The observation that history was not made by great men, but fundamentally shaped by conflicts opposing large numbers of individuals, that is conflicts of social forces, became obvious to historians from the very dawn of historiography. Thucydides, an ancient Greek historian, for instance, already came up with a formula that said: every city is divided into a city of the rich and a city of the poor which wage a permanent war against each other. Classical Chinese authors rapidly came to similar conclusions. The greatest thinkers of the Islamic world also accepted this view, particularly the great historians-sociologist Al-Biruni and Ibn-Khaldun who advanced to the very threshold of historical materialism.
The experience of the great bourgeois revolutions of the 16th century to the 18th century, the lessons that were drawn from them and periodically surfaced in ongoing political debates, provided the impetus that led early 19th century French historiography to create the concepts of social classes and conflicts between social classes, that is class struggle, as instruments for the understanding of history. The concepts were applied successively by François Quesnay, Benjamin Constant, Augustin Thierry, Mignet, Guilt, and Viers to their studies of the English revolution, the conquest of England by the Normans, the French revolution and the restoration of the Bourbons in 1815.
Others had taken this path before them, notably British and German authors, among them Schiller, in his study of the 16th century Dutch revolution. Certain great thinkers of the Enlightenment, particularly Voltaire and Montesquieu, had already established that history is determined in the last analysis by the material conditions in which it unfolds. But they tended to place the emphasis on the natural (climatic, geographical, racial, etc) and political (constitutional) conditions, rather than the social and economic conditions. Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Condorcet went further in the latter direction.
The merit of sociological historiography lay in its systematic application of the new concepts of class, if not to the entire span of human history, at least to major periods of history lasting several centuries. In this respect, they accomplished a genuine revolution in the social sciences, combining the advances of historiography with a better understanding of the structure and dynamics of different societies. Marx and Engels integrated this understanding and were therefore as much heirs of French sociological historiography as they were of German classical philosophy.
Nevertheless, while the work of the early 19th century French historians undeniably represented a great advance for historical science and the science of society, it still displayed major gaps in relation to a scientific interpretation of history, as well as flagrant contradictions in its understanding of the social/political (and therefore historical) reality of their epoch, that of triumphant capitalism.
(a) They handled the concepts of “social classes” and “conflicts between social classes” in an essentially descriptive way. While not denying the material basis of these conflicts, and sometimes even correctly exposing it, especially when dealing with certain class antagonisms (not all!) in feudal society, they failed to clearly establish the structural and organic link between the place of social classes in society, above all in production, and their material interests, social role and political struggles.
(b) They generally viewed ideological struggles, conflicts between systems of ideas, “spiritual values” (God, Religion, Freedom with a capital “F”, the Common Good, Beauty, and even Nation) as superimposed on, and separate from, the conflicts of material interests, as endowed with their own allegedly intrinsic meaning, or even as having eternal value.
(c) They generally did not treat, or treated only marginally, the interests and struggles of the poorest layers(classes) of society, of those who had never gained the upper hand in the past for any substantial amount of time, who had been the eternal losers of revolutions and social and political struggles. When they did describe these elements, they most often did it without understanding, in the light of their own obvious class bias, and sometimes even class hatred.
As a result they perpetuated innumerable slanders passed on from one generation of chroniclers and historians to the next, despite the sometimes grotesque nature of the contention. These slanders included, selected at random: the legend that the Albigensians or Cathars refused to have sexual relations and, at the same time, practised infanticide on a mass scale; the myth that the Slav peoples of the High Middle Ages were incapable of constituting states, a “quality” allegedly reserved to the Germanic Peoples; the myth that the Jews were deprived of “martial abilities;” the legend that the Anabaptists had “socialised” women at Münster; the legend that the Mexican Indians practised human sacrifice on a vast scale; the myth of the “cruelty” of the Native Americans, and that of the “congenital laziness” of Blacks, who allegedly would have refused to work had they not been subject to slavery, etc.
Indeed, it is regrettable but undeniable that historiography – save for historiography influenced by Marxism – has generally produced history written by and for the victors, to the detriment both of historical truth and the honour of the vanquished.
(d) More precisely, these historians applied the same concepts of class and class struggle with steadily greater reticence as they began to account for the antagonism between Capital and Wage Labour, as they drew closer to the 19th century, as they began dealing with contemporary social struggles, and therefore as historiography and sociology inevitably became intertwined with politics. From that moment on, under the obvious pressure of their own class interest, these great bourgeois historians-sociologists denied that in acting the way they acted in the political arena, they were defending specific material interests, different from those of other social classes. They suddenly became transformed into defenders of some eternal “Social Order,” the “Common Good,” the “General Interest of the Nation,” the “Supreme Spiritual Values,” etc.
They no longer presented their class enemies as such, but as “breeders of disorder,” “bloody Anarchists” (later, some would say “Bolsheviks holding a knife in their teeth and cutting children’s fingers into the soup”, and even “those who incarnate the Evil Empire”), “violence-mongers,” in a word as “barbarians” opposed to “civilisation.” The racist and fascist ideologues and politicians would state it even more clearly: “sub-humans,” beings deprived of human quality, thereby justifying the inhuman way in which they treated these adversaries.
