Karl Marx and Historical Sociology

Duncan Kelly. Handbook of Historical Sociology. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Engin F Isin. 2003. Sage Publication.

This chapter reflects on the relationship between the thought of Karl Marx and the study of historical sociology. In so doing, it defends two claims. One is that Karl Marx can be understood as a ‘practitioner’ of historical sociology. The other is that there is something that we can learn about this discipline from a study of Marx’s writings. Clearly, these claims are mutually reinforcing, though they require a word or two of explanation. For although Marx’s place in a collection concerned with exploring the depth and vitality of historical sociology as a method of intellectual inquiry might seem self-evident, two principal issues must be clarified. One relates to the legacy of Karl Marx, and the other concerns the nature of historical sociology itself.

As a specific type of intellectual enterprise, historical sociology tries to make explicit the relationship between social theory and historical change; that is, historical sociology uses social theory in a self-conscious way to outline general propositions about the nature of historical development. And as the editorial introduction to this volume makes clear, such a broad understanding permits a healthy degree of interpretative latitude. This freedom seems to be immediately constricted, however, when considering the work of Karl Marx, particularly in the present climate, when it is often assumed that everything that needs to be known about Marx is already known. Indeed, it is one of the most stunning about turns in contemporary academia that writing about Marx and Marxism, which up until the fall of the Berlin Wall at least had become an industry in itself, has so rapidly declined. The general consensus, at least among many contemporary liberals, seems to be that Marx was an astute analyst of capitalism, but the political, social and historical theories associated with his writings can comfortably be left behind (see, for example, Holmes, 1998). A better illustration of the interrelationship between theoretical argument and contemporary political concerns surely could not be conceived, and the irony of his posthumous reputation—given his understanding of the relationship between ideas and interests—would doubtless not have been lost on Marx.

Nevertheless, such critical assessments tend to offer only partial and one-sided readings of Marx. It is certainly true that one could not fully understand his life and work without exploring his own political radicalism, but such a full-blooded exploration is not undertaken here. In outlining his relationship to the theory and practice of historical sociology, such overt political preferences need not bear too heavily on the analysis in any case. Based on the understanding of historical sociology outlined previously, Marx’s thought clearly offers a powerful explanatory social theory based on an understanding of human progress; to that extent, it is worthwhile considering it in its own right. Moreover, very much like Max Weber, Karl Marx saw no clear distinction between historical and sociological analysis. By teasing out elements of Marx’s intellectual formation—especially his historical and theoretical interests outside of the well-known critique of political economy—the range and depth of his contribution to the study of historical sociology can be more easily appreciated.

In the discussion that follows, therefore, four principal arguments are put forward. First, an attempt is made to provide a background context for the development of Marx’s famous historical and social theory, historical materialism, by looking at his early engagement as a student in Berlin with the disciplines of law and legal history. His criticisms of the Historical School of Law form an important, and usually neglected, prologue to his more famous ‘coming to terms’ with the work of Hegel. Second, Marx’s theory of historical materialism is discussed in the abstract, and an account of historical materialism as a general theory of historical trajectories is outlined. Third, some of Marx’s later interests those associated with the discipline of anthropology—are discussed, in order to show that by developing and amending his own type of historical sociology, Marx towards the end of his life reconnected once more with his earlier critique of legal history. Throughout all of this, the claim is upheld that Marx’s historical sociology is neither rigidly determinist, nor closed to contingencies, as many of his critics have suggested. To further endorse this claim, some illustrations of Marx’s own historical sociological writings are outlined. Fourth, and finally, these suggestions about contingency are explored in some concluding reflections about the legacy of Marx’s writings for the development of historical sociology.

At first glance, however, and as perhaps the most rigorous interpretation of Marx’s theory of history has argued, in general his account of historical political change appears at once both evolutionary and structurally deterministic. Here, the resolution of particular crises and contradictions (exemplified in the form of class struggles) within economically defined ‘modes of production’ provides the motor force of human development, leading to the replacement of one mode of production with another, more progressive variant. Thus outlined, as G.A. Cohen suggests, Marx appears to subscribe to a version of the ‘primacy thesis’ and the ‘development thesis,’ whereby the ‘production relations of a society is explained by the level of the development of its productive forces’ (1978: 134). That is, social relations of production develop to the extent that they are functional for the maintenance of the regnant mode of production. This reading has strong textual support in Marx’s work. In particular, Marx suggested that the transition from one stage of historical development to another—‘in broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production’—comes about because, ‘at a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production’ (Marx, 1975d [1859]: 425-6). Discussing some of the contexts in which Marx’s theory of historical materialism came to be developed and modified is therefore the central purpose of this chapter, which also aims to show that the rigidly deterministic reading of his historical sociology is not the only reading available to us.

Some Background to Karl Marx as a Theorist of Historical Sociology: From Law to the Universal Class of the Proletariat

Karl Marx began his student life at the University of Bonn in October 1835, enrolling in the law faculty. During the year he studied there, over half of the courses he took were in either law or legal history, and all his professors in this field were adherents to the broad methods and assumptions of the Historical School of Law (Breckman, 1999: 260). The impact of romanticism was also profound, and at Bonn, Marx attended the lectures of A.W. Schlegel (McLellan, 1973: 17). It was, however, the move in October 1836 to the law faculty at the University of Berlin, where he remained until 1841, which represented a major turning point for Marx. In the famous letter he wrote to his father on 10 November 1837, he reflected that he ‘had to study law and above all felt the urge to wrestle with philosophy,’ hoping to get to grips with the ‘craggy melody’ of Hegelian philosophy in particular (Marx, 1988a [1837]: 5-9). Youthful concerns with romantic lyric poetry and the cult of honour associated with the student fraternity were to be channelled into positive and disciplined study, and in this regard, his criticisms of the Historical School are intriguing. In fact, given the broad-ranging nature of his legal education, many of the ideas and theories that he would later develop in a more systematic form as the method of historical materialism find their basis in his early relationship to contemporary jurisprudence.

