The Liberal and Marxist Theories of History

We overview Marxism and classical liberalism so we can get a very full picture of what produces change over time.

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We overview Marxism and classical liberalism so we can get a very full picture of what produces, change over time.

Further Readings/References:

On Marxism, see: Marx, Karl. “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1859) from Lewis S. Feuer, ed. Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy (Garden City, NY: Anchor. 1959)

On Classical Liberalism: The collected works of William Leggett are available here:

https://archive.org/details/collectionofpoliwla01legg

https://archive.org/details/collectionofpolilg02legg

TRANSCRIPT

Anthony Comegna: When we think about what exactly causes change over time, we can obviously have a couple different answers. Some people like to say that things are basically random. Other people say, “Well, no. There really are no random events when it comes to the social sciences.” The more, let’s say, Austrian approach to a discipline like history would be to say that all actions are, in some sense at least, purposeful.
[00:00:30] This is Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna.
We want to overview Marxism and classical liberalism so we can get a very full picture of what exactly produces change and how then we can launch ourselves into the content first of early American history and then into historical [00:01:00] discussion and study more broadly. When the Marxists looked out on the world in the 19th century, they really saw a lot of poor conditions for average people. They saw larger and larger concentrations of wealth, greater and greater market interactions dissolving these old ties that kept communities and people together, continually alienating people from their work by changing production processes, introducing innovative [00:01:30] methods of production, distribution.
As the economy constantly changed under the influence of these liberal ideas about entrepreneurship and free market capitalism, it very much hurt certain people in the popular. This concerned many, especially in a place like Europe, which, as we’ll see, had a very different historical context by the mid-19th century than the United [00:02:00] States. Europe was very sharply divided along very visible class lines. As the wealthy became wealthier, they also became more powerful over people’s lives in ways that were brand new. Bosses could now … Once a worker, sort of figuratively of course, went from farm to factory, went from being a semi-independent, at least, yeoman farmer, [00:02:30] let’s say, into the factory, into the controlled work environment, he became a slave to the clock and a slave to the boss. His rhythms of life became changed as a result of his work place. All of these different factors were very alienating and disenchanting to a great number of people, especially in certain centers in European society where, again, these differences between rulers and wealthy people and working people, average people, were very [00:03:00] sharp and stark.
The Marxist as a broad group sought to explain and not justify why the world was the way it was. They wanted to describe how we got to this position where industrial workers could be exploited by the capitalist class for a meager wage when once, they would have had the land and the means to provide for themselves and live independently. How did we get to this [00:03:30] point, this position in world history where industrialism seemed to be sweeping aside all of the old world, including the parts that people may have liked and rather enjoyed?
We’re going to turn now to a very short piece from Karl Marx just to explain exactly what his theory of history amounts to. This is from Karl Marx’s “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy”.

Reader: [00:04:00] “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” by Karl Marx.
“The mode of production and material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or what is [00:04:30] but a legal expression for the same thing, with a property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production, these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution.
With the change of the economic foundation, the entire immense super structure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations, the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, [00:05:00] which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic, or philosophic, in short, ideological forms, in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge such a period of transformation by its own consciousness. On the contrary, this consciousness must rather be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the existing [00:05:30] conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.”

Anthony Comegna: Marx has what’s called a stateliest vision of change over time. He actually divides history into different, distinct, definite, identifiable [00:06:00] periods. For him, he calls them the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal, and the modern bourgeois methods of production. Each is characterized primarily by different labor relationships. To his mind, this is because, again, the material conditions of your existence, the physical world that you’re born into, especially the amount of wealth that you command, is then going to structure the rest of your life. How much power and privilege you’ll [00:06:30] be able to access and wield, for example, versus how much, or rather, how little you can contribute, and therefore, how much the boss can exploit. If all you can do is labor, if all you can do is work and sell your labor for a wage or for subsistence living, then you really don’t have many choices in life. Perhaps nobody has any choices at all. If you take the strong view, the strong Marxist position, really nobody has any choices [00:07:00] at all and we’re completely determined by the material conditions of our existence.
Here’s my interview with Dr. Jason Kuznicki, a historian at the Cato Institute and editor of Cato Unbound. We’re discussing the Marxist theory of history.

