Class Struggle and the State: Editorial for IDOM 42

Issue 42 of In Defence of Marxism magazine is available now! Alan Woods’ editorial, which we publish here, looks at the Marxist view of the state and the role of the individual in history—unifying themes in this issue. This issue includes a Marxist critique of Graeber and Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything; an analysis of the class struggle in the Roman Republic by Alan Woods; a look at the rise of “authoritarian” governments and the Marxist view of Bonapartism; a review of Honoré de Balzac’s Human Comedy; and Trotsky’s invaluable article, Bonapartism and Fascism.

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One day we see the stars here, and tomorrow there; and our mind finds something incongruous in this chaos—something in which it can put no faith, because it believes in order and in a simple, constant, and universal law. Inspired by this belief, the mind has directed its reflection towards the phenomena, and learnt their laws.

In other words, it has established the movement of the heavenly bodies to be in accordance with a universal law from which every change of position may be known and predicted. The case is the same with the influences which make themselves felt in the infinite complexity of human conduct.1

Those words of wisdom from Hegel are a very fitting reply to those who claim that history cannot be understood, that it is a mere agglomeration of accidents governed by no law, to quote the words of Arnold Toynbee: “just one damn thing after another.”

The laws that govern human history are undoubtedly more complex than many other natural phenomena. But the fact that something is more complex does not at all signify that it is impossible to understand. If that were the case, the progress of science would have come to a full stop long ago.

A few years ago, I was in a debate on Russia at Trinity College Cambridge. Until that point, I had forgotten just how bad things were in universities. I immediately noted an interesting fact about the conduct of our middle-class intellectuals. It is as follows:

Nobody is allowed to make any positive statement about anything. Every sentence must be preceded with words like, “I think” or, “it seems to me.” It seems to me that these academic ladies and gentlemen would be incapable of even saying, “I want to go to the toilet,” without first expressing their inner doubts on the subject.

At first sight this may seem merely a triviality, a kind of nervous tic or an irritating habit. On closer inspection, however, it expresses a very pernicious moral and philosophical deviation. What they actually mean, although they may be blissfully unaware of it, is that there is no such thing as objective truth.

This idea is not new. It is neither modern nor even postmodern. It was expressed very well a long time ago by the Greek Sophist, Gorgias, who said: “nothing exists and, even if it does, its nature cannot be understood and, even if it could be, one is not able to communicate that understanding to another person.”

Our so-called postmodernist friends have not advanced a single step since then. They merely repeat in a clumsy and incoherent way the ideas that Gorgias expressed with admirable clarity 2500 years ago.

The bourgeois academics translate their ignorance from Latin into Greek and call it agnosticism, which means precisely the same: without knowledge. But Marxists reject this empty skepticism that attempts to hide its vacuousness behind a spurious façade of “objectivity.”

In fact there is, by definition, absolutely nothing objective about a subjective idealism that reduces the entire universe to a mysterious Ego that subordinates all reality to its subjective caprice.

Can historians be objective?

However dispassionate and “factual” the historian may wish to be, it is impossible to escape having some sort of view on the events described. To claim otherwise is to attempt to defraud the reader. But this cannot hide the fact that in every case they are guided, consciously or unconsciously, by the desire to defend the existing social order and its values.

To prove this assertion, it is only necessary to cast a glance over the mountain of rubbish that has been produced in recent years to “prove” that the Bolshevik Revolution was, in the best-case scenario, a terrible mistake, and in the worst a crime against humanity.

It is hardly necessary to point out that these “scientific” works are little more than crude propaganda, full of the most blatant lies and distortions, the sole intention of which is, to quote the words of Thomas Carlyle (referring to the similarly slanderous treatment of Oliver Cromwell by contemporary historians), to bury the October Revolution “under a mountain of dead dogs.”

Jakob Schlesinger Hegel 1831
Hegel’s words of wisdom are a very fitting reply to those who claim that history cannot be understood. / Image: public domain

When Marxists look at society, we do not pretend to be neutral, but openly espouse the cause of the working class and socialism. However, partisanship does not at all preclude scientific objectivity. A surgeon involved in a delicate operation is also committed to saving the life of his patient. He is far from “neutral” about the outcome. But for that very reason, he will distinguish with extreme care between the different layers of the organism.

