Coronavirus (Covid-19): Latest updates and information
Skip to main content Skip to navigation

History as Class Struggle

Karl Marx was Ranke's and Buckle's contemporary, and -- like Ranke - he was born in Germany. Like Buckle, he spent most of his life in Britain, observing the unfolding of global imperialism, nationalism, and industrial capitalism. But that is where the similarities end. While Ranke and Buckle aimed to explain how the past 'really' was, Marx aimed to use the past to radically change the present. Together with his friend and collaborator Friedrich Engels, Marx spent his entire life to work out the 'laws' of capitalist societies. How did capitalism emerge? How did it evolve? And, most importantly, how could this historical knowledge about its 'laws' be used as a weapon against the reactionary political forces of their time? Deeply angered by the consequences of industrial and increasingly global capitalism, particularly exploitation and mass pauperisation, Marx and Engels hoped to offer a system of thought that would emancipate the proletariat, and lay the basis for the universal freedom of humankind. History was not done for its own sake, they declared, but was to be a tool for changing the world for the better.

And indeed, their 'system', the materialist conception of history, or, 'historical materialism' was truly revolutionary for its time. True, neither Marx nor Engels were professional academic historians but their writings were to revolutionise the historical profession because they offered new ways to explain human agency and historical change. But, more importantly, their materialist world view was to become a major global political force, applied by radical thinkers and revolutionary groups to analyse political power and fight against suppression on a global scale. The world was never to be the same after Marx and Engels. Long dead, their thinking continues to shape today's world.

This session look at some of their work within the historical context of their time. Some conceptual groundwork needs to be done, too. Key terms of historical materialism such as 'class', ‘bourgeoisie’, ‘proletariat’, ‘forces and relations of production, ‘superstructure’ or 'alienation' need to be defined in order to allow us to fully understand their ideas. We shall also explore what conception of 'man' (used by them in the understanding of 'humankind') historical materialism was built on and how this peculiar conception was both a continuation of German philosophical/historicist thinking of the 18th and 19th century (which we encountered in previous sessions), and a fundamental break with it.


Videos for fun

1. To get a very short summary of their views on capitalism, recast in light of the 2008 financial crisis, see David Harvey's cartoon lecture here. (If you can't access it with the link, type 'David Harvey Crises of Capitalism' in YouTube'.)

2. A short video on Marx's critique of capitalism




Karl Marx, ‘Preface’ to A Critique of Political Economy in Karl Marx: Selected Writings (ed. D. McLellan, Oxford, 1977)

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto, preamble and chapter 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians

Karl Marx, The German Ideology, chapter 'Civil Society and the Conception of History, and Conclusions from the Materialist Conception of History'


Background Seminar Reading

For an overview: CWHT, chapter 10: focus here on Marx/Engels not on later Marxists.

Gasper, Philipp, ‘Marx’ materialist conception of history revisited’, International Socialist Review


Seminar Questions

Explain and discuss human agency and historical change according to historical materialism.

What is historical materialism? Is it simply a 'reductionist' view of human nature?

What conceptions of history did Marx and Engels write against and why?

How did historical materialism differ from Ranke and Buckle's historical methodologies?

What did Marx and Engels understand by human nature?

Is historical materialism 'dead' today?


Significant Quotations

‘It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’ (Karl Marx Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy [1859])


At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.’ (Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859)


‘Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.’ (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1848)


‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1848)


‘This conception of history depends on our ability to expound the real process of production, starting out from the material production of life itself, and to comprehend the form of intercourse connected with this and created by this mode of production (i.e. civil society in its various stages), as the basis of all history; and to show it in its action as State, to explain all the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, ethics, etc. etc. and trace their origins and growth from that basis; by which means, of course, the whole thing can be depicted in its totality (and therefore, too, the reciprocal action of these various sides on one another).


It has not, like the idealistic view of history, in every period to look for a category, but remains constantly on the real ground of history; it does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice; and accordingly it comes to the conclusion that all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism, by resolution into “self-consciousness” or transformation into “apparitions,” “spectres,” “fancies,” etc. but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history, also of religion, of philosophy and all other types of theory. It shows that history does not end by being resolved into “self-consciousness as spirit of the spirit,” but that in it at each stage there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, an historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor; a mass of productive forces, capital funds and conditions, which, on the one hand, is indeed modified by the new generation, but also on the other prescribes for it its conditions of life and gives it a definite development, a special character. It shows that circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances (Karl Marx, ‘Summary of Materialist Conception of History’, The German Ideology)


‘Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.’ (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Communist Manifesto, 1848)


‘The production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life. Conceiving, thinking, the mental intercourse of men, appear at this stage as the direct efflux of their material behaviour. The same applies to mental production as expressed in the language of politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc., of a people. Men are the producers of their conceptions, ideas, etc. – real, active men, as they are conditioned by a definite development of their productive forces and of the intercourse corresponding to these, up to its furthest forms. Consciousness can never be anything else than conscious existence, and the existence of men is their actual life-process.’ (Karl Marx, The German Ideology, 1846)


Further Reading

Aron, R., Main Currents in Sociological Thought, Vol. 1, Montesquieu, Comte, Marx, Tocqueville, the Sociologists and the Revolutions of 1848 (London, 1968) .

