood, 1995). It is not about shoehorning all of history into a preconceived theoretical framework. In this sense, much of the youtube left intelligentsia (with otherwise excellent user "Cuckphilosophy" as an example), recapitulates schoolboy-level understandings of these issues ("Marxism is a grand narrative, postmodernism is against grand narratives" etc).

The Marxist historian ought to search for the breaks, fragments, and gaps, the hidden or lost potentials. Why? Because in doing so we reveal capitalism in its historicity, and take it out of the realm of nature, and thereby bring to light the possibility of surpassing it. The apologists of capital have always situated capitalism as part of nature, never as part of history. Histories of capitalism discuss how commerce has been around for thousands of years, which is true. Yet the aim of such "histories" is precisely to de-historicize; to show how capitalism goes all the way back to the foggy pre-history of humanity, and how modern commercial society is just the culmination of all those tendencies. The Marxist historian will therefore seek the fragments and breaks, and not the continuities or the overarching narratives.

Second, a central project of the historical materialist is the critique of the concept of "modernity." The rise of capitalism, the rise of individual rights, the scientific revolution, the industrial revolution, the French revolution of 1789 and the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 are all sometimes taken as one unified package, lumped together under the term "modernity." This is an error.

That is not to say that there is no such thing as the "modern," but a critical engagement with the entire concept is necessary if we are to conceive of an alternative modernity to neoliberal capitalism, one that is not merely some form of nostalgia. Unfortunately, thinkers like Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno still hold undue sway in leftist circles, although their historiography is flawed. In Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) Adorno and Horkheimer set out a general critique of modernity as overly rationalizing and systematizing the totality of human life. But they take "Enlightenment" in a broad definition, including in its ambit all of the features of modernity noted above.

A detailed account of why Adornian historiography is wrong deserves and entire book of its own, dedicated to the rise of capitalism in England, the French revolution, the German Aufklärung, and other topics. Moreover, I do not wish to state that Adorno and Horkheimer were the only leftist intellectuals guilty of severe historical and historiographical errors (Foucault also comes to mind). But Dialectic of Enlightenment still carries an august status in even some orthodox Marxist circles, when it misleads more than it illuminates.

The historical materialist critique of modernity begins with the following observations: The rise of capitalism in England, the French Enlightenment, the German Aufklärung, the scientific revolution, and the industrial revolution did not come to us as part of a unified package. Capitalism as we understand it arose in rural England (Wood, 2002; Brenner 1976; Marx, 1867), and was not initially tied to the 1789 French revolution. The bourgeoisie and the capitalists were not originally the same class: most French bourgeois were office-holders, lawyers, or intellectuals; they were not capitalists or even merchants. It was the long-established landlord class in England which emerged as the nascent capitalists, and their literature was related to agricultural "improvement" (which in practice meant yielding higher profits), not the "enlightenment" of the citizenry.

Immanuel Kant's famous reply to the question "What is Enlightenment?" defines "enlightenment" as "man's exit from self-inflicted immaturity." He goes on to link this "exit" to "the public use of reason." Is this challenge of finding an "exit" through "public use of reason" not more in line with revolutionary leftist thinking than reactionary thinking? If a philosopher comes along who argues that the pursuit of progressive values (broadly defined) results in greater harm to humanity than otherwise, would we not regard such a figure as a reactionary? Why, then, do we give figures like Adorno a pass when they argue the same (or nearly the same) thing?

Adam Smith's famous passage on the invisible hand goes thusly:

"As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and buy directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was not part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it." (Smith, 1776, emphasis added)

Smith's famous argument is echoed by 20th-century neoliberal economist Friedrich Hayek:

"As decentralization has become necessary because nobody can consciously balance all the considerations bearing on the decisions of so many individuals, the coordination can clearly be affected not by "conscious control" but only by arrangements which convey to each agent the information he must possess in order effectively to adjust his decisions to those of others. And because all the details of the changes constantly affecting the conditions of demand and supply of the different commodities can never be fully known, or quickly enough be collected or disseminated, by any one center, what is required is some apparatus of registration which automatically records all the relevant effects of individual actions and whose indications are at the same time the resultant of, and the guide for, all the individual decisions. This is precisely what the price system does under competition, and which no other system even promises to accomplish." (Hayek, 1944)

