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Karl Marx as Historian

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Karl Marx as a 19th Century Political Historian

Karl Marx (1818-1883) was a European political theorist, strongly influenced by the events and social theories of the nineteenth century. He maintains his radical distinction by consistently opposing the Utilitarianism and the dominant moderate to conservative political approaches of the times. He historical approach places less value on the gradual amelioration of 19th century social and political grievances through representative democracy and parliamentary means, and emphasizes radical revolution. This places even his conventional political reporting, such as the “18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” outside the pale of the accepted 19th century political consensus. The “18th Brumaire” has many strong points and does not fail utterly as political reporting, but the underlying assumptions of Marx, his militant and violent radicalism, show a bias in his work, despite his incisive wit and thoroughness of detail.

In the “18th Brumaire” Karl Marx’s political reporting is accurate without being correct. In any social discipline bias and theoretical assumptions can skew the work into misleading, if technically correct, conclusions. While Marx wrote a good narrative of the complicated sequence of events, his intellectual foundation is polluted by his desire for a violent, militant revolution of the bottom faction against all the other legitimate players. Marx’s need for the proletariat to destroy the petit-bourgeoisie, the church, the center parties, the royal legitimists, the commercial bourgeoisie, the President and the Army gives his political reporting an unreal and unrealistic tone, abruptly at odds with other commentators, both past and present.

France in the 1830s and 1840s was lurching toward representative democracy and parliamentary power sharing among its groups and individuals. The French were tentatively moving toward a balancing of civil powers between dominant factions. The National Constituent Assembly had given way to a National Legislative Assembly, which is probably a misleading term, since so much power was vested in the chief executive, Louis Napoleon. A party of Order had emerged, combining landed and industrial bourgeois interests and (significantly) tamping down Bourbon and Orleans antagonisms. Another large faction of Democrats or petite-bourgeois representatives countered this party of Order. Efforts to define the limits of Presidential prerogative and the simmering issue of control of the Cabinet secretariat are addressed by Marx in an orderly way.

Karl Marx’s essential lack of faith in the premise of constitutional democratic representative government drives him away from appropriate and useful conclusions. Marx derides the dynamic tensions between the executive, legislative and principal factions in France’s struggling constitutional republic. On the critical question of revising the term limits to prevent a popular coup for Louis Napoleon to remain in power, Marx sneers “Had it (the parliamentary majority) not left to the democrats the antediluvian superstitious belief in the letter of the law, and castigated the democrats for it?” In a similar passage, Marx derides the small propertied interest in the Assembly as “counter-revolutionary.” Marx never perceives the ascendance of any figure or party in French political life to be a step toward legitimacy or sovereignty, and he sees all disagreements over policy as signs of a corrupt and decaying system. This bias against constitutional republican government drives Marx far from the consensus view of political historians.

Marx, in his role here as a historian of the French Assembly, often seems to be dismissive to the interests of civilized political life. Marx is an incisive political analyst with a strong literary style based on dramatic counterpoints and ironic reversals. These strengths are overwhelmed by his pessimistic view of constitutional government and his militant demands for violent overthrow of the state (by the bottommost class), which drain his political reporting of any lasting analytical value. By failing to identify with any actual players, and basing his analysis on a Utopian revolution by minor participants, Marx leaves the mainstream. The major issues of the day were constitutional revision, universal suffrage and term limits. The Bourgeoisie Republicans feared a nationalist coup of Bonapartist militant guards if term limits were not extended and the Constitution modified. Marx, despising all the players, denies us a balanced view.

One of the most important features of the “18th Brumaire” is the substantive digression late in section six. Here Marx abruptly turns from bitter and caustic fury at the combining powers of the Army, the President and the Legislative majority to an analysis of the economic factors behind the events of 1848-1851. His structural overview of the relative importance of commercial, industrial and monetary policies is compelling. Whether or not we agree with Marx’s conclusions about the inevitable future of capitalism, social scientists welcome his groundbreaking widening of the approach to political matters. Marx insists political history must include a full discussion of its economic underpinnings. It is here in the methodological use of international economic data to inform political history that Marx earns his place in the world cannon of social science, and his pioneering efforts have stood the test of time.

