To understand Marxism, we must first set it in its historical context. We must understand when it was born and how it arose. We must explain its emergence and development by the interaction of social forces: their economic nature, their material interests, their ideology, the people who formulated their aspirations. In other words, we must apply the materialist interpretation of history to Marxism itself: not consider its appearance as a matter of course, but understand that it requires an explanation, and try to provide one. Furthermore determining the place of Marxism in history will enable us to outline more precisely its content and historical importance.
In the last analysis, Marxism is the product of the appearance of the capitalist mode of production in certain regions of Western Europe (Northern and Central Italy, the Netherlands, England, and parts of France, Germany, Bohemia and Catalonia) beginning in the 15th and 16th centuries and leading to the emergence of a new bourgeois society that gradually came to dominate all spheres of human activity. The capitalist mode of production is based on private ownership of the major means of production and subsistence (implements, land, food) by capitalists, that is, owners of large sums of money. The latter use part of their capital to buy the labour power of another social class, the proletariat, which is compelled to sell them its labour power because it no longer has access to the means of production from which it could produce its subsistence. This antagonistic relation between Capital and Wage Labour accompanies the generalisation of commodity production (the transformation of the means of production and labour power into commodities) and is at the core of the new mode of production.
This new mode of production arose in the midst of a society – feudal society –, whose slow decomposition spanned a long and contradictory transitional phase running, in the regions of Western Europe mentioned above, from the 13th century to the 16th century, sometimes the 18th century, with sequels even later in some cases. This combination is often designated by the term semi-feudal. It was based on petty commodity production in which the main producers – peasants and craftsmen – were free producers using their own means of production, not serfs. The capitalist mode of production only emerged when these free producers were gradually stripped of their means of production and of free access to the land. The capitalist mode of production appeared initially under the guise of commercial farms, cottage industry and manufactures. In the first, the producers (peasants) were dispossessed of their working implements (land, cattle and tools) and hired as agricultural workers or domestics by a farmer who produced for the market. In the second, the producers were also dispossessed but produced at home on orders from a capitalist merchant. In the third, the dispossessed producers were already concentrated in large numbers under the same roof. Farmers, merchants, entrepreneurs and their wage workers began to constitute a domestic market for commodities (food, clothing, tools, consumer goods).
It should be emphasised that this initial form of the capitalist mode of production was neither hegemonic nor consolidated. At this stage of historical development: the bourgeoisie had not yet conquered political power anywhere, except in the Northern Netherlands and a few cities like Geneva. Even there power was wielded by bankers and big merchants, the most aristocratic faction of the bourgeoisie.
The state remained a semi-feudal state (often an absolute monarchy). Most privileges of the nobility and clergy survived but these classes, the ruling classes of feudal society, were getting progressively poorer than the bourgeoisie, and slowly decomposing. Most importantly, wage earners strictly speaking only accounted for a small minority of the producers, the great bulk of which was composed of peasants, either free (petty commodity producers) or still partially subject to vestiges of serfdom.
The capitalist mode of production was only consolidated and imposed definitively with the advent of the industrial revolution in the second half of the 18th century. It was later to extend throughout the world on the basis of the factory system based on machinism; that was the point at which it fully revealed its fundamental features. Only then could it be fully understood and its laws of development (its internal dialectic) grasped.
Machinism, the basis of the modern capitalist factory, was the result of the slow transformation of artisanal and industrial implements from the 13th century onwards (water mills, progressive techniques of agriculture and animal husbandry, mining techniques, etc) ultimately leading to the use of a new source of energy in production: steam power. This transformation was stimulated from the 16th century onwards by the progress of the natural sciences whose advances were applied to the technology of commodity production and circulation with increasing speed.
One of the most spectacular results of this advance of applied science was the breakthroughs in navigation and shipbuilding science. These made possible the great discovery and plundering expeditions launched from Europe towards southern and eastern Africa, Asia and the Americas in the 16th century (1492: Christopher Columbus “discovers” America), triggering an enormous expansion of international trade. A genuine world market for so-called colonial products was created, while the market for food items extended to all Europe, to be followed some time later by the market for manufactured goods. In turn, this world market would stimulate the expansion of the capitalist mode of production.
But the rapid advance of the natural sciences combined with the expansion of the capitalist mode of production, eventually also entailed an upheaval in the way of life, the activities and patterns of thought of the urban masses, whether part of the new bourgeoisie, the petty-bourgeoisie or the first forerunners of the modern proletariat. It also influenced sectors of the rural masses, at least in certain countries.
