Marx and the danger of historical regression

Image: Kevin Burnell


In the 205 years since the birth of Karl Marx, capitalism still has yet to be defeated

“A 'just in time' revolution, without risks or surprises, would be an event without an event, a kind of revolution without a revolution. Carrying out a possible revolution is, in essence, untimely and, to some extent, always premature. A creative imprudence (…) Would taking the side of the oppressed when the objective conditions for their liberation are not ripe betray a teleological vision? The “anachronistic” combats of Spartacus, Münzer, Winstantley, Babeuf, would then take a desperate date in life from an announced end. The opposite interpretation seems more in line with Marx's thinking: no pre-established meaning of history, no predestination justifies resignation to oppression. Untimely (…) revolutions do not fit the pre-established standards (…) They are born on the ground, from suffering and humiliation. We are always right to revolt” (Daniel Bensaïd, Marx L'intempestif, P. 69-70).

Today is the day we celebrate the birth of Karl Marx in 1818. Discussing the relevance of Marxism is to verify whether the most powerful idea of ​​his work has passed the test of history: the bet that capitalisms would be, like the modes of production that preceded it, historically, transitory. The challenge posed would be socialism or barbarism.

The inescapable question, at the beginning of the third decade of the XNUMXst century, is whether capitalism still offers some horizon for civilized life. But also to recognize that the danger of historical regression has never been greater since the defeat of Nazi-fascism in World War II. The extreme right, and even neo-fascist movements, are growing on a world scale, in central countries, but also in peripheral ones. His project is the destruction of the social rights conquered in the post-war period, and cannot be underestimated.

The theme of historical regressions cannot therefore be neglected. The pulsation of historical rhythms was, in the long durations, largely irregular, full of discontinuities, and very bumpy by real fractures of time, or dangerous abysses into which the evolutionary process plunged, blocking promising possibilities that were latent, but were dramatically aborted . History has never been linear or circular. The clock of history sometimes runs backwards.

The romanticization of history as synonymous with progress is an illusion. The productive forces may or may not grow. The social psychology of the struggling classes matters. The historical example of the Roman Empire is very well known, which, although it had an immense volume of knowledge available, due to the abundance of available slave labor, neglected a good part of the technological applications, which would represent an important increase in productivity. In other words, there are, in history, counterfactors (social and political) that can nullify the tendency for the productive forces to grow and, therefore, this impulse of progress is not linear, it is very irregular.

An interesting example of how Marx was aware of the non-linearities of the historical process can be found in this passage on historical regressions. The theme deserves attention, in a situation like the one we are experiencing, in which regression processes are spreading at an unusual speed, generating in Latin America a recolonization that has been described by the most critical journalists as the “lost decades”.

To check Marx, let's see this fragment: "The example of the Phoenicians shows us to what extent, the productive forces developed even with a relatively small trade, are susceptible to a total destruction, since their inventions disappeared for the most part, at least the fact that the nation was driven out of trade and conquered by Alexander, which brought about its downfall… the duration of the productive forces acquired is assured only when trade acquires a world-wide extent based on large-scale industry and when all nations are swept along for the fight against competition”.[I]

It is not uncommon for historical analyzes to forget the ABC of Marxism, which explains that, in the last analysis, it is because they act, in most circumstances, despite their interests, or even against their interests, that subordinate classes support , or tolerate, the brutal conditions of exploitation to which they are subjected, without rebelling, or postponing the rebellion.

They do this, of course, not only because they are ignorant of what their interests are, but because they doubt their own strength. And yet, one of the simplest definitions of a revolutionary situation is that it opens up when the dominated majority begins to make the transition from a situation of "classes per se" to "class per se". The “intrinsic” tendency to the development of the productive forces must be considered in the light of this approach, with many mediations: it can also be nullified by countless factors.

Among the most unlikely processes in history, the ephemeral reign of the Vandals in Carthage stands out. After roaming southern Europe for a few years devoted to plunder and prey, like other Germanic tribes, the Vandals crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and settled in North Africa where they imposed their ferocious rule, mercilessly enslaving the conquered. It was processes like this that led most Marxist historians to consider that the slave revolts did not carry any project of reorganization of socio-economic production that was very different from the historical limits of slavery in the Mediterranean.

The theme of great historical transitions, as is well known, has always attracted the attention of Marxist historians. Most concentrated their research focus on the passage from feudalism to capitalism, but some were also interested, with the same passion, in the collapse of the ancient world. They sought to understand the objective conditions of these unique moments in history, which are the changes in modes of production. Among the numerous studies on the issue, the two works by Perry Anderson, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism e Lineages of the Absolutist State, for the original articulation of the analyzes of class struggles with other causalities, applying to these periods the resources of an understanding of history as an uneven and combined development.

At the dawn of capitalism, the formation of the world market, the elevation of the productive forces from artisanal forms to manufacture, the increase in the circulation of goods and money, came to find in the feudal structure an obstacle that needed to be displaced, under penalty of blocking the dynamics of development of the productive forces: it was necessary to eliminate internal borders; guarantee the free movement of goods and labor; eradicate the endemic belligerence of the nobility. These tasks required displacing the social and political privileges of the aristocracy.

