Marx’s own thought is indelibly marked by the circumstances of his time, even though it is in no sense limited by them. All of Marx’s published works were, first and foremost, political interventions, and neither their subject matter nor their shape can be understood without reference to the specific circumstances in which they were made.footnote1 The origins of Marxism are often attributed to the trilateral influences of German philosophy, French socialism and English political economy; but it is clear that much more explanatory space should be given to the developing social and political crisis in Europe of the 1840s, and the appearance of those working class and revolutionary democratic movements in which Marx and Engels participated with such enthusiasm—the ‘real movement’ of communism to which, when drafting The German Ideology, they believed they were giving voice.footnote2 The evolution of Marx’s subsequent thought cannot be separated from the chequered course of revolutionary politics in the middle decades of the nineteenth century—the extreme determinism of the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, for instance, may plausibly be associated with the low ebb of the revolutionary tide in 1859, just as the working class voluntarism of the Inaugural Address which Marx drafted for the First International in 1864 (‘the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves’) was surely encouraged by the circumstances in which it was conceived.footnote3 Such things are not merely curiosities of intellectual biography: they can help us to establish the theoretical status of Marx’s leading concepts, to identify—and account for—shifts of emphasis, and to explain the persistence, and seeming co-existence of contradictory impulses and strains.

The mutations of Marxism are even more apparent if one follows the course of its subsequent implantation in the European socialist and labour movement. In Russia Marxism came into existence as a critical trend within populism, in Italy in the form of a syncretism with positivist sociology, in Austria—and Bulgaria—in tandem with the thought of Lassalle.footnote4 Second International Marxism was a heterodox affair, with numerous tendencies competing for political attention, and nothing approaching a finished body of doctrine. Marxism was necessarily superimposed on preexisting modes of thought which it incorporated rather than displaced, and which were regarded as being intrinsic to the new outlook. ‘Every socialist writer of note is a convinced Darwinian and Spencerian besides being a convinced Marxist’, wrote Ernest Unterman in 1905. ‘ . . . The Socialist Darwinians are alone able to reason in a consistently materialist monist way’.footnote5 Second International Marxism was also wide open to the newer philosophical currents of its day, notably the neo-Kantian revival in Germany, and the logical positivism of Avenarius and Mach. It was also a prolific source of its own indigenous grafts, as in the case of Bogdanov’s ‘empirio-monism’,footnote6 Plekhanov’s ‘hieroglyphic’ theory of knowledge,footnote7 or that Dietzgenian epistemology—the philosophy of a self-educated revolutionary tanner—which the British working class Marxists of the Plebs League regarded as being co-equal with the teachings of Marx, and an essential complement to the materialist conception of history. The eclectic profusion of influences at this time is excellently registered in the manuscript autobiography of T.A. Jackson, a Clerkenwell printer who in the 1900s was a member of an ‘Impossibilist’ Marxist sect, and in later years a leading Communist writer and agitator: ‘For us, the essence of Marxism was to be sought in its conception of history, as a specific detail in the general evolution of the universe at large. This, since it restored Marx’s own view of his Capital as “laying bare the economic law of motion of bourgeois society” constituted a real advance . . . (but) we envisaged Marx’s materialism much too . . . mechanistically, conceived his historical materialism much too much as an improved version of Buckle’s “geographical and climatic” determinism (as presented in his History of Civilisation) and that again as a detail in a world outlook we derived from Buchner’s Force and Matter, from Darwin, Huxley and Tyndall, and from Ernst Haeckel’s Riddle of the Universe, all of which we swore by.’footnote8

The contours change radically in the period of the Third International, but Marxism, despite its increasingly Party-minded character, was very far from being hermetically sealed. In the 1920s there was a vigorous, indeed furious, philosophical debate within the Soviet Union itself, with rival schools contending in the name of dialectical materialism, and a relatively free interchange between Marxist and non-Marxist currents of thought.footnote9 Not until 1931 did the Party decisively intervene on the cultural front: not until 1934 was the ‘line’ backed up by the full force of state terror.footnote10 In Britain, during the 1920s there were two alternative schools of Marxism—that of the Communist Party, on the one hand, and that of the Plebs League on the other: a homespun working-class Marxism, strongly rooted among the miners and railwaymen, which combined a revolutionary outlook with a speculative spirit of philosophical inquiry. Working class Marxism disappeared as a major current in the 1930s, but Thirties Marxism in Britain, though under the undisputed leadership of the Communist Party, was very much a hybrid, with a strong admixture of liberal-humanism, reflecting the character of the new recruits—among them many of the historians who form the subject of this essay.

