Marxist History – Historical Materialism
Marxist history is based strictly on a scientific view of the world, incorporating the science of evolution and the dialectic path of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. Marxist evolution shapes its view of history based on the belief that humanity, as well as other living things, is constantly improving and will continue to do so.
The Marxist view of history is termed Historical Materialism, meaning that only matter exists, so history is merely the account of matter in motion. In this view, neither God nor angels nor human souls act as the basis for the working of history; rather, matter obeying specific laws is the source of progress in the world.
Joseph Stalin says, “Whatever is the mode of production of a society, such in the main is the society itself, its ideas and theories, its political views and institutions. Or, to put it more crudely, whatever is man’s manner of life, such is his manner of thought.”1
Marxist History – Economic Determinism
Karl Marx says, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness.”2 Thus, the driving force behind history is the material world. The historian must examine the means of production and exchange to understand the basis for all historical progress, making economics in specific the most powerful force of history. Marx says, “With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.”3
When viewing history, Marxists believe in Economic Determinism, which states that economics acts as the foundation for the whole social superstructure, including the thoughts of individuals. Frederick Engels declares that “in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch.”4
In Marxism, governments, courts, philosophies, and religions are based on a society’s economic system and therefore affect history only to the extent that economics shapes their ability to guide human development. Economics is the only dynamic force in history, and all other aspects of humanity and society are determined by it.
Marxist History – Economic Determinism and Free Will
Marx believes that we can still possess free will within this framework, but he carefully distinguishes between being totally free and being free within the constraints placed on us by all outside material influences. He writes, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”5
Marx seems to admit the apparent contradiction in granting us free will while stating that economics alone drives history. He says, “Are men free to choose this or that form of society for themselves? By no means...Assume particular stages of development in production, commerce and consumption and you will have a corresponding social structure, a corresponding organization of the family, of orders or of classes, in a word, a corresponding civil society...It is superfluous to add that men are not free to choose their productive forces—which are the basis of all their history...”6
But if we may not choose our society, its superstructure, or its mode of production, and if these things in turn determine our mode of thought, then what can we choose? It would seem that our only option is to follow the flow of history as determined by the economic structure.
This conclusion seems even more inescapable in light of the Marxist belief that history is governed by certain scientifically discoverable laws. V.I. Lenin believes Marx drew attention “to a scientific study of history as a single process which, with all its immense variety and contradictoriness, is governed by definite laws.”7
The belief in such laws has a sinister implication—it allows Marxists to abandon both morality and reason because they can justify whatever they do as being predetermined by the “hidden laws” that govern historical events. Joseph Stalin claims, “Hence the practical activity of the party of the proletariat must not be based on the good wishes of ‘outstanding individuals,’ not on the dictates of ‘reason,’ ‘universal morals,’ etc., but on the laws of development of society and on the study of these laws.”8
Marxist History – Conclusion
Marxists view history from an atheistic and evolutionary perspective and therefore believe human history will always progress, just as the development of life constantly progresses. Consequently, Marxists perceive that the historical process guarantees our redemption through the future establishment of a communist utopia.
Marxism sees history operating according to specific, discoverable laws of the dialectic, which change economic structures and thereby revolutionize societies and ideas.
Marxists try to re-establish humans as a driving force in history by declaring the revolution of the oppressed classes to be the catalyst for the dialectical process. According to this view, only people who act in accordance with the laws of history and the course of development have any impact. Thus, in the Marxist view of history, we are much like fans at a fixed boxing match. No matter how long and loud we cheer, no matter how hard we clap and stomp our feet, the boxer “taking a dive” will undoubtedly lose. We might as well clap and cheer for the predetermined winner, encouraging him to win the bout more decisively.
In Marxist terms, whether we take a direct route or zigzag back and forth, the final outcome of history remains the same. Marxists believe their worldview alone adheres to the scientific conception of history and that natural laws guarantee inevitable progress. Marxism grants all power to the historical/dialectical process and calls for individuals to work only in submission to this omnipotent force. Marx says, “History is the judge—its executioner, the proletarian.”9