What Is Marxism?. Emile Burns 1939


The history of mankind is usually presented in the form of a record of wars between nations and the exploits of individual monarchs, generals or statesmen. Sometimes the motives of these individuals are described in a purely personal way – their ambitions led them to conquer territory, or their moral or immoral outlook caused them to adopt certain policies. Sometimes they are described as acting for the sake of the country’s honour or prestige, or from some motive of religion.

Marxism is not satisfied with such an approach to history.

In the first place, it considers that the real science of history must deal with the peoples, and only with individuals in so far as they represent something much wider than themselves – some movement of the people.

For example, Cromwell is important not because of his own outlook and individual actions, but because he played an important part in the movement of a section of the English people against the old order. He and his movement broke down the barriers of feudalism, and opened the way for the widespread development of capitalism in Britain. What matters is not the record of his battles and his religious outlook and intrigues. But the study of Cromwell’s place in the development of British production and distribution, the understanding of why, at that period and in Britain, the struggle developed against the feudal monarchy; the study of the changes actually brought about in that period – these are important; they are the basis of a science of history. By using the knowledge derived from such a study (along with the study of other periods and of other peoples), it is possible to draw up general theories – laws of the development of society, which are just as real as the laws of chemistry or any other science. And once we know these laws we can make use of them, just as we can make use of any scientific law – we can not only foretell what is likely to happen, but can act in such a way as to make sure that it does happen; or, as in the case of fascism, to stop it happening.

So Marxism approaches the study of history in order to trace the natural laws which run through all human history, and for this purpose it looks not at individuals but at peoples. And when it looks at peoples (after the stage of primitive society) it finds that there are different sections of the people, some pulling one way and some another, not as individuals, but as classes.

What are these classes? In the simplest terms, they are sections of the people who get their living in the same way. In feudal society the monarch and the feudal lords got their living from some form of tribute (whether personal service or payments in kind) provided by their “serfs,” who actually produced things, mainly on the land. The feudal lords were a class, with interests as a class – they all wanted to get as much as possible out of the labour of their serfs; they all wanted to extend their land and the number of serfs working for them. On the other hand, the serfs were a class, with their own class interests. They wanted to keep more of what they produced for themselves and their families, instead of handing it over to their lords; they wanted freedom to work for themselves; they wanted to do away with the harsh treatment they received at the hands of their lords, who were also their law-makers and their judges. An Anglo-Saxon writer expressed the feelings of a serf who had to plough his lord’s land: “Oh, sir, I work very hard. I go out in the dawning, driving the oxen to the field and yoke them to the, plough. Be the winter never so stark, I dare not stay at home for fear of my lord; but every day I must plough a full acre or more (Quoted by Eileen Power in Medieval People, p. 22).

Hence in every feudal country there was a constant struggle going on between the lords and the serfs, sometimes only on an individual basis, or a group of serfs against their particular lord; sometimes on a much wider basis, when large numbers of serfs acted together, in order to try to get their general conditions of life made easier. The revolt of 1381 in England, led by John Ball and Wat Tyler, is an instance of this. The full story is told in H. Fagan’s Nine Days that Shook England. Similar risings of serfs or peasants occurred in Germany, Russia and many other countries, while the struggle was continually going on on a smaller scale.

In addition to the obligations to work their lord’s land, there were many forms of tribute to be paid in kind – not only a share of the produce of their own holding, but products of the handicraft of the serfs and their families. There were some specialised producers – for example, makers of weapons and equipment. And there were merchants who bought surplus products, trading them for the products of other regions or countries. With the increase of trade. these merchants began to need more than the surplus produced by serfs and not required by their lords; they therefore began to develop organised production for the market, using the whole-time labour of serfs who had been freed or had succeeded in escaping from their lords. Some of the freed serfs also managed to set themselves up in the towns as free craftsmen, producing cloth, metalware and other articles. So in a slow development, lasting hundreds of years, there grew up within feudal production for local consumption, also production for the market, carried on by independent artisans and employers of wage-labour. The independent artisans also gradually developed into employers of labour, with “journeymen” working for them for wages. So from the sixteenth century onwards there was coming into existence a new class, the industrial capitalist class, with its “shadow,” the industrial working class. In the countryside, too, the old feudal obligations had broken down – personal service was changed into money rent, the serfs were transformed in many cases into free peasants, each on his holding, and the landowner began to pay wages for the labour-power he needed on his own farms; in this way, too, the capitalist farmer came into existence, along with the farm labourer earning wages.