John Tosh grapples with the problem of historians broadening their scope to include social and cultural factors in their historical writings, and credits Marx with building the first and best theoretical model of social interaction which have been found useful by later historians. Tosh sees the critics of Marx as reading too much bleak and mechanistic determinism into Marx. Tosh explains that the basic three-tier economic-political structure Marx sees, the production technology, the relations of production and the superstructure of law and ideology has almost boundless opportunities for human agency. “It is probably closer to the spirit of Marx’s thought to see the economic structure as setting limiting conditions rather than determining the elements of the superstructure in all their particularity.” Tosh elastically interprets Marx, and different writings of Marx vary in their strict determinism. John Tosh sees Marx’s periodization of history into classical, feudal and modern bourgeois as substantially correct and is hardly critical of Marx’s view of Asian traditions. Tosh stresses the Hegelian nature of Marx’s thought and cites the passage of Marx, which spells out that changing modes of production lead to “social revolution” and “transformation of the entire superstructure.” In hindsight we can now see that Marxist predictions do not always come true, and where they do occur, Utopian intentions are rarely realized. Tosh gets to the core of Marx’s weakness when he writes of “this rather abstract conception of social change.” The dialectic of class conscious conflict over the means of production -- the theoretical groundwork of Marx -- gives us a handy language, but is a system of thought that limits agency, privileges certain values at the expense of others, and simplifies the complexity of political, economic and cultural human history. “These theories lend themselves to a simplified rigid schema” Tosh says. But Tosh is ultimately sympathetic to Marx and states,

“What Marx rejected was not historical study as such, but the method employed by the leading historians of his day. Their error, he maintained, lay in taking at face value what the historical actors said about their motives and aspirations; in so doing, Ranke and his imitators imprisoned themselves within the dominant ideology of the age in question which was merely a cloak for the real material interests of the dominant class.”

This approach distinguishes Karl Marx and the historical school following him.

The German philosopher Karl Lowith sees Marx as a student of Hegel, and he believes Marx tried to bring the Hegelian philosophy of thesis, antithesis and synthesis to bear on the material world. Karl Lowith sees Karl Marx paradoxically immersed in western, Judeo-Christian, providential and Utopian millenianism, despite Marx’s protestations against God and religion. As Lowith says:

“Since Hegel, however, identifies the history of the world with that of the Spirit, his understanding of history retains much less of its religious derivation than does Marx’s materialistic atheism. The latter, in spite of its emphasis on material conditions, maintains the original tension of transcendent faith over against the existing world, while Hegel, to whom faith was only a mode of Vernunft or Vernehmen, had, at a critical turning-point in his intellectual history, decided to reconcile himself to the world as it is: existing, real and reasonable. Compared with Marx, the greater realist is Hegel.” (Emphasis added)

So Marx succeeds is in his ability to discern that deep economic structures do drive political events; and he succeeds in his use of wit, irony and general style. As a social scientist breaking ground for later political economists, Marx is respected. He taught nineteenth and twentieth century historians to question the assumptions of power relationships found in state archives and correspondence. Marx widened the scope of historical methodology from a conservative re-telling of history’s political events toward a critical reconsideration of underlying forces.

Selected Bibliography

Dicey, Albert Venn

Lectures on the Relation Between Law and Public Opinion

in England During the Nineteenth Century. London, Macmillan, 1905.

Lowith, Karl

Meaning in History. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1949.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington

The History of England From the Accession of

James II. Boston, Phillips and Sampson, 1849.

Marx, Karl

The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

(2nd Edition;London,1869).Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1937. (csf.Colorado.edu/psn/marx/Archive)

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels, Lewis S. Feuer, ed.

Basic Writings on Politics

and Philosophy, New York, Anchor Books, 1959.

Tosh, John

The Pursuit of History, revised Third Edition Pearson, London, 2002.

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