We are here to discuss themes and problems of the Marxist conception of history a hundred years after the death of Marx. This is not a ritual of centenary celebration, but it is important to begin by reminding ourselves of the unique role of Marx in historiography. I will simply do so by three illustrations. My first is autobiographical. When I was a student in Cambridge in the 1930s, many of the ablest young men and women joined the Communist Party. But as this was a very brilliant era in the history of a very distinguished university, many of them were profoundly influenced by the great names at whose feet we sat. Among the young Communists there we used to joke: the Communist philosophers were Wittgensteinians, the Communist economists were Keynesians, the Communist students of literature were disciples of F. R. Leavis. And the historians? They were Marxists, because there was no historian that we knew of at Cambridge or elsewhere—and we did hear and know of some great ones, such as Marc Bloch—who could compete with Marx as a master and an inspiration. My second illustration is similar. Thirty years later, in 1969, Sir John Hicks, Nobel laureate, published his Theory of Economic History. He wrote: ‘Most of those [who wish to fit into place the general course of history] would use the Marxian categories, or some modified version of them, since there is so little in the way of an alternative version that is available. It does, nevertheless, remain extraordinary that one hundred years after Das Kapital . . . so little else should have emerged.’footnote1 My third illustration comes from Fernand Braudel’s splendid Capitalism and Material Life—a work whose very title provides a link with Marx. In that noble work Marx is referred to more often than any other author, even than any French author. Such a tribute from a country not given to underestimate its national thinkers, is impressive in itself.

This influence of Marx on the writing of history is not a self-evident development. For although the materialist conception of history is the core of Marxism, and although everything Marx wrote is impregnated with history, he himself did not write much history as historians understand it. In this respect Engels was more of a historian, writing more works which could be reasonably classified as ‘history’ in libraries. Of course Marx studied history and was extremely erudite. But he wrote no work with ‘History’ in the title except a series of polemical anti-Tsarist articles later published as The Secret Diplomatic History of the 18th Century, which is one of the least valuable of his works. What we call Marx’s historical writings consist almost exclusively of current political analysis and journalistic comment, combined with a degree of historical background. His current political analyses, such as Class Struggles in France and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, are truly remarkable. His voluminous journalistic writings, though of uneven interest, contain analyses of the greatest interest—one thinks of his articles on India—and they are in any case examples of how Marx applied his method to concrete problems both of history and of a period which has since become history. But they were not written as history, as people who pursue the study of the past understand it. Finally, Marx’s study of capitalism contains an enormous amount of historical material, historical illustration and other matter relevant to the historian.

The bulk of Marx’s historical work is thus integrated into his theoretical and political writings. All these consider historical developments in a more or less long-term framework, involving the whole span of human development. They must be read together with his writings which focus on short periods or particular topics and problems, or on the detailed history of events. Nevertheless, no complete synthesis of the actual process of historical development can be found in Marx; nor can even Capital be treated as ‘a history of capitalism until 1867’.

There are three reasons, two minor and one major, why this is so—and why Marxist historians are therefore not merely commenting on Marx but doing what he himself did not do. First, as we know, Marx had great difficulty in bringing his literary projects to completion. Second, his views continued to evolve until his death, though within a framework established in the middle of the 1840s. Third, and most important, in his mature works Marx deliberately studied history in reverse order, taking developed capitalism as his starting-point. ‘Man’ was the clue to the anatomy of ‘the ape’. This is not, of course, an anti-historical procedure. It implies that the past cannot be understood exclusively or primarily in its own terms: not only because it is part of a historical process, but also because that historical process alone has enabled us to analyse and understand things about that process and the past. Take the concept of labour, central to the materialist conception of history. Before capitalism—or before Adam Smith, as Marx says more specifically—the concept of labour-in-general, as distinct from particular kinds of labour which are qualitatively different and incomparable, was not available. Yet if we are to understand human history, in a global, long-term sense, as the progressively effective utilization and transformation of nature by mankind, then the concept of social labour in general is essential. Marx’s approach still remains debatable, in that it cannot tell us whether future analysis, on the basis of future historical development, will not make comparable analytical discoveries that enable thinkers to reinterpret human history in terms of some other central analytical concept. This is a potential gap in the analysis, even though we do not think that such a hypothetical future development is likely to abandon the centrality of Marx’s analysis of labour, at least for certain obviously crucial aspects of human history. My point is not to call Marx into question, but simply to show that his approach must leave out, as not immediately relevant to his purpose, much of what historians are interested to know—for example, many aspects of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. These were left to later Marxists, although it is true that Friedrich Engels, always more interested in ‘what actually happened’, did concern himself more with such matters.