Under the German educational system, legal studies included philosophy, politics and political economy (National-konomie) within its remit—in fact, the separate study of economics in German universities did not actually occur until much later. Perhaps one of the reasons why ‘classical’ historical sociologists like Marx and Weber did not distinguish at all sharply between sociological and historical analysis was because—as legal scholars—neither was explicitly trained to think in such oppositional terms. The all-encompassing character of the nineteenth century German study of law also blended practical administrative relevance (a legacy of the cameralist tradition) with the wider claim that jurisprudence was a universal ‘civil science.’ The study of law on these terms in nineteenth-century German legal science was dominated by the classical tradition, deriving authority from continued study of the sources, the Pandects, whose premier sentence suggested that ‘jurisprudence is the first true philosophy’ (Kelley, 1978: 351f).

At Berlin in 1836-7, Marx studied classical jurisprudence with the renowned legal historian Friedrich Karl von Savigny, and criminal law with the Hegelian professor Eduard Gans. Given what is known about Marx’s later reactions to Hegel’s philosophical system, it is surprising that so little attention has been paid to his critical reflections on the early relationship between abstract legal concepts and historical contingency. In fact, this was the terrain on which an early battle between these two professors had been played out. The principal subject of the Methodenstreit between Savigny and Gans came about through the publication of Savigny’s treatise The Right of Possession (Besitz) of 1803. In this work, on which his early reputation was built, Savigny attempted to resurrect scientific principles of Roman law and apply them to contemporary discussions.

As Peter Stein writes, ‘Savigny found the central principle of possession to be as a manifestation of the human will and re-arranged the Roman texts on possession in order to illustrate this principle’ (1999: 119). Possession here was analysed in terms of the consequences flowing from existing possession of something in fact, and not of any theoretical ‘rights’ to possession that might otherwise exist. Dividing the ancient sources under the headings of usucapion (whereby non-owners of something may become owners) and interdiction (possession in fact), Savigny was able to apply generic Roman conceptions of possession to contemporary debates over the social question (for the legal background, see Johnston, 1999: 57; also Kelley, 1978). And in Germany in the first third of the nineteenth century, a particularly pressing problem of possession concerned the relationship of the peasantry to the land (see Steinmetz, 1993). As Stein recounts, under the

German version of the ius commune, peasants were considered to be coloni. In late Roman law, coloni were tenants who were tied to the land in a way that foreshadowed medieval serfdom. Savigny pointed out that this conception of the colonate was the product of the period of Roman legal decline and that it should not serve as a model for nineteenth-century peasants. On the contrary in true (classical) Roman law coloni had been free tenant farmers, and that version was a better model which legal science could recover. (1999: 119)

Savigny attempted to recover and restore a pure system of Roman law, free from the distortions and additions that had developed during its transplantation to Germany in the sixteenth century. Gans, however, criticized Savigny’s own transplantation of timeless Roman principles onto contemporary discussions as a form of sophistry, chastising the founding father of the Historical School of Law for an insufficiently historical analysis. Opposing the ‘valorization of the historical development of positive laws, Gans insisted on an identity between the universal history of law and the conceptual evolution of legal philosophy.’ As an independent-minded, yet resolutely committed, defender of Hegel’s philosophy, Gans argued that Savigny ‘failed to see the broader pattern of development underlying the disparate facts of historical development’ (Breckman, 1999: 166).

When in 1814 Savigny published what is typically referred to as the manifesto of the Historical School of Law, a polemic against his long-time rival A.F.J. Thibaut entitled On the Vocation of Our Age for Legislation and Jurisprudence, these themes were developed with even greater clarity. In this piece, written as a riposte to the increasing calls for the codification of German law along the lines of the Frenchcode civil, Savigny argued that law and legislation are not simply products of abstract reason, but develop according to the nature, tradition, customs and institutions of particular societies. Three generic stages of legal evolution could therefore be identified. First comes an ‘early period,’ where law is insufficiently developed to be codified. Next follows a period of ‘maturity,’ where the laws of a particular society are shaped by juristic debate, and their relationship to sociopolitical development has proceeded in such a manner that codification is not required anyway. Finally, a period of ‘decline’ ensues where codification would be pointless in any case. As Stein remarks, such an account of legal development clearly modelled itself on the corresponding periods of the birth, maturity and decline of the Roman Empire (1999: 117). For Savigny, contemporary German society like Rome in the ‘classical’ period—was ‘noble’ enough a nation to be able to do without a civil code in the first place.

Interpretation of the past, therefore, clearly impacted on an understanding of the present. Indeed, after the split in the Historical School between ‘Romanists’ like Savigny and ‘Germanists’ such as Georg Beseler and his pupil Otto von Gierke, these claims became even more polemically oriented, particularly towards the later years of the century (see John, 1988). Nevertheless, according to Savigny, illustrating the truths of the Roman jurists of the classical period was a matter of correctly reconstructing their intentions and purging incorrect interpretations of their meaning that had developed over time, particularly through the distortions of the Middle Ages. A concentration on original texts was therefore of paramount importance. And it was this context—the manner in which the Historical School approached its evidence and corroborated its claims—that first led Marx to write his little-known rhetorical counter-blast to Savigny’s lecture, ‘The Philosophical Manifesto of the Historical School of Law.’ The text was clearly written with Savigny in mind. Yet, probably for prudential reasons (given Savigny’s subsequent elevation to a powerful state position), the explicit target of Marx’s attack in the piece was Gustav Hugo, a writer he christened as the ‘forefather’ of the Historical School (Marx, 1975a [1842]: 203-10).