Genuine Marxists will always strive to obtain the most scientifically exact analysis of social processes, in order to successfully influence the outcome of the class struggle. But we are not dealing here with just a series of facts, “one after another,” with no more necessary connection than a sack of potatoes, but rather seek to draw out the general processes involved and explain them.

As Hegel said in another work:

It is in fact, the wish for rational insight, not the ambition to amass a mere heap of acquisitions, that should be presupposed in every case as possessing the mind of the learner in the study of science.2

From this we can see that the flow and direction of history has been—and is—shaped by the struggles of successive social classes to mould society in their own interests and the resulting conflicts between the classes that flow from that.

The state and the class struggle

The question of the state has always been a fundamental issue for Marxists, occupying a central place in some of the most important texts of Marxism, such as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State by Friedrich Engels, and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by Marx.

The Marxist theory of the state and of Bonapartism provides the necessary method to distinguish between the various political regimes that rise and fall in the course of the class struggle, and crucially, it allows us to understand the tumultuous period we are entering, as Ben Gliniecki argues in his article, Demagogues and Dictators: What is Bonapartism? We therefore make no apologies for choosing this important subject as a central theme for the present issue.

Engels explains that the state in all normal periods is an instrument of class oppression controlled by the ruling class, but the historical record shows that there can be exceptional periods in which the class struggle reaches such a point of deadlock that the state apparatus raises itself above the contending parties and rules by the sword, balancing between the different classes.

This form of class rule is known to Marxists as Bonapartism, based on an historical analogy with the regime of Napoleon Bonaparte in France. But it has antecedents that go far further back in time. My book on Rome provides a brief outline of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic, the rise of the slave economy, the decline of the free peasantry, and the phenomenon of Caesarism, which arose on that fertile soil.

Although Caesarism and Bonapartism were based on entirely different modes of production and class relations, and consequently have many differences, they also display very striking similarities. Marx was therefore quite justified in regarding Caesarism as an early precursor of Bonapartism, and at times Trotsky uses the two terms interchangeably, as can be seen in his brilliant article, Bonapartism and Fascism.

The individual in history

Marxists reject the “great man” interpretation of history, which places the driving force of history in the minds and actions of certain individuals, but it is necessary to emphasize that Marx and Engels never denied the role of the individual in history. In The Holy Family, written before The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explained that the idea of “History,” conceived apart from individual men and women, was merely an empty abstraction:

History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth,” it “wages no battles.” It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.3

Julius Caesar
Marx was quite justified in regarding Caesarism as an early precursor of Bonapartism. / Image: public domain

But if men and women are not the puppets of blind historical forces, neither are they entirely free agents, able to shape their destiny irrespective of the existing conditions imposed by the level of economic development, science and technique, which, in the last analysis, determine whether a socioeconomic system is viable or not. In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx explains:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.4

What Marxism does is explain the role of the individual as part of a given society, subject to certain objective laws and, ultimately, as the representative of the interests of a particular class. Ideas have no independent existence, nor their own historical development. “Life is not determined by consciousness”, Marx writes in The German Ideology, “but consciousness by life.”5

The ideas and actions of people are conditioned by social relations, the development of which does not depend on the subjective will of men and women but takes place according to definite laws, which in the last analysis reflect the development of the productive forces. The interrelations between these factors constitute a complex web that is often difficult to see. The study of these relations is the basis of the Marxist theory of history.

Free will

An excellent example of the way in which bourgeois historians hide behind a pretended “impartiality” and “academic rigor” in order to attack Marxism is a book that came out in 2021 claiming to offer “a new science of history.” A very big claim! But on turning the first few pages, one is forcibly reminded of the old Greek saying:

A mountain was in labor, and Zeus was scared; but it gave birth to a mouse.”

Naturally enough, this “new science of history” rejects all “evolutionary” approaches to historical development and attacks materialism and Marxism. Instead, social relations are ordered based on “concepts about the proper ordering of society”: in other words, by the “free” choice of the societies to decide all questions and ideas.

All very fine. Except for one thing. As Joel Bergman explains in his article, How can we be free? A Marxist critique of the Dawn of Everything, the authors of The Dawn of Everything are unable to explain anything or even answer the question they pose at the beginning of the book, because they take as the starting point of their investigation the very thing they need to explain, and reject the determining role of material factors outside of the mind.

