What is historical materialism?


The rise of the feudal system following the collapse of Rome was accompanied by a long period of cultural stagnation in all of Europe north of the Pyrenees. With the exception of two inventions: the water wheel and windmills, there were no real inventions for about over a thousand years. One thousand years after the fall of Rome the only decent roads in Europe were Roman roads. In other words, there was a complete eclipse of culture. This was a result of the collapse of the productive forces, upon which culture ultimately depends. That is what we mean by a descending line in history. And let nobody imagine that such a thing cannot recur.

The barbarian invasions, wars and plagues meant that progress was punctuated with periods of retrogression. But eventually the chaotic conditions that coincided with the fall of Rome were replaced by a new equilibrium: feudalism. The decline of the Roman Empire caused a sharp falling off of urban life throughout most of Europe. The barbarian invaders were gradually absorbed and by the tenth century Europe entered slowly into a new period of ascent.

Of course, this statement is relative in character. Culture did not regain comparable levels to those of antiquity until the beginning of the renaissance in the late 14th and 15th centuries. Learning and science were strictly subordinated to the authority of the Church. Men’s energies were absorbed either in constant warfare or monastic dreams, but gradually the downward spiral came to an end and was replaced by a long upward slope.

The closing of avenues of communication led to a collapse of trade. The money economy was undermined and increasingly replaced by barter. In place of the integrated international economy of the slave system under the Empire, we had the proliferation of small isolated agricultural communities.

The basis of feudalism was already laid in Roman society, when the slaves were freed and turned into colons, tied to the land, who later became serfs. This process, which occurred at different times, assuming different forms in different countries, was accelerated by the barbarian conquests. The Germanic warlords became the lords of the conquered lands and their inhabitants, offering military protection and a degree of security in exchange for expropriation of the labour of the serfs.

In the early period of feudalism the atomization of the nobility allowed relatively strong monarchies but later the royal power found itself confronted with strong estates capable of challenging it and overthrowing it. The barons had their own feudal armies which they frequently led into the field against each other and also against the king.

The feudal system in Europe was mainly a decentralized system. The power of the monarchy was limited by the aristocracy. The central power was usually weak. The centre of gravity of the feudal lord, his power base, was his manor and estate. The state power was weak and the bureaucracy non-existent. This weakness of the centre was what later permitted the independence of the towns (royal charters) and the emergence of the bourgeoisie as a separate class.

The romantic idealisation of the Middle Ages is based on a myth. This was a bloody and convulsive period, characterised by great cruelty and barbarism and what Marx and Engels called a brutal display of energy. The Crusades were characterised by unusual viciousness and inhumanity. The German invasions of Italy were exercises in futility.

The last period of the Middle Ages was a troubled time, characterised by continuous convulsions, wars and civil wars – just like our own times. To all intents and purposes the old order was already dead. Although it still remained defiantly on its feet, its existence was no longer regarded as something normal – something that had to be accepted as inevitable.

For a hundred years England and France were engaged in a bloody war that reduced large parts of France to ruin. The battle of Agincourt was the last and bloodiest battle of the Middle Ages. Here, in essence, two rival systems were pitted against each other on the battlefield: the old feudal military order, based on the nobility and the idea of chivalry and service, clashed with a new mercenary army based on wage labour.crusaders

The French nobility was decimated, defeated shamefully by an army of mercenary commoners. In the first 90 minutes 8,000 of the flower of the French aristocracy was butchered and 1,200 taken prisoner. At the end of the day not only the whole of the French nobility lay dead and bleeding on the battlefield, but the feudal order itself.

This had important social and political consequences. From this moment, the French nobility’s grip on power began to weaken. When the English were driven from France it was by an uprising of the people led by a peasant girl, Joan of Arc. Amidst the wreckage of their lives, the chaos and bloodshed, the French people became conscious of their national identity and acted accordingly. The bourgeois began to demand their rights and charters and a new central monarchical power, leaning on the bourgeoisie and the people, began to seize the reins of power, forging a national state out of which modern France finally emerged.joan of arcJoan of Arc

The Black Death

When a given socio-economic system enters into crisis and decline, this is reflected not only in stagnation of the productive forces, but at every level. The decline of feudalism was an epoch when intellectual life was dead or dying. The dead hand of the Church paralysed all cultural and scientific initiatives.

