Marx tidily sums up his conception of history thus: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles” (14). Put another way, the many epochs of human history feature a social structure in which the oppressed, who form a majority share of the population, are exploited by an empowered and privileged class, which usually occupies a minority position. Further, the oppressive minority controls the means of production, thereby exploiting the labor power of the oppressed majority.
More fundamentally speaking, Marx’s materialist theory of history relies upon Hegelian notions about the dialectic nature of history. That is, history itself is the result of the ongoing clashes of opposing forces. Further, the dialect of change is driven primarily by material and economic forces. Humankind’s relationship to the physical world, then, underpins the dialectic nature of history. In particular, contradictions in the systems of economic and material production serve as the fuel for the engine of historical change. According to Marx, each historical economic system, or mode of production, present within the course of history is defined by such a contradiction. That contradiction, in turn, ultimately leads to internal destruction and the rise of another system, thereby advancing both history and the stages of social and economic reality. As an example, Marx cites, “Freedman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman,” (14) to illustrate the basic historic divisions between the oppressor, who controlled the means of production, and the oppressor, whose labor is necessarily exploited within the system in question.
Within the Middle Ages, Marx suggests that the contradictions within the feudal system eventually gave rise to capitalism. Broadly speaking, medieval nations governed by monarchs engaged in trade with other nations as regional politics and economics stabilized over the course of the Middle Ages. Increased trade between regional powers, in turn, created a new merchant class which served as a preview of capitalism. Within capitalism, too, Marx perceived specific contradictions which mirrored those of earlier epochs. Beyond the clash of wills between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, Marx suggested that, within capitalist structures, those who control the means of production can, and are incentivized to, perpetually invest and reinvest resulting profits into the research and creation of new technology. Continually advancing technologies paired with the relentless exploitation of laborers results in a surplus of products. That surplus, then, would ultimately create a crisis of sorts because the devaluation of labor (that is, the deprivation of appropriate wages) precludes laborers from purchasing products with inflated value due to perpetual investment of surplus profit into technology. Within the economic system, then, declining profits ultimately result in recession, depression, or even collapse. Further, the only short-term way out of this cycle is further devaluation of labor, which would only prompt the continuation of the increasingly severe cycles of boom and bust. The only true way to break the cycle, so to speak, is the violent seizure of the means of production by those within the proletariat underclasses.
Taking a step back from the potential of a socialist revolution, it is useful to describe the ways in which Marx perceived the bourgeoisie. He considered the bourgeoisie a deeply important actor within the context of global history because of the ways in which it is both, “…the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the mods of production and exchange,” (15) and, in relation to its exploitation of the proletariat, “its own grave-diggers” (21). While the bourgeoisie is notable because its ascendance arose from their part in putting an end to, “…all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations,” (15), it also deserves critical assessment because of its willing failure to dismantle class antagonisms. Rather, the bourgeoisie has, “…but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in the place of the old ones” (14). For Marx, the bourgeoisie were revolutionary because of that element of their development as well as the bourgeois tendency to both continually revolutionize and reinvent the dominant means of production and decontextualize & disrupt the fabric of society (with regard to religion, the family, the prestige associated with certain professions, etc.) in the name of expanding markets and stone cold profit (15-16).
As mentioned, Marx also points out that, just as the bourgeoisie is responsible for its own emergence and perpetuation, it will also be responsible for its own demise vis à vis its hand in creating an irretrievably disgruntled and angry proletariat. As such, the bourgeoisie is an interesting historical character because, if Marx vision is made manifest, the bourgeois class will be hoisted by its own petard. Although there were claims regarding the end of the communist experiment following the fall of the Soviet Union in the final decades of the twentieth century, it will be interesting to see if Marx’s enter the sphere of possibility in this contemporary period of material crises of all sorts.
Marx, Karl. “The Manifesto of the Communist Party.” Originally published 1848.