‘It is commonly held that the historical school is a reaction against the frivolous spirit of the eighteenth century,’ suggested Marx in his opening flurry. However, ‘the currency of this view is in inverse relation to its truth. In fact, the eighteenth century had only one product, the essential character of which is frivolity, and this sole frivolous product is the historical school’ (Marx, 1975a [1842]: 203, emphasis in original). Marx’s damning indictment, particularly pointed given the monumental erudition and learning encompassed within Savigny’s voluminous histories of Roman law, for example, was that the Historical School of Law was far too uncritical in the use of its sources. In this regard, Marx’s critique of Hugo’s Textbook of Natural Law as a Philosophy of Positive Law of 1809 could equally well be applied to Savigny’s treatise on possession. Admitting of ‘no distinctions,’ Marx suggested that the ‘positive’ method of the Historical School was largely ‘uncritical.’ Using Hugo as his target, Marx meant by this that ‘everything exists for him as an authority, [and] every authority serves him as an argument’ (1975a [1842]: 205, emphasis in original). Such an uncritical approach to the sources of the past permits no evaluative leeway, and constructs a teleological history that is self-serving. Claiming that Hugo had misunderstood his master, Immanuel Kant, Marx argued that Hugo, by

supposing that because we cannot know what is true, we consequently allow the untrue, if it exists at all, to pass as fully valid. He is a sceptic as regards the necessary essence of things, so as to be a courtier as regards their accidental appearance. Therefore, he by no means tries to prove that the positive is rational; he tries to prove that the positive is irrational. (1975a [1842]: 204, emphasis in original)The politically conservative implications of such a critique were clear—particularly in terms of the contemporary debates about social reform. If an extant political authority is to be obeyed simply because it exists, then all this means is that might justifies right, and a potentially arbitrary legal authority must be obeyed at any cost. Clearly, this was a position Marx had little support for and he rejected the Historical School on both methodological technical and political grounds. As with the rest of his working life, moreover, this rejection was the result of particularly incisive self-criticism.

Besides translating the first two books of the Pandects into German, during his early student years Marx had tried to develop his own comprehensive system of law in accordance with the scholastic fashion of rationalizing and systematizing the classical texts of Roman law. Marx’s reaction to his own ‘unhappy’ 300-page work on the subject is revealing in its self-conscious contempt towards the barbarity of forcing ideas and legal precedents out of their context and into his own schema—the tripartite division of Roman law into persons, things or actions. Unfortunately the manuscript has not survived. His comments have though, and it is clear that Marx thought such writing was of purely antiquarian interest, and could therefore be of no help to securing the contemporary ‘common good,’ which was the stated goal of classical jurisprudence, and which was clearly of profound concern to him.

The whole problem, as Donald Kelley has made admirably clear, was what Marx saw as the ‘metaphysics of law,’ which divorced from ‘all actual law and every actual form of law’ its ‘basic principles, reflections, [and] definitions of concepts’ (Marx, quoted in Kelley, 1978: 354). Instead of building rational systems that bore little relation to reality, and prefiguring his later suggestions about the proper method of scientific research—rising from the abstract to the concrete—Marx suggested that the rational character of the object itself must develop as something imbued with contradictions in itself and find unity in itself (quoted in Kelley, 1978: 355). The account clearly recalls Gans’s critique of Savigny—indeed as a student Marx attended with Gans the Doktorclub of Berlin’s progressive Hegelians, as well as taking his courses at the university. His early criticisms of Kantian idealism and the methodology of the Historical School were imbued with Hegelian themes defended by Gans—for example, the idea of ‘transcendence’ (Aufhebung) as a unity of opposites, and a recognition of the necessity of mediating between ‘philosophical norm and historical fact’ (Breckman, 1999: 261; see also Berlin, 1995 [1939]: 50ff.). However, where Gans attempted to reconcile Hegel’s system with his own liberal reformism in mid-century looking for inspiration from both Saint-Simon and Tocqueville about the virtues of associational life, Marx was to politicize his criticisms of Hegel’s philosophy in a more radical way (Breckman, 2001: 564).

Building on the insights of his doctoral dissertation—submitted to the University of Jena in 1841—in his early journalism for the Rheinische Zeitung Marx contrasted a ‘true’ or organic state, which self-consciously rational human beings could affirm, with the contemporary reality of a fragmented, individualist Prussian political order. Such an idealistic form of critique was drawn from his close association with the young Hegelians. The practical import of his concerns was clear, however, in his coruscating polemics about freedom of the press and government censorship, for example. This continued too in his discussion of the nature of property relations and their social function, given seminal form in his denunciation of the draconian new Prussian laws relating to the theft of wood from private land. These laws threatened to enshrine particularistic laws to defend rich landowners and aristocrats, and were clearly far from being truly ‘customary’ in a Hegelian sense, or rational-general in their intention. Marx in fact wrote that ‘the rights of aristocratic custom run counter by their content to the form of general law.’ Furthermore, ‘the fact that these customary rights are through their content in conflict with the form of law, i.e. its universality and necessity, proves that they are unjust customs and that, instead of being enforced in opposition to the law, they should be abrogated because of this opposition’ (Marx, 1988b [1843]: 21; see also Draper, 1977). If the Hegelian background to these criticisms was clear, Marx soon moved towards a much more concrete and polemical critique, one from which the more conflictual and antagonistic elements of his wider social theory developed.

In his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Marx famously continued his attack on the methodological inadequacies of the Historical School of Law. As he argued, a contemporary struggle against the restricted nature of the German status quo is not without interest, for the German status quo is the undisguised consummation of the ancien régime and the ancien régime is the hidden defect of the modern state’ (1975b [1843-4]: 247, emphasis in original). Marx suggested that the German philosophy of state and law is ‘the only German history which stands on an equal footing with the official modern present.’ Yet, he continued, the mismatch between the ideals of philosophical reflection about the character and development of the state, and the realities of the contemporary situation, which certainly did not adequately reflect these abstract theories, were conjoined in Hegel. In the Philosophy of Right, then, a ‘critique of the modern state and of the reality connected with it’ exists alongside a decisive negation of all previous forms of political and juridical consciousness in Germany, whose most refined and universal expression, elevated to the level of a science, is precisely the speculative philosophy of law . The reason for this, argued Marx, in what has since become a common trope of discussions about the origins of modernity, was that the Germans have thought in politics what other nations have done. Germany has been their theoretical conscience (Marx, 1975b [1843-4]: 249, 250).

