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About Marx's Theory Of History

Although Marx's materialist view of history is obviously true and clearly influential, as well as being supported by modern science, it has been paradoxically and persistently misunderstood and deliberately misrepresented by friends and foes alike.

In his book about Winston Churchill, THE CHURCHILL FACTOR - HOW ONE MAN MADE HISTORY (2014), Boris Johnson declared that Churchill alone made and could make history:

"Churchill matters today because he saved our civilisation. And the important point is that only he could have done it. He is the resounding rebuttal to all Marxist historians who think history is the story of vast and impersonal economic forces. The point of the Churchill Factor is that one man can make all the difference
(Introduction).


At the end of this ghastly book, Johnson repeated his point:

"For several decades now it has been fashionable to say that these so-called great men and women are just epiphenomena, meretricious bubbles on the vast tides of social history. The real story, on this view, is about deep economic forces, technological advances, changes in the price of sorghum, the overwhelming weight of an infinite number of mundane human activities. Well, I think the story of Winston Churchill is a pretty withering retort to all that malarkey. He, and he alone, made the difference
(chap. 23).


The idea that one man alone can make history is of course not a new one. In fact, Johnson was echoing the view of an earlier hero-worshipper, in an obituary for Lenin:

"Alone in the earthquakes of the war period, this Russian revived the heroic age, and proved what the naked will of one man may do to change the course of history (Brailsford, editor of THE NEW LEADER, 25 Jan 1924 - quoted March 1924 in the SPGB's article THE PASSING OF LENIN, reprinted in our 1948 pamphlet, RUSSIA SINCE 1917).

In answer, that 1924 Socialist article argued that, far from one man changing the course of history:

[Lenin] was the product of the course of history... Despite his claims at the beginning, he was the first to see the trend of conditions and adapt himself to these conditions. So far was he from "changing the course of history" as Brailsford ignorantly remarks, that it was the course of history which changed him, drove him from one point after anther till to-day Russia stands halfway on the road to capitalism (ibid.).

The "course of history" had - as Lenin himself admitted - forced him to change his policy, to back-pedal from the chaos of 'war communism', and introduce the New Economic Policy (NEP), much to the relief of the starving workers and peasants. And to the advantage of the NEP-men, an army of assorted spivs and racketeers.

That early SPGB assessment that "Russia stands halfway on the road to capitalism" was actually spot-on, as Lenin and Stalin soon turned the peasants into wage-slaves.

As for the over-rated 'great man' theory of history, Napoleon himself wrote:

"I found all the elements ready at hand to found an empire. Europe was weary of anarchy, they wanted to make an end of it. If I had not come probably someone else would have done like me ... I repeat, a man is only a man. His power is nothing if circumstances and public sentiment do not favour him (quoted in HISTORICAL MATERIALISM, SPGB pamphlet 1975, p57).

If Napoleon or Churchill were, in their time, remarkable individuals, with an enormous impact, that is in part because of accidents: that just such a man appeared at that specific time was a historical accident. If not Napoleon or Churchill, surely someone else would have been found. Suppose Napoleon had suffered a fatal injury in some battle? Suppose Churchill had crashed his plane? No doubt a more or less able replacement would have been found.

In 1898, when the Russian Narodniks were arguing that Marxism denied any role for the individual, Plekhanov answered them in THE ROLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL IN HISTORY:

Owing to the specific qualities of their minds and characters, influential individuals can change the individual features of events and some of their particular consequences, but they cannot change their general trend, which is determined by other forces... No great man can foist on society relations which no longer conform to the state of these [productive] forces, or which do not yet conform to them
(chaps. 6 and 8).

As for Marx, in fact he was very far from being an economic determinist. In his essay on the farcical Louis Bonaparte coup d'etat of 2 December 1852, he wrote:

Men make their own history, but not just as they please. They do not choose the circumstances for themselves, but have to work upon circumstances as they find them ... (THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE, chap 1).

The first part of this passage is clear: "men make their own history". But they can only do so within the circumstances in which they are operating - which is simply common-sense.

For instance, consider how important the availability of oil was for Churchill in trying to win a war. He was far from being able to do this all by himself!

Economic and other material matters need to be taken into account, not just the personal qualities of a politician. To think these factors can be left out of the picture is to think like a child, or one of those retarded adults whose understanding of 'history' is limited to the dates of the kings and queens of England.

Bonaparte and Brexit

In the 1920s, fellow-travellers like Brailsford were likely to focus on the aftermath of the Russian Revolution. But now in 2021 we are experiencing the aftermath of the 'Brexit revolution', with economic shortages, and a 'Great Man'. the chaotic, dishevelled and disorganised Boris Johnson, erratically steering the ship of state.

Just as Louis Bonaparte had prorogued the National Assembly and later Lenin had sent the Constituent Assembly packing, so too did Boris, that modern "hero of our times", as he too prorogued parliament - illegally. In Marx's short essay, again and again he seemed to be describing the way the Brexiteers achieved their coup, and so brought Boris Johnson to Downing Street. As Marx wrote of Louis Bonaparte:

"Being a fatalist, he was convinced that there are higher powers which no man... can withstand (op. cit. Chap. 6).

