Marx: The Historian who Ignited History
Marx was not an academic historian, nor was historical writing his predominant intellectual work. But as often happens, the demands of his revolutionary politics required interventions in the field of history. So, while Engels’ historical writings on the family and the history of Christianity are better known, Marx also produced historical volumes. Unlike academic history, the audience for books like The Civil War in France and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte were largely workers and intellectuals involved in political struggle. Unconcerned with the demands of the academic market, they not only depict history but they ignite it. By this I don’t mean that they’re merely instrumental or propagandistic, but that they articulate the events of the past as having concrete demands on the workers’ parties of the present. The failures and brilliant successes of the Commune as recounted in The Civil War in France were still fresh when Marx was writing, and the book has something of the journalistic flair to it. But the sense I got from reading this address to the International was that Marx was reporting a fantastic scientific discovery.
Historical materialism, as a revolutionary and scientific approach to history, sees every event weighted with an instructive significance, every historical moment as shedding light on the development of society according to certain laws. Walter Benjamin talks about materialist historians as seizing hold of memories at critical moments.¹ That principle animates the discipline of history more than dry adherence to the sources, necessary as the latter might be. What Marx does in The Civil War in France is to take what from above seemed like a minor detour in the wider Franco-Prussian War and show that it is the true experimental breakthrough. It is the first experiment in proletarian dictatorship, which has far more prophetic and historical weight than yet another clash between monarchs, even if that war has been one of the most total in European history. Even while the war machines of the European capitalist states flexed their muscles as never before, Marx zeroes in on those fragile months of Communard rule in Paris as a sign of the irrevocable decay of capitalist power.² The Commune was only the leading edge of a much larger wave. Looking from the present, we might despair or laugh ironically at such a statement; every subsequent dictatorship of the proletariat, small or large, has succumbed or collapsed in the face of imperialist pressure.
At the same time, where Marx could look to the Commune as a few months of proletarian rule and foresee a potential far greater emerging, we have the luxury of seeing far larger and grander experiments in China, the USSR, Albania, and elsewhere. Part of what I hope to do as a historian is to disrupt the narrative of the victors. That story is that history, as Ford had it, “is bunk.” All we have to look forward to is larger and faster cycles of crisis, reckless expansion, and crisis that characterize capitalism. Yet we’ve seen those rhythms frozen in 1917, petrified in the Cultural Revolution, reduced, for a few years, to the sad statue it really is.
What’s strange in all of this is that Marx is quick to emphasize the “accidental” character of history, the importance of understanding time outside of a crude teleology. In a letter to a physician involved in the International, Marx argues that if there were no accidents we could just wait and gather strength until times were the most fortuitous.³ Unfortunately, the truth is that revolution requires daring and even heroism––though not in the individualistic sense. A scientific view of history requires us not to wait for history to present itself in a perfect way, but rather to intervene and change history in the favour of the working class. The many, many scholars who regard Marx as a theoretician of history as an “economic machine” should be confounded by The Civil War in France. It portrays history as guided by laws but those laws are derived from class struggle, which has more than enough of an “accidental” character to deflect the temptations of teleology.
1. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York: Schocken Books, 1998), 255.
2. Karl Marx, The Civil War in France. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm
3. Karl Marx, “Letters to Ludwig Kugelmann in Hannover.” https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/letters/71_04_17.htm