In no way can either of these passages be squared with Kant's appeal to "the public use of reason." Both Smith and Hayek argue explicitly in favor of the individual, private use of reason, and believe that the greater good is served via the aggregate of individuals pursuing their own private interests. Nowhere is this argument to be found in Kant, nor is it in Kant's peers in the debate (Moses Mendelssohn, Karl Reinhold, etc.) "The public use of reason must at all times be free, and it alone can bring about enlightenment among men; the private use of reason, however, may often be very narrowly restricted without the progress of enlightenment being particularly hindered" (Kant, 1784). Is Kant's statement not more easily squared with notions of public planning, and public ownership, rather than some assumed dialectical inversion whereby private greed promotes the public welfare? If the public use of reason is a main criterion, then the main inheritors of the enlightenment in the 20th century might be Salvador Allende and the Cybersyn project, or computer scientist Paul Cockshott's book with political economist Allin Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism (1993). Wood may be right when she wrote in "Modernity, Postmodernity, or Capitalism?" (1996)

"So this isn't just a phase of capitalism. This is capitalism. If "modernity" has anything at all to do with it, then modernity is well and truly over, not created but destroyed by capitalism. The Enlightenment s dead. Maybe socialism will revive it, but for now the culture of "improvement" reigns supreme...The only concept we need to deal with this new reality is capitalism. The antithesis to that, of course, isn't postmodernism but socialism." (Wood, 1996)

My goal here is not to exonerate that heterogeneous phenomenon called "the Enlightenment," which is itself arguably as obscurantist a label as "modernity." But if the main portions of the Enlightenment happened in France and the German states, and capitalism arose in England, the question must be asked, whence arises the idea that the Enlightenment and capitalism were two parts of a united and oppressive modernity?

The answer, I think, is in another misappropriated Marxist idea: base and superstructure. Because ideological developments are assumed to reflect materialist ones, some Marxists conclude that the intellectual movement of the Enlightenment, coeval with the rise of capitalism, must therefore be capitalism's intellectual expression. But again, the main strains of Enlightenment thought were in France and the German states and promoted "enlightened absolutism." They had little in common with the literature of "improvement" that thrived on England, and which was used to justify the mass enclosures that took up special urgency after 1688, and which were associated with different notions of citizenship (such as the English Bill of Rights). The mistake arises from an excess of historiography and a dearth of history. Recall that one third of classical Marxism's foundation was English empiricism. Modern Marxists sometimes place such emphasis on Hegelian method that, though their sword may be made from great technique, the shoddy materials result in a shoddy weapon. A frail weapon will not slay the dragon of capital.

Historians have discussed the "English Enlightenment." However, the idea itself is contentious, as the main representatives of English enlightenment thought (John Locke, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, etc.) were fiercely conservative, while the main figures of the continental Enlightenment were often imprisoned or had to meet in secret to avoid persecution for their radicalism. The "English Enlightenment," was notably distinct from the continental enlightenment(s).

If pressed to choose a single date for the "birth" of capitalism in England, my candidate would be 1688. Capitalism had, of course, been in utero for many years, with the enclosures gradually increasing and the power of the landlords increasing with it. But 1688 was the original revolution, which first enabled the legalization of what we now call capitalism on a mass scale. The Bank of England was founded six years later, which began the long and complex process of redefining national sovereignty along lines of government debt (Goodchild, 2002). The Bank of England was taken over by the state, which amounted to the taking over of the state by the Bank of England. This bank could never crash because it was backed up by the state, which had the monopoly on violence to extract whatever taxes were needed to maintain the bank. This enabled the Bank of England to create infinite loans on the promise that they could always be paid back in the future. That in turn justified the mass creation of paper currency secured against those instabilities suffered by previous paper currencies. Hence, the "creation" of the wealth which eventually allowed for the industrial revolution.