The main feature of feudal society was the rigid stability of human existence. Each individual “had his or her station in life” and “remained where they belonged.” Children of serfs were serfs. Children of nobles were nobles or joined the upper clergy. Children of craftsmen became craftsmen. An equally inflexible religious ideology, the Catholic religion bolstered by scholasticism, crowned, rationalised and justified this extremely hierarchical society.
True, this was not an absolutely rigid society. Along with technology, thought and social criticism experienced significant breakthroughs inside European feudal society, particularly in the 13th century. Philosophy registered some advances; the “Avicennian left”, for instance, a current of Islamic origin, came close to materialism. The expansion of international trade stimulated intellectual practices (like accounting!) that fostered rationalist thought. But all these advances were slow, contradictory and subject to grave regressions towards religious control (the creation of the Inquisition) and obscurantism, especially in the 15th century, in line with the generalised crisis of feudal society.
Beginning in the 16th century and with the emergence of the capitalist mode of production, the ideological and cultural climate changed in tune with the radical change in daily life and outlook of the urban populations. The feeling that everything changed, and fast, replaced the feeling that there was an eternal frozen order. Doubt, challenges to “established values,” the critical examination of allegedly “divine laws” as well as human institutions, spread further and further. Religious dogmas were the first to be subject to revision under the combined impact of advances of the natural sciences, the extension of critical thinking and revolts against the clergy’s abusive practices, privileges and corruption. Thus, quasi-atheistic humanism, the Reformation (Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Calvinism and Puritanism) and rationalist-naturalist philosophy (Galileo, Descartes, Spinoza) developed side by side.
In the last analysis, these ideological movements expressed the aspirations of the new urban and rural classes developing along with the capitalist mode of production: the bourgeoisie, the petty-bourgeoisie of functionaries and ideologues (teachers, erudites, artists), the independent craftsmen, the pre-proletariat (who earned wages only part of the year), the capitalist farmers. Each of these classes identified wholly or in part with variants of the new religion and the new philosophical currents.
The ideological struggle took an essentially religious form, a fact that can be explained by the role of religion as the hegemonic ideology of feudal society, an ideology which deeply impregnated the education and daily life of all classes of society. But the struggle was no less a real class struggle, as was demonstrated when these religious conflicts turned into civil wars and even genuine revolutions ending with major social and political battles such as: the revolt of the Hussites in Bohemia in the 15th century; the Peasants’ War in Germany, the revolution of the Netherlands, the insurrections of Ghent and the Commune of Munster (linked to the Anabaptist movement) in the 16th century; the Religious Wars in France in the 16th and 17th centuries; all leading up to the English revolution of 1640-1688.
Given the relative weakness of the bourgeoisie in the 16th and 17th centuries, these movements were only partially victorious. They often ended in defeats. On the heels of the Reformation came the Counter-Reformation, which triumphed under the Jesuits in Italy, Spain, the southern Netherlands, Austria and parts of Germany. In the political field, absolute monarchy, not the bourgeois republic, gained ground. Many sequels of the Middle Ages – serfdom, arbitrary judicial procedures, including the Inquisition and torture, censorship and the listing of “seditious” publications on the Index – survived. Galileo was forced to recant publicly and admit that he had been wrong when he demonstrated that, contrary to what was said in the Bible, the earth revolved around the sun, not the reverse.
Progress combined with regressions everywhere in the world, European colonisation led to the extermination of the native Americans. Commercial capitalism organised the slave trade, devastated Africa and operated plantations, mines and manufactures in the Americas, not with free proletarians, but with millions of slaves.
Only with the advent of industrial capitalism in the second half of the 18th century did the hope of progress and social optimism become widespread. Under the leadership of the bourgeoisie and its revolutionary ideologues, all the remains of the semi-feudal order were easily challenged, attacked and ridiculed. The assault on absolute monarchy turned into a general assault on the social order that underpinned it, into an ever broader triumph of the new bourgeois society in all fields of social life. These victories in the field of transformation of customs, ideas and recognised “values” eventually led to the great bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century: the American revolution of 1776 and the French revolution of 1789. This movement continued in Europe and Latin America in the early 19th century, with uneven success in different countries.
