Chris Harman

How Marxism Works

Understanding history

Ideas by themselves cannot change society. This was one of Marx’s first conclusions. Like a number of thinkers before him, he insisted that to understand society you had to see human beings as part of the material world.

Human behaviour was determined by material forces, just like the behaviour of any other natural object. The study of humanity was part of the scientific study of the natural world. Thinkers with such views were called materialists.

Marx regarded materialism as a great step forward over the various religious and idealist notions of history. It meant that you could argue scientifically about changing social conditions, you no longer depended on praying to God or on ‘spiritual change’ in people.

The replacement of idealism by materialism was the replacement of mysticism by science. But not all materialist explanations of human behaviour are correct. Just as there have been mistaken scientific theories in biology, chemistry or physics, so there have been mistaken attempts to develop scientific theories of society. Here are a few examples:

One very widespread, non-Marxist, materialist view holds that human beings are animals, who behave ‘naturally’ in certain ways. Just as it is in the nature of wolves to kill or in the nature of sheep to be placid, so it is in the nature of men to be aggressive, domineering, competitive and greedy (and, it is implied, of women to be meek, submissive, deferential and passive).

One formulation of this view is to be found in the best selling book The Naked Ape. The conclusions that are drawn from such arguments are almost invariably reactionary. If men are naturally aggressive, it is said, then there is no point in trying to improve society. Things will always turn out the same. Revolutions will ‘always fail’.

But ‘human nature’ does in fact vary from society to society. For instance, competitiveness, which is taken for granted in our society, hardly existed in many previous societies. When scientists first tried to give Sioux Indians IQ tests, they found that the Indians could not understand why they should not help each other do the answers. The society they lived in stressed cooperation, not competition.

The same with aggressiveness. When Eskimos first met Europeans, they could not make any sense whatsoever of the notion of ‘war’. The idea of one group of people trying to wipe out another group of people seemed crazy to them.

In our society it is regarded as ‘natural’ that parents should love and protect their children. Yet in the Ancient Greek city of Sparta it was regarded as ‘natural’ to leave infants out in the mountains to see if they could survive the cold.

‘Unchanging human nature’ theories provide no explanation for the great events of history. The pyramids of Egypt, the splendours of Ancient Greece, the empires of Rome or the Incas, the modern industrial city, are put on the same level as the illiterate peasants who lived in the mud hovels of the Dark Ages. All that matters is the ‘naked ape’ – not the magnificent civilisations the ape has built. It is irrelevant that some forms of society succeed in feeding the ‘apes’, while others leave millions to starve to death.

Many people accept a different materialist theory, which stresses the way it is possible to change human behaviour. Just as animals can be trained to behave differently in a circus to a jungle, so, say the supporters of this view, human behaviour can similarly be changed. If only the right people got control of society, it is said, then ‘human nature’ could be transformed.

This view is certainly a great step forward from the ‘naked ape’. But as an explanation of how society as a whole can be changed it fails. If everyone is completely conditioned in present-day society, how can anyone ever rise above society and see how to change the conditioning mechanisms? Is there some God-ordained minority that is magically immune to the pressures that dominate everyone else? If we are all animals in the circus, who can be the lion tamer?

Those who hold this theory either end up saying society cannot change (like the naked apers) or they believe change is produced by something outside society – by God, or a ‘great man’, or the power of individual ideas. Their ‘materialism’ lets a new version of idealism in through the back door.

As Marx pointed out, this doctrine necessarily ends up by dividing society into two parts, one of which is superior to society. This ‘materialist’ view is often reactionary. One of the best known adherents of the view today is a right wing American psychologist called Skinner. He wants to condition people to behave in certain ways. But since he himself is a product of American capitalist society, his ‘conditioning’ merely means trying to make people conform to that society.

Another materialist view blames all the misery in the world on ‘population pressure’. (This is usually called Malthusian after Malthus, the English economist of the late 18th century who first developed it.) But it cannot explain why the United States, for instance, burns corn while people in India starve. Nor can it explain why 150 years ago there was not enough food produced in the US to feed 10 million people, while today enough is produced to feed 200 million.

It forgets that every extra mouth to feed is also an extra person capable of working and creating wealth.

Marx called all these mistaken explanations forms of ‘mechanical’ or ‘crude’ materialism. They all forget that as well as being part of the material world, human beings are also acting, living creatures whose actions change it.

The materialist interpretation of history

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence – their food, shelter and clothing.

With these words, Karl Marx first stressed what was distinct about his explanation of how society developed. Human beings are animals descended from ape-like creatures. Like other animals, their first concern is feeding themselves and protecting themselves from the climate.