Two consequences flowed from this. First, ‘if the status quo of the German political system is an expression of the consummation of the ancien régime, the completion of the thorn in the flesh of the modern state, then the status quo of German political thought is an expression of the imperfection of the modern state’ (Marx, 1975b [1843-4]: 249ff., emphasis in original). Second, and a corollary of this imperfection, was the focus in Hegel’s political philosophy—at least as Marx understood it—of a hypostatized role for the Prussian bureaucracy as representing a ‘universal class.’ Understood in the context of his prior criticisms, such an account simply made Hegel an apologist for the contemporary Prussian state. Most contemporary scholarship has successfully refuted Marx’s claims on this front (see Franco, 1999; Hardimon, 1994). For Marx, however, Hegel not only mistook the contemporary state for an illustration of the best of his own philosophical system, but also misunderstood the potential of the idea of a ‘universal class’ actually to realize the aims of Spirit. If this ‘universal class’ could be taken out of Hegel’s hypostatized schema, and juxtaposed with other instances of both ‘rising’ and ‘declining’ historical classes, then it might well offer a ‘vehicle of historical explanation,’ a motor force for historical change (Avineri, 1968: 58). With this theoretical displacement, Marx arrived at his first discussion of the modern proletariat as the universal class:

So where is the positive possibility of German emancipation? This is our answer. In the formation of a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society a class[Stand] which is the dissolution of all classes, a sphere which has a universal character because of its universal suffering and which lays claim to no particular right because the wrong it suffers is not a particular wrong but wrong in general; a sphere of society which can no longer lay claim to a historical title, but merely to a human one, which does not stand in one-sided opposition to the premises of the German political system; and finally a sphere which cannot emancipate itself without emancipating itself from—and thereby emancipating—all the other spheres of society, which is, in a word, the total loss of humanity and which can therefore redeem itself only through the total redemption of humanity. This dissolution of society as a particular class is the proletariat. (Marx, 1975b [1843-4]: 256, emphasis in original)

Capitalism and Historical Materialism: Structural Determinism or Historical Trajectories?

Having discovered the practical collective agent capable of ‘realizing’ the goals of Hegelian Aufhebung, or reconciliation, Marx quickly turned to the more pressing matter of constructing an account of historical development that would back up such a claim historical materialism. And one might well begin a discussion of historical materialism with what is perhaps Marx’s most famous aphorism—that ‘men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past’ (Marx, 1973b [1869]: 146). Outlining a theory in which individual action could be analysed and located within a wider conception of the social structure and its development was the purpose of historical materialism, and what follows tries to outline some of its central tenets.

Marx’s preferred method of analysis, as suggested in the Grundrisse, was one of ‘rising from the abstract to the concrete,’ of developing concepts which could be used deductively to analyse empirical events (Marx, 1973a [1857-8]: 100f.). It was this understanding, for example, that enabled Max Weber to talk of the heuristic value of historical materialism as a set of analytical tools when outlining his own constructions of an ‘ideal-type’ methodology. Far from being a rigidly deterministic analytical method, it was precisely Marx’s claim in Capital that social formations are irreducibly complex, but that their inner structures can be unmasked with the application of a correct method. Theoretical analysis enables an understanding of the ‘rich totality of many determinations and relations’ brought together in any particular social structure (Marx, 1973b [1857-8]: 100). In itself this also builds on elements of his discussion of the masking function of ideology. For just as ideology masks the real relationship between surface appearance and the true essence of the subject under investigation—most notably apparent in Marx’s discussion of the ‘fetishism’ of the commodity under capitalism so too does empirical history only describe, rather than explain, the inner workings of society (see Marx, 1976a [1867]: 163-177). Hence, there can be no understanding without theory, without what Derek Sayer (1987) has referred to, paraphrasing Marx, as the ‘violence of abstraction.’

For Marx, labour represents the defining attribute of humankind, and production through labour distinguishes human beings from other animals. Social being determines consciousness, and not the other way around, and because labour is a co-operative activity, human beings are, by nature, social animals. Furthermore, Marx’s focus on the ‘value’ associated with human labour—crucial to his analysis of ‘use’ and ‘exchange’ value in Capital as well as underpinning his critique of political economy, illustrated his perennial fascination with Aristotle (cf. Marx, 1976a [1867]: 151f;. see also DeGolyer, 1992: 141; Tribe, 1978: Ch. 6). A concern with the relationship between economic exchange and political equality or justice conjoins both writers. In fact, Marx’s most developed work immediately subsequent to his critique of Hegel, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, made clear two crucial themes that flowed from this concern. One was the alienation of man from his ‘true’ self under a society divided along class lines, and the other, a corollary of the former argument, was that man’s individuality could only be realized under a just political regime (see Brudney, 2001: 364-94; Mészáros, 1975). In a mixture of Hegelian, Aristotelian and also diffuse Romantic themes, Marx outlined a vision of individual self-realization that remained impeded by the general alienation attendant upon all class-divided societies, and in so doing he outlined a radically anti-individualist theory—communism. Equally, this romantic heritage—which also informed his critique of the Historical School mentioned earlier—underscored the importance of historical and contextual specificity, alongside the relevance of tradition, for his discussions of historical development (see Levin, 1974: esp. 406ff.).

More obviously, Marx developed in a particular way the stagist vision of historical development outlined by luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith. Indeed, if one wanted to read into Marx a particularly evolutionary account of historical progress, one might well apply the same terms as the late Duncan Forbes (1953-4) suggested for understanding the historical theories of Smith and John Millar that of ‘scientific Whiggism.’ As Lisa Hill has very recently suggested, Ferguson’s approach to the study of civil society

shares much in common with dialectic (Marxian) conflict theory. To begin with, both models see social change as evolutionary and as an ‘ascensional spiral towards progress.’ Secondly the dialectical notion of evolution assumes that a ‘given state of the social system presupposes all previous states, and hence, contains them, if only in residual or modified form.’ Finally, both are fundamentally equilibrium models. (Hill, 2001: 292, and quoting Ferguson, 1967 [1767]: 10-11)

The theory of the four stages of human development in the broad social theory of the Scottish Enlightenment—hunter gathering, shepherding, agriculture and commerce—were distinguished by the particular technologies on which they were based, each surpassing and encompassing the benefits of the last. Marx’s preferred historical schema concerned distinct ‘modes of production’ (Asiatic, ancient, feudal and bourgeois capitalist), which are to be distinguished by the particular social relations they engender. Thus, any given ‘mode of production’ combines a different level of development of the productive forces—labour power and the material means of production on the one hand, with a specific set of production relations, on the other. Marx’s account of the nature of productive forces therefore encompasses claims about both human nature and technological development. However, recognizing the concrete labour process underpinning the development of the forces of production is only half of the discussion—and this was the point of his criticisms of classical economists such as Smith and David Ricardo. For Marx simultaneously claimed that the real ‘laws of motion’ of capitalist society in particular, but of any society in general, can be understood by examining social relations of production.