These revolutions were also the end product of a widespread new awareness among the bourgeois, petty-bourgeois and pre-proletarian layers: the perception that humanity could decide its own future, that its destiny was not predetermined by divine Providence or some immutable fate. Faith in human reason as the motor of human emancipation, that was the formula that best summed up the “spirit of the times” of the Enlightenment. After gaining the upper hand in the natural sciences and technology, this “spirit of the times” broke through in the criticism of state institutions, in philosophical and literary activities, in the arena of political struggle. Driven by a radical upset of the relationship of forces between the bourgeoisie on the one hand, and the monarchy, nobility and clergy on the other, this emancipatory thrust found its supreme expression in the two great revolutions of the 18th century.
But, as the capitalist mode of production grew, the contradictory aspect of bourgeois society, the ambivalent and contradictory nature of the economic and political progress carried by the extension of bourgeois society and bourgeois revolutions, appeared ever more glaringly. Capitalism meant not only a colossal expansion of knowledge, wealth and human rights. It brought in its train deprivation, injustices, oppressions and denials of human rights. The polarisation of society between rich and poor was such that all observers, even writers known for their reactionary outlook, like Balzac, and conservative ideologues, recognised it. Along with this new awareness came a new social practice: the class struggle of the workers-craftsmen, the pre-proletarians (“sans culottes,” “bras nus,” “diggers”) and proletarians against the capitalists. Whereas in the past, the entire Third Estate had struggled against the monarchy, nobility and upper clergy, now the “Fourth Estate” progressively emerged from the Third Estate and turned against it, and this struggle came to dominate the political and social scene.
The weakening of the absolute monarchies and the emergence of mass revolutionary movements made it possible for various oppressed social layers to express their demands, often on the basis of a more radical interpretation of the principles of democracy. Equality between individuals was to be extended to individuals of both sexes. Thus, a Declaration of the Rights of Woman and Citizen emerged in the midst of the French revolution. Equality should not allow for caste or race discrimination: thus began the emancipation of the Jews, the movement for the abolition of slavery, the extension of universal suffrage. Finally, it implied equality between nations and their right to self-determination, hence the rise of national democratic movement, notably in Ireland, Italy and Germany.
The new economic reality and class political practice also generated new scientific questions and new ideologies. Should emancipation be confined to the “citizen,” that is to juridical and political human rights? Or should it not be extended to the producer, the exploited, to “economic man (and woman)”? Thus, looming at the end of the Enlightenment, there stood the social question, the question of economic emancipation, and, with it, socialism as an ideological current and as a real movement working for that emancipation.
From the emergence of the capitalist mode of production to the birth of machinism and the modern factory; from the emergence of a proletariat concentrated in factories to elementary proletarian class struggle; from the resistance of colonised peoples against new capitalist forms of exploitation to the emergence of radical independence movements (Latin America, Ireland, etc); from the appearance, at the climax of the great bourgeois revolutions, of revolutionaries whose goals were no longer determined exclusively from the vantage of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, to the initial formulation of socialist goals on behalf of the young proletariat; from radical bourgeois rationalism to its supersession by critical and lucid social sciences that began to unveil all the hidden motive forces of history and the “social order” in general (that is, class-divided society, private property), unwilling to confine their criticism to the boundaries of the semi-feudal order: that was the evolution and historical context that made possible the birth of Marxism.
Socialism, the idea of a return to some “Golden Age,” that is a classless society, is much older than industrial capitalism. It is practically as old as class-divided society itself. We hear its echo in ancient Greek poetry and in the philosopher Plato, in the writings of the Hebrew prophets and first fathers of the Catholic church, in the work of many thinkers of classical China and Islam. This tradition grew and spread during the Middle Ages and through the great ideological movements of the 15th century onwards. It was fostered by the existence of relatively egalitarian societies encountered by Europeans in the course of their voyages of discovery and colonisation campaigns.
Marxism undoubtedly stands in the continuity of this old and venerable tradition of dreams and emancipation struggles of the poor, exploited and oppressed. It shares their questions, protests, concerns and revolts. But all that is specific to Marxism can be explained in the last analysis only by what was new in the 18th century and intimately connected to the consolidation of the capitalist mode of production by the industrial revolution: the definitive emergence of the proletariat as a social class based on wage labour; the radical awareness of the “social question” born of the new social antagonism: that of Capital and Wage Labour.
Last updated on 22.7.2004