But the growth of the capitalist class in town and country did not automatically put an end to the former ruling class of feudal lords. On the contrary, the monarchy, the old landed aristocracy and the Church did their utmost to use the new capitalism for their own benefit. The serfs who had been freed or escaped to the towns had also escaped from having to pay tribute (in personal service, in kind or in money) to the lords. But when the descendants of these serfs grew relatively rich, they began to find that they were not really free – the king and the feudal nobility made them pay taxes of all kinds, imposed restrictions on their trade, and prevented the free development of their manufacturing business.

The king and the old landed nobility were able to do this because they controlled the machinery of the State – armed forces, judges and prisons; while they also made the laws. Therefore the growth of the capitalist class also meant the growth of new forms of class struggle. The capitalists had to engage in a struggle against the monarchy and the feudal lords, a struggle which continued over many centuries. In some relatively backward countries it is still going on – but in Britain and France, for example, it has been completed.

How did this come about?

By the capitalist class taking power from the former feudal rulers, by means of an armed revolution. In Britain, where this stage was reached far earlier than in other countries. the continuous struggle of the growing capitalist class against taxation and restrictions reached a high point in the middle of the seventeenth century. These restrictions were holding back the expansion of the capitalist form of production. The capitalists tried to get them removed by peaceful means – petitions to the king, by refusing to pay taxes, and so on; but nothing far-reaching could be won against the machinery of the State. Therefore the capitalists had to meet force with force; they had to rouse the people against the king, against arbitrary taxation and trade restrictions, against the arrests and penalties imposed by the king’s judges for all attempts to break through the feudal barriers. In other words, the capitalists had to organise an armed revolution, to lead the people to rise in arms against the king and the old forms of oppression – to defeat the former rulers by military means. Only after this had been done was it possible for the capitalist class to become the ruling class, to break down all barriers to the development of capitalism, and to make the laws needed for this.

It is perfectly true that this capitalist revolution in England is presented in most histories as a fight against Charles I as a despotic, scheming monarch of Roman Catholic leanings, while Cromwell is represented as a highly respectable anti-Catholic, with great ideals of British freedom. The struggle, in short, is presented as a moral, religious fight. Marxism goes deeper than the individuals, and deeper than the watchwords under which the fight was carried on. It sees the essence of the struggle of that period as the fight of the rising capitalist class to take power from the old feudal ruling class. And in fact it was a clear turning-point: after that revolution, and the second stage of it in 1689, the capitalist class won a considerable share in the control of the State.

In England, owing to the early stage at which the capitalist revolution came, the victory of the capitalists was not decisive and not complete. As a result of this, though the old feudal relations were largely destroyed, the landowning class (including rich recruits from the towns) to a great extent survived and itself developed as capitalist landlords, merging with the moneyed interests over the next two centuries, and keeping a considerable share in the control of the State.

But in France, where the whole process came later, and the capitalist revolution did not take place until 1789, the immediate changes were more far-reaching. To the Marxist, however, this was not due to the fact that Rousseau and other writers had written works proclaiming the rights of man, nor to the fact that the popular watchwords of the revolution were “Liberty-Equality-Fraternity.” Just as the essence of the Cromwell revolution is to be found in the class struggle and not in the religious watchwords, so the essence of the French revolution is to be found in the class relations and not in the abstract principles of justice inscribed on its banners.

