The Marxist view of history

#1
Not strictly military history but a wider question for the panel.

I'm thoroughly enjoying 'The People's History of The World' by Chris Harman.

It is a great read, and a fascinating account of the broad spectrum of human society's development from hunter gathering through to the modern age.

I have to say I am naturally wary of what he has to say due to his being a rampant SWP leftie rooted in what I understand to be the 'historical materialism' school of thought.

As I read it all seems to make perfect sense, which is a surprise because most Marxist stuff gets up my nose fairly quickly, so my question is: What do people think of the historical materialism view of history and is there an alternative method?
 
#2
Not strictly military history but a wider question for the panel.

I'm thoroughly enjoying 'The People's History of The World' by Chris Harman.

It is a great read, and fascinating account of the broad spectrum of human society's development from hunter gathering through to the modern age.

I have to say I am naturally wary of what he has to say due to the fact that he his/was (?) A rampant SWP leftie rooted in what I understand to be the 'historical materialism' school of thought.

As I read it all seems to make perfect sense, which is a surprise because most Marxist stuff gets up my nose fairly quickly, so my question is: What do people think of the historical materialism view of history and is there an alternative method?
The focus on the divisions in soceity according to class, can rapidly get dogmatic and bogged down in the classification and definitions of the class strata and what the qualifying factors leading to membership of one class or another. It also gives rise (somewhat unfairly) to the "politics of envy" type of putdown.

This aside, I think it a good analysis and description of the workings of pre industrial soceity leading into the industrial age. The ownership of capital leads to a fundamental opposition to the non ownership of capital, because the labourer has nothing to sell apart from his labour, wheras the capitalist seeks to maximize his capital, the labour contracted in being merely part of his "means of production".

This fundamental difference in human relations within the means of economic production is the driving force of class. Each type of person would of course do well to band together with others on their side of the fence for mutual advantage in this antagonistic paradigm, hence the concept of "class" is taken into the industrial age, wheras in the agrarian age preceeding it class was due to land ownership. The land itself being the means of production.

The alternative view is organistic, promoted by thinkers such as Durkheim, who saw "social facts" being causitive agents in society, that phenomena exist for a purpose related, sometimes to each other, and that social class therefore is merely an example of this process.

mechanical solidarity is when a tribe is bonded by blood, ie kith and kin

organistic or organic solidarity is when a similar view of the world bonds people together , because of the same life experiences, exemplified in modern society by the same empolyment... ie a policeman thinks and acts like a policeman.. therefore he sees the world as a policeman, and of course bonds with other policemen.... same with miners etc.... they share the same job and therefore the same values and bond with the same ..

thus social class, to Durkheim, is an artificial construct... it is not needed as a social mechanism to explain itself.. as it is merely the outcome of organic solidarity between types of worker, or indeed, types of capitalist owner.
 

rampant

LE
Kit Reviewer
Book Reviewer
#4
Good question. The Marxist School is only one of many within the field of Historiography. Throughout the writing of History various schools predominated in different periods, the one most Arrsers would be familiar with is the Anglo-saxon Whig School of History from our school days. Annoyingly I don't have my work at hand so I can't give you a fulsome apppreciation of the varietal schools, but I would highlight something important, no one school can be said to be the superior, they each apply different forms of interperative analysis on a given subject, when taken as a whole, ie reading different schools on a particular subject you will get the most thorough understanding of that subject. As an analogy each Historical school can be seen as a lense or filter through which you view the past, each lense or filter reveals or obscures information, no one lense can show you everything, but it will reveal information obscured by another, whislt obscuring information that another actually reveals.


A Bibliography:

What is History? with a new Introduction by Richard J Evans: Amazon.co.uk: E.H. Carr, Professor Richard J. Evans: Books

The Practice of History: Amazon.co.uk: Geoffrey R. Elton: Books

In Defence of History: Amazon.co.uk: Richard J. Evans: 9781862073951: Books

A History of Histories: Epics, Chronicles, Romances and Inquiries from Herodotus and Thucydides to the Twentieth Century: Amazon.co.uk: John Burrow: Books

On History: Amazon.co.uk: E.J. Hobsbawm: 9780349110509: Books

Re-thinking History (Routledge Classics): Amazon.co.uk: Keith Jenkins: Books

http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/041513904X/?tag=armrumser-21#_
 
#5
Carr, what is history, is the viewpoint I took at uni. History. Were you there? No. Can you be sure that you are right then? No. So we can only interpret the evidence. That interpretation says much about us. For example, Maiden castle to a priest is a place of worship, to a soldier it's a defensible fort, to a trader it's a secure marketplace or fiscal centre, to a Trekkie it is a landing site for aliens.

