Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Writing Marxist History

Social Systems and Class

History, human history shows that the past is very different from the present. There have been different modes of production, different methods of production and distribution, changes in ideas and beliefs, new transport and communication systems and emerging social classes as one social system replaces another. For most of human history there existed what Marx called "primitive communism". The principal form of "primitive communism" was the primitive communistic tribe of kinship, where localised common ownership was practised.

Following the demise of primitive communism, history became a series of class-based social systems driven by class struggle and punctuated by revolution: chattel slavery, feudalism and now capitalism. Take, for example capitalism and its political revolutions. Starting with the English Civil War (1642 to 1651), there followed a series of further revolutions: the American Revolution (1775 to 1783), the French Revolution (1789 to 1799), the Russian Revolution (1917) and the Chinese revolution (1848 to 1952). All were necessary to eventually form an integrated world capitalist system of commodity production and distribution for profit.

Marx and Engels had already anticipated in 1848 the historical process towards an integrated world capitalist system in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO when most of Europe was still feudal. Marx also anticipated that the forces of production created by capitalism carried the possibility for a society of abundance; a classless society of free men and women producing directly and solely for social use. In his Poverty of Theory, Marx made reference to the development of all the productive forces:

"For the oppressed class to be able to emancipate itself, it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be capable of existing side by side. Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself. The organization of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society" (THE POVERTY OF PHILOSOPHY, Ch. 2).
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/poverty-philosophy/ch02e.htm

Socialists place a great weight on understanding history. We can learn from the past, learn from mistakes and build on success. How capitalism emerged from feudalism is important to know just as it is to understand how the capitalist class consolidated its power. How did the capitalist class attain political power from the feudal Crown and landed aristocracy? What political use did the capitalist class make use of the working class? Why was capitalism forced to give the working class the vote? More importantly there is the serious question of why the socialist movement is currently at a trickle in the first decades of the Twenty First century and not fast flowing towards a socialist end. Where are we located in capitalism’s anarchic history: near the beginning in the middle or towards the end?

We can also learn from Marx. For it was Marx who showed what caused changes in human history and how these changes occurred? Marx rejected theological explanations of social change. He also rejected that historical and material change was caused by the power of ideas alone.

And Marx dismissed as absurd the theory that "great men" could change history at will. In this respect, Marx noted:

"...how absurd is the conception of history held hitherto, which neglects the real relationships and confines itself to high sounding dramas of princes and state's" (THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY p.57).

History for Marx is not about the dramas of princes and statesmen but the real social relations within and between classes. And these social relations centred on the growth of the productive forces. Social relations and the productive forces were not static and when they changed they had a profound effect on human social behaviour and society in general.

The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

What is useful to learn from Marx is how to apply his theory of history to historical events. Marx's theory of history, are scattered across his voluminous writings: THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY, the PREFACE TO A CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY, The COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, and CAPITAL.

In particular we have Marx's THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE (1852). The pamphlet is one of Karl Marx's most profound and most brilliant monographs. The essay discusses the French coup of 1851 in which Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte assumed dictatorial powers. The importance of the article is that Marx writes as a social and political historian within the framework of his materialist conception of history.

Here is a passage which touches upon remarks about "social conditions of existence", "superstructure" and "material foundation", themes to be addressed later in the Preface of 1859. Marx wrote:

What kept the two sections [legitimists and Orleanists] apart was not any so-called principles. They were sundered by their material conditions of existence, by two EDITORIAL PERSPECTIVES different forms of property. The divergence of their outlooks was an expression of the old conflict between town and country, the rivalry between Capital and Landed Property. But at the same time they were loyal to one or other branch of the royal house? They were bound by old memories, personal enmities, hopes and fears, prejudices and illusions, sympathies and antipathies, by convictions and articles of faith and principles? Who denies it! Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, as foundation, there is built a superstructure of diversified and characteristic sentiments, illusions, habits of thought, and outlooks on life in general. The class as a whole creates and shapes them out of its material foundation, and out of the corresponding social relationships. The individual, in whom they arise through tradition and education, may fancy them to be the true determinants, the real origin, of his activities.