Marx says of such periods: “Just as we cannot judge an individual on the basis of his own opinion of himself, so such a revolutionary period cannot be judged from its own consciousness.” What is important for the understanding of revolutionary periods is to see the classes struggling for power, the new class taking power from the old; even if, consciously or unconsciously, the leaders of the new class proclaim their fight to be for what are apparently abstract ideas or issues not directly connected with the question of class interests and class power.

The Marxist approach to history sees the struggle between contending classes as the principal driving force in the development of human society. But along with the struggle of classes goes also the growth of science of man’s power over nature, man’s power to produce the things he needs for life. The discovery of power-driven machinery was an immense step forward in production; but it was not only this. It also brought with it the destruction of the producer owning his own spinning wheel and weaving-frame, who could no longer compete against rival producers using power-driven machinery which enabled a worker to spin and weave in one day more than the artisan could produce in a week. Therefore the individual producer, who owned and used his own instruments of production, gave place to two groups of people – the capitalist class, who owned the new power-driven machinery but did not work it; and the industrial working class, which did not own any means of production, but worked (for wages) for the owner.

This change came about unconsciously, without being planned by anyone; it was the direct result of the new knowledge gained by a few people who applied it to production for their own advantage, but without in any way foreseeing or desiring the social consequences that followed from it. Marx held that this was true of all changes in human society: man was steadily increasing his knowledge, applying his new-found knowledge to production, and by this causing profound social changes. These social changes led to class conflicts, which took the form of conflicts over ideas or institutions – religion, parliament, justice and so on – because the ideas and institutions then current had grown up on the basis of the old mode of production and the old class relations.

Take for example the institution of the “estates.” These, in England, used to be the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons; each “estate” had separate representation in early parliaments. Although these still survive in the formal division between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, the “estates” have lost all significance with the sweeping away of feudalism and the new division of society into capitalists and workers. In France there is not a trace of the old division into “estates;” and in White America such “estates” were never heard of, because at the time of the growth of the United States feudalism was already nearing its end.

What brought such ideas and institutions into existence and what brought them to an end? Marx pointed out that always and everywhere the ideas and institutions only grew up out of the actual practice of men. The first thing was: the production of the means of life – of food and clothing and shelter. In every historical social group – the primitive tribe, slave society, feudal society, modern capitalist society – the relations between the members of the group depended. on the form of production. Institutions were not thought out in advance, but grew up out of what was customary in each group; institutions, laws, moral precepts and other ideas merely crystallised, as it were, out of customs, and the customs were directly associated with the form of production.

It follows, therefore, that when the form of production changed – for example from feudalism to capitalism – the institutions and ideas also changed. What was moral at one stage became immoral at another, and vice versa. And naturally at the time when the material change was taking place – the change in the form of production – there was always a conflict of ideas, a challenge to existing institutions.

With the actual growth of capitalist production came the conflict with the feudal relations – in the new form of production capital was to be in practice supreme. So there came up conflicting ideas: not divine right, but “no taxation without representation,” the right to trade freely, and new religious conceptions expressing more individual right, less centralised control. But what seemed to be free men fighting to the death for abstract rights and religious forms was in fact the struggle between rising capitalism and dying feudalism; the conflict of ideas was secondary.

It is for this reason that Marxists do not set up abstract “principles” for the organisation of society, like the writers of Utopias. Marxism considers that all such “principles” as have appeared in human thought merely reflect the actual organisation of society at a particular time and place, and do not and cannot hold good always and everywhere. Moreover, ideas that seem to be universal – such as the idea of human equality – in fact do not mean the same thing in different stages of society. In the Greek city States, the idea of the equal rights of men did not apply to slaves; the “liberty, equality and fraternity” of the great French Revolution meant the liberty of the rising capitalist class to trade freely, the equality of this class with the feudal lords, and the fraternity of this class with itself – the mutual aid against feudal oppressions and restrictions. None of these ideas applied to the slaves in the French colonies, or even to the poorer sections of the population in France itself.

