Historiographical Discourse Around Marxism and Marx's Ideas

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This essay will discuss a gobbet written by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto in 1848. It is a very short gobbet, but the subject matter is incredibly loaded and the historiographical discourse that surrounds the notion presented by Marx here is very wide. To summarise this gobbet briefly: Marx is presenting a sweeping view of history, characterising all of it as a class struggles.

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Marx's Deterministic Philosophy of History

This gobbet is key to the philosophy of history as in this Gobbet Marx summarises how he thinks history is deterministic. Indicating elsewhere that all societies make a shift from primitive societies, to feudalism, to capitalism, and then to a socialist ‘utopia’. This relates to other deterministic historiographic theories, such as Whiggish history; “The expression “Whig interpretation of history” was proposed by… H. Butterfield to characterise the habit of some English constitutional historians of seeing their subject as a progressive broadening of human rights in which good, “forward-looking” liberals were continuously struggling with the backward-looking conservatives.” In this gobbet, Marx shows a kind of Whiggish history in showing his belief that the class struggles will end with the victory of the proletariat, however this is a prediction not the writing of an account. Marxist historiography continues its similarities with that of Whiggish historiography, in that Marx presents a class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeois, and the English constitutional historians also present a kind of dichotomy between the “good guys” and the “bad guys” of history. This indicates that there are two similarities between Whiggish history and that of Marx insofar as there are established good and bad actors and also that it is deterministic in that it describes a move towards a better society.

Marx's Context and Influence

This gobbet also represents the context of where History and Historiography was as a field when Marx was being educated. Marx was heavily influenced at least in the earlier years by Hegel, being a ‘Young Hegelian” himself, indicated here. “Marx emerged out of the intellectual world of the Young Hegelians, who understood themselves to be taking up the radical dimension of Hegel’s thought – the promise of institutionalizing human freedom as a universal norm.” This quotation relates to the gobbet above because Marx believed that the ‘class struggle’ as seen above would leave to a word with “institutionalizing human freedom as a universal norm”². Marx, however, modified Hegelian dialectics, preferring to take a more materialist path. This quotation from The Social Thought of Karl Marx by Justin Holt illustrates that Marx wanted to stress physical existence and material factors in writing historical analysis, instead of human self-consciousness. “This consideration of the human self-consciousness as essentially what humans are was accepted and refined by the German idealists Immanuel Kant and G. W. F. Hegel. Thus, the importance that Marx attached to stressing the physical existence of humans is in response to his intellectual predecessors.” This quote demonstrates the historiographic dialogue between Marx and his German predecessors, with Marx adopting some of their ideas as seen above, but also modifying and changing them in a very dramatic way. Holt continues: “Marx thought that describing humans in a way that Descartes or Hegel describes them runs the risk of misdiagnosing humans’ social reality and the horizon of their political actions.” Marx therefore believed that social reality was crucial in understanding history. This quotations demonstrates the distinction Marx creates between an older type of historiography and his own. Social reality for Marx is crucial. This is reflected in the gobbet in saying that the social reality of our societies is that of class struggle, and thus there is a horizon to their political activities because of this class struggle imposed upon them. By modifying the existing theories of Hegel, Kant and others, Marx moulds the historiographical orthodox that had established itself in Germany before and during his formation into his own image.

Shortcomings of Older Aapproaches

The legacy of this gobbet is massive and the piece of essential literature from which it comes from. The Communist Manifesto has undoubtedly had a profound effect on the history of the entire world. However, in this essay I am going to focus on the way in which this gobbet has been crucial in the development of history as a discipline and how Marxist historians have developed the legacy of Marx. In the post-war era, specifically from the 1960s, Marxist historians wrote historical texts based in a Marxist understanding of history. An example of one of these historians is E. P. Thompson whose 1963 book The Making of the English Working Class presented Marxist history in a new way. “When some men, as a result of common experience (inherited or shared) feel and articulate the identity of their interests as between themselves, and as against other men whose interests are different from (and usually opposed to) theirs.” This presented a Marxist reading of history that is focused on the emotions of the working class, in relation to the gobbet above, ie, all of history is a class struggle. This is relevant to the gobbet because it represents the legacy of this gobbet as someone is a class struggle in historical writing more than a century after the original text in 1848. This quote also shows the idea of class unity which relates to the gobbet because it indicates that there are constant skirmishes between classes, but this quotation develops this point as well. This quote by Thompson, and the book in general also “humanised Marxism” adding working class identity into Marx’s theory.


As the 20th century continued, so did the historiographical discourse surrounding Marxism. The postmodernist movement in the discipline of history began to criticise Marxism: “At the same time, many of postmodernism’s defining features, such as a mistrust of grand narratives that purport to offer universal truths about the world, displaced the primacy of Marxism, an analytical method and political position that had previously provided the governing framework for many social historians.” This critique of Marxist historiography by postmodern historians indicates that there was a reaction against the ‘grand narratives’ posed by Marx in the gobbet, as they saw the idea that history is defined by class struggles as failing to answer any ‘universal truths about the world.’ 

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