A brief side comment: in Capital Vol I, Marx calls the emergence of capitalism in England the "classic form" of accumulation by dispossession. In a footnote he then writes:

"In Italy, where capitalist production developed earliest, the dissolution of serfdom also took place earlier than elsewhere. There the serf was emancipated before he had acquired any prescriptive right to the soil. His emancipation at once transformed him into a "free" proletarian, without any legal rights, and he found a master ready and waiting for him in the towns, which had been for the most part handed down from Roman times. When the revolution which took place in the world market at about the end of the fifteenth century had annihilated northern Italy's commercial supremacy, a movement in the reverse direction set in. The urban workers were driven en masse into the countryside, and gave a previously unheard-of impulse to small-scale cultivation, carried on in the form of market gardening." (Marx, 1867)

This comment may seem to demolish the thesis of capitalism's origins in England. However, Marx is remarkably vague here. Why is England the "classic" case if Italy is the place where capitalist production developed "earliest?" One idea is that Marx realized at some level he was founding a whole discipline and method of analysis, and thus decided for his own convenience what counted as the "classic" case. However, such an explanation seems too contingent. A comrade suggested to me that early Italian capitalism was destroyed by the decades of invasion and warfare in Italy during the first half of the sixteenth century. Looking into this thesis further, I found that, combined with epidemics of Plague, he Great Italian Wars rendered low the opportunities for investment. As a result, those with capital, rather than investing in improving production, invested in buildings and art-hence the artistic bloom of the Italian Renaissance (Malanima, 2008). Their capital did not yield profit in the same self-perpetuating ways we associate with capitalism, and was turned into use-value, rather than maintaining and expanding itself as exchange-value. Implicit in this explanation is the idea that wealthy Italians would necessarily engage in capitalist behavior unless such behavior is deflected, and that sounds a little too close to the "Capitalism is human nature" position. Whether one agrees or disagrees with this particular analysis, the larger point is this: the capitalism that since consumed the world, the capitalism in which we are living- "our" capitalism-did not come from Italy. Early Italian capitalism was snuffed out.

Philosopher Philip Goodchild couches his analysis in a Nietzschean historiography, inquiring as to when, exactly, the "Death of God" occurred. He places it at 1694, the founding of the Bank of England and the merger of state and financial interests that had been kept apart for thousands of years. "It was this deed which caused the murder of God" (Goodchild, 2002). But if capitalism killed God, then capitalism must first have been born, and the moment of the birth of capitalism as a social system, albeit of course in its infancy, was 1688. Marx notes in chapter 27 of Capital that the 1688 "Glorious Revolution" enabled the "capitalist profit-grubbers" to engage in profit-grubbing on an entirely new scale. While his emphasis is mostly on land, enclosure, and the creation of a mass property-less proletariat, the creation of modern finance is a subject on which historical materialists ought to have much to say.

Third, technological development is not itself the locus of revolution. As Wood notes, the point of historical materialist analysis is that each mode of production has its own logic, and its own way of needing to be understood.

"It is one thing to say that capitalism uniquely fosters technological development. It is quite another to contend that capitalism developed because it fosters technological development, or that capitalism had to develop because history somehow requires the development of productive forces, or that less productive systems are necessarily followed by more productive ones, or that the development of productive forces is the only available principle of historical movement from one mode of production to another […] the principle is that at the foundation of every social form there are property relations whose conditions of reproduction structure social and historical processes." (Wood, 1995, 120-121)

A simple historical example may be used to further illustrate the point: The ancient Romans could have had an industrial revolution of their own. They had simple steam machines and they had wagons. But for some reason, the opportunity or the imperative never arose to stick a steam machine on the back of a wagon and have the steam do the work of pushing it. Had such a moment arisen, the industrial revolution might have been 1,800 years ago. If technology will save us, it would have done so by now. The lesson of historical materialism here is that the revolution will be a class revolution, not a technological revolution (also opening room for critiques of the pseudoscientific cult of Singularitarianism). Building on work done by Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood shows the particular historical circumstances that allowed capitalism to emerge when and where it did, and not before (Wood, 2002). Historical developments need to be seen as historical, not as metaphysical; they do not follow from some predetermined logic waiting for its moment of fruition. History means beginnings. Technology has been around long before capitalism, so the beginnings of capitalism cannot be essentialized to technological development, unless we are prepared to once again view capitalism as existing in utero from the foggy pre-history of humanity.

Fourth, historical materialism involves challenging the categories in which we tend to think as themselves products of history. While Wood emphasizes the falseness of "economic" vs "political," we should also be careful of categories like "base" vs "superstructure," as ripe for reification. The terms of our analysis should be fluid and open to self-critique. As Slavoj Zizek put it in his 2009 debate with Alex Callinicos,

"If communism is an eternal idea, then it works as a Hegelian concrete universality. It is eternal, not in the sense of a series of abstract features which can be applied to every situation, but in the sense that it has the ability, the potential, to be re invented in each new historical situation." (Zizek, 2009).