These social relations of production relate to practical or effective (not necessarily legal or juridical) control over the means or forces of production, so that the specific connection between forces and relations of production at any one time is what is distinctive about particular epochs. In itself, this is a consequence of constantly evolving adaptations in the division of labour in society—a general feature of historical development. Hence, distinguishing between owners of the means of production and the labour on which production is based (a reflection of the evolution of the division of labour) suggests that all hitherto existing modes of production have rested on exploitation. The division of labour, which began with the family unit, has culminated in contemporary class antagonisms. Capitalism, therefore, is simply the most developed form of this general movement, illustrated by the division between capital and labour. The general principle—that the division of labour corresponds to a division of ownership—nevertheless remains just the same. It is here, moreover, that Marx’s earlier discussion of the proletariat as the ‘universal class’ takes centre-stage. Because class and class struggles are the material expressions (or reflections) of inherently exploitative social structures, it is the relationship between exploitation, class struggle and the resolution of these struggles which forms the basis for Marx’s account of historical progression.

There have been numerous debates about the status of ‘class’ in Marx’s writings. On the one hand, class appears to be an ‘objective’ relationship, understandable in terms of one’s position within the overall relations of production. On the other hand, consciousness of one’s class position does not necessarily flow from this, and nor therefore does political action. This fact has allowed classical historians such as Geoffrey de Ste Croix to suggest that ‘class’ is a critical analytical tool for understanding ancient society, although instances of ‘class-conscious’ revolts and uprisings were hardly a common feature of the ancient Greek world. Thus, class is a relationship of exploitation that can be understood ‘objectively,’ and yet it does not require active consciousness of its existence to nevertheless remain present. Clearly, class is more than the epiphenomenon of an economic base (cf. de Ste Croix, 1981; Thompson, 1963).

The suggestion that class struggle and its temporary resolution is the motor of human history was not a theme newly discovered by Marx—the famous opening lines of the Communist Manifesto could have been drawn almost verbatim from the works of Guizot, for instance (see Siedentop, 1979). What Marx claimed originality for was the argument that the very existence of classes ‘is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production,’ and that the class struggle will ‘necessarily lead to the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Even more specifically, this dictatorship would itself be a way station on the path to a classless society (Marx, 1983 [1852]: pp. 38-9). Therefore, what is peculiar to modern capitalist society is the particular structure of its class divisions—between workers who have only their labour power to sell as a commodity, and capitalist owners of the means of production who extract surplus value from the worker as profit. Moreover, the particular character of the interrelationships between class, exploitation and historical development were made clear, for instance, in the famous passage of the third volume of Capital where Marx wrote that:

The specific form, in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of direct producers, determines the relationship of rulers and ruled, as it grows directly out of production itself and, in turn, reacts upon it as a determining element. Upon this, however, is founded the formation of the economic community which grows out of the production relations themselves, thereby simultaneously its specific political form. It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers—a relationship always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labour and thereby its social productivity—which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire structure, and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state. (1976b [1894]: 927)

This outline offers a particularly sophisticated gloss on what is usually seen as Marx’s crude or mechanical conception of the relationship between the forces and relations of production, reflected in a one-to-one relationship between an ‘economic’ base, on the one hand, and a legal-political ‘superstructure,’ on the other. For example, ‘the sum total of production relations,’ according to Cohen, represents the economic base. The legal and political superstructure, therefore, refers to those ‘non-economic structures’ whose character is ‘explained by the nature of the economic structure,’ and which are seen as functional for the maintenance or stabilization of the economic base (Cohen, 1978: 216). This seems to me to be an overly restrictive reading, underpinned by the Primacy Thesis, and it masks the very real historical contingencies allowed for in Marx’s own writings.

In fact, more recent theorists have explicitly rejected the necessarily evolutionary account of historical progress that defence of the Primacy Thesis supports. In so doing, historical materialism has been redefined as a theory of ‘historical trajectories,’ supporting the weaker claim that ‘there is a directionality to historical change.’ Yet this directionality does not necessarily imply ‘a unique path and sequence of development’ (Wright, et al., 1992: 79). The distinction between forces and relations of production, mirroring somewhat the distinction between base and superstructure, is therefore perhaps best thought of as an analytical or heuristic distinction, based on the specific property relations of a particular mode of production. This is how Marx distinguished between an ‘Asiatic’ mode, for example, where property and political coercion were controlled by the same political authority, and a ‘feudal’ mode, where economic rent or surplus was not produced through an economic relationship, but took the form of the ‘extra-economic coercion’ of the labourer by the lord. In the former, ‘direct producers are not confronted by a private landowner,’ but are ‘under direct subordination to a state which stands over them as their landlord and simultaneously as sovereign’ (Marx, 1976b [1894]: 791; see also Rigby, 1998). Under the latter mode, as contemporary Marxist historian Robert Brenner (1989) has elaborated, ‘direct producers’ had immediate access to their means of subsistence. As a result of this, feudal lords and other members of the ‘exploiting’ classes obtained their own surplus value not through economic coercion, but through ‘extra-economic’—that is, political coercion.

According to Brenner, the decline of serfdom in England confirmed Marx’s account of the importance of ‘primitive accumulation’ and the ‘fettering’ of productive forces by production relations, though it simultaneously stymies the validity of the idea of a ‘bourgeois revolution’ in the transition from feudalism to capitalism (1989: 295). English capitalism was fundamentally agrarian, argues Brenner, and only in England did land, labour and capital develop in a manner conducive to the promotion of capitalist relations of production. This is perhaps somewhat ironic, given the critically important position Brenner now ascribes to entrepreneurial merchants in the rise of capitalism (cf. Anderson, 1993; Brenner, 1993). The point remains, however, that distinguishing between different relations of production allows Marx to pinpoint the arena in which exploitation takes place, and therefore permits a differentiation of historical periods. The particular form in which surplus value is extracted under capitalism reflects, then, the separation of the ‘economic’ from the ‘political’ spheres, previously bound together under the feudal mode of production. But although the feudal mode led to circumstances in which capitalism could develop, much recent work has shown that the political structures that policed feudalism in the West were less sophisticated than many of the so-called ‘Asiatic’ states. The ‘uniqueness of the East’ was exemplified by what several scholars have termed a ‘tributary’ mode of production (Wickham, 1985: 166-96).

