Marxist Theory
Introduction to Marxist theory on history Historical Materialism: the marxist
view of history The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of
class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf,
guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed stood in
constant opposition to each other, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now
open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary
reconstitution of society at large or in the mutual ruin of the contending
classes. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels: The Communist Manifesto Section A: How
society works 1. Making sense of history: looking behind the 'story' The ruling
class portrays history as the doings of "great men", the role of
governors and explorers, lists of wars and invasions and other "important
events". History in school books is like a story - a succession of events
without any general pattern. Marxists say that in order to make sense of the
story of history - what people, famous or not, actually did - we have to
understand the overall economic and social context to show why they acted in the
way they did. Take for example the American Civil War of 1861-65. What do most
people know about this war? Northern Americans, the Union, fought against the

Southern Confederates; Bluecoats fought Greycoats. Why? Most people would say,
well, it was about slavery. The Union president, Abraham Lincoln, was against
slavery, while the southerners were in favour of it. That's the myth; the
northerners fighting slavery out of the goodness of their hearts. But Marxists
would say there was a lot more to it than that. In fact the northern
industrialists behind the Union were in bitter conflict with the big southern
farmers who owned the slaves; most of these industrialists were racists and not
very sympathetic to black slaves. The basic causes of the war were in this
economic conflict between the to different sections of the US ruling class.

Let's take the example of the English civil war of 1641-49. Most people know it
was cavaliers against roundheads, parliament versus the crown, Oliver Cromwell
versus Charles 1. But why? Who did parliament represent - whose interests? And
who backed the king, and why? When we investigate this, we find that different
class forces were involved. So, a Marxist analysis of the English civil war
would try to explain the story of the war in terms of the class interests
involved. This method of looking at things to discover the real class and social
interests involved in events, of course is relevant to more contemporary events.

Why did the US president George Bush start the Gulf war? To defend plucky little

Kuwait against the monster Saddam? Marxists say no, this was just the
propaganda; Bush started the war to defend the economic and political interests
of the US, including the oil supplies from the area. Another example of how we
try to look behind the surface events at the real story. So this is the first
idea: Historical materialism is about discovering the class interests which
determine how people act in history. Now read the following quote about the

English civil war from someone who fought in it, and think how it relates to
what we have discussed so far: "A very great part of the knights and
gentlemen of England ... adhered to the King. And most of the tenants of these
gentlemen, and also most of the poorest of the people, whom the others call the
rabble, did follow the gentry and ere for the king. On the Parliament's side
were (besides themselves) the smaller part of the gentry in most of the
counties, and the greatest part of the tradesmen and freeholders and the middle
sort of men, especially in those corporations and counties which depend on such
manufactures". (Colonel Baxter: Autobiography) What Baxter is saying here
is that the conflict was between the king and the aristocracy (supported by
those most dependent on them) on the one hand: and the rising middle classes on
the other. This of course is exactly the Marxist explanation of the Civil War.
(See Christopher Hill: 'The English Revolution 1640'). 2. Different types of
society The type of society we have now - capitalism - only started to come into
existence about 350 years ago, first in Holland and England. But human society
existed for hundreds of thousands of years before that. In societies before
capitalism, the way people lived was different to what we know now. Before
capitalism, in Western Europe and in China and Japan before the arrival of the

Europeans, the