The feudal structure was based on a pyramid in which God and the King stood at the top of a complex hierarchy, each segment of which was linked to the others by so-called duties. In theory, the feudal lords “protected” the peasants, who in return put food on their table and clothes on their backs, fed and enabled them to live a life of luxury and idleness; the priests prayed for their soul, the knights defended them and so on.

This system lasted a very long time. In Europe it lasted approximately one thousand years: from about the middle of the fifth to the middle of the fifteenth centuries. But by the 13th century feudalism in England and other countries was already reaching its limits. The growth in population put the whole system under colossal strain. Marginal lands had to be brought under cultivation, and much of the population merely eked out a bare living at the level of subsistence on small plots of land.

It was an “edge-of-chaos” situation, where the whole unsound edifice could be brought crashing down by a sufficiently powerful external shock. And what shock could be more powerful than this? The ravages of the Black Death, which killed off between one third and half the population of Europe, served to throw into sharp relief the injustice and misery, ignorance and intellectual and spiritual darkness of the fourteenth century.

It is now generally accepted that the Black Death played an important role in undermining feudalism. This was particularly clear in the case of England. Having already killed half the population of Europe, the plague spread to England in the summer of 1348. As the plague spread inland to the villages of rural England, the population was decimated. Whole families, sometimes, whole villages, were wiped out. As on the European mainland, about half the population perished. However, those who managed to survive frequently found themselves in possession of quite large amounts of land. A new class of rich peasants was being created.

The colossal loss of life led to an extreme shortage of labour. There were simply not enough labourers to gather in the harvest or artisans to perform all the other necessary functions. This laid the basis for a profound social transformation. Feeling their strength, the peasants demanded, and got, higher wages and lower rents. If the lord refused to meet their demands, they could always leave and go to another master who was willing to do so. Some villages were abandoned altogether.

The old bonds were first loosened and then broken. As the peasants threw off the yoke of feudal obligations, many flocked to the towns to seek their fortune. This, in turn, led to a further development of the towns and therefore furthered the rise of the bourgeoisie. In 1349 King Edward III passed what was possibly the first wages policy in history: the Statute of Labourers. This decreed that wages must be held at the old levels. But the law was a dead letter from the start. The laws of supply and demand were already stronger than any royal decree.

Everywhere there was a new spirit of rebelliousness. The old authority was already undermined and discredited. The whole rotten edifice was tottering for a fall. One good push, it seemed, would finish it. In France there were a whole series of peasant uprisings known as jacqueries. Even more serious was the Peasants Rising in England (1381), when the rebels occupied London and for a time had the king in their power. But ultimately these risings could not succeed.

These uprisings were just premature anticipations of the bourgeois revolution at a time when the conditions for this had not completely matured. They expressed the dead end of feudalism and the deep discontent of the masses. But they could not show a way out. As a result the feudal system, although substantially modified, survived for a period, manifesting all the symptoms of a diseased and declining social order. The last period of the Middle Ages was a troubled time, characterised by continuous convulsions, wars and civil wars – just like our own times.

The feeling that the end of the world is nigh is common to every historical period when a particular socio-economic system had entered into irreversible decline. This was the period when large numbers of men took to the roads, barefoot and dressed in penitential rags, flogging themselves till they bled. The flagellant sects awaited the end of the world, which they anxiously expected from one hour to the next.

In the end, what occurred was not the end of the world but only the end of feudalism, and what arrived was not the new Millennium but only the capitalist system. But they could not be expected to understand this. One thing was clear to all. The old world was in a state of rapid and irremediable decay. Men and women were torn by contradictory tendencies. Their beliefs were shattered and they were cut adrift in a cold, inhuman, hostile and incomprehensible world.