Hence we can say that most ideas, especially those connected with the organisation of society, are class ideas, the ideas of the dominant class in society, which imposes them on the rest of society through its ownership of the machinery of propaganda, its control of education and its power to punish contrary ideas through the law courts, through dismissals and similar measures. This does not mean that the dominant class says to itself: Here is an idea which of course isn’t true, but we will force other people to believe it, or at least not to deny it in public. On the contrary, the dominant class does not as a rule invent such ideas. The ideas come up out of actual life – the actual power of the feudal lord or of the rich industrialist who has been created a peer is the material basis for the idea that “noblemen” are superior to other people. But once the idea has come up and been established, it becomes important for the dominant class to make sure that everyone accepts it – for if people do not accept it, this means that they will not act in accordance with it – for example, that they will challenge the king’s divine right (and perhaps even go to the length of cutting off his head). So the dominant class of any period and any country – not only Japan – does what it can to prevent “dangerous thoughts” from spreading.

But, it may be asked, if ideas are secondary, if the primary fact is always the material change in the form of production, how can any “dangerous thoughts” arise? How, in short, can people think of a new form of production before it actually arises?

The answer is that they cannot think of it before the conditions for its existence have appeared. But they are made to think of it when these conditions have appeared, by the very conflict between the old conditions and the new forces of production.

For example, with the actual growth of production by wage labour, and the necessity to sell the products in order to realise the profit, the early capitalist was brought up sharply against the feudal restrictions on trade. Hence the idea of freedom from restrictions, of having a say in fixing taxes, and so on. It was not yet capitalist society, but the conditions for a capitalist society had arisen, and out of these came the capitalist ideas.

It is the same with socialist ideas. Scientific as opposed to utopian socialist ideas could only arise when the conditions for socialist society had developed – when large-scale production was widespread, and when it had become clear, through repeated crises of over-production, that capitalism was holding back social progress.

But although ideas can only arise from material conditions, when they do arise they certainly exert an influence on men’s actions and therefore on the course of things. Ideas based on the old system of production are conservative – they hold back men’s actions, and that is why the dominant class in each period does everything it can to teach these ideas. But ideas based on the new conditions of production are progressive – they encourage action to carry through the change to the new system, and that is why the dominant class regards them as dangerous. Thus the idea that a social system is bad which destroys food to keep up prices, at a time when large numbers of citizens are in a state of semi-starvation, is clearly a “dangerous thought.” It leads on to the idea of a system in which production is for use and not for profit; and this leads to the organisation of socialist and communist parties, which begin to work to bring about the change to the new system.

The Marxist conception of social development (known as “historical materialism”) is therefore not a materialist “determinism” – the theory that man’s actions are absolutely determined by the material world round him. On the contrary, man’s actions, and the material changes which these actions bring about, are the product partly of the material world outside him, and partly of his own knowledge of how to control the material world. But he only gets his knowledge through experience of the material world, which, so to speak, comes first. He gets the experience of the material world not in an abstract, arm-chair way, but in the course of producing the things he needs for life. And as his knowledge increases, as he invents new methods of production and operates them, the old forms of social organisation become a barrier, preventing the full use of the new methods. Man becomes aware of this from the actual practice of life; he fights first against particular evils, particular barriers created by the old form of social organisation. But inevitably he is drawn into a general fight against the whole former system.

Up to a certain point, the whole process by which new productive forces develop out of the old system is unconscious and unplanned, and so also is the struggle against the old forms of social organisation which preserve the old system. But always a stage is reached when the old class relations are seen to be the barrier preventing the new productive forces from being fully used; it is at this stage that the conscious action of “the class with the future in its hands” comes into play.

But the process of developing the productive forces need no longer be unconscious and unplanned. Man has accumulated sufficient experience, sufficient knowledge of the laws of social change, to pass on to the next stage in a conscious and planned way, and to set up a society in which production is conscious and planned. Engels says (Handbook of Marxism, p 299):

“The objective, external forces which have hitherto dominated history will then pass under the control of men them selves. It is only from this point that men, with full consciousness, will fashion their own history.”