Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

History as Politics: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

History is not a Morality Tale

History is politically contentious and so are the political actors who walk its stage; "great and small", "pious and profane", "genocidal and peace loving".

No more so than when we come to look at the actions of capitalist politicians in relation to historic events. Academic historians have a tendency to become cheerleaders for a particular hero or heroine and overlook the shortcomings and failings of their subject. History is portrayed as largely a male affair drawn from the ruling class and its interests; the good wearing white hats, the bad wearing black ones and the ugly ones writing the history books.

History is depicted as a bibliography of the good, the bad and the ugly: a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western which, in its details, is largely facile and uninteresting. The Whig Interpretation of History it was called.

In the Whig Interpretation of Historical events, history becomes a series of dictators being defeated by the good. History becomes a morality tale of human progress championed by historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay. Macaulay, for example, saw history as a progressive railway line going on and on into the future delivering more and more freedom by the good guys at each station the train of history stopped at. He wrote:

'The history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement' (HISTORY OF ENGLAND 1848, p14).

This so-called Whig interpretation of history was derailed by the First World War. Capitalism may have been "progressive" as it emerged from Feudalism. In fact, the profit system was praised by Marx and Engels in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. They wrote, with some irony:

"The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature's forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of canals, whole populations conjured up from the ground -what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces lumbered in the lap of social labour?"

However, capitalism is no longer 'progressive'. The profit system merely passes from one economic crisis to the next, from one cycle of class exploitation to the next and from one war to the next.

The Marxian view of history, by contrast, in the words of Marx and Engels in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO - emphasises that ultimately: "the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles". The class struggle is "the motor force of history".

Marx's theory of history, popularly known as the materialist conception of history, is a revolutionary history: a history of revolutionary change. His theory was sketched out in the Preface to a CONTRIBUTION TO THE CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY. In the Preface he famously wrote:

'in the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of the material forces of production'.

Unlike academic historians, when socialists look at history we look at it in terms of changing social systems, forces of production including co-operative social labour, class, class relations, class interest and class struggle. Individuals are not dismissed as irrelevant but are set within social relationships and social forces which impose limits on their actions.

The opponents of Marx argue that he repudiated the role and significance of the individual in social development. Marx's theory of history is also dismissed by academic historians as being "economically determinist".

Of Marx's works, THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE repudiates both accusations. In his pamphlet he offered unique insights into the role of the individual in history. Individuals did have "choice" but these choices were constrained by historical circumstances. He wrote:

'Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past' (COLLECTED WORKS Vol. II, p.103).

The Working Class and Class Struggle

Marx never denied the importance of human agency in determining the course of history. The working class taking democratic and political action to establish socialism was fundamental to his political thinking. However the actions of the working class were undertaken by men and women, most of whom are not known or even recorded in written human history.

Sometimes, as if by accident, the poor can be heard. In 1736 Dr George Clarke bequeathed to Worcester College, Oxford a collection of papers. His father, William Clarke had taken notes at St Mary's Putney from 28th October to 9th November 1647 during the English Civil War. These notes, discovered in 1890, have become to be known as the Putney Debates. Here were recorded the views of ordinary solders; agitators or representatives of the army rank and file. They were attempting to make history but were to fail when Cromwell crushed their mutiny at Burford in May 1649.

In 1904, members of the working class, without leaders, published a socialist OBJECT AND DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES. The DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES was a series of associated statements describing capitalism, the class struggle, and the steps necessary for the working class to establish socialism. And the socialist Object was clearly defined:

'The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community'

More recently the voice of ordinary workers was recorded in the Govan Forum of December 1931. Members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain debated with supporters of state capitalism on the Russian Revolution, what is socialism and other political questions.

A report of an address delivered by Comrade A. Shaw, Glasgow Branch of the SPGB; to Govan Workers Open Forum, at Robert Street on Wednesday, December 24th,, 1931. Other Party members also contributed to the forum which began at 8.00 in the evening and went on until nearly 11.35. The building in which the Open Forum was held was rented by the British Section of the International Socialist Labour Party to whom the SPGB were opposed.

The Govan Workers Open Forum can be read at:

The report has fallen on historically deaf ears. As a recorded document of working class history, it has been ignored by historians. The historians around the capitalist Left will not touch the report because it mentions the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

And the capitalist right will not touch it because it highlights workers discussing politics, political action and revolution, something Tories erroneously claim only "intellectuals" indulge in. Across the capitalist political spectrum workers are supposed to be politically passive and led by "the leader"; to stand in line and do as they are told. Socialists stand in line for no one. We refuse our consent.

Asking the Right Questions

Marxist history writing, like all good history writing, is about asking the right questions more than predetermined answers. Here is the poet and dramatist, Berthold Brecht, asking some very pertinent questions:

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?
In the books you will find the names of kings.
Did kings haul up the lumps of rock?
The young Alexander conquered India.
Was he alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Did he not have even a cook with him?
Every page a victory.
Who cooked the feast for the victors?
Every ten years a great man.
Who paid the bill?
So many accounts.
So many questions.

Bertolt Brecht, 'POEMS', edited by J. Willett and R. Mannheim, published by Methuen, 1976 - translation slightly modified

What Brecht is saying: standard accounts of the past only tell us about the ruling class and political leaders, but the people who actually did the work - built the cathedrals, took part in battles, and worked in factories or offices - were the most important historical actors. They were the oppressed; the slaves, the peasants and the labourers.

A group of workers have to be employed either as slaves, peasants or workers to produce anything, but the ruling class certainly could never have accomplished anything without the workforce they enslaved or employed.

Employers might need workers to create their wealth for them, but workers do not need capitalists or employers. Workers can organise society for themselves.

Workers, acting as a class, are a revolutionary force capable of making history by their own effort alone. The establishment of socialism will involve millions of men and women. History will be made by a working class majority not leaders or the led, great statesmen and politicians.

And as for historical outcomes there is no 'destiny' or 'fate'. Again, returning to the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, Marx and Engels wrote that:

"The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority"

"Self-conscious" means being aware of what you are doing. You are not moved by astrological events. There is no "crystal ball" and no Tarot cards.

The Marxian theory of history talks about movements of classes not "fate" and "destiny"; a movement towards a goal, raising questions of what objective, how and by what political means it is to be achieved? The class struggle is in fact "a political struggle".

Is this democratic and political movement smooth and linear? Even Marx and Engels thought it could be disrupted; one step forward and two steps backwards.

Marx and Engels refer to the organisation of workers "continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves" (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO). They also entertained the possibility that there might not be a socialist outcome in the class struggle. There might be the destruction of the contending classes. This is hardly a history of "fate" and "destiny".

When the historian E. P. Thompson looked at the formation of the working class in England in 1963, he called his book THE MAKING OF THE ENGLISH WORKING CLASS. The book celebrated the working class and moved the historian's attention from "history from above" to a "history from below". Thomson set out to:

"...rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the 'obsolete' hand-loom weaver, the 'utopian' artisan and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott from the enormous condensation of posterity" (p 13).

These workers were saved from the "condensation of posterity". However, working class history was still about the working class not the vision of Marx in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO which saw workers transcending class through the formation of a political party- "This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party...". That is history as politics.

The book that has still to be written would be called "The End of the Working Class". It will be a book celebrating the freedom from class, class exploitation and class power. In establishing socialism workers will be free from class and class relations. Socialism will be a classless society of free men and women co-operatively producing useful things directly to meet human need. In socialism there will be no working class to write about.

Back to top

Socialist Studies

email: |