(e) They failed to lay bare the origins of social classes and the state. By the same token, they presented social classes and the state as more or less eternal, except perhaps for the most primitive stages of human existence. They considered the disappearance of these institutions as impossible, and even “contrary to human nature.”
In developing the theory of historical materialism, Marx and Engels superseded these gaps and contradictions of French sociological historiography. In doing so, they enriched and clarified the concepts of social class and class struggle.
(a) Social classes are not permanent and eternal institutions of human society, let alone human existence. They arise at a given stage of the development of society. They develop and are transformed from one social formation to the next. They are destined to disappear. Social organisation is passing and will pass through the successive stages of primitive classless society, various forms of class society, and the future classless (communist) society.
(b) To understand this general line of march of history, that is the origin, development and withering away of the division of society into classes, you must start from the primacy of material survival for humankind as well as for all living species. But, unlike all other species, the human species produces its means of survival (its daily subsistence and the reproduction of the species) itself, through deliberate collective action: social labour. This social labour creates a social product which basically includes the necessary product and the social surplus product.
The necessary product makes possible the maintenance (and therefore the reproduction) of the existing labour force and tools. The social surplus product includes all the commonly produced goods not indispensable to maintenance. As long as the social surplus product remains insignificant, the division of society into classes is impossible, if we mean by that that a fraction of society is released from the necessity of producing its own subsistence (is supported thanks to the social surplus product). As long as the social surplus product is significant, even expanding, yet insufficient to free the great majority of society from the obligation to devote the bulk of its efforts to the production/reproduction of its material existence (the material existence of all society), the division of society into classes is inevitable. As soon as the social surplus product becomes so large and valuable that the necessary product can be produced by a considerably smaller effort (a mere few hours of work a day), the material basis for the advent of a classless society exists.
(c) The size of the social product, and therefore also of the social surplus product, depends in the last analysis on the social productivity of labour. Economic progress is measurable by this average labour productivity as well as by the average life expectancy (average longevity) of human beings. The level of average labour productivity depends essentially on the level of development of the productive forces, that is of the objective productive forces (tools, work implements, etc) and of the human productive forces (number and skill of producers). The technique of production (technology) is therefore a combination between these two elements, and co-determined by the level of the technical (and more or less scientific) and cultural knowledge accumulated.
By the same token, the release of a part of society from the necessity of devoting most of its time to the production of its subsistence in the broad sense of the term – and therefore the existence of ruling and propertied classes – is not just exploitative and predatory, although those are its prime features. It also corresponds to society’s objective need to insure the accumulation, transmission and availability of a store of knowledge, and, if possible, the expansion of that knowledge, making possible an increase in the productivity of labour. This social function may be called the function of accumulation.
At a certain point of social development (of the development of the productive forces), the function of accumulation formerly performed by small collectivities on a communal or tribal and voluntary basis, is monopolised by a fraction of society which simultaneously takes over the means of production and a part of the social surplus product to be used for unproductive (and often wasteful) consumption. That is the social basis and social function of ruling classes. They live off the labour of others and monopolise the functions of management and accumulation.
(d) In the course of producing their material life and organising social labour, human beings, and after a certain stage of evolution, social classes, establish particular relations to each other, which Marx and Engels called relations of production. Every form of society, every concrete social formation, is characterised by such specific relations of production. These relations of production determine all “economic relations”, that is, not only the immediate production but also the circulation of goods and the way in which they are made available, the mode of appropriation of working implements by the producers (the units of production). The totality of these relations of production determine in the last analysis all social relations – in class society: all class relations – and by the same token, the very structure of society. This is the first central thesis of historical materialism.
(e) Stable relations of production that reproduce more or less automatically, constitute distinct modes of production. Marx and Engels recognised a series of modes of production: the primitive communism of hordes, clans and tribes; the slave mode of production; the Asian mode of production (which contemporary Marxists more and more prefer to call: the tributary mode of production); the feudal mode of production; the capitalist mode of production; the communist mode of production (of which socialism will be the first phase).
Interspersed between these historically distinct modes of production, that do not necessarily follow each other in linear fashion or in the order given, there generally appear transitional periods, characterised by less stable relations of production and a broader range of possible evolutions. Marx and Engels, for instance, called the transitional phase between feudalism and capitalism “petty commodity production”, a form which, incidentally, had already appeared at the height of the slave mode of production.
A mode of production is a structure and cannot be fundamentally modified in gradual fashion. It can only be overthrown by revolution. Moreover, it should be noted that even when a new mode of production has stabilised, relations of production that represent a survival of the past can coexist with relations of production characteristic of the new mode of production. But the assertion of the new mode of production precisely implies that its characteristic relations of production be hegemonic, and engulf and eventually assimilate these survivals (law of uneven and combined development).
