One very obvious thing distinguishes Marx from most of his predecessors: he made no claims to neutrality, either as something he was capable of accomplishing or, indeed, as something to be aspired to. The dominant ideology of historians and historical thinkers before Marx had been their aspiration to a disengaged, birds-eye view of history. History could appear, for them, as an objective account of man's progress towards liberty, or alternatively, as in Ranke's resonant statement, the claim that 'every age is equal before God' – the implication here being that the historian should share God's supposed detachment. Marx, by contrast, was a partisan – of social revolution and of the working class – and he gloried in this partisanship. If there is a specific ideology at work here, it is this: only to an absolutely engaged and active perspective that sought to intervene in history, that took sides, could historical truth be accessible.
There's something else that is closely related to this: the question of why we might need history. For most of Marx's predecessors, we can – at the risk of some simplification – state that they believed in a 'contemplative' role for historical thought. Ranke is a classic exponent of this view: for him, scholarly enquiry's value lay in its ability to appreciate the diverse vistas and historical forms of humanity. Moral lessons could be drawn from this: history could work, for the present, as a source of wonder, or of inspiration, or of warning. Marx, on the other hand, above all seemed to consider history as a riddle that needed solving. History, from this perspective, does not yield up its truths transparently: behind the surface of historical events and processes that seem 'obvious', there lie another set of events and processes, which can only be brought to light through the work of decoding. And there's yet another twist to this: as his thought developed, Marx increasingly came to believe, and assert, that 'understanding' history was not merely an intellectual, but also a practical task. There were definite patterns to historical development, distinct 'tendencies', as he put it, that only became self-evident and visible once they had run their course. To truly engage with history was to capture it in motion, to understand the secrets ofits movement, and, above all, to participate in this movement. Marx once famously wrote that 'the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in different ways; the point, however, is to change it'. This has often been interpreted as a statement to the effect 'enough talking about the world, let's get down to doing something about it'. But it's more complicated than that: the significance of this statement, it might be argued, is that it is addressed precisely to philosophers. Criticism and scholarship, Marx argued, held value principally as a practical activity, and not as abstract contemplation.
Some reference to Marx's life might be of use to make sense of all this. History was indeed moving rapidly, in uncharted waters, in the Europe in which Marx lived. He was brought up in a liberal family in Trier, a town in the Prussian Rhineland which had been deeply affected by the French Revolution, the Napoleonic invasions of Europe, and the conservative, monarchical restoration that followed. Born in 1818, Marx would be, throughout his life, caught in the cross-hairs of the processes of revolution and restoration. In his own lifetime, he saw three epochal events: the revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and the Paris Commune of 1871. In other words, Marx's Europe saw regular revolutionary convulsions, alliances between ruling powers and dominant social classes in the attempt to defeat these revolutions, and concrete historical changes that resulted from this clash. Each political upsurge in Marx's lifetime had its epicentre in France, with continent-wide implications. Utopian visions of social transformation were one side of the coin; moods of despair in radical and liberal circles following royal restorations another. It is not hard to relate Marx's view of history to these violent reversals in political mood and atmosphere. Through the 1840s, the formative decade for the development of Marx's political thought, he would move between Cologne, Brussels and Paris, Continental cities deeply marked by the experience, or the anticipation, or the apprehension, of radical republican revolution. This left one sort of imprint on Marx's thought: it was from these experiences that he derived his deep solidarity with working-class struggles that sought to realize substantive visions of democracy, and it was from these, too, that he derived his diagnosis of why the European revolutions were apparently defeated, and the consequences of this defeat.
But there was also another life experience that marked his thought even more deeply: he spent the last 34 years of his life in Britain, a country relatively immune from the violent convulsions of European political events. This Britain, politically a sink of reaction for much of the nineteenth century, nevertheless was witnessing its own kind of revolution: a transformation of the material and social basis of human existence, and the rapid development of industrial bourgeoisie and industrial proletariat, on a scale vastly more advanced than continental Europe. All his life, Marx was struck by the paradox of this contrast: Britain, despite the growth of a substantial urban working class which he identified as the revolutionary agent of the future, was, from his perspective, politically so backward. And France, despite the relative underdevelopment of its capitalism (it remained a dominantly agricultural, small-holding society) saw immense political ferment. As Marx pondered these questions, specifically economic questions became more and more dominant in his work, and the last thirty years of his life were spent delving deeper and deeper into the mysteries of capitalist commodity-production, exchange and circulation, and the evolving relations between industrial employers and workers as they became, in his account, the 'fundamental' classes of society.
Let me now turn to how Marx thought about history, and the roles that it came to play in his thought. Was Marx a systematic theorist or philosopher of history? In one sense the answer is clearly no. It was never his purpose to lay out methodological guidelines for academics and intellectuals. He read deeply and widely in diverse periods of history, but unlike his comrade Engels, produced few works which we can simply understand as 'works of history', at least in the academic sense we're all familiar with. At another level, history was absolutely fundamental to his thought. Let me briefly explore the ways in which this might be true.