As the innumerable debates about the transition from feudalism to capitalism in particular make clear, there is neither agreement about Marx’s own position, nor is there any linear progression in his historical vision (see Hilton, 1976; Hobsbawm, 1974). Because of this, although critics from Max Weber onwards have gratefully acknowledged the utility of the framework, they have often (unlike Weber) understood Marx mechanically. But to read into historical materialism a crude explanation of change in terms of the relationship between production, ownership and class would be grossly unfair. As Philip Abrams suggested, the problem of historical materialism is ‘not that it too crudely explains all historical events and developments’ in these terms, but rather ‘that it makes such generous provision for the mediation of those influences by political, cultural and ideological factors that the causal connections between economic relationships and historical change become extremely difficult to trace’ (1989: 49). This means that rather than disavowing ‘ideational’ factors, as numerous neo-Weberian detractors have suggested, Marx’s method placed a great emphasis on ‘ideological influences, of belief, perception and ideas’ (1989: 49-50). It should therefore be viewed not as a deterministic science, but rather—as contemporary reformulations have made clear—a particular interpretation of history based on developmental trajectories. Some of the further developments of Marx’s ideas and Marxist historical sociology are taken up in other chapters in this volume. Here, though, it might be helpful to present some of Marx’s most obvious practical contributions to historical sociology, to shed light on how his own historical and social theory could effectively be put into practice. Before doing so, however, it seems appropriate to show that Marx, rather than deciding a priori that particular modes of production were set in stone, was always eager to develop his own account of historical materialism in the light of new research. And by looking at the impact of anthropology on his later writings, we can see this quite clearly.

Historical Anthropology, Historical Sociology

In his later writings after Capital, Marx’s interests reflected more clearly the impact of the developing science of anthropology. However, in his notes and critiques of ‘bourgeois’ anthropology, there are clear traces of both his earlier attempts to make sense of the inadequacies of the Historical School of Law, on the one hand, and more broad-brush theories of sociohistorical transformation, on the other. Thus, in this final substantive section of the chapter, I would like to point out some of the issues involved in Marx’s thinking about anthropology. This permits us one more context with which to foreground some of Marx’s more practical illustrations of historical sociology, in particular his noted writings on post revolutionary France.

Whilst studying law at Berlin, Marx undertook a course in anthropology within the degree scheme. Yet, although the interest remained, it was only towards the end of his life, after numerous political setbacks, that Marx turned towards the study of anthropology in the same systematic manner that he had approached Capital. The writings of Henry Sumner Maine, for example, and his famous discussion ofAncient Law in 1861, which outlined the development of modern society as a movement from ‘status to contract,’ were particularly important. Equally so was Lewis Henry Morgan’s Ancient Society of 1877. The chance to weave anthropological themes into his more general social and historical theory, particularly in regard to the ancient world, was irresistible to Marx. And although his work remained uncompleted—a typical pattern, rectified by abridged and more didactic accounts offered later by Friedrich Engels—enough remains to illustrate some central themes of Marx’s historical sociology.

Having already outlined Marx’s critique of Hugo, it only needs to be added here that for Marx, Hugo’s philosophical anthropology could be boiled down to the idea that the ‘sole distinguishing feature of man is his animal nature.’ This, Marx argued, served further to justify existing forms of power as ‘animal law’ (Kelley, 1984: 253). Marx’s own contention, on the other hand, was that only ‘positive’ historical research could inform us of the true nature of institutions, rather than relying on any preinscribed notion of man’s ‘animal nature.’ In this context, his prior attribution of importance to the division of labour (property) within the family—as an early instance of exploitation—was one of the main areas in which anthropology informed his discussions after Capital. As Kelley (1984) suggests, the anthropological development of the idea of ‘primitive communism’ was central to Marx’s rethinking of the question of the origins of private property. Indeed, the concept of primitive communism had already received notable formulations by Georg von Mauerer, for example, in discussions about Germany’s past in general, and the importance of village communities (Markgenossenschaft) and guilds in particular, whose structures were early illustrations of free political communities (see Black 1984; von Mauerer, 1854).

Marx elaborated on these accounts to suggest that the ‘universal historical process’ began with a primitive, communalist phase of development (Kelley, 1984: 255). Indeed, primitive communalism, according to Marx and Engels, was the precursor of feudalism or ‘estate property,’ which itself preceded the full development of private property relations under capitalism. Similar to the way that Otto von Gierke’s discussion of the post-imperial communities as exemplary Germanic associations (Genossenschaften) has been characterized as a form of ‘juristic socialism,’ Marx’s vision was one in which an original collective society could be seen as the earliest instance of an organized political community.

This did not mean, however, that all forms of discussions about the ‘village community,’ for example, were to be accepted as worthwhile. Maine’s seminal discussions of these issues, for example, were ridiculed by Marx for attempting to ‘project the English, perhaps the Victorian, family into prehistory’ (see Kelley, 1984: 256; cf. Burrow, 1974). Marx was equally critical of Freeman and Stubbs, whom he brusquely chastised. He was much more favourable towards the work of Morgan, particularly Ancient Society, though he was probably also aware of Morgan’s earlier discussion of consanguinity. Indeed, Marx’s notes on Morgan famously made their way in considerable detail into Engels’s book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State of 1884. For example, Marx was considerably taken with Morgan’s account of human progress onwards from savagery and barbarism, which could be uncovered through the analysis of customs and traditions, for example. Moreover, property and the desire for property were recognized as a principal rationale behind human progress towards civilization. Read backwards, then, a focus on common material interests—underpinned by kinship and familial relationships—could be said to lie behind a historical materialism applied to the period of pre-history.