The rise of the bourgeoisie

When all the old certainties were overthrown. It was as if the lynchpin of the world had been removed. The result was terrifying turbulence and uncertainty. By the middle of the 15th century, the old system of beliefs began to unravel. People no longer looked to the Church to provide salvation, comfort and solace. Instead religious dissention arose in many different forms, and served as a guise for social and political opposition.

Peasants were defying the old laws and restrictions, demanding freedom of movement and asserting it by migrating to the towns without a license. Contemporary chronicles express the irritation of the lords at the unwillingness of the labourers to take orders. There were even some strikes.

Amidst all this darkness new forces were stirring, announcing the birth of a new power and a new civilization that was gradually growing up inside the womb of the old society. The rise of trade and the towns brought with it a new aspiring class, the bourgeoisie, which began to jostle for position and power with the feudal ruling classes, the nobility and the Church. The birth of a new society was announced in art and literature, where new trends began to emerge in the course of the next hundred years.

To all intents and purposes the old order was already dead. Although it still remained defiantly on its feet, its existence was no longer regarded as something normal – something that had to be accepted as inevitable. The general perception (or rather feeling) that the end of the world was approaching was not entirely wrong. Only it was not the end of the world but the end of the feudal system.

The rise of the towns, those islands of capitalism in a sea of feudalism, was gradually undermining the old order. The new money economy, appearing at the margins of society, was gnawing at the foundations of feudal economy. The old feudal restrictions were now unbearable impositions, intolerable barriers to progress. They had to be shattered, and they were shattered. But the victory of the bourgeoisie did not come all at once. A long period was required for it to gain a final victory over the old order. Only gradually did a new spark of life reappear in the towns.

The slow recovery of trade led to the rise of the bourgeoisie and a revival of the towns, notably in Flanders, Holland and northern Italy. New ideas began to appear. After the fall of Constantinople to the Turks (1453) there was a new interest in the ideas and art of classical antiquity. New forms of art appeared in Italy and the Netherlands. Boccaccio’s Decameron may be considered as the first modern novel. In England the writings of Chaucer are full of life and colour, reflecting a new spirit in art. The Renaissance was taking its first hesitant steps. Gradually, out of chaos a new order was arising.

The Reformation

By the 14th century capitalism was well established in Europe. The Netherlands became the factory of Europe, and trade flourished along the river Rhine. The cities of Northern Italy were a powerful locomotive of economic growth and commerce, opening up trade with Byzantium and the East. From about the 5th to the 12th centuries, Europe consisted of largely isolated economies. No longer! The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape and the general expansion of trade gave a fresh impetus not only to the creation of wealth but to the development of men’s minds.

Under such conditions, the old intellectual stagnation was no longer possible. The ground was cut from under the feet of the conservatives and reactionaries, as Marx and Engels explained in The Communist Manifesto:

“The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development.”

It is no coincidence that the rise of the bourgeoisie in Italy, Holland, England and later in France was accompanied by an extraordinary flourishing of culture, art and science. Revolution, as Trotsky once said, has always been the driving force of history. In countries where the bourgeois revolution triumphed in the 17th and 18th centuries, the development of the productive forces and technology was complemented by a parallel development of science and philosophy, which undermined the ideological dominion of the Church forever.

In the epoch of the rise of the bourgeoisie, when capitalism still represented a progressive force in history, the first ideologists of that class had to fight a hard battle against the ideological bastions of feudalism, starting with the Catholic Church. Long before destroying the power of feudal landlords, the bourgeoisie had to break down the philosophical and religious defences mounted to protect the feudal system around the Church and its militant arm, the Inquisition. This revolution was anticipated by the revolt of Martin Luther against the authority of the Church.

During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries Germany saw a move from an entirely agrarian economy and the rise of new social classes that clashed with the traditional feudal hierarchy. Luther’s attacks on the Roman Catholic Church acted as the spark that ignited revolution. The burghers and lesser nobility sought to break the power of the clergy, escape the clutches of Rome, and, last but not least, enrich themselves through the confiscation of church property.

