Lecture four: Marxism, history and the science of perspective

Part 2

By David North
15 September 2005


This is the second part of the lecture “Marxism, history and the science of perspective,” delivered by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is the fourth lecture that was given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century” was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1. The second, entitled “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century,” was posted in three parts on September 2, 4 and 5. The third, entitled “The origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done?” was posted in seven parts from September 6 to September 13. These lectures were also authored by David North.

From the French Revolution to the Communist Manifesto

The events of 1789-1794 certainly provided an impulse for the development of a science of history. A Revolution which had begun under the banner of Reason developed in a manner that no one had planned or foreseen. The struggle of political factions, which assumed an increasingly bloody and fratricidal character, culminating in the Reign of Terror, seemed to unfold with a logic whose momentum was as mad as it was unstoppable. Moreover, the outcome of all the terrible struggles of the revolutionary era did not at all realize the ideals which had been proclaimed by the Revolution and for whose realization so much blood had been shed. Out of the struggle for “Liberty, Equality and Fraternity” new forms of oppression had emerged.

In the decades that followed the Revolution, a number of French historians and social thinkers—principally St. Simon, Thierry, Mignet and Guizot—recognized that the cataclysmic events of the 1790s arose on the basis of a struggle between conflicting social forces. St. Simon wrote specifically of the conflict between propertied and non-propertied classes. In 1820, Guizot defined the struggle of the 1790s in the following terms: “for over thirteen centuries France contained two peoples: conquerors and vanquished. For over thirteen centuries, the vanquished people fought to throw off the yoke of their conquerors. Our history is one of that struggle. In our times, a decisive battle has taken place. The battle is called revolution.”[7]

Guizot wrote as an unabashed defender of the “people,” i.e., the Third Estate, against the aristocracy. But even as Guizot wrote, changes in the social structure of France, the development of capitalist industry, were revealing that the “people” were torn by inner social divisions. While industry developed at a far slower pace in France than in England, strikes had become sufficiently common in the former to be subjected by the Code Napoleon to harsh legal sanctions.

The smashing of machinery, the so-called Luddite movement in which the struggles of the working class first were manifested, appeared initially in England in the 1770s. The Luddite movement became sufficiently threatening to require the use of troops against rioters in 1811-1812, and the British Parliament decreed the death penalty for machine-breaking in 1812. The first major recorded incidents of French Luddism began in 1817, and serious incidents continued for several decades. Similar developments occurred in other European countries and even in the United States.

More developed forms of working class struggle, such as mass strikes, became increasingly common in France during the 1830s and 1840s. It is during this period that the word “socialism” makes its first appearance in France. According to the historian G.D.H. Cole, “The ‘socialists’ were those who, in opposition to the prevailing stress on the claims of the individual, emphasized the social element in human relations and sought to bring the social question to the front in the great debate about the rights of man let loose by the French Revolution and by the accompanying revolution in the economic field.”[8]

The first major work on the subject of French socialism was written by the German Lorenz Stein in 1842. The author defined socialism as “the systematic science of equality realized in economic life, state and society, through the rule of labor.”[9]

It is not my intention to present here a lecture on the origins and history of socialism. Rather, I intend only to indicate the changing social and intellectual context in which Marx and Engels began their extraordinary collaboration, developed the materialist conception of history, and in 1847 wrote the Communist Manifesto. What I wish particularly to stress is that their work reflected and anticipated in advanced theoretical terms the emergence within the general democratic movement of “the people” the new social division between the working class and the bourgeoisie.

There is no more powerful refutation of the denial of the possibility of historical prediction than the text of the Communist Manifesto, the first truly scientific and still unsurpassed work of historical, socio-economic and political perspective. In a few pages, Marx and Engels identified in the class struggle an essential driving force of history, outlined the economic and political processes out of which the modern, bourgeois, world emerged, and explained the world-historical revolutionary implications of the development of capitalist industry and finance.

“The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has piteously torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors,’ and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment.’ It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single unconscionable freedom—Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by political and religious illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

“The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage-laborers.

“The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation...

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones...

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country... All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe... In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. National one-sidedness and narrow-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”[10]

One must resist the urge to continue reading from this epochal work, to which nothing previously written can compare.

To be continued

[7] Quoted by Plekhanov, in “The Initial Phases in the Class Struggle Theory,” Selected Philosophical Works, Volume II (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976), p. 439.
[8] A History of Socialist Thought: Volume I: The Forerunners 1789-1850, (London: Macmillan & Co., 1953), p. 2.
[9] Quoted in Hal Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume IV: Critique of Other Socialisms (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1990), p. 8.
[10] The Communist Manifesto (New York: Norton, 1988), pp. 57-59.

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