Faithfully following the postmodernist fashion, they try to use single exceptions to disprove well-established facts, like the role of agriculture in the rise of class society and states. Even then, their “exceptions” prove to be either misrepresentations of the facts, or even reinforce the Marxist position.

One of the most deeply ingrained prejudices of the human mind is the idea of free will—the notion that we are in complete control of our actions. But Sigmund Freud explained long ago that the actions of individuals are not the product of free will but reflect powerful unconscious forces, of which the individual has no knowledge and over which he or she has no control.

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper
Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans he led into battle firmly believed that they were fighting for the victory of the Kingdom of God on Earth. / Image: public domain

In the same way, the participants in history may not always be aware of the objective processes that condition their actions and impose strict limitations on their scope. They are not necessarily conscious of the real forces driving them, seeking instead to rationalize them in one way or another, but those forces exist and have a basis in the real world.

In the English Revolution of the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans he led into battle firmly believed that they were fighting for the victory of the Kingdom of God on Earth. However, subsequent history shows that what they were really doing was overthrowing a form of society that had outlived its historical purpose, thus clearing the ground for the victory, not of the ideal kingdom of God, but of the money grubbing bourgeoisie.

Similarly, in the 18th century, Maximilien Robespierre and the leaders of the French Revolution fought the feudal monarchy under the banner of Reason, but behind the slogans of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity was hidden the cynical profit motive of the French bourgeoisie that played no role in the revolutionary struggles against the old regime, but simply waited in the wings to pick up the fruits of victory.

In both cases, those who carried out the revolution were inspired by a vision of the future. They were sincerely convinced of what they were fighting for. But their ability to achieve their declared aims ran counter to the existing state of development of the productive forces, which inevitably led—and could only lead—to the victory and consolidation of a capitalist economy.

Honoré de Balzac

An interesting example of how great works of literature can have revolutionary significance is The Human Comedy, a lengthy series of novels by the outstanding French writer of the nineteenth century, Honoré de Balzac. This important question is the theme of Ben Curry’s article, The revolutionary dialectic of Balzac’s Human Comedy.

Balzac, who was one of Marx’s favorite authors, is considered the father of the Realist school of literature and he explicitly sought to give a complete, living representation of all the “social species” that inhabited the world.

Paradoxically, in his own political ideas, Balzac was a conservative reactionary. But his courageous honesty and absolute dedication to historical truth and realism led him to write works that brilliantly expose the rottenness and degeneracy of the old nobility, and the impossibility of restoring the Old Regime.

He also depicted the brutal nature of bourgeois society, which was developing at this time. As a result, the characters he treats the most favorably are republicans and revolutionaries.

At this time the French working class was scattered and only beginning to become conscious of itself. Consequently, it does not feature in Balzac’s work, except as part of the urban poor. But this fact takes nothing away from the colossal value of these works, not just as great literature but as a truthful record of the past.

Balzac’s Human Comedy presents a masterful panorama of French society from 1815 to 1848. It was held in the highest regard by Marx and Engels. In the words of Engels: “There is the history of France from 1815 to 1848 … And what boldness! What a revolutionary dialectic in his poetical justice!”6

There are a few novels written in our own times about which these words could be spoken. I am thinking of The Man Who Loved Dogs by the outstanding Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura, who provides a fascinating account of the last years of Trotsky and his assassination, or the marvelous series of novels by the late Gore Vidal about American history after the Revolution, especially his masterpiece, Lincoln.

There are, no doubt, other honorable exceptions to the rule. But in general, it is clear that in the epoch of the senile decay of capitalism, the bourgeoisie is incapable of rising to the heights of a Balzac or a Dickens, not to speak of a Dante or a Shakespeare. We shall have to wait for a new society to free us from slavery, not just economically and socially, but intellectually and spiritually.

London, May 26, 2023


[1] G W F Hegel, The Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences, Oxford University Press, 1963, p. 42

[2] G W F Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Dover Publications, 2004, p. 8

[3] K Marx, F Engels, Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, Vol. 4, Laurence and Wishart, 1975, p. 93

[4] K Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Wellred Books, 2022, p. 2

[5] K Marx, F Engels, “The German Ideology” in Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, Vol. 5, Laurence and Wishart, 1976, p. 37

[6] F Engels, Karl Marx Frederick Engels Collected Works, Vol. 49, Lawrence and Wishart, 2001, p. 71

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