After centuries of an unequal process, which took on very different rhythms and forms in each region of Europe, it was no longer possible to postpone the need to destroy the absolutist State where it had historically been most powerful, in France. When this clash occurs between the impulse of the productive forces and the forces of inertia of social relations, society enters a revolutionary epoch, that is, an epoch in which class struggles take the place of a determining driving force, a period that can extend over a long period, a time of great convulsions and struggles, more or less conscious, in which the ascending classes struggle against the old social order.

In history, however, as we know, there have been both transitions of a revolutionary type and transitions of a catastrophic type: the latter were, fundamentally, almost a rule, until the transition from feudalism to capitalism in Europe.

More rarely, passages of a reformist type occurred (negotiated or controlled transitions, in which agreements, mutual concessions, accommodation of interests predominate, in the face of greater danger), almost always, as a consequence of previous revolutionary passages. But the revolutionary transitions demanded, in addition to the expiry of the social relations of production (inherent to any process of historical transition), the emergence of a social subject.

Thus, in the Mediterranean, for example, despite the long decay of the Roman Empire, there was no revolutionary transition driven by the protagonism of the mass of slaves. And the empire finally succumbed under the pressure of the great Germanic migrations. Slavery held back the development of productive forces, but social relations were not revolutionized, because there was no class capable of assuming a project superior to the economic organization of the ancient world.

For centuries, the productive forces declined, stagnated, receded, that is, society as a whole regressed, only to find, under the ruins of the collapse of the old civilization, and after a long interval of barbarism, a path of social progress.

These were, for Marx, the factors that, with historical regularity, defined the opening of a revolutionary era: the maturity of the productive forces, for a reorganization of socio-economic life, driven by superior production relations, and the existence of a subject exploited society that has interests incompatible with the preservation of order.

The crisis necessarily anticipates the formation of an awareness of the crisis. In this theory construction process, however, the concept of revolutionary epoch refers both to the sphere of long duration and, therefore, of historical transition, on the scale of the constituted world market, and to the sphere of short duration and, therefore, of precipitation of a wave of revolutionary crises in the most developed countries of Western Europe.

No Communist Manifesto there would not seem to be a conceptual differentiation. Quite possibly, Marx and Engels thought, even on the eve of 1848, that the most probable hypothesis would be that the acceleration of historical times that the colossal growth of the productive forces had known, under the impulse of the industrial revolution, and the accelerated formation of the proletariat modern (the objective premises indicated in The German Ideology), shortened the historical interval of the post-capitalist transition. After the defeats of 1848, there seems to be a theoretical-political reassessment of times, deadlines and perspectives.[ii]

But this tortuous, multifaceted, irregular and, above all, unequal process of historical development does not negate the conclusion that, in the long run, the development of productive forces has science and technology as the most important factor of historical impulse. This impulse never was, and still is not, outside the class struggle process: usury, greed and covetousness, that is, everything that makes the vulgarity and meanness of capitalism, define the “spirit” of an era, and are an inseparable part of its internal upheavals and limits.

This seems to be Marx's angle of observation. And from it would derive a first classification: the pre-capitalist historical transitions, classical antiquity and pre-classical, would have been predominantly of a catastrophic type, or “unconscious” (those in which exogenous factors prevail, clashes of civilizations, “volkerwanderung”, migrations of peoples, invasions) in opposition to revolutionary type transitions, or “conscious” transitions (those that have class struggles as a driving factor, a social subject with a project for society, therefore, endogenous factors).

This “intrinsic tendency” and the “relative inflexibility” of social relations and their superstructural expressions would therefore be the key to understanding the opening of a revolutionary epoch. Whether or not the social subject is aware of what his interests are, whether or not he has confidence in his own strength, whether or not he was able to organize himself to fight for a program that translates his vision of how society should be transformed , that is, whether the social subject is politically mature for the subjective challenge of the revolutionary project, in a word, the subjective historical factors, would, at this level of abstraction, be irrelevant for defining the nature of the epoch.

But, to the same extent, subjective factors would be increasingly decisive and determining in the scale of situations and conjunctures, or, in other words, as the analysis shifts both to a more geographically defined scenario and to more delimited terms (the scale decades, or even years and months). In other words, the definition of the revolutionary epoch was made by Marx on a long-term historical scale, because it was based on the historical example of the secular transition from feudalism to capitalism. One hundred and fifty years later we know that it is very difficult to defeat capitalism.

But it is still possible, because it remains necessary.

*Valério Arcary is a retired professor at IFSP. Author, among other books, of No one said it would be Easy (boitempo).


[I] MARX, Karl and ENGELS, Friedrich. The German Ideology. Trans. Conceicao Jardim and Eduardo Lucio Nogueira. Porto, Presença, 1974. p 66.

[ii]. The theory of revolution in Marx and Engels, on the eve of 1848, was still inspired by the internal dynamics revealed by the French revolution between 1789/93. On this subject, Marx in 1848, the interesting work of Henri Lefebvre, To understand the thought of Karl Marx, he comments when the winds of the revolution were already being felt: “It was the beautiful time of his life, the happy time. He was (or thought he was) the owner of his thought and doctrine. The first symptoms of the revolutionary movement became visible under his watchful eye. Marx, it seems, still thought it possible to pass without interruption from the European democratic revolution to socialism and communism, through a “permanent revolution”. Limitless perspectives opened up. He was then 30 years old and in the full force of youth, genius, happy love”. (LEFEBVRE, Henri. To Understand the Thought of Karl Marx. Trans. Laurentino Capela. Lisbon. Editions 70. 1981).

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