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The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

Can this be the case only after The Communist Manifesto?

Could - in principle - Marx have changed "history" - the thing and not the term - to the extent that what is the case before the manifesto (that without class struggle there would be no society) was not the case before the manifesto?

Not interested in if you think he was right or if past events can change, only if "history" might.

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  • Yes I know @armand saying "you could have made that mistake" I don't think answer the question at all, not if I am well aware of it. Besides which, you answered the wrong question: whether or not it is the case marx did that, rather than whether or not history works that way. Anyway, there is a ruling class.
    – user66697
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 12:54
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    that's why i made it a comment. If you are aware that class struggle did not start with the publication of the communist manifesto and that your question is completely pointless, why post it? At least it needs some editing, because as such it pretty much answers itself.
    – armand
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 12:57
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    Of course there was class struggle throughout history. It's human nature to envy and resent someone who has more wealth and power than you or who rules over you, and to try to improve your status. It's also human nature to try to rule over others and take the fruit of their labor. Serfs and slaves weren't particularly happy with their condition, and occasionally led peasant revolts. Although, to say history is the history of class struggle is to emphasize a single aspect of history. We could also say that history is the history of agriculture, or history is the history of warfare.
    – causative
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 13:39
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    Marx's was a theoru, i e. A model an interpretation of human history. Like every theory it is not "absolutely" true but it may be applied to understand facts (historical, in this case) and to predict new ones. In this respect (prediction) it was quite unsuccessful. Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 16:08
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    There's no inherent time linearity in human social relations. But opinions of different times may not apply to different times.
    – mavavilj
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 10:50

6 Answers 6

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Marx himself hooked Marxism to Science. He referred to it as science, and used it as science.

He claimed that "class struggle" was in fact the reality of history, just as Kepler's laws of motion described how the planets moved when people believed the Ptolemaic system, when people believed that the sun and the moon were chariots being driven over a flat earth, when incurious monkeys or dinosaurs or lungfish did their thing without troubling their minds about the planets. (So that Halley could use past observations to predict the return of Halley's Comet.)

His own claim was that it did not change history.

However, just as Halley could make his prediction based on correctly analyzing past data, historians (Marx claimed) could correctly analyze history for the first time by seeing it as class struggle.

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  • I think this is the best answer.
    – user66697
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 10:13
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    Just to add, Marx's claims about the "science" of historical materialism may seem today misguided. But it was something of a paradigm shift, in Kuhn's terms, and does provide categories and dynamics that help illuminate historical change. As you may know, Popper provided a very influential definition of "science" that distinguished "hard sciences" from Marxism and Freudianism on the basis of "falsifiability." In social sciences, it is too easy to revise the hypothesis to avoid definitive falsification. Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 13:51
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He was wrong. He was applying a lense, to pick out only one aspect of history.

For instance, you can see a history of technology, which while it may be related to class struggle, is it's own record. Or a single persons story. The past is all the layers, all the possible narratives and topics of focus we could extract. We can go to it with different questions, and look for guidance for our times, on whatever topic puzzles or absorbs us.

The Manifesto is a pamphlet, to popularise a fragment of the ideas to ordinary workers. The work he considered to reorganise our understanding of history, is Capital.

Marx's 'hitherto' points towards his hope, that by recognising class struggle as the driver of history, we can go beyond it, to utopia. That there is a place beyond struggling against each other, where we struggle together for a common goal.

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  • the genesis of "historical materialism" was not limited to Das Kapital and i'm sure Marx was aware of that? The 1859 preface does not include that phrase
    – user66697
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 10:24
  • "The expression “historical materialism” was first used by G. V. Plekhanov, the “father” of Russian Marxism, to indicate the social theory of Marxism."
    – user66697
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 10:26
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Your question is rather muddled, but I will try to address it at face value.

Marx claimed that all existing societies have a history of class struggle, so yes, if that claim was wrong, Marx would have been wrong to make it. If you are asking whether all existing societies have a history of class struggle, then it seems to me pretty clear that there have been class struggles in most of Western Europe- which probably covers most of what Marx had in mind at the time- and that there have been class struggles elsewhere. Whether the claim is true of all societies is harder (for me) to say, as there are many societies with which I am completely unfamiliar.

When you go on to ask whether Marx could have changed the history before him, you lose me completely, as I have no idea how you could expect history to be changed. Unless you mean, could Marx have taken a different interpretation of history, in which case the answer is possibly.

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I don't think that the difference in tense between "is" and "was" modulo a manifesto's publication, could be all that powerful. "History is" and "history was" are odd to compare, granted, since sometimes it is thought that objects in the past don't exist now but did exist then, perhaps there is room for speaking of the past itself (from the outside?) becoming something new, even though its contents are either the same or are in some way "nothing."

At any rate, I'd look into temporal logic, esp. tense logic, as well as things like McTaggart's emphasis on different temporal frameworks to get at the philosophical (im)possibilities underlying your question (or what I interpret your question to be).