(f) A “progressive” mode of production, that is one that is superior from the standpoint of material civilisation and culture to the mode of production which it replaces, must eventually give a major impulse to the development of productive forces, that is, must enable society to save labour, to reduce physical effort. (In class-divided society, this advance benefits mainly the ruling classes, who use it to extend their leisure activities, consumption and culture, But the productive classes can fight to partake of this advance with some, albeit modest, success.) This is generally what happens during the phases of consolidation and rapid development of a given mode of production. But the very nature, internal laws of development, and intrinsic contradictions of each mode of production entail that a phase of decline will inevitably follow those phases. In the phases of decline, the existing relations of production become fetters on a new leap forward of the productive forces, either because the latter cease to grow altogether, or because their growth is achieved at the expense of an “erosion” and more and more explosive demobilisation of the existing relations of production, social structure and “social order.” At that point, a period of acute and ever more generalised social crisis opens, leading to social revolutions and counter-revolutions.
(g) There is no automatic link between the level of development reached by the productive forces on the one hand, and the survival or displacement of the existing relations of production and mode of production on the other, except in the most general sense, namely that this level limits the range of possible forms of social organisation (the modern factory and the world market were not possible with the techniques of 100 BC; slavery cannot become general on the basis of today’s industrial techniques; communism was impossible with the techniques of the 15th and 16th centuries, etc.). The two terms are mediated by the real class struggle and its overall outcome at any given moment.
Men and women make their own history. They do not make it free from any material constraints, with an unlimited range of possibilities. But they do make it, and the concrete historical process depends in the first place on the outcome of their struggles (“the subjective factor of history”), even though the latter may be “over-determined” by a series of historical and social factors beyond their control (“the objective factors of history”). This “over-determination,” however, is never so strict as to leave open only one path of historical development. Marx and Engels stressed that, out of the periods of acute social revolution – the epochs of decline of a mode of production –, there could arise either a superior mode of production, a superior organisation of society from the standpoint of the life and survival of humankind, thanks to the victory of the revolutionary class, or the mutual decomposition of the contending social classes, and a general decadence of society. This is what happened, for instance, with the decline of the slave mode of production in Ancient Rome. It is also the historical basis of the dilemma that we face today: “Socialism or Barbarism.”
(h) The class struggle is always an overall class struggle, encompassing most if not all spheres of social activity, whether or not the participants are conscious of it. Men and women cannot interact and establish relations of production without at the same time establishing relations of communication. Everything humans do or produce, must “go through their heads” and is therefore accompanied by “ideological” representations (in the guise of ideas, systems of ideas, hopes, fears and other feelings) which react in turn on the material actions of those who experience them. These “systems of representation of the material world in the heads of human beings” constitute a component of the ideological superstructure of all societies. In the last analysis, the social base (or infrastructure), the social relations of production determine this social superstructure, that is determine the evolution and prevailing forms of the state, law, morals, religion, philosophy, science, art and literature in each epoch. Social existence conditions social consciousness. That is the second central thesis of historical materialism, Because the ruling class controls the social surplus product and therefore all society, the ideology of the ruling class is generally the dominant ideology of each epoch.
This does not mean, though, that it is the only existing ideology in a given epoch. Remains of the ideologies of old ruling classes can survive long after the end of the latter’s rule and exist alongside it. Ideologies of intermediate classes (such as the petty-bourgeoisie in capitalist society) as well as ideologies of newly rising classes, that are revolutionary in relation to the existing ruling classes, can also coexist with it. In general, an intense ideological class struggle precedes and opens a historical epoch of social revolution. But it is impossible for a social class to conquer ideological hegemony, without controlling the social surplus product, that is without having achieved economic hegemony. This is why the bourgeoisie, which had prospered extensively under the absolute monarchy, could become ideologically hegemonic before the victory of the bourgeois revolution, whereas the proletariat cannot conquer a comparable hegemony before the revolution that overthrows the bourgeois state and expropriates capital.
(i) The state is the product of the division of society into classes, an instrument for the consolidation, maintenance and reproduction of the rule of a given class. That is the third central thesis of historical materialism. The state is not consubstantial with “organised society” or “civilisation” in the broad sense of the word. It has not always existed. It will not always exist. The analysis of the origins, specific development and possible withering away of the state is one of the main contributions of Marxism to social science.
State institutions are an essential component of the social superstructure; they include both coercive elements (the army, repressive bodies and judicial system) and integrative elements used to persuade the productive classes to accept the class exploitation and oppression they suffer, to mask and “legitimate” the exploitative and oppressive nature of these institutions. This cooptative purpose is the basic function of the ruling ideologies mentioned above, and of the institutions which transmit them such as the educational system, the churches, the mass media, advertising in bourgeois society, etc. By the same token, any large-scale, let alone generalised, class struggle must necessarily be a political struggle – independently of the consciousness of the fighters –, a struggle for the maintenance, or the weakening or even the overthrow of a given state, of the political power of a given class.
(j) Between the overthrow of state power and economic domination of the bourgeoisie, and the advent of a classless and stateless society, stands a historical transition period characterised by the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is the exercise of state power by the wage earning working class. Its function is to prevent the old exploiters from reconquering power, and to organise the economy and society with a view to the emancipation of humanity through a progressive and conscious reorganisation of all spheres of social activity, beginning with material production, the distribution of goods and services, the management of the economy and state by the producers themselves, the diffusion of culture (universal access to existing knowledge and information), etc.
Last updated on 22.7.2004