By concentrating on the understanding of clans, families and tribes, Marx developed an account of primitive or primordial society out of which ‘political’ society developed, pointing out social units—‘Aryan, Semitic and Uranian’—based on blood ties, and the relatively late development of the ‘monogamous bourgeois family’ (Kelley, 1984: 259f.). Such a focus had particular implications for Marx’s understanding of those peoples outside of mainstream Western civilization, such as Australian Aborigines, and was related to the idea, common to much nineteenth-century political and social theory, of native savages and peoples ‘without history.’ Equally, however, these concerns also impacted on Marx’s analysis of the Highland Clearances, and the importance of ‘primitive communism’ in Scotland (for the complex details, see Davidson, 2001), just as much as they did for his discussions of modern India and the relationship between colonialism and capitalist ‘progress.’ Indeed, by outlining the challenge of capitalist development for a traditional society in the north of Scotland, in fact, Marx’s analysis could be fruitfully compared with Weber’s much more systematic study of the condition of the Instleute east of the Elbe, for example (see Löwy, 1993; Tribe, 1984).

Marx read about Australian Aborigines and their social organization in Morgan’s Ancient Society. The interest can be traced to an earlier period though, when, shortly out of university, both Marx and Engels read the second 1803 edition of Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. Both men imbibed Malthus’s reliance on some ideas from Smith. And although they savaged his arguments about over-population, they would have been aware of Malthus’s use of particular enthnographic and anthropological observations, drawn from such voyages as those of Cook to New South Wales towards the end of the eighteenth century, concerning non-Western indigenous peoples. Yet, despite other anthropological sources being available, the account offered in the Essay on the Principle of Population helped set the tone for much contemporary discussion of primitive man—with a poor diet, bizarre marriage practices such as polygamy, constantly at war with other tribes, subject to illness and uneducated. However, as Matthew Spriggs suggests, the notebooks on the Australian Aborigines compiled by Marx and based on Morgan primarily focused on marriage patterns and accounts of inter-group relationships, and were used to bolster his evolutionary account of the origins of human institutions (Spriggs, 1997: 207).

Equally, although the idea of the ignoble savage was a common European trope, writers with whom Marx was certainly familiar, such as Ferguson, Smith and other members of the Scottish Historical School, shared the idea that primitive social ‘ranks’ predated the emergence of private property (see Berry, 1997: 100). By outlining the importance of marriage practices in particular, therefore, Morgan provided a baseline from which studies about ‘humanity’ and the rise of civilization could build on, to offer, that is, an account of the development of different forms of political community. However, grand nineteenth-century theories of development—of which Marx’s historical materialism was clearly a part—did not only build on certain contemporary anthropological ‘advances’ to outline a theory of the ‘stages’ of human progress.

A clear distinction was often drawn, to return to the previous discussion, between political and prepolitical, or primordial, societies, and an ideal of ‘community’ (Gemeinschaft) outlined that could then be opposed to a contemporary capitalist state based on alienation and exploitation. This is the typical format of the ‘status to contract,’ Gemeinschaft versus Gesellschaft, and modernization theoretical approaches to understanding the historical transition to modern society. Yet, as Patricia Springborg makes clear (1986: 186), for most nineteenth-century theorists, Marx included, the veritable ideal of community that was defended was not the primordial society of either village-community or that of the ‘noble savage.’ Instead, it was the Athenian communal polis that was considered to be the most elegant and enduring expression of the virtues of political community.

This is surprising, because, as Marx recognized, the polis was clearly a social institution based on the ‘twin principles of kinship and landed property.’ Underpinned by a distinction between the role of the family or clan and that of the state, this gave rise to a distinctive interrelationship between private and communal property in the form of the urban city-state. And by bringing together communal and private property in this way, the polis was a unique political form, a development away from primordial—and by further implication, ‘oriental’ society—and it was a communal model to be cherished and aspired to. The surprise is that Marx should so highly esteem a society based on property relations, as opposed to idealizing a vision of the allegedly prepolitical, primordial society. Furthermore, as Springborg writes, Marx developed his arguments on the basis of two conflicting and indeed incorrect (in the light of subsequent research) assumptions.

First, influenced by Morgan, Marx was in later life won over to the view that classical antiquity was a form of primordial community, one based principally on clan (gens) membership. Springborg suggests that it was the genetic nineteenth-century concern with social progress that blinded Marx to the implications of a simple fact that he had in fact much earlier recognized—that the ancient Greek (pre-polis) clans and families were inherently political, not primordial, in structure (Springborg, 1986: 191, 194). Denying this certainly had implications for Marx’s otherwise broadly Aristotelian view of the importance of the interconnections between families that were the very substance of the polis. For these various clans and households (oikoi), which, together in partnership, were the units of the independent and autarchic city-state or polis, devoted to friendship (understood contractually) and good living (see Aristotle, 2000: Book 8). To defend the polis was therefore to defend what was thought of as a modern communal existence simultaneously more advanced than primordial or ‘oriental’ cities, and yet more urban and closely connected than the other major instance of communal organization focused upon by Marx, the Germanic tribes. However, underpinning this communal organization were those selfsame contractual and hence ‘political’ units of families and households. There appears to be a double bind here.

The second of Marx’s misapprehensions, Springborg suggests (1986: 192), can be seen thanks to modern archaeological evidence. This shows that the Mediterranean and Eastern cities that Marx also classified as primordial, and which did not develop into forms similar to the Greek poleis, were, in fact, highly sophisticated and contractually linked social structures. In this, their existence was not at all unlike that of the Athenian city-state so exalted by Marx and others. Further, there are clear implications here for the entire debate about the origins of capitalism out of a feudal mode of production in the West, which somehow managed to entrench favourable conditions whereas the more advanced and sophisticated urban trading centres of the Mediterranean and the East did not.

Historically, Springborg continues (1986: 202-3), the idea of an original Gemeinschaft was itself misplaced, and the examples provided as evidence of such Gemeinschäften were themselves misleading. The point remains, though, that such debates about the origins of ‘community’ had very specific implications for how one might conceive of the emergence of political society. For out of these origins, one could then suggest more broadly both why and how political historical change might occur, naturally leading to an explanation of the rise and fall of particular modes of production according to the development of relations of production based on property. If modern anthropological insights challenged Marx to rethink elements of his historical schema to incorporate new data, the overall structure remained intact, with the basic triangulation of exploitation, class struggle and mode of production. To conclude this part of the chapter, though, it might be useful briefly to illustrate some aspects of Marx’s own historical sociology; that is to say, to outline his own written reflections on direct political events, underpinned by this overarching schema, in order to show how he might have envisaged a broader-scale application of his theory. For as Kelley suggests (1984: 261), even if Marx is interpreted as focusing excessively on class or economic issues, the import of his writings on anthropology surely gives grounds for the argument that Marx himself saw his thinking in much broader terms than these anyway. That such a movement was not only a product of his interest in anthropology, however, was clear in his own illustrations of historical sociological analysis, which clearly show an awareness of the myriad relationships between ideas, action and social relations of production.

