Marx and Engels as anti-historicists

Jurriaan Bendien J.Bendien at
Fri Dec 13 13:26:48 MST 2002

Hi Ed,

I realise that you are quoting Marx at me, presumably in order to prove that
my view deviates from the holy text, but the salient issue is: does your
quote prove Marx is an historicist, if so, why ?
In your quote, Marx says: "At a certain stage of development, the material
productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations
of production or - this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms -
with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated
hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations
turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. [...] In
broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of
production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic
development of society."
This is a broad generalisation, a conclusion about the trend of world
history in the past, from which you can infer some sort of historical
dynamic, namely that social revolutions, or an intensification of class
struggles, are to be explained in terms of a conflict between the growth of
new productive forces and the existing property relations. It is not however
a statement about history having some higher purpose or destiny, or an
inexorable overall dynamic, which is what historicism is about. Further,
Marx claims that "in broad outline" different modes of production may be
viewed as "epochs marking progress in the economic development of society",
presumably because they meant an increase in labour productivity, hence
wealth (of course economic progress does not necessarily mean social
progress). Note however this does not mean at all a linear progression
through successive, inevitable economic stages, it is not a statement about
a general trajectory of history. Even when Marx talks about his view that
bourgeois society the prehistory of humanity is drawing to a close, he is
no claims whatsoever about a necessary course of world history in the
He is making a statement only about how he views the nature of the epoch.
If you had read the whole text, you would see that Marx refers to
which became the "guiding thread of his studies". I am well aware that
peasants with a religious background (among others) have extrapolated Marx's
comments here
into a general theory of history called "historical materialism", which IS
but that was not Marx's own intention. His intention was for people to study
real history, with the materialist conception of history as a guide. This
indicates how the course of history might be explained, but it is itself not
the explanation.
It is perhaps significant, apart from the fact that Marx explicitly rejected
theories of history and general extrapolations of his views to life, the
universe and
everything, that he never once used the term "historical materialism". What
he meant
was an approach to the study of the historical facts, NOT a general theory
or doctrine
about the meaning of history or the course of history. So Marx was
all along, from the time that he wrote "history does nothing" in The Holy
Family to the
time he died. The myth of Marx's historicism is a creation of Engels,
Kautsky, the
Bolsheviks, the Stalinists and Karl Popper. There's no denying that
mythology is
politically useful, but it is not useful in trying to understand history for
the purpose
of changing its course.


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