Marx’s influence on historians, and not only Marxist historians, is nevertheless based both upon his general theory (the materialist conception of history), with its sketches of, or hints at, the general shape of human historical development from primitive communalism to capitalism, and upon his concrete observations relating to particular aspects, periods and problems of the past. I do not want to say much about the latter, even though they have been extremely influential and can still be enormously stimulating and illuminating. Capital Vol. 1 contains three or four fairly marginal references to Protestantism, yet the entire debate on the relationship between religion in general, and Protestantism in particular, and the capitalist mode of production derives from them. Similarly, Capital has one footnote on Descartes linking his views (animals as machines, real, as opposed to speculative, philosophy as a means of mastering nature and perfecting human life) with ‘the manufacturing period’ and raising the question why the early economists preferred Hobbes and Bacon as their philosophers, and later ones Locke. (For his part, Dudley North believed that Descartes’s method had ‘begun to free political economy from its old superstitions’.)footnote2 In the 1890s this was already used by non-Marxists as an example of Marx’s remarkable originality, and even today it would provide seminar material for at least a semester. However, nobody at this meeting will need to be convinced of Marx’s genius or the range of his knowledge and interests; and it should be appreciated that much of his writing about particular aspects of the past inevitably reflects the historical knowledge available in his lifetime.

The materialist conception of history is worth discussing at greater length because it is today controverted or criticized not only by non-Marxists and anti-Marxists, but also within Marxism. For generations it was the least questioned part of Marxism and was regarded, rightly in my view, as its core. Developed in the course of Marx’s and Engels’s critique of German philosophy and ideology, it is essentially directed against the belief that ‘ideas, thoughts, concepts produce, determine and dominate men, their material conditions and real life’.footnote3 From 1846 this conception remained essentially the same. It can be summarized in a single sentence, repeated with variations: ‘It is not consciousness that determines life, but life that determines consciousness.’footnote4 It is already elaborated in The German Ideology: ‘This conception of history thus relies on expounding the real process of production—starting from the material production of life itself—and comprehending the form of intercourse connected with and created by this mode of production, i.e., civil society in its various stages, as the basis of all history; describing it in its action as the state, and also explaining how all the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, morality, etc., etc., arise from it, and tracing the process of their formation from that basis; thus the whole thing can, of course, be depicted in its totality (and therefore, too, the reciprocal action of these various aspects on one another).’footnote5 We should note in passing that for Marx and Engels the ‘real process of production’ is not simply the ‘material production of life itself’ but something broader. To use Eric Wolf’s just formulation, it is ‘the complex set of mutually dependent relations among nature, work, social labour and social organization’.footnote6 We should also note that humans produce with both hand and head.footnote7

This conception is not history but a guide to history, a programme of research. To quote The German Ideology again: ‘Where speculation ends, where real life starts, there consequently begins real, positive science, the expounding of the practical activity, of the practical process of human development. . . . When reality is described, self-sufficient philosophy die selbständige Philosophie loses its medium of existence. At the best its place can only be taken by a summing-up of the most general results, abstractions which are derived from the observation of the historical development of men. These abstractions in themselves, divorced from real history, have no value whatsoever. They can only serve to facilitate the arrangement of historical material, to indicate the sequence of its separate strata. But they by no means afford a recipe or schema, as does philosophy, for neatly trimming the epochs of history.’footnote8