Jason Kuznicki: History for Marx was deterministic because he thought that the explanation for history lay in technology, lay in how people do work, how people transform the physical, natural world into usable things. [00:07:30] When you have a medieval level of technology, he believed only medieval forms of government are at all likely, and this is also produces a certain sensibility, a certain way of thinking about the world. We can say that technology is important and we can say that the history of labor is important without necessarily endorsing all of Marx’s conclusions, but for him, it was a fairly direct [00:08:00] line from the material technology to exactly how people governed and to exactly what people could even think potentially.
I think now that that’s been fairly well falsified, that we often find people even in medieval times with somewhat different ideas than one might expect and that there isn’t a necessary connection between the world of labor and the production of ideas. [00:08:30] Still though, it’s an interesting hypothesis and it’s one that has been tested and that has … Although it’s been falsified, I think the falsification of it has in some sense pushed the understanding of history forward.

Anthony Comegna: I wouldn’t say that I’m terribly well versed in Marxist historiography. I’d say I’m an admirer from afar, in that I think I agree with you in the interpretation of it that their perspective on how important labor is and how important our daily activity is and the struggles [00:09:00] we go through in our daily life and the forces that infringe upon us on a second by second basis sometimes, many of which are entirely outside of our choosing. That perspective and point of view is incredibly important and it’s simply something that people of other traditions have ignored too much, and so the Marxists in some sense own it. They own that history from below approach as really their big contribution. Did they get it from us, or did we [00:09:30] get it from them? Is there a way to profitably blend a classical liberal and a Marxist approach to history?

Jason Kuznicki: I would favor a kind of careful eclecticism here because while I think there are valuable stories to be told about everyday life, and while there are valuable stories to be told that are very far outside of political history, I don’t think that a lot of the Marxist method is terribly [00:10:00] useful. I don’t think that we can always, or effectively, analyze people as components of the class to which they belong. People are a lot more complicated than that.
People sometimes do act on class interests, they sometimes do understand themselves to be part of a social class as defined by their relationship to the means of production, but sometimes they act in very different ways. Sometimes they act as representatives of a religious faith, [00:10:30] which cannot be so easily reduced to a social class in the Marxist sense, or they act with respect to how they see themselves as gendered people, or they act with respect to race in ways that are much more difficult to analyze as mere reflections of social class in the Marxist sense. There have been efforts by Marxists to collapse these other categories into some form of relationship to the means of production, but I don’t really find that very convincing.

Anthony Comegna: Right. All those would be [00:11:00] reflections of the larger structure set up by property relations.