So far from being immune to exogamous influences, Marxism may rather be seen—in the light of its history—as a palimpset on which they are inscribed. Lenin’s ‘law of uneven development’—a fundamental contribution to Marxist theory—is evidently related to the ‘backwardness’ of imperial Russia in the Europe of its time and the changes in his theory of the Party or the State may plausibly be said, if not to reflect, then certainly to register, the strength or otherwise of the Russian workers’ movement. Gramsci’s notion of hegemony (i.e. the captivity of subaltern classes, and cultural subordination to their rulers) must similarly be related to the circumstances of his time, and it is surely no accident that it was elaborated in his Prison Notebooks, with the trenches and the fortresses of bourgeois rule around him, rather than in the revolutionary period of the Turin workers’ councils.footnote11 It is not only the problematics of Marxism which come from outside, but also, in ways that are less immediately apparent, its theoretical perspectives. Marxist notions of dialectics are being continually invested with fresh meaning, drawing their force sometimes from scientific analogy, sometimes from aesthetics, sometimes from contemporary politics; materialist notions of causality are likewise very far from being fixed, but follow the scientific paradigms of their time. Marxism is inevitably exposed to dominant modes of thought in the universities, as one can see from Gramsci’s lifelong dialogue with Croce, or the influence of structuralism on French and British Marxism today; and it is also subject to the more intangible influence of cultural politics and popular beliefs. Above all, it is affected by the state of the socialist movement—the balance of hope and despair, certainty and doubt on which, in the final count, both political intervention and theoretical reflection pivot.

The Marxist notion of scientific explanation in history may be said to have gone through a whole number of epistemological breaks. In one phase it was associated with a paradigm of biological necessity, in another with notions of technological determination, in a third with a sociology of class. For Kautsky, the high priest of orthodox Marxism in the epoch of the Second International, the instinct for self-preservation provided the primum mobile for the Marxian laws of development, with social life as an extension of the biological struggle for existence.footnote12 Plekhanov, an even stricter determinist, also believed that Marxism was Darwinism in its application to social science. But in another line of interpretation, owing more to the thought of Montesquieu than to that of Darwin, he laid more stress on the natural history of the environment.footnote13 Geography was the foundation of world history, nature the fundamental determinant of growth, and it was the properties of the physical environment which, in the final analysis, shaped the characteristics of nations, peoples, and tribes: ‘Hegel said that seas and rivers bring men closer together, whereas mountains keep them apart. Incidentally, seas bring men closer together when the development of the productive forces has reached a relatively high level: at lower levels, as Ratzel rightly points out, the sea is a great hindrance to intercourse between the tribes it separates. Marx writes: “It is not the mere fertility of the soil, but the differentiation of the soil, the variety of its natural products, the changes of the seasons, which form the physical basis for the social division of labour, and which, by changes in the natural surroundings, spur man on to the multiplication of his wants, his capabilities, his means and modes of labour” . . . Thus, the properties of the geographical environment determines the development of the productive forces which, in its turn, determine the development of the economic forces, and therefore of all social relations’.footnote14

Such a reading of world history may have had some particular contemporary relevance: Plekhanov was writing at a time when geo-politics was becoming the common currency of international relations, and when the metropolitan powers were busy re-drawing the map of the world. But it also needs to be situated in the advanced positivist thought of later 19th century Europe, and with the attempts to establish a naturalistic social science, with race, climate and geography as the dynamics of cultural growth.footnote15 It is represented in England by Buckle’s History of Civilisation—a popular text with the autodidacts of the Plebs League; in Germany by Riehl’s The Natural History of German Life, with its emphasis on living space and soil. Plekhanov himself believed that Ratzel’s ‘anthropogeography’ was a historical materialism in everything but name, ‘using almost the same words as Marx’ though refusing to recognise its revolutionary implications.footnote16

In another version of historical materialism it is technology which is the great propellor of change. A ‘strict’ reading of Marx—such as that currently proposed by G.A. Cohenfootnote17—can certainly support this view. It is one which commanded widespread assent in the Soviet Union of the 1920s. For Bukharin, writing his Historical Materialism (1921) at a time when the Constructivist intoxication with machinery was at its height, and when Lenin was proposing electrification as the material basis for socialist planning,footnote18 geography was merely an inert environment, whereas tools and technology were the all-powerful levers of growth: ‘The influence of nature, in the sense of providing materials etc. is itself a product of the development of technology; before technology has conquered coal, coal had no “influence” at all. Before technology with its feelers had reached the iron ore, this iron ore was permitted to sleep its eternal slumber; its influence on man was zero. Human society works in nature and on nature, as the subject of its labour. But the elements existing as such in nature are here more or less constant and therefore cannot explain changes . . . It is the social technology which changes . . . and precisely its variations produce the changes in the relations between society and nature; technology therefore must constitute a point of departure in an analysis of social changes’.footnote19