The theory of history: What Marx missed

Below is the text to my ‘three-minute thesis’, delivered at Selwyn College on Thursday 4 March 2020.

My thesis concerns a crucial gap in Marx’s theory of history. Karl Marx is known as a lover of the state. Under socialism, the state would do away with profit-driven markets through public ownership of production. Marx’s theory of history, however, misses the state entirely, instead emphasising technological development and class distributions of wealth. Marx’s theory of history rests on a theory of human nature, whose centrepiece is scarcity. In a world of scarce resources, technology helps meet our basic needs. The class that owns technology uses its economic resources to buy political power and cultural media. In this hierarchy of history, technology and class are the vital ‘base’ of society; the state and culture the unimportant ‘superstructure’. For Marx, economics determines politics and culture. 

Marx, Hobbes’s ‘Leviathan’, and Aristotle

But human nature isn’t all about scarcity. Aristotle thought that humans naturally form communities based on instinct and reason—a condition which I call ‘sociality’. This led him to claim, ‘man is a political animal’, whose natural community is the state. 

Hobbes emphasised another natural condition: subjectivity. Humans can’t be certain of each other’s intentions, making us fear we may be killed by anyone else without a coercive power to protect us. To moderate that fear, people acquiesce to a coercive power—the state, Hobbes’s ‘mortal god’, pictured centre—to enforce rules, including the rules of property ownership. 

For Marx, remember, technology goes first in causal terms, followed by class, the state, and lastly culture. But with a fuller theory of human nature, technology still goes first because scarcity makes survival fundamentally important. Culture is still last as it’s determined by other variables. But the state goes second and class third. While Marx emphasised ‘tech and class’, I emphasise ‘tech, the state, and class’ as the base of history. 

The state can then be seen as the basic unit of social evolution: more technologically competitive states defeat less competitive ones militarily and/or economically.

Putting the state back into history means putting people and contingency back, too. The affairs of the state—politics—are about sociality: a dynamic interplay between instinct and reason. Politics are also about the managing the discord arising from subjectivity, a process which rarely has a foregone conclusion. The end of capitalism isn’t inevitable—just as the demise of feudalism wasn’t. A realistic theory of history acknowledges inevitability and contingency. Instead of Marx’s economic determinism, let’s put the political back into political economy by putting what Marx missed—the state—back into the theory of history. 

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