Jason Kuznicki: That’s the claim, but it’s rarely so clear cut as that. There are also cases where people act and even create new collective identities in ways that just don’t reduce to class at all, I don’t think.
Anthony Comegna: The Marxists have really turned a focus on the history basically of people that capitalism has left [00:11:30] out or that nationalism especially has left out. We can identify plenty of those. It used to be working people’s history, although that’s been pretty well fleshed out, but by now, it’s things like gender studies and queer studies, African American studies, or making up for lost ground in the history that the world has not bothered to produce yet by adopting this perspective that really the structure we live in modifies the way we [00:12:00] view the world. It influences us dramatically, even if it doesn’t quite determine who we are. It does influence us dramatically. It does split us into antagonistic factions, the amount of wealth that some control and that are others are denied and so on.
[00:12:30] The liberal theory of history has its origins in the struggle against absolutism in the early days of the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, 17th, 18th centuries. The roots of these ideas from the liberal tradition go back very, very far and they basically posit that it is the massively powerful, brutally exploitative, constantly [00:13:00] warring empires and states out there that really split the population into warring factions and therefore cause change over time.
In the liberal model, it’s not property per say, it’s not wealth and the material conditions of your existence per say that causes the social classes to split and to come into conflict. Rather, it’s the use of power. There’s, what I would call, a thick and a thin interpretation of [00:13:30] the liberal theory of history. The thin interpretation is that only political or state power does this. It is simply your access to political power that can give you or your cronies, your family, your group, whatever it might be, a special advantage, power and privilege, that others are then denied access to. Essentially, this view holds that the government is a giant cartel, and if that cartel, that monopoly, [00:14:00] were to be broken up and the powers and privileges dissolved throughout the population, you would get rid of social classes and you would get rid of the clash of interest groups that causes so much of the change that we call history.
Then there is the thick version, which says that it’s not simply political power, but it is all sorts of power that cause people to split into factions and classes [00:14:30] and antagonistic groups. This could include, it does definitely include, state power, but it could include the power of a father over his children that eventually drives them away. It could be the power of a preacher that comes on way too strongly and again drives people away. It could be the social forces that keep people closeted or that cause people [00:15:00] who are trans so many problems with their identity and safety issues.
The thick view says that any time we use what power we have as individuals to constrict the choices of others, to influence or shape their actions, we are necessarily setting up a conflict between us and them. In some sense, any use of power divides the population into warring factions, those who embrace that use of power and those who resist [00:15:30] it. It therefore gives a sort of impetus to a change in circumstances to accommodate this dissatisfaction between two parties, therefore, change over time. That’s what we call history.
The question is, again, back to our methods, what exactly do you call historical events and how does that effect which theory you think is the best one to apply when you’re actually going out and thinking about how the past worked and why the world is now the [00:16:00] way it is? I asked Jason Kuznicki about ideological thickness versus thinness.

Jason Kuznicki: There are various uses that this approach, this thick versus thin approach, can be put to. Sometimes you will find people who want to say that if you are a thin libertarian, you’re on the right of the sort of libertarian political spectrum. You’re just concerned with governmental issues. You’re not concerned with the social tolerance [00:16:30] of homosexuality, for example. You’ll say, “Why are we even making this a question? This shouldn’t matter”, with an implied, often an implied, bit of disdain there. “This ought not to be a concern for libertarians. We ought not to even care about it because what we care about is the state and we care about state power and its abuses and how it is doing harm.”

Anthony Comegna: Yeah. These other things are distractions.

Jason Kuznicki: The other stuff is a distraction. On the left, you will find people who will counter this and will say, [00:17:00] “If we don’t have an ethos of ‘live and let live’, if we don’t have a general world view that says that people should have a broad sphere of autonomy in their personal lives, then it’s only a matter of time until we enlist the state to crush people for things that they ought not to be crushed. You can have your thin libertarianism, but good luck with it lasting because it will not.”
I see some point to both. [00:17:30] The purpose of doing politics is, after all, to do politics. The purpose of having a political ideology is to have some effect on the state, but I do not think it’s true that only the state is a problem. For example, Ayn Rand famously once claimed that only the state can censor. By this, she meant you’re not being censored if the New York Times doesn’t give you its front page for you to use for your commentary. That’s not [00:18:00] censorship. I agree with her on that, but I think it’s also fairly easy to imagine cases that are censorship and yet are private. If an angry mob smashes a printing press, that’s censorship. That have, in fact, attacked the liberty of an individual to print what he believes. There are real but private affronts to liberty and that would be an example of one. If you attack someone’s liberty [00:18:30] directly, the private use of force is not a trivial matter. It’s something libertarians ought to care about also.