But in the depths of feudal society, other more elemental forces were stirring. When Luther’s appeals against the clergy and ideas about Christian freedom reached the ears of the German peasants, they acted as a powerful stimulus to the repressed rage of the masses who had long suffered in silence the oppression of the feudal lords. Now they rose up to extract a terrible vengeance upon all their oppressors.

Beginning in 1524, the Peasants' War spread across the Germanic regions of the Holy Roman Empire during 1525 until its suppression in 1526. What happened after this has been repeated frequently in subsequent history. When confronted with the consequences of his revolutionary ideas, Luther had to choose a side, and he joined with the burghers, nobility, and princes in crushing the peasants.

The peasants found a better leader in the person of Thomas Müntzer. While Luther preached peaceful resistance, Thomas Müntzer attacked the priesthood in violent sermons, calling for the people to rise up in arms. Like Luther he cited biblical references to justify his actions: “Does not Christ say, ‘I came not to send peace, but a sword’?”

The most radical wing of the movement were the Anabaptists, who were already beginning to question private property, taking as their model the primitive communism of the early Christians described in The Acts of the Apostles. Müntzer maintained that the Bible was not infallible, that the Holy Spirit had ways of communicating directly through the gift of reason.

Luther was horrified and wrote the notorious pamphlet Against the Murderous, Thieving Hoards of Peasants. The revolt was crushed with unspeakable barbarity, which set Germany back for centuries. But the tide of bourgeois revolt that was reflected in the rise of Protestantism was now unstoppable.

Those lands where the reactionary feudal forces quelled the embryo of the new society before birth, were sentenced to the nightmare of a long and inglorious period of degeneration, decline and decay. The example of Spain is the most graphic in this regard.

The bourgeois Revolution

The first bourgeois revolution took the form of a national revolt of the Netherlands against the oppressive rule of Catholic Spain. In order to succeed, the wealthy Dutch burgers leaned on the men of no property: those courageous desperados drawn mainly from the poorest layers of society. The shock troops of the Dutch Revolution were known contemptuously by their enemies as the Sea Beggars.

This description was not altogether inaccurate. They were poor artisans, labourers, fishermen, homeless and dispossessed people – all those regarded as the dregs of society, but fired up with Calvinist fanaticism, they inflicted one defeat after another on the forces of mighty Spain. It was this that laid the basis for the rise of the Dutch Republic and a modern prosperous bourgeois Holland.france 63022 960 720

The next episode in the bourgeois revolution was even more significant and far-reaching in its implications. The English revolution of the seventeenth century assumed the form of civil war. It expressed itself as dual power, the royal power, resting upon the privileged classes or the upper circles of these classes – the aristocrats and bishops, based in Oxford  – was confronted by the bourgeoisie and the small landowners and plebeian masses, based around London.

The English Revolution only succeeded when Oliver Cromwell, basing himself on the most radical elements, that is, the armed plebeians, swept the bourgeoisie to one side and waged a revolutionary war against the Royalists. As a result, the king was captured and executed. The conflict ended with a purging of the Parliament and the dictatorship of Cromwell.

The lower ranks of the army, under the leadership of the Levellers – the extreme left wing of the revolution – tried to carry the Revolution further, questioning private property, but were crushed by Cromwell. The reason for this defeat must be found in the objective conditions of the period. Industry had not yet developed to the point where it could provide the basis for socialism.

The proletariat itself remained at an embryonic stage of development. The Levellers themselves represented the lower levels of the petty bourgeoisie, and therefore, despite all their heroism, were unable to have their own, individual historic path. After Cromwell’s death the bourgeoisie reached a compromise with Charles II that enabled it to hold real power while maintaining the Monarchy as a bulwark against any future revolutions against private property.

The American Revolution, which took the form of a war of national independence only succeeded to the degree that it involved the mass of poor farmers who waged a successful guerrilla war against the armies of King George of England.

The French Revolution of 1789-93 was on a far higher level than the English Revolution. This was one of the greatest events in human history. Even today it is an endless source of inspiration. And whereas Cromwell fought under the banner of religion, the French bourgeoisie raised the banner of Reason. Even before it brought down the formidable walls of the Bastille, it had brought down the invisible, but no less formidable, walls of the Church and religion.