Do we know who built it and why? No! So we'll never know! EH Carr, what is history.

Brilliant.
 
#6
DP - thanks for that.

I think HM seems to be a good way of explaining the simpler organisms of pre-industrial sociteties, but I suspect the pay-off line in this book will be the anticipation that capitalist society will decline and fall due to class struggle and inequality in the same way ancient Egypt and then Rome imploded, to be replaced with something else, ie Marxism.

I reckon that is where Harman and I are going to part company.

I think there will be a changing cast of top-dog nations, but unless some global catastrophy puts us back to hunter gathering then capitalism in its essential form is here to stay.
 
#7
It's a useful tool for analysing certain developments in human societies since those societies don't survive which can't supply the basic needs of their population and so the economics of production for basic needs are a key factor in social organisation. That said, it was never the only factor and was often over-ridden by others e.g. personal antagonism between monarchs.

One factor that I think important in assessing its viability is that bit about "the economics of production for basic needs". In Marx's day, that was really the greatest part of GDP for any country - either producing for their own basic or for export for another country/colony's. In developed countries today, massive amounts of production are for 'nice to haves' and not 'can't do withouts'.

Sure, you can say that the jobs this non-essential production supports constitute a form of 'basic need' for a functioning society but there is still a great difference in my mind between the subtle form of compulsion involved in the employer/employee relationship of today and the kind of semi-serfdom enjoyed by industrial labourers in Marx's day.
 
#8
DP - thanks for that.

I think HM seems to be a good way of explaining the simpler organisms of pre-industrial sociteties, but I suspect the pay-off line in this book will be the anticipation that capitalist society will decline and fall due to class struggle and inequality in the same way ancient Egypt and then Rome imploded, to be replaced with something else, ie Marxism.

I reckon that is where Harman and I are going to part company.

I think there will be a changing cast of top-dog nations, but unless some global catastrophy puts us back to hunter gathering then capitalism in its essential form is here to stay.
yes, the evolution of the type of soceity , tribal to feudal, feudal to capitalist and capitalist to socialist is a vital tenent of historical materialism. Each type of society has the seeds of its own destruction within it. For exampme when tribes became big AND mobile (viking ships, magyar horsemen) then the societies that got raided responded by changing their tribal structure into a larger more military and feudal model, to support an armed response (the manor and the knight)..

The capitalist model is going to implode soon due to the banking shennanigans etc... so HM theorists are getting all exited for obvious reasons..

The marxist perspective IS political. You state "capitalism in its essential form" this is not good enough !! what is capitalism ?? a manufacturing capitalism needs regulation... or the workers will die from accidents and industrial illness... a banking investment capitalism needs regulation for a different reason... but it DOES need many safeguards... too many safeguards upon trading coupled with a state backing is, Im afraid to say, a form of socialism. But this is NOT communism, and it is still capitalistic

.. but with a conscience.
 
#9
That is what I meant by 'in it's essential form', ie rampant unregulated capitalism, red in tooth and claw, as demanded by the American right may well eat itself, but 'restrained' capitalism will survive as being the system that brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

I suppose these different ways of looking at things belong to a different kind of history to the narrow 'what happened, when' type of stuff.

It's one thing to outline the sequence of events on, say, D Day, but then things diverge according to your view ie was it the triumph of good versus evil, was it two sets of working classes tearing eachother to bits at the behest of their respective elites, or was it just the natural result of competition between two industrialised nations?

And I don't suppose those who were actually there could tell you.
 

Sixty

ADC
Moderator
Book Reviewer
#10
As indicated by young Rampant up there^, Eric Hobsbawn is an unashamedly Marxist historian but also a writer of really quite beautiful prose. Very, very readable (he was a set reading when I did early modern European history) and whether you agree with historians having a set agendas or not, he's always thought provoking.

