The Marxian Theory of History

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels conceived the materialist conception of history, or, more simply, historical materialism, in the mid-nineteenth century as a response to the confusion of idealist philosophy and as a critique of liberal political economy. They revised and refined the theory throughout their lives.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Keeping to that critical spirit, Marxist historians, philosophers, revolutionaries, and scientists elaborated the theory in the decades that followed. The theory remains a major intellectual and political force in many, if not most, contemporary societies, and continues to undergo revision and elaboration.

In light of this history, one could argue that there is not one but multiple Marxist theories. Nonetheless, there are elementary assumptions and concepts running through the various schools and permutations that differentiate Marxism from other critical theoretical standpoints and, more broadly, the conflict perspective.

The application of Marxist theory to crime and deviance studies is likewise manifold; yet here, too, there is an intellectual core that shapes theoretical and political work in similar ways.

This essay sketches the foundation of Marxist theory and, in broad strokes, surveys the crime and deviance literature employing this approach, in particular what often goes under the label “radical” or “critical” criminology.

From the standpoint of historical materialism, a human being is understood as a thing that is realized through social action, principally acts embedded in and surrounding the production of material life. Human essence lies at the intersection of the totality of social relations in which individuals emerge as social beings. Dialectically, individuals collectively objectivate society through social action and, in turn, realize their humanity in the process. However, in segmented societies, especially those marked by social class, individuals become alienated from their essential activities, the objects they bring into existence (their labor product), and from others and themselves.

For Marxists, the fundamental problem in history to explain and overcome is the fact that the majority has lost control over the act of creating the world and the world it created, a condition that denies its “species-being,” that is, the power of self-activity and self-actualization. This problem focuses both Marxist theory and political practice. Indeed, the political demand this approach entails is inseparable from the theory that explains it, which Marx envisioned in his youth as an epistemological position transcending the “is-ought” dichotomy that limits positivist thinking and liberal politics, both related expressions of bourgeois, or capitalist, idealism.

The solution to the problem of alienation, Marxists contend, is the achievement of substantive freedom for all member of society, which requires popular control over society’s productive forces, a state of affairs requiring—and justifying—the revolutionary transformation of the existing conditions. Once in power, the proletariat, or working class, is positioned to collectively shape the direction of history for the benefit of the population.

Thus, socialist revolution lays the foundation for a more just social order and a more complete human being. Crucially, this standpoint conceptualizes freedom not in liberal terms of limited political democracy, which is necessarily constrained by the capitalist imperative to accumulate property and usurp wealth, what Erich Fromm calls “negative liberty,” but in the radical terms of economic democracy, or socialism—with communism, a stateless and classless social order of self-actualizing individuals, envisioned as the final goal.

The concrete character of work, the objects on which work is performed, and the instruments produced by and used in that work constitute the labor process that moves history forward. Objects of labor may be things found in nature or things already worked up by prior labor activity. Some of these objects become instruments of labor, such as tools and machines that concentrate a worker’s activity on an object. The objects and instruments make up the means of production. Taken together, objects, instruments, and human labor power comprise the forces of production, constituting the practical and technological basis of a given social formation.

Underpinning this conceptualization of production is the labor theory of value, which is a foundational concept in both classical liberal political economy and the Marxist critique of this intellectual system. Marx incorporates into his theory of capitalist production the distinction between, on the one hand, use value, which is value imputed from biological needs and historically-conditioned wants, and, on the other hand, exchange value, which represent the quantum of labor contained in a commodity (i.e. the amount of labor required to produce the useful object).

Marx demonstrates in Capital, Volume I, that human labor is the sole source of exchange value. This is one of the major contributions to science. But, for Marx, it is also politically significant. It follows from his discovery that, since workers produce that value, they are naturally entitled to that value. Moreover, since the labor process in necessarily a collective one, that entitlement is social in character. Thus in demonstrating the validity of the labor theory of value, Marx not only makes a major contribution to the field of political economy, but also identifies the material underpinning of the struggle for social justice.

The question of ownership and control over the labor process raises the matter of the character of the social relations in which the production forces embed. Marxists define the social relations of production primarily in terms of property relations and the authority that attaches to them. Social class is paramount, defined as an individual’s relationship to the means of production, a position that she shares with other individuals bound by the same or similar relations.

Taken together, the forces and the social relations of production comprise the mode of production, what Georg Hegel calls “civil society.” In Marx’s popular base-superstructure metaphor, civil society is often referred to as the foundation, or “base” of society. Contradictions within the base, which exist in many forms, including class antagonisms, are theorized to drive the engine of social transformation. Upon the base arises a “superstructure,” or political society, comprised of state, law, and ideology, which function to protect the prevailing property relations either by force, if need be, or, more efficiently, through ideas that legitimize the prevailing relations by embodying notions of right and wrong, good and bad.

Political power and ideas are theorized to root in the material control of the forces of production, expressed by Marx and Engels in the famous dictum: “The ideas of the ruling classare in everyepoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.” The character of the superstructure ultimately reflects, albeit not always in an immediately discernable way, the interests of the dominant economic class. Ultimately, the conditions under which people produce their material life stamp an entire society with a particular class consciousness. 

Marxists conceptualize history as series of revolutionary transformations in modes of production, classified as stages, which include primitive communism, ancient society, feudalism, and capitalism. Under primitive communism, typified by gatherer-and-hunter societies, there are no social classes. The forces of production are collectively controlled and the community shared the social product based on need. With the appearance of large-scale agricultural production, occurring roughly five to seven thousand years ago, and with it the generation of substantial social surplus, it becomes possible for some families to live without working. Over time, the means of production are divorced from the laboring masses and concentrated in the hands of a nonproductive class, which forces the majority into subservience. The families freed from labor become a ruling class who, served by functionaries (managers, intellectuals), steer segmentally organized modes of production to their favor. This state of affairs is characteristic of all social formations up to the present, each successive stage of development in segmentation leading to greater inequality between those who produce the social surplus and those who appropriate it.

To illustrate how contradictions internal to production modes fuel the transformational moments that impel history through its stages, consider that periodic crises of overproduction, or of realization, which take the form of commercial calamities growing progressively worse over time, mark the capitalist mode of production. The contradiction exists by virtue of the fact that capitalist firms strive to maximize surplus value by rationalizing production through automation, bureaucratic organization, and mechanization, as well as through wage suppression, which in turn displaces, impoverishes, and marginalizes workers. The immiseration of workers in turn undercuts the opportunity for capitalists to realize surplus as profit in the market.

Thus what constitutes rational behavior at the level of the firm becomes irrational at the level of the system. The bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, strives to overcome the irrationality in various ways: the destruction of productive forces through war, the conquest of new markets through imperialism, the exploitation of old markets, state intervention in the economy, and promotion of finance capital. Thus overcoming crises explains the evolution of capitalism. However, while adaptation may temporarily lift the economy from a slump, it sets the stage for deeper crises in the future and, eventually, the total collapse of the system, thereby creating a revolutionary moment.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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