The way other animals do this depends on their inherited biological make up. A wolf stays alive by chasing and killing its prey, in ways determined by its biologically inherited instincts. It keeps warm on cold nights because of its fur. It brings up its cubs according to inherited patterns of behaviour.

But human life is not fixed in this way. The humans who roamed the Earth 100,000 years ago or 30,000 years ago lived quite different lives from ourselves. They lived in caves and holes in the ground. They did not have any containers to keep food or water in, they depended for their food on collecting berries or throwing stones at wild animals. They could not write, or count beyond the fingers on their hands. They had no real knowledge of what went on beyond their immediate neighbourhood or what their forefathers had done.

Yet physically their make up 100,000 years ago was similar to that of modern man and 30,000 years ago it was identical. If you washed and shaved a caveman, put him in a suit and walked him down the high street, no one would think him out of place.

As the archaeologist C. Gordon Childe has noted:

The earliest skeletons of our own species belong to the closing phases of the last Ice Age … Since the time when skeletons of Homo sapiens first appear in the geological record … man’s bodily evolution has come virtually to a standstill, although his cultural progress was just beginning.

The same point is made by another archaeologist, Leakey:

The physical differences between men of the Aurignacian and Magdalenian cultures (25,000 years ago) on the one hand, and present day men on the other is negligible, while the cultural difference is immeasurable.

By ‘culture’ the archaeologist means the things which men and women learn and teach one another (how to make clothes from furs or wool, how to make pots out of clay, how to make fire, how to build homes, and so forth) as opposed to those things that animals know instinctively.

The lives of the earliest humans were already vastly different from those of other animals. For they were able to use the physical features peculiar to humans – large brains, forelimbs capable of manipulating objects – to begin to shape their surroundings to suit their needs. This meant humans could adapt themselves to a wide range of different conditions, without any change in their physical make up. Humans no longer simply reacted to conditions around them. They could act upon those conditions, beginning to change them to their own advantage.

At first they used sticks and stones to attack wild beasts, they lit torches from naturally occurring fires to provide themselves with heat and light, they covered themselves with vegetation and animal skins. Over many tens of thousands of years they learnt to make fire themselves, to shape stones using other stones, eventually to grow food from seeds they themselves had planted, to store it in pots made out of clay, and to domesticate certain animals.

Comparatively recently – a mere 5,000 years ago, out of half a million years of human history – they learnt the secret of turning ores into metals that could be shaped into reliable tools and effective weapons.

Each of these advances had an enormous impact, not merely in making it easier for humans to feed and clothe themselves, but also in transforming the very organisation of human life itself. From the beginning human life was social. Only the joint efforts of several humans could enable them to kill the beasts, to gather the food and keep the fires going. They had to cooperate.

This continual close cooperation also caused them to communicate, by uttering sounds and developing languages. At first the social groups were simple. There was not enough naturally growing produce anywhere to support groups of humans more than perhaps a couple of dozen strong. All effort had to be put into the basic tasks of getting the food, so everyone did the same job and lived the same sort of life.

With no means of storing any quantities of food, there could be no private property or class divisions, nor was there any booty to produce a motive for war.

There were, until a few years ago, still hundreds of societies in many different parts of the globe where this was still the pattern – among some of the Indians of North and South America, some of the peoples of Equatorial Africa and the Pacific Ocean, the Aborigines of Australia.

Not that these people were less clever than ourselves or had a more ‘primitive mentality’. The Australian Aborigines, for instance, had to learn to recognise literally thousands of plants and the habits of scores of different animals in order to survive. The anthropologist Professor Firth has described how:

Australian tribes … know the habits, markings, breeding grounds and seasonal fluctuations of all the edible animals, fish and birds of their hunting grounds. They know the external and some of the less obvious properties of rocks, stones, waxes, gums, plants, fibres and barks; they know how to make fire; they know how to apply heat to relieve pain, stop bleeding and delay the putrefaction of fresh food; and they also use fire and heat to harden some woods and soften others … They know something at least of the phases of the moon, the movement of the tides, the planetary cycles, and the sequence and duration of the seasons; they have correlated together such climactic fluctuations as wind systems, annual patterns of humidity and temperature and fluxes in the growth and presence of natural species … In addition they make intelligent and economical use of the by-products of animals killed for food; the flesh of the kangaroo is eaten; the leg bones are used as fabricators for stone tools and as pins; the sinews become spear bindings; the claws are set into necklaces with wax and fibre; the fat is combined with red ochre as a cosmetic, and blood is mixed with charcoal as paint ... They have some knowledge of simple mechanical principles and will trim a boomerang again and again to give it the correct curve ...