At the heart of this we have the idea of the dialectic. Marx's philosophy, certainly at the outset and arguably through his whole life, took the form of an encounter with the intellectual tradition of German Idealism, the dominant branch of critical thought in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century Germany. The Big Four of German 'idealist' philosophy were Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814), Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling (1775-1854) and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831). Now we certainly don't have time to go into the nuances of these thinkers' ideas. All I want to say here is that Hegel's influence, in particular, was decisive for Marx, above all in one respect: his use of a dialectical approach, which sought to understand history as the unfolding of contradictions that were fundamental to any given order – whether of state, or civil society, or law, or art, or science. Each historical formation – whether of state, society, family, law, or art – for Hegel, was eventually undermined by internal contradictions. New formations were produced through the playing out of these contradictions and conflicts, which did not simply destroy the old order, but retained its key elements, in a changed form.
Marx claimed to have stood Hegel on his head. Like others in his time, he argued that Hegel's notorious conception of a World Spirit – or Idea, or Mind - whose internal contradictions determined the movement of history, was false. Rather, he argued, it was the real development of history and historical forces that needed to be deciphered, of which ideas – of freedom, justice, democracy or whatever – were just a component. Here, Marx made a case for the primacy of social relations: in each historical epoch (however you define an epoch), certain combinations of property relations, social divisions, technological forces, and forms and methods of material production were the key feature. In capitalist society, for instance, the emergence of the industrial bourgeoisie and the industrial proletariat served (as he understood it) to sharply polarize social groups in a way that could not be sustained in a stable way. Therefore, the clash between these opposing social classes would be decisive in determining the future shape of society. All this flowed, it must be remembered, from Marx's stress on human labour as the key ingredient in the social mix: labour, he argued, was humanity's 'species-being', or essence. In other words, the capacity to produce, through a combination of skill, effort and imagination, the material conditions of social existence (food, shelter, transport, clothing, etc.) was the great distinguishing feature of human life. In one of his most telling phrases, he described the class struggles around him as the conflict between dead or stored-up labour (capital) and living, suffering labour.
Now this sort of reasoning could point, simultaneously, in two different directions. In some of his formulations and writings, Marx used the historical dialectic in a rather mechanical way. In his early text The German Ideology, for instance, he seems to sketch out a 'stage' theory of history (clearly derived from 18th-century models), whereby contradictions in primitive society almost inevitably produce the conditions for slavery, which in turn generates feudal society out of its own collapse. Feudal society's contradictions implode and capitalism is formed, and in its turn socialism and communism will follow. Marx even found a mechanism which, for him, explained this. The development of the forces of production, he argued, are at each stage of history held back by dominant relations of production, until the tension becomes unbearable. Now there are moments in our own world, today, when this sort of reasoning can appear irresistible. Take the Internet, for instance. We have information, knowledge, entertainment available, potentially, on an unheard-of scale, crossing continents with the click of a button. At the same time, we have the world's biggest monopolies being formed precisely in this sphere. And we clearly have a clash here – just think of the desperate and rather hilarious advertisements warning against video piracy that you encounter at the beginning of most DVDs you watch. Or think of the crises the traditional publishing industry has been thrown into by new forms of online circulation. The Marxist point that can be derived from this is that this is an inherently unstable situation and cannot last long: some sort of new order of intellectual property, or, alternatively, of sharing, is going to result – we just don't know what it might be. Or, to go back about five centuries, think of the early development of printing presses in the West, which were so closely interlinked with momentous political and cultural changes. On the other hand, Marx's own formulations about this seem to almost suggest some sort of trans-historical mechanism that will inevitably repeat itself. Phrases like this, in the hands of many of his followers – and on occasion in his own work – could act as formulae, blocking rather than enabling historical enquiry.
But there's another way of reading Marx's 'dialectical method', if we focus on the huge importance Marx placed on political struggle. As a general statement, the idea that all history is the history of class struggle seems ridiculous and in many ways is – isn't there so much more to history? But what this sort of conception also does is restore the importance of human beings and their conflicts over material resources, ways of organizing production, ways of mobilizing and performing labour. It also reminds us that the social formations which are sustained by particular combinations of property relations, technology and social labour are never written in stone: they were the product of particular historical moments and forces, and they come with an expiry date which, unfortunately, is always smudged. Arguably the most striking instance of Marx's dialectics of history is the opening section of his '18th Brumaire': 'Men make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing.' Consider the movement of Marx's thought in these passages. He begins with a finely calibrated relationship between human agency and external forces that impinge upon it, a tension between freedom and necessity, which are both always present in historical development. He develops this into a reflection on the ways in which the past haunts the present. But there's a twist here: the past's impact is most pronounced where we would expect it to be weakest: precisely at moments of profound, revolutionary historical change. Human beings, placed in a situation where the possibilities seem endless and for that reason terrifying as well as exciting, falter before the ghosts that rise up in front of them. Ghosts haunting people precisely as they set out to change their circumstances; the dead weight of the past confronting the force of revolutionary change – this might be another way of decoding Marx's historical dialectic.
To stay with the Brumaire for another moment, consider Marx's style of exposition. Here is a passage towards the end of the text where Marx considers the meaning of the imperial restoration of 1851 that followed three years of republican ferment.