Anthony Comegna: I want to jump ahead to one of my favorite authors and figures from history generally. His name is William Leggett. Leggett was a radical Jacksonian newspaper editor who his career really flourished in the 1830s. He wrote for the New York Evening Post as well as a few of his own papers. Leggett [00:19:00] was just about the purest example of a modern day libertarian I think I can find from the period. Practically every one of his positions foreshadows the modern libertarian platform, if you will, or program in practically every way, right down to his being extraordinarily for his era, extraordinarily anti-slavery. Let’s look at what Leggett has to say, for example, about the New York restraining [00:19:30] law. This was a law that forbade non-chartered corporations or groups of individuals from lending money, from participating in banking. Only those individuals or groups who obtained a special charter from the state government could engage in the banking trade in the issuance of credit.
This is William Leggett article called “The Restraining Law and its Abominations” from the New York Evening Post, August 31, 1936.

Reader: “The Restraining [00:20:00] Law and its Abominations” by William Leggett.
“This vile blot upon our statute book, this tyrannous ordinance of the chartered money power, this incredible outrage on the rights of the vast unprivileged majority of the inhabitance of this free state, is one of those monstrous violations of natural justice that would not exist, but that there existence is denied, and which are denied existence because they out shock belief. [00:20:30] It is impossible that the people of New York have yet distinctly understood the provisions of this insulting statute.
What? Can two millions of men be called free, know that they are stigmatized by an insolent oligarchy as too stupid to drive the trade in money, that they are ignominiously excluded from this simple traffic and basely cheated of all participation in its profits? Will they submit to hang forever in [00:21:00] menial dependence upon the haughty smiles of a patrician order? Will they consent that 10,000 stockholders shall rule this state, and through this state, the union?
Do they know that these 10,000 men have climbed so high that they fear not to look down and say to us, who are 200 times their number, ‘Ye scurvy naves. With one another you shall not lend. [00:21:30] You shall not borrow. You shall not promise. You shall not trust. You shall in no wise deal in the thrice holy and mysterious trade of money. With one another, ye [inaudible 00:21:44], the counterchanging craft is sacrilege. The traffic in paper promises is taboo. If you have money, bring the vile [inaudible 00:21:56] to us. We will ease you of your [00:22:00] fullness, but we warn you, let not your needy brother partake your abundance.
Make us your almoners. Give us possession of the beggar’s blessing, the supplicant’s tribute, and the suitor’s fee. If you would promise, promise us. We will make you keep your promises. You are not fit to trust each other in that kind. If you [00:22:30] are in want or in straits or in dangers, come to us. Pay us salvage and we will save you, but see that you help not one another. You are weak and would let down the rate of usance. You are unskillful and would ruin the trade in money. If you have treasure that you would lay up, deposit it with us. With us, it will be safe. You yourselves [00:23:00] shall hardly tear it from our custody, but confide not your hard earnings with each other.
You are base. You are stupid. You are faithless. We alone are to be trusted. This is our advice. Such is our command. Obey and you shall be fleeced so gently that you will not know it. Resist and our strong men shall go [00:23:30] into your houses and take forfeiture of your affects, and if you abide in your obstinacy, they shall strip you of all you have and shall cast you out. You and your children to want and beggary if so it seems good to one of us, the noble order of money changers by special patent from the state.’
If this is the language of exaggeration, someone can show us where. [00:24:00] If this is not the literal translation of the law, we should be glad to know what is. We appeal to the learned and legislative jargon if we have not rendered faithfully the meaning of this statute of restraint. Our version is less coolly insolent because it is not in Christian English to utter such abominations without an honest shudder. We give the original at full length. [00:24:30] If it is not the creation of an order of American barons, the New York Times will tell us what is wanting to make the patent of nobility complete.”

Anthony Comegna: When put together in a way that most people usually do not bother doing, these two views offer us very compelling explanations for change over time. When you only [00:25:00] employ one at the expense of the other, you very easily lose a lot of explanatory power.
Liberty Chronicles is a project of libertarianism.org. It is produced by Tess Terrible. To learn more about Liberty Chronicles, visit libertarianism.org.