Marx was not a trained historian but his pamphlet THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE sets the gold standard for applying his theory of history to historic events. Engels, in a letter to Joseph Bloch, said that it "is a most excellent example of its application" (p11 -12).

THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS NAPOLEON is an essay written by Karl Marx between December 1851 and March 1852, and originally published in 1852 in DIE REVOLUTION, a German monthly magazine published in New York City and edited by Joseph Weydemeyer.

Marx wrote about these events in France, as the coup was happening and being resisted. The title refers to the similarities between the taking of power by Napoleon III and the earlier seizure of power by his uncle, Napoleon I.

THE 18TH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE is divided into three sections. There is an introductory chapter giving an overview, followed by five chapters of events related to class analysis. The final chapter discusses the social and political character of the Bonaparte regime.

Brumaire is the second month of the French Republican calendar (1793–1805), originally running from 22 October to 20 November. Napoleon I's 1799 seizure of power had ushered in the "First Empire." The French Revolution of 1789 ended the rule of Feudalism curtailed the power of its institutions like the Catholic Church and set the conditions for the development of capitalism; free competition, free trade and the exploitation of the working class through the capital: labour relationship.

In the EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE, Marx satirises the pretensions of the nephew, giving us the famous phrase, that history repeats itself, "first as tragedy, then as farce."

In the pamphlet Marx also famously remarks:

"Men make history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted."

In the preface to the second edition of THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE, Marx stated that the purpose of the essay was to: "demonstrate how the class struggle in France created circumstances and relationships that made it possible for a grotesque mediocrity to play a hero's part".

Bonaparte's seizure of power was not inevitable. There were other possible courses of actions admitted by Marx's analysis of the events unfolding in France at the time. There was a tension between the historical forces limiting Napoleon's action and the political space which allowed him a degree of autonomy.

Although Bonaparte ruled as a dictator he had to serve the interests of the capitalist class for the French economy depended on its exploitation of the working class and continued accumulation of capital. Of all the classes in French society at the time, meeting the interests of the capitalist class was a precondition for the survival of the dictatorship. The capitalist class may have (temporarily) lost their political representation in the National Assembly but they still retained their economic and political power to exploit wage labour and make a profit.

"The tradition of past generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living."

In the essay, Marx highlighted the power of the past as it imposes itself on the present. He wrote:

"The tradition of past generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living."

Marx's brilliant observation continues to haunt workers and socialists to this day.

We are born into a social system over which we have little or no control. We are born into social relationships of class which we cannot do anything about. Unless there is a sizable growth in the socialist movement towards the establishment of socialism we remain an exploited class at the mercy of the laws of capitalism. We are confronted with past histories of war, barbarism, pain, racism, violence and prejudice which affect the way we think and behave. The pocket of autonomy in which we can work for socialism is currently very restricted, almost claustrophobic. When we look back over working class history it presents itself as a series of defeats, lost opportunities, and often the surrender of workers’ own unique set of interests for those of another class.

The traditions of capitalism into which we are born into really are a "nightmare". Look how quickly conservatives and others in the media fought to retain: "Land of Hope and Glory", "Rule Britannia" and "God Save the Queen" at the Last Night of the Proms. Capitalist politicians, like Boris Johnson, understood only too clearly how important it was to chain the working class to these symbols of cultural and political servitude. The sentiment of these anthems represents powerful barriers to the establishment of socialism: patriotism, nationalism, religion and deference to the ruling class.

Napoleon's fate was to become a prisoner of unfolding historical events that would eventually politically destroy him, as Marx predicted it would. Napoleon’s dictatorship dissolved following the defeat of the French army by Prussian forces at the battle of Seden. Napoleon was forced into exile and died in England in 1873. Ironically, his defeat by the Prussians laid the foundations for the short-lived Paris Commune. A fine study of the Paris Commune can be read in Marx's THE CIVIL WAR IN FRANCE in France and Lissagaray's HISTORY OF THE PARIS COMMUNE.

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