At every stage the motor force that drove the French Revolution forward, sweeping aside all obstacles, was the active participation of the masses. And when this active participation of the masses ebbed, the Revolution came to a full stop and went into reverse. That was what led directly to reaction, firstly of the Thermidorian and later of the Bonapartist variety.

The enemies of the French Revolution always try to blacken its image with the accusation of violence and bloodshed. As a matter of fact the violence of the masses is inevitably a reaction against the violence of the old ruling class. The origins of the Terror must be sought in the reaction of the revolution to the threat of violent overthrow from both internal and external enemies. The revolutionary dictatorship was the result of revolutionary war and was only an expression of the latter.

Under the rule of Robespierre and the Jacobins, the semi-proletarian Sans-culottes carried the Revolution to a successful conclusion. In fact, the masses pushed the leaders to go far further than they had intended. Objectively, the Revolution was bourgeois-democratic in character, since the development of the productive forces and the proletariat had not yet reached a point where the question of socialism could be posed.

At a certain point, the process, having reached its limits, had to go into reverse. Robespierre and his faction struck down the Left wing and were then cut down themselves. The Thermidorian reactionaries in France hunted and oppressed the Jacobins, while the masses, worn out by years of exertion and sacrifice, had begun to fall into passivity and indifference. The pendulum now swung sharply to the right. But it did not restore the Ancien Regime. The fundamental socio-economic gains of the Revolution remained. The power of the landed aristocracy was broken.

The rotten and corrupt Directory was followed by the equally rotten and corrupt personal dictatorship of Bonaparte. The French bourgeoisie was terrified of the Jacobins and the Sans-culottes with their egalitarian and levelling tendencies. But it was even more terrified by the threat of royalist counterrevolution, which would drive it from power and put the clock back to pre-1789. The wars continued and there were still internal revolts by reactionaries. The only way out was to reintroduce dictatorship, but in the form of military rule. The bourgeoisie was looking for a Saviour and found one in the person of Napoleon Bonaparte.

With the defeat of Napoleon in the Battle of Waterloo, the last flickering embers of the fires lit by revolutionary France were extinguished. A long, grey period settled down on Europe like a thick coat of suffocating dust. The forces of triumphant reaction seemed firmly in the saddle. But that was only in appearance. Beneath the surface, the Mole of Revolution was busy digging the foundations for a new revolution.

The victory of capitalism in Europe laid the basis for a colossal upswing of industry, and with it, the strengthening of that class that is destined to overthrow capitalism and usher in a new and higher stage of social development – socialism. Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto:

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”

These words describe the reactionary system that was established by the Congress of Vienna following the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. It was intended to eliminate the risk of revolution forever, to exorcise the spectre of the French Revolution forever. The brutal dictatorship of the “powers of old Europe” seemed as if it would last forever. But sooner or later things would turn into their opposite. Beneath the surface of reaction, new forces were gradually maturing and a new revolutionary class – the proletariat – was stretching its limbs.

The counter-revolution was overthrown by a new revolutionary wave that swept over Europe in 1848. These revolutions were fought under the banner of democracy – the same banner that was raised over the barricades of Paris in 1789. But everywhere the leading force in the revolution was not the cowardly, reactionary bourgeoisie but the lineal descendants of the French Sans-culottes – the working class, which inscribed on its banner a new kind of revolutionary ideal, the ideal of Communism.

The revolutions of 1848-9 were defeated through the cowardice and treachery of the bourgeoisie and its Liberal representatives. Reaction ruled once more until 1871, when the heroic proletariat of France stormed heaven in the Paris Commune, the first time in history that the working class overthrew the old bourgeois state and began to create a new kind of state – a workers’ state. That glorious episode only lasted a few months and was finally drowned in blood. But it left a lasting heritage and laid the basis for the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Join us

If you want more information about joining the IMT, fill in this form. We will get back to you as soon as possible.