In his obvious works of historical sociology, and in particular his writings on France after 1848, as Abrams argues (1989: 50), Marx deftly moved between two levels of analysis-political, and sociohistorical or structural. His was historical sociology with a polemical purpose. In his discussion of Louis Bonaparte’s coup d’état of 1851, ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,’ this comes through particularly clearly, and disavows any notion of a rigid or deterministic analysis. The structure of the piece is very well known, and focuses to a large extent on the social preconditions for Bonaparte’s ‘rise’ to power. What is particularly interesting for its utility as an illustration of historical sociological writing is the way in which the general narrative of events is underpinned by a specific analysis of the myriad social forces that were balanced, in Marx’s eyes, by Bonaparte. Indeed, this precarious pacification and incorporation of many antagonistic social groups (particularly the peasantry) and various ‘fractions’ of capital in particular gave rise to modern, social scientific understandings of Bonapartism, which have themselves been enormously influential in many later Marxist analyses of fascism, for example (see Beetham, 1974). Marx’s analysis shows how the ‘knavishly naïve’ Bonaparte gathered up all the seething discontent with the contemporary republic, presenting himself as the true embodiment of the national interest. In his discussion, we find no explicit discussion of relations of production altering according to evolutionary or functional criteria. There is, however, a clear awareness of the direct relationship between class-consciousness, political development and the opposing interests of the working class, on the one hand, and the interests of the bourgeoisie, on the other, which is simply the conflict between capital and labour (see Marx, 1973b [1869]: 189f.). Thus, only when a particular mode of production becomes more fully developed do the antagonisms between classes within it become clearly apparent to the members of those exploited classes, and in so doing this provides, at least in theory, the necessary conditions for the progression to another type of regime through active struggle.

Overall, therefore, Marx combines an analysis of the interplay of high (and low) political drama alongside sociopolitical transformations, from within a wider framework focusing on social relations of production. This is how his focus on political intrigue is grounded in terms of the balance of class forces at a particular moment, so that the argument is implicitly linked to a wider theory of historical sociology, concerning the importance of relations of production and exploitation with social transformation. Moreover, and as an aside, Marx’s ideas about the balance of forces in this argument did not necessarily come from a priori theoretical preferences. In his journalistic writings on England, for example, which both informed and developed his account of such French political intrigue, Marx produced an analysis of Victorian society from ‘indigenous conceptions of class and politics’ (Taylor, 1996: 228). Moreover, there was a clear interplay between domestic English concerns and the analysis of a French Bonaparte, as Miles Taylor (1996) has argued. A fortnight before Marx outlined his own account, in the English press—Punch and the Examiner the idea of Bonaparte as ‘accomplishing his 18th Brumaire’ had been presented in easily available formats that Marx would certainly have consulted. Similarly, influenced by the Chartist press domestically, Marx quickly came to ascribe political economic positions to the English Whigs, for example, as the ‘advocati’ of the bourgeoisie, whose ascendancy was surely in decline and who stood in opposition to both free-traders and the rising middle classes. The radical republicanism of Marx’s earlier youth seems to have reconnected here with the demands of the Red Republican and Notes to the People. The point, though, is simply that Marx’s own historical sociology, as evidenced most clearly through his extended journalism (although obviously in evidence in The German Ideology), depended upon an awareness of national and local specificity, which could be incorporated into a wider theory of historical change. The subtlety of his own writing clearly shows that this is not best understood as a one-dimensional and mechanical set of correspondences.


Against those who criticize what we might, somewhat tenuously, call the middle-period Marx associated with ‘scientific’ historical materialism, by examining some of the contexts and illustrations of his writings, a better appreciation of the overall range, depth and concern for historical context in his historical sociology is at least possible. By so doing, it is to be hoped that perhaps the resources necessary to rescue Marx, should he need it, from what E.P. Thompson famously called the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ might be more clearly visible. For the impact of Marx on the subsequent development of historical sociology has been profound, and yet his own account of historical sociology is today routinely criticized for its lack of attention to historical contingency. In particular, his theories have been severely challenged by the raft of studies that have recently appeared, inspired more by Weber and his ‘ideal-type’ methodology, and focusing on social evolution and the concept of power, for example. The contemporary predominance of neo-Weberian historical sociology, though, seems to have been brought about somewhat at Marx’s expense when it in fact need not have been. Much contemporary social theory has in fact recognized that there is not so great a distance between the two writers as there might at first glance appear to be. Indeed, the idea of having to ‘choose’ between them represents a really rather unnecessary intellectual imposition (see Sayer, 1992).

As Weber himself recognized, there is much of value in historical materialism understood as a set of analytical tools, or theories, which empirical research can test and modify as desired. Moreover, there is nothing necessarily deterministic in Marx’s writings if he is read as a theorist of historical trajectories that have a weak tendency towards progressive development. Indeed, this is how most writers implement in practice what they see as a Weberian research strategy, with many neo-Marxist and neo-Weberian works of historical sociology in fact displaying marked signs of convergence, rather than divergence, even if this convergence is often vigorously denied (see Callinicos, 1995; cf. Kelly, 2000). Of course, to apply the term ‘Weberian’ to so much of contemporary historical sociology is to rely on a particular understanding of what Weber was actually trying to do in his own ‘methodological’ writings. And like Marx, Weber’s methodological strictures had very little to do with any conception of interpretative neutrality (Hennis, 2000a, 2000b). Nevertheless, as many of the chapters in this book illustrate, the range and scope of a historical sociology that builds on the insights of Max Weber in particular is potentially extraordinary. Equally, however, in so doing, it is necessary that the very real strengths of Marx—strengths that Weber well knew—as an exponent and theorist of historical sociology in his own right are not completely forgotten.