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    "Time is. Time was. Time is past." - the brazen head, to Roger Bacon & Thomas Bungay
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 5, 2023 at 21:46
  • Not that helpful. In effect you are saying it's not how we normally think of time.
    – user66697
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 10:05
  • That's a well remembered quote @CriglCragl sorry if I seem like I don't respect you enough. It's just cynicism.
    – user66697
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 10:15
  • @user66697: I reference it also because it's a story about events that doubtless didn't happen, but the story became part of history. Plus changing tenses
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 11:06
  • yeah, it's clever thanks @CriglCragl
    – user66697
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 11:13
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Firstly, it has to be pointed out that the Communist Manifesto is not a summary of developed Marxism, but rather an early exposition of the theory that Marx and Engels planned to develop. Indeed, at the time of the publication they were respectively 30 and 28 years old. Moreover, the publication preceded by a few months the first real test of their theories in the 1848 European revolutions (and it didn't go as planned.)

Later Marx and Marxists tried to support their claims about social evolution by examining past history - mostly European one (the Asian mode of production is known to pose problems, which led, e.g., to significant revisions of Marxism by Mao.) In this sense, they tried to undertake work similar to those who study biological evolution... with the important caveat that the evolutionary biologists do not pretend to be able to predict future. In fact, modern evolutionary theory does not even claim that the future can be determined by the conditions that impose natural selection (as Darwin claimed, and which is where Marx borrowed his idea of evolutionary determinism), but is mostly determined by many random factors.

Thus, I would claim rather the opposite to what the OP says: Marxism can serve as a framework for interpreting the past history, but it doesn't tell us anything about the future.

Moreover, it would be erroneous to even put Marxism alongside biological evolution, as if it were a real science. More specifically:

  • We cannot test Marxism in a laboratory setting to check validity of its basic principles - which we routinely do in genetics when studying inheritance (Mendel laws) or observing many generations of evolution of bacteria, viruses, insects or small animals.
  • Marxist theory is simplistic, reducing everything to economic factors - pretty much like Freudian psychoanalysis reduces everything to libido and thanatos. Although Freud can be claimed to be the father of modern psychology, very few nowadays take him literally.
  • Marxism does not make testable predictions about future: one could claim that failure of many Communist regimes or the absence of a revolution in developed Capitalist societies could serve as disproving Marxist predictions. However these data are always dismissed as incorrect version of Marxism - the theory is either modified to match the desired situation (practice that Marx would probably oppose himself) or one engages in hair-splitting by analyzing minute differences between Marx and his followers or claiming that we should look only at Marx but not Engels, or even only at early Marx, etc.
  • Knowledgeable people have proposed alternative theories, arguably more grounded in empirical data than Marxism - notably the Circulation of Elites theory by Vilfredo Pareto, which is pretty similar to Marxism, but postulates struggle between elites, rather than classes and predicts that this struggle would continue indefinitely. In somewhat different form the Elite theory has been a mainstream in American political science, and explicit studies have been performed to test it. It is such studies that are reported, when we hear about the outsized political influence by "the rich" or by the long-standing political families.

For more detailed critique of Marxism see also this answer.

References:

  • Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto
  • Peter Worsley, Marx and Marxism
  • Isaiah Berlin, Karl Marx: His Life and Environment Book by Isaiah Berlin
  • David McLellan, Marxism after Marx
  • G.D.H. Cole, A History of Socialist Thought
  • David Walker and Daniel Grey, Historical dictionary of Marxism
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  • Thank you for your answer, though I believe I found it as confusing as you did my question.
    – user66697
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 11:43
  • @loop perhaps you could edit your question to make it clearer? One cannot change future history, since this history does not exist yet. And Marx would probably object the notion that the actions of a single person (like himself) can affect the historical development.
    – Roger V.
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 11:49
  • Yeah you are probably right in both claims, thanks
    – user66697
    Commented Jul 6, 2023 at 11:52
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As others have noted, you question is a bit hard to interpret. I believe the answer may be, yes.

In a materialist reading of history, the advent of Galileo's physics or Marx's manifesto would indeed change "the past," insofar as the past is always a bundle of present or actionable concepts.

The past becomes "rationalized" in relation to a present logic and understanding and goal. Marx's rather brutal and concise statement cast a new light on our understanding of history, quite startling in its day.

History is not, he asserts, god's will or the progress of reason or a series of physical accidents. He reframes in a way that "makes sense" for his readers and serves as an axiom for both predictions and political action.

Was he wrong? Class is a rather loose term. But it is not hard to recognize it historically as a division of societies (all societies with written histories) into identifiable groups that are hierarchical, "unequal," and contested.

I'd say, it holds up. Obviously, we can delve into myriad complexities. Race and gender and even meritocratic terms like "intelligence" are subordinated in Marx to economic social reproduction in the most general sense.

One can frame and explain human history in any number of ways.But I would say that Marx's idea of "class struggle" applies widely, has vivid historical examples, retains explanatory power, and is potentially actionable.

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