That is the genuine power of historical materialism, to take the past and re-member it so as to continually recreate the space for revolutionary thought "in each new historical situation."

In the preface to his classic The Making of the English Working Class (1964), E.P. Thompson notes the problems created in thinking of class as a "thing" rather than a process ("If we stop history at a given point, then there are no classes but simply a multitude of individuals with a multitude of experiences"), and how such thinking engenders a framing of any sort of concept of "class consciousness" as embodying the worst caricatures of vanguardist organizational methods. The logical contradictions are clear:

"'It' - the working class - exists, and can be defined with some accuracy as a component of the social structure. Class-consciousness, however, is a bad thing, invented by displaced intellectuals, since everything which disturbs the harmonious co-existence of groups performing different 'social roles' (and which thereby retards economic growth) is to be deplored as an "unjustified disturbance-symptom.'" (Thompson, 1964, 10)

Thompson sees class-consciousness as something that exists empirically, and which ought to be studied. All classes have some kind of consciousness, and it is part of the job of the Marxist historian to study their historical development. In a similar vein, all movements have vanguards, and one may study those empirically too. This is the meaning used by Marx and Engels in the manifesto.

"The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement." (Marx and Engels, 1848)

One may say to a "non-political" person, that while they may not care for politics, others do, and they will not care for their interests. One may also say to those skeptical of vanguards that while you may not pursue a position to influence the movement in ways you think are positive, that does not mean others won't. And those people will not necessarily lead the movement in directions that you think are best. Refusing to recognize any notion of the vanguard is akin to refusing to recognize any notion of politics. As Lenin put it,

"But what else is the function of Social-Democracy [i.e. revolutionary socialism] if not to be a "spirit," not only hovering over the spontaneous movement, but also raising the movement to the level of "its program?" Surely, it is not its function to drag at the tail of the movement; at best, this would be of no service to the movement; at the worst, it would be very very harmful." (Lenin, 1902)

Why does one become an activist (taking that term in the broadest sense) if not because one thinks one has something to contribute? Do we, as socialists, not think that we have a better political program than non-socialists? Are we not, in essence, trying to convince more people to think in socialist terms?

"For there will always be found some who think for themselves, even among the established guardians of the masses, and who, after they themselves have thrown off the yoke of immaturity, will spread among the herd the spirit of rational assessment of individual worth and the vocation of each man to think for himself." (Kant, 1784)

In this vein, see Zizek's emphasis on the nature of an "authentic" master who "forces us to be free" (see, for example, his debate with Jordan Peterson). In this vein, perhaps psychoanalysis may indeed serve a revolutionary role in creating the "maturity" needed to recognize the prospects for an "authentic" vanguard.

Obviously, this essay has gleaned over complex issues with a broad brush. It is really only aimed at correcting some errors that I have seen in explications of historical materialism. As noted above, just the discussion of capitalism and the enlightenment from a historical materialist perspective is itself a book waiting to be written, and this essay does not pretend to be that. Moreover, I have not discussed why feudalism was on the decline already if not because of the very same things that led to capitalism, or the critics of the Woods/Brenner theses (like Jairus Banaji, whose excellent work will be the subject of another essay). I have also shown the limits of my own historical understanding regarding the nature of the economy of the Italian states during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But if we need a way out of "capitalist realism" and to show that, contra Thatcher, there are alternatives, then the first thing to do is look to the past for inspiration and understanding. Historical materialism is a method by which we may ensure that our backward glance is actually historical, rather than merely nostalgic. But it must be re invented as our understanding of history is re invented: historical materialism is a historiography, not a history. What historical materialism will tell you depends on which historical information you put into it. The good historical materialist is not just a communist but is a historian too. And that means really knowing history.

Charles Wofford is a communist and a PhD student in historical musicology.


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-----. Democracy Against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism (Verso Books, 1995).

-----. "Modernity, Postmodernity, or Capitalism?" Monthly Review July/August, 1996

Zizek, Slavoj. "Slavoj Zizek: What does it mean to be a revolutionary today? Marxism 2009." Video File. Youtube.com. 2009. Accessed May 18th, 2019. Relevant comment at 2:13. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GD69Cc20rw&t=640s