It's interesting intellectually to see events through the prism of someone else's bias.
 
#11
That is what I meant by 'in it's essential form', ie rampant unregulated capitalism, red in tooth and claw, as demanded by the American right may well eat itself, but 'restrained' capitalism will survive as being the system that brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

I suppose these different ways of looking at things belong to a different kind of history to the narrow 'what happened, when' type of stuff.

It's one thing to outline the sequence of events on, say, D Day, but then things diverge according to your view ie was it the triumph of good versus evil, was it two sets of working classes tearing eachother to bits at the behest of their respective elites, or was it just the natural result of competition between two industrialised nations?

And I don't suppose those who were actually there could tell you.
yes, thats a recommendation for some form of socialism.

As Rampant has stated each perspective has its strengths and weaknesses in its explanitive power. A Durkheimian organistic solidarity would explain the rugby club, or the first church of jesus the saviour, as "organs" within society , acting as a group to a common end because members have a common outlook... nothing to do with, or only tangenitally explained by any Historical Materialist class perspective.

Are Soldiers all from one social class ? !!!! absolutely not.. yet any content analysis of arrse, would be sure to identify similar political and social mores held across the "mainstream" of it. The best explanation of this is the organistic solidarity of having been in the army, rather than some members being class concious and others having false class conciousness.
 
#12
I like that 'organistic' view. You can only relate these things to your own experiance, but it neatly explains a lot of things, town vs country, north/south divide etc.

The best example I can think of is the crowd at a National Hunt racecourse.

At one end you have people who are so inbred and aristocratic they can hardly dress themselves down (or along!) To pikeys and various other chancers all united by a love of the turf and with much more in common with eachother than many would believe or spot at first glance.
 
#13
It's a useful tool for analysing certain developments in human societies since those societies don't survive which can't supply the basic needs of their population and so the economics of production for basic needs are a key factor in social organisation. That said, it was never the only factor and was often over-ridden by others e.g. personal antagonism between monarchs.

One factor that I think important in assessing its viability is that bit about "the economics of production for basic needs". In Marx's day, that was really the greatest part of GDP for any country - either producing for their own basic or for export for another country/colony's. In developed countries today, massive amounts of production are for 'nice to haves' and not 'can't do withouts'.

Sure, you can say that the jobs this non-essential production supports constitute a form of 'basic need' for a functioning society but there is still a great difference in my mind between the subtle form of compulsion involved in the employer/employee relationship of today and the kind of semi-serfdom enjoyed by industrial labourers in Marx's day.
couple of points Smart As Carrots... firstly the definition of "nice to have " and "basic nessesity" is a blurred one and one that is constantly shifting... are blackberries nice to have... or, did they form a communication system for the rioters superior to the polices in the latest riots ? in which case they would be nessecities in the next revolution comrade !!

secondly, any leftwing hardliner would delight in pointing out that the very fact that the semi serfdom of Marxs day is now replaced by a "subtle form of compulsion" is due almost entirely to the Labour Movement of the time and, to establish this, they would claim class conciousness would have been a nessesity... without which it would never have happened. Actually, some capitalists were philathropists towards their workers... a healthy well fed man being more productive ..
 
#14
In the sense that I meant, 'basic necessity' is that needed for survival - food, shelter, clothing, clean water, etc. The rule of thumb I'd use when comparing different period in time is: if it might or might not be considered essential, then it ain't.

I'd actually agree that the Labour movement and it's success in improving the lot of the common man was the result of something we might as well call 'class consciousness'. If the ordinary workers hadn't felt themselves to be part of a bigger whole, they'd not have identified with each other's plight strongly enough to act as a group and so wouldn't have had the social clout to compel political change. If you compare the various localised campaigns of the late 18th and early 19th century with the mass movements of the late 19th and early 20th, I think you can see clearly the development of a common social consciousness amongst industrialised workers.

It's entirely possible that the (initially precious few) philanthropists who saw the long term advantages of a well-treated workforce set an example that allowed this consciousness to develop: "If his boss can do it, why the **** can't mine?" An interesting question of structure over agency, I think.
 