Marx argued: "the class war in France created circumstances that enabled a grotesque mediocrity to strut about in a hero's garb" (1869, Preface to the 1st German edition of THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE).

It has been likewise with the very unusual circumstances which brought this idiot to be seen as the necessary 'Leader' to "get Brexit done". Again, as with other 'revolutions', Boris had to appear to take on the historic mantle, to pose as another Churchill, hence that book eulogising the 'great man'. As Marx wrote:

"... the calling up of the shades of the dead took place in order to embellish the new struggles... it was done for the sake of adding an imaginative halo to the tasks that had to be performed, and not in search of an excuse for refraining from their actual performance"
(THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE, Chap. 1).

Similarly, after 1917, Lenin and the leading Bolsheviks liked to compare their revolution with the great French Revolution, and themselves with the leading personalities of that revolution. They too were gulled into supposing that a great movement had to be led by some 'great man', and Lenin cast himself in that role, well in advance of any possible revolution. Rather as Boris wrote his book about Churchill, in high hopes of later becoming the Tory party's leader, and so in due course Prime Minister.

Like other so-called 'great men', Boris may have thought this was his destiny. Churchill wrote: "I felt as if I were walking with destiny" (SECOND WORLD WAR, vol. 1, 1948). Hitler too: "I go the way that Providence dictates with the assurance of a sleepwalker" (speech, Munich, 1936). Trump too: "I am the Chosen One" (CNN, 22 Aug. 2019).

But others like the poet W H Auden had a very different view of Churchill: "Providentially / right for once in his lifetime / (his reasons were wrong) /The old sod was permitted / to save civilization".

Materialism and History

When Marx and Engels wrote about their theory of history, they were consciously opposing the dominant Hegelian school of thinking. They were fully appreciative of Hegel's dialectics but, while his argument started from ideas and ideologies, they saw history the other way round. Along with Feuerbach and other materialists, Marx and Engels held that "being determines consciousness", but went further in arguing that this process in turn also leads to further developments:

"We begin with real, active men, and, from their real life-process show the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process ... it is men, who, in developing their material production and their material intercourse, change, along with this, their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking."
(THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY, 1845-6).

As for the economic determinism that Johnson and many others echo as a parody of Marxism, decades later Engels strongly refuted it:

"According to the materialist conception of history the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If therefore somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase"
(Letter to Bloch, 1890).

In another letter the same year, Engels wrote:

"If... Barth supposes we deny any and every reaction of the political, etc., reflexes of the economic movement upon the movement itself, he is simply tilting at windmills. ... why do we fight for the political dictatorship of the proletariat if political power is itself impotent? ... What these gentlemen all lack is dialectic. They never see anything but here cause and there effect"
(Letter to Conrad Schmidt, 1890).

Plekhanov too wrote that Marx's historical materialism is based on the fact that:

"If, on the one hand, men are the products of environment, environment itself, on the other hand, is modified by men"
(FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEMS OF MARXISM chap X, 1908).

Marxism and Nature

The fact of real, ongoing, reciprocal interaction between human history and the natural environment, is impossible to deny.

Centuries before Marx, Walter Raleigh, the Elizabethan explorer and historian, had written: "wee are compounded of earth; and wee inhabit it". And, in 1570 a Dutch contemporary of his, Ortelius, publisher of the world's first atlas, THEATRUM ORBIS TERRARUM, had printed this motto: "Geography is the eye of history".

Now, with the effects of centuries of capitalist industry causing an ecological and climatic catastrophe, that close connection between human history, geography and the natural environment is affecting almost every aspect of our lives, even terrifying capitalists, bankers and governments.

As climate change is clearly the result of industrial pollution, with species extinctions all around us, the relatively new science of ecology also draws on something Marx had argued.

The interconnectedness of the world and the processes of evolutionary change in nature were summed up in our 1975 pamphlet HISTORICAL MATERIALISM:

"Everything is part of an unending world process, no section of which can be isolated except in thought. And even when isolating anything in thought it must still be studied in connection with other things" (pp 41-42).

Summing up Marx's materialist conception of history, we can see it as a method of investigation:

"Thinking is done in a social world that is evolving and about a social world that is evolving; change is also, therefore, one of the elements of thought.

Man's social thought and action is dependent upon the special character of the environment in which he lives. He can act upon and modify this environment, but only in accordance with the elements contained within it
"(ibid., p49).

We as members of the working class are fully aware of how the current capitalist system, itself a product of social evolution, can be changed, can be overthrown, can be replaced. One element is lacking: a world majority of workers sharing that consciousness, and uniting politically to make that revolutionary change.

Only with such a democratic movement can we "modify" this class system, can we end this system of production for profit. And in doing that, in creating a social system based on the common ownership and democratic control of all means of production and distribution, we would surely be able to put a stop to the pollution and raping of Mother Earth.

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