Marx’ Theory Of History Contributions

Marx's Theory of History, Marx Contributions

Marxian thought combines Hegelian philosophy, French Utopian thought, and classical political economy—particularly Ricardian. Marx's analysis of capitalism is an application to his time of a theory of history derived from Hegel. Hegel maintained that history does not proceed cyclically through a series of recurring situations, as many people believe, but rather moves forward in a straight line, progressively, by the interaction of a triad of forces that he termed thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Because these forces are ideological, it is in the study of ideas, not past events, that the laws of history can be found. At any given time, according to Hegel, an accepted idea, or thesis, exists but is soon contradicted by its opposite, or antithesis. Out of this conflict of ideas is formed a synthesis, representing a higher form of truth, which becomes a new thesis. The new thesis is likewise opposed by its antithesis and is transformed into a new synthesis, and so on and on. Thus, in a never-ending chain of ideas, each one approaching closer to truth, history evolves through an endless process in which all things become gradually more perfect by means of conflict-induced change. Hegel called this process, as well as the method for investigating it, dialectic.

Marx perceived a similar process in history—and in reality in general—and used a similar method to investigate it, which he also called dialectic. But the great difference between Hegel's and Marx's philosophies was that Hegel's was idealistic and Marx's materialistic. The reality in which change occurred for Hegel was ideas, but for Marx it was matter, which, he said, contained within itself the seeds of constant conflict. Marx's philosophy, therefore, is called dialectical materialism.


The grand questions
that engaged Marx's attention are the following: Can one develop a theory that explains the different ways in which societies have been organized over time, and can this theory be used to predict the possible future organization of society? Are the societal structures we call feudalism and capitalism part of an evolutionary development capable of being analyzed, or are they merely a result of random historical occurrences?

Marx accused the capitalist bourgeois economists of writing as though there had been a past but would be no future—as though capitalism, a system that had evolved from previous systems, was somehow an ideal societal structure that would exist forever. Therefore, one important ingredient in the Marxian system is change: Though we may not know exactly what the future will bring, Marx said, we do know that it will be different from the past and the present.

In focusing on materialistic or economic forces as the primary (although not the sole) determinant of historical change, Marx revolutionized thinking in the social sciences. Marx's thesis has proved a fruitful hypothesis or first approxi­mation for a good deal of important and useful work in the social sciences. Isaiah Berlin, a British critic and philosopher, has applied the parable of the hedgehog and the fox to Marx's concentration on materialistic factors in explaining historical change. The fox knows many things, Berlin says,\but the hedgehog knows one main thing. The scholarly Marx was clearly an intellectual fox, but in the elaboration of his historical theory he assumed the role of a hedgehog, ignoring many other relevant issues in order to focus on economic factors as the most important element in explaining the changing structure of society. The Marxian theory of history is most explicitly stated in The Communist Manifesto and in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, in which Marx explains:

The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, continued to serve as the leading thread in my studies, may be briefly summed up as follows: In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production corre­spond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society—the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their con­sciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of produc­tion in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or—what is but a legal expression for* the same thing—with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.

Marx believed that all societies, except classless societies, can be divided analytically into two parts: the forces of production and the relations of production. The forces of production are the technology used by the society in producing material goods; manifested in labor skills, scientific knowledge, tools, and capital goods, they are inherently dynamic. The relations of production are the rules of the game. There are relations between one person and another, or social relations, and relations between people and things, or property relations. To carry on production, the problem of economic order must be solved; and the historically determined relations of production provide the institutional frame­work within which economic decisions are made. In contrast to the forces of production, which are dynamic and changing, the relations of production are static and past-binding. The static nature of the relations of production is reinforced by what Marx called the social superstructure, whose function is to maintain the historically determined relations of production. The social super­structure consists of the art, literature, music, philosophy, jurisprudence, religion, and other cultural forms accepted by the society, and its purpose is to keep intact the relations of production—to maintain the status quo.

The static relations of production are the thesis in-the Marxian dialectic, and the dynamic, changing forces of production are the antithesis. In the beginning of any historical period there is harmony between the forces and relations of production, but over time the changing forces of production bring about contradictions in the system, as the existing relations of production (institutions) are no longer appropriate to the forces of production (technology). These contradictions will manifest themselves, Marx said, in a class struggle. Finally the contradictions will become so intense that there is a period of social revolution, and a new set of relations of production is brought into being. The new relations of production are the synthesis that results from the conflict between the old thesis (relations of production) and the antithesis (forces of production), and these relations of production become the new thesis. At this point in history there is again harmony, but the dynamic, changing forces of production ensure that new contradictions will soon develop.