#15
I like that 'organistic' view. You can only relate these things to your own experiance, but it neatly explains a lot of things, town vs country, north/south divide etc.

The best example I can think of is the crowd at a National Hunt racecourse.

At one end you have people who are so inbred and aristocratic they can hardly dress themselves down (or along!) To pikeys and various other chancers all united by a love of the turf and with much more in common with eachother than many would believe or spot at first glance.
Theres a good wiki page on Emile Durkheim, you may like reading then. Durkheim was interested in explaining what he termed "social facts". and his Functionalist approach may be a better theoretical framework for modern society, being post industrial and fragmented. Social psychology has much to imput as well, attribution theory, in and outgroups.
 
#16
In the sense that I meant, 'basic necessity' is that needed for survival - food, shelter, clothing, clean water, etc. The rule of thumb I'd use when comparing different period in time is: if it might or might not be considered essential, then it ain't.

I'd actually agree that the Labour movement and it's success in improving the lot of the common man was the result of something we might as well call 'class consciousness'. If the ordinary workers hadn't felt themselves to be part of a bigger whole, they'd not have identified with each other's plight strongly enough to act as a group and so wouldn't have had the social clout to compel political change. If you compare the various localised campaigns of the late 18th and early 19th century with the mass movements of the late 19th and early 20th, I think you can see clearly the development of a common social consciousness amongst industrialised workers.

It's entirely possible that the (initially precious few) philanthropists who saw the long term advantages of a well-treated workforce set an example that allowed this consciousness to develop: "If his boss can do it, why the **** can't mine?" An interesting question of structure over agency, I think.
I agree with your analysis.. hadnt thought that the philanthropist may hve set the example for the rest though, as a catalyst.

However, I have difficulty in your "basic essentials" argument. A bit like an economist rational choice theory, that has to say the individual acted rationally "given the belief system at the time" or else its a nonsense. To a metrosexual a whole host of toilitries are basic essentials that would be absolutely on his list ... not just a bog roll, bar of soap and toothbrush, which would certainly get me through..
 
#17
On the other hand, the metro-sexual wouldn't have had the range of products to choose from had he been around in the pre-Victorian era. In that sense, since people managed to survive without them, they are 'nice to have' rather than essential regardless of how valued they might be nowadays.

I'm not knocking it, as production of male grooming products creates jobs somewhere in the world and keeps cash circulating - but it's a kind of production that couldn't exist until people stopped using up all their energies on mere subsistence.
 
#18
On the other hand, the metro-sexual wouldn't have had the range of products to choose from had he been around in the pre-Victorian era. In that sense, since people managed to survive without them, they are 'nice to have' rather than essential regardless of how valued they might be nowadays.

I'm not knocking it, as production of male grooming products creates jobs somewhere in the world and keeps cash circulating - but it's a kind of production that couldn't exist until people stopped using up all their energies on mere subsistence.
I see. Thats a good and clear answer.. you see it like some kind of hierarchy of needs (maslow 1963) but for society rather than individuals.
 
#19
The other thing you have to hand to the Left is it gave oppressed workers an idea of what a better future for themselves could look like.

Historically the peasants have revolted against the current state of affairs with no idea of what to do other than replace a 'bad' king or emporor with a 'good' one.

A couple of years down the line the new boss turns out to be every bit as bad as the old boss except the countryside, the cities and the economy have been laid waste in the process and the situation over-all has edged that bit closer to complete failure.
 
#20
I am not well read in history, but did find both '1066 and all that' and John O'Farrell's two books 'An utterly impartial history of Britain' and 'An utterly exasperated history of modern Britain' were interesting, as much because they made you rack your brains for what you were taught in history.

For myself I found that since political histories are written by politicians, in all but name, they will always, like a govt inquiry, or Brussels referendum, eventually arrive at the correct conclusion; a book I read on museums pointed out that the statues in ancient Greece were painted like Madame Tussauds' waxworks. The museums don't follow historic accuracy, because then the statues would look garish and cheap, not imbued with the gravitas of the ages.

As far as history goes, never mind the idea that history is written by the victors, read four eye-witness accounts of a road accident to see how far accuracy goes.
 

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