Cohen, G., Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defence (Oxford, 1978).

Cowling, M./Martin, J., Marx's 'Eighteenth Brumaire': (Post)Modern Interpretations (2012), Introduction, pp. 1-19.

Elster, J., An Introduction to Karl Marx (Cambridge, 1986)

Fromm, Erich, Marx's Concept of Man (New York, 1961) - excellent ananlysis of the understanding Marx's understanding of Man!

Fernbach, D. (ed.), [Marx’s] Political Writings (The Revolution of 1848; Surveys from Exile), 2 vols (London, 1973) (both contain valuable introductions) .

Giddens, A., Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An Analysis of the Writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber (Cambridge, 1971)

Giosue, G., ‘Tragedy and Repetition in Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louise Bonaparte’, Clio, 26:4 (1997), 411-25.

Groopman, L.C., ‘A Re-reading of Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, Journal of European Studies, 12:2 (1982), 113-29

Hall, S., ‘The “Political” and the “Economic” in Marx's Theory of Classes’, in A. Hunt (ed.), Class and Class Structure (London, 1977), 15-60

Hayes, P., ‘Utopia and the Lumpenproletriat: Marx’s Reasoning in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louise Bonaparte’, Review of Politics, 50:3 (1988), 445-65

Hobsbawm, E. ‘Karl Marx's Contribution to Historiography’, in R. Blackburn (ed.), Ideology in Social Science: Readings in Critical Social Theory (London, 1972), 265-83

Hobsbawm, E., ‘Class Consciousness in History’, in I. Meszaros (ed.), Aspects of History and Class Consciousness (London, 1971), 5-21

Hobsbawm, E., ‘Introduction’, to K. Marx & F. Engels, The Communist Manifesto: A Modern Edition (London, 1998), 3-29

Hobsbawm, E., ‘Marx and History’, in E. Hobsbawm, On History (London, 1997), 157-70

Kellner, D., ‘The Obsolescence of Marxism?’, in B. Magnus & S. Cullenberg (ed.), Whither Marxism? Global Crises in International Perspective (New York, 1995), 3-30

Krieger, L., ‘Marx and Engels as Historians’, in B. Jessop & C. Malcolm-Brown (eds), Karl Marx's Social and Political Thought: Critical Assessments, Vol. II: Social Class and Class Conflict (London, 1990), 49-72

Laibman, D., ‘The Legacy of The Eighteenth Brumaire’, Science and Society, 66:4 (2002-03), 441-45

McLellan, D., Marxism after Marx: An Introduction (London, 1998)

Miller, R.W., Analyzing Marx: Morality, Power and History (Princeton, 1984)

Moss, B. H., ‘Marx and Engels on French Social Democracy: Historians or Revolutionaries?’, Journal of the History of Ideas 46:4 (1985), 539-58

Riquelme, J-P., ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Karl Marx as Symbolic Action’, History and Theory 19:1 (1980), 58-72

Rigby, S., Marxism and History: A Critical Introduction (Manchester, 1987)

Schofield, Philipp, 'History and Marxism', in Peter Lambert and Phillipp Schofield (eds.), Making History, pp. 180-191.

Shaw, W. H., ‘“The Handmill Gives You the Feudal Lord”: Marx’s Technological Determinism’, History and Theory 18 (1979), 155-76

Singer, Peter, Marx: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2000). (You might want to buy this mini-introduction)

Spencer, M., 'Marx on the State: Events in France 1848-50', Theory & Society (1979), 167-98

Sperber, Jonathan. Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life. London, 2013 (excellent biography!)

Tomba, M., ‘Marx as the Historial Materialist: Re-Reading The Eighteenth Brumaire', Historical Materialism 21/2 (2013): 21-46.

Wendling, A. E., ‘Are All Revolution Bourgeois? Revolutionary Temporality in Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte’, Strategies 16:1 (2003): 39-49.

Whittam, J., ‘Karl Marx’, in J. Cannon (ed.), The Historian at Work (London, 1980), 86-103