They were much more ‘clever’ than us in dealing with the problems of surviving in the Australian desert. What they had not learnt was to plant seeds and grow their own food – something our own ancestors learnt only about 5,000 years ago, after being on the Earth for 100 times that period.

The development of new techniques of producing wealth – the means of human life – has always given birth to new forms of cooperation between humans, to new social relations.

For example, when people first learnt to grow their own food (by planting seeds and domesticating animals) and to store it (in earthenware pots) there was a complete revolution in social life – called by archaeologists ‘the neolithic revolution’. Humans had to cooperate together now to clear the land and to harvest food, as well as to hunt animals. They could live together in much greater numbers than before, they could store food and they could begin to exchange goods with other settlements.

The first towns could develop. For the first time there was the possibility of some people leading lives that did not involve them just in providing food: some would specialise in making pots, some in mining flints and later metal for tools and weapons, some in carrying through elementary administrative tasks for the settlement as a whole. More ominously, the stored surplus of food provided a motive for war.

People had begun by discovering new ways of dealing with the world around them, or harnessing nature to their needs. But in the process, without intending it, they had transformed the society in which they lived and with it their own lives. Marx summed up this process: a development of the ‘forces of production’ changed the ‘relations of production’ and, through them, society.

There are many more recent examples. Some 300 years ago the vast majority of people in this country still lived on the land, producing food by techniques that had not changed for centuries. Their mental horizon was bounded by the local village and their ideas very much influenced by the local church. The vast majority did not need to read and write, and never learned to.

Then, 200 years ago, industry began to develop. Tens of thousands of people were drawn into the factories. Their lives underwent a complete transformation. Now they lived in great towns, not small villages. They needed to learn skills undreamt of by their ancestors, including eventually the ability to read and write. Railways and steamships made it possible to travel across half the Earth. The old ideas hammered into their heads by the priests no longer fitted at all. The material revolution in production was also a revolution in the way they lived and in the ideas they had.

Similar changes are still affecting vast numbers of people. Look at the way people from villages in Bangladesh or Turkey have been drawn to the factories of England or Germany seeking work. Look at the way many find that their old customs and religious attitudes no longer fit.

Or look at the way in the past 50 years the majority of women have got used to working outside the home and how this has led them to challenge the old attitude that they were virtually the property of their husbands.

Changes in the way humans work together to produce the things that feed, clothe and shelter them cause changes in the way in which society is organised and the attitude of people in it. This is the secret of social change – of history – that the thinkers before Marx (and many since), the idealists and the mechanical materialists, could not understand.

The idealists saw there was change – but said it must come out of the skies. The mechanical materialists saw that humans were conditioned by the material world but could not understand how things could ever change. What Marx saw was that human beings are conditioned by the world around them, but that they react back upon the world, working on it so as to make it more habitable. But in doing so they change the conditions under which they live and therefore themselves as well.

The key to understanding change in society lies in understanding how human beings cope with the problem of creating their food, shelter and clothing. That was Marx’s starting point. But that does not mean Marxists believe that improvements in technology automatically produce a better society, or even that inventions automatically lead to changes in society. Marx rejected this view (sometimes called technological determinism). Again and again in history, people have rejected ideas for advancing the production of food, shelter or clothing because these clash with the attitudes or the forms of society that already exist.

For example, under the Roman Empire there were many ideas about how to produce more crops from a given amount of ground, but people didn’t put them into effect because they required more devotion to work than you could get from slaves working under fear of the whip. When the British ruled Ireland in the 18th century they tried to stop the development of industry there because it clashed with the interests of businessmen in London.

If someone produced a method of solving the food problem of India by slaughtering the sacred cows or providing everyone in Britain with succulent steaks by processing rat meat, they would be ignored because of established prejudices.

Developments in production challenge old prejudices and old ways of organising society, but they do not automatically overthrow those old prejudices and social forms. Many human beings fight to prevent change – and those wanting to use new methods of production have to fight/or change. If those who oppose change win, then the new forms of production cannot come into operation and production stagnates or even goes backwards.

In Marxist terminology: as the forces of production develop they clash with the pre-existing social relations and ideas that grew up on the basis of old forces of production. Either people identified with the new forces of production win this clash, or those identified with the old system do. In the one case, society moves forward, in the other it remains stuck in a rut, or even goes backwards.


Last updated on 26 January 2010