Historical materialism one of the core foundations of Marxism and Communism. While Karl Marx never used the term historical materialism and in fact the term was coined after his death by his friend and cowriter Frederick Engels in his book Socialism, Utopia, and Scientific. Marx may have not coined the term, but he did come up with many of the ideas that goes into historical materialism and discovered the many contradictions within the current economic system and past economic systems. Marx saw that when an economic system and class declines a new economic system and class will take there place. Marx thought that humans started in primitive communities that slowly evolved into an agrarian slave society ruled by Slave owners then to a feudal society ruled by a Feudal Lords then to a capitalist society ruled by Capitalist.
Marx and Engels both believed that capitalism came out of the contradictions within the feudal system were the merchant class ended up gaining more power than the feudal lords due to the Monarchy allowing more people to own property and technological advances, that eventually allowed the merchant class to overthrow the feudal lords and become the new ruling class. This new system was of course called capitalism and the new ruling class was called the capitalist or bourgeoise who owned the means of production or workplace.
Capitalism would then start the industrial revolution which would give rise to factories and other industries. Along with eroding the older social norms, national identities, and institutions of society. To Marx and Engels this was all positive developments believing that this was moving society forward. At the same however Marx and Engels were very critical of capitalism. Seeing the instability of the market when the economy crashed, poor conditions that workers had to work and live in at the time. Along with the alienation that came with capitalism when it came to work and community which became hollow. Along with the centralization of property with fewer and fewer hands holding property leaving the majority of people propertyless and poor. In Marx’s view the next major war of their time that being the Great War or World War 1 would lead to the industrial working class or proletarian rising up and overthrowing the capitalist class.
Then the workers would establish Socialism where property is collectively owned, and the means of production are run by the working class. This would all be over seen by the state until it slowly withers away and then communism is established were the state, class, and money are abolished and like socialism the workers control the means of production.
While Marx and Engels correctly outlined the issues of capitalism, the stage of production that got society to capitalism, and got many other things correct. However, the great revolution that they were predicting in industrial society never happen. The revolutions always happened in agrarian and semi feudal societies like Russia, China, Columbia, and Vietnam. Only to have capitalism after the fall of socialism. Russia for example ended up having capitalism after the fall of the USSR when prior to the USSR Russia was a semi feudal society. Then there’s the fact socialism despite it being viewed as a more progress economic system than capitalism ended up reinforcing the old order in some ways. While socialism did bring about industrialization in many of these countries, but socialism ended up reinforcing national identity and older social norms like the family and even religion in some cases.
Despite the flaws within historical materialism there are many people who still believe that Marx was onto something including those who are on the Right and those who are Nationalist. Some of these thinkers take on more Conservative and Nationalistic interpretation of Marxism and class struggle. Other believed in a different class and economic system that would replace capitalism rather than socialism or the workers. Then there was those who expand upon the stages of capitalism in unique ways. While many of them never called themselves historical materialist but they still shared many commonalities with it. Some of these thinkers have been forgotten about in mainstream society but that does not mean that we can’t learn anything from them. In fact, they can show us different perspective and solutions to concepts that Marx got wrong or did not talk about. This article/ blog post will go over 4 of these thinkers along with linking some of their writings at the end of the post.
Brook Adams and the Cycle of Civilizations
Brooks Adams was a late 19th and early 20th century American historian and political theorist who was critical of capitalism. When it came to history Adams mainly focused on the rise and fall of civilization and how the economy played into this. Adams believed that civilization and the economy goes in cycles. The classes that rule a society rises and falls. Along with believing that civilization is synonymous with centralization. All societies start out with power being decentralized but slowly coming together to eventually form a monopoly. Now while Adams saw this as a natural phenomenon that did have some positives although there were many negatives that came with centralization. The consolidation of wealth and property in a few people’s hands leaving the majority poor and no stake hold in society. As the elites’ desires for wealth grows, they disregard spiritual and creative values leading to a lack of innovation and growing mistrust in society that eventually leads to that civilization to crumble then the cycle starts all over again. Where power and property are more distributed along with a new mode of production and advances in technology.
Before we talk about the decline of Rome, we first must understand Adams view on how Rome and other civilizations got so powerful? Rome like other civilizations became powerful because they had many resources and materials like metals that the Romans could trade with other groups and empires. This allowed Rome to become a very wealthy trade zone which helped expand its influence. In Adams view Rome started to decay due several reasons. First was the rise of the slave class. Originally before these people became slaves landlords would heir freemen who had debts to them but, the freemen’s sons would also inherit their fathers debt and only increase their own to point where they became slaves. This was only furthered by the Roman court system which was based around creating and maintaining debt. The courts also allowed landlords to buy, sell and kill the debtors that worked for them.
Due to this system its slowly caused capital to decrease to the point where landlords couldn’t pay their own taxes. Ruining the main source of revenue at that time and could not make anything on the main industries of Rome which was agriculture and mining. This meant that the Romans couldn’t pay back there foreign trading partners. The landlords and government officials soon found another source of revenue which was war and conquest which allowed the landlords to gain more resources and slaves, but this only slow down the processes not fixing the problem. Capital did increase but only in a few hands and even still they barely had enough money to subsist even in the best of times. Where even the slightest error could lead to bankruptcy.
Another problem was the centralization and devaluing of the roman currency due to inflation. The final nails in the coffin was the replacing of the loyal Roman Legions with mercenaries who worked for money and not of loyalty to the empire. Along with the moving of the capitol to Constantinople were the money and powerful also moved too and eventually the splitting of empire in two that being West and East Rome. Western Rome finally fell in the 5th century to the German Barbarians.
Adams on the Feudal and Medieval Era
After the fall of Rome, power became decentralized. Most of Europe was ruled by small monarchies whose power was minimal compared to that of the Roman Emperors. The economy was also very decentralized controlled mostly by guilds and local feudal lords who had very little influence outside of the town or village they where in. The guilds unlike the previous system which kept people in debt tried to protect the interest of workers and consumers. Along with regulating trade.
The most powerful entity at this time wasn’t a government or an economic class but rather the Roman Catholic Church which had influences over almost all the monarchies in Europe and having power to get many of these monarchies to unite and launch the first crusade into the Middle East. The Crusade brought back numerous resources and opened trade routes outside of Europe. This also was the first steps of Western Europe to centralization and the feudal system undoing. With these new resources the monarchies wanted to expand which came into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church. When the Reformation happen which delegitimized the Catholic Church power to many and allowed disloyal monarchies to raid churches which had immense wealth inside them.
New resources like gunpowder also allowed the merchant class to expand outside their towns and villages due to them now having better weapons like guns to protect themselves. The monarchies in their quest for more wealth and power allowed private property to become more available. Along with allowing voyages outside of Europe to claim new territories, spread religious influence, expand trade routes, and find more resources. Which caused the discovery of the Americas. This all allowed the guild and feudal system to be surpassed by the merchant class who soon started to see the guilds and feudal lords as a pest to their own power. This all ended up boiling over in the French Revolution which overthrew not only the feudal system but the monarchy as well and gave rise to Liberalism and the Capitalist Class. These ideas would soon spread throughout the rest of Western Europe which, dismantled the feudal system.
Capitalism and the Modern Age.
The Capitalist age started off decentralized just like the Medieval age however centralization and technological advancement happened a lot quicker. The capitalist era started off with competition between multiple different small businesses and the economy was still based around agriculture. But this would not last since there was now less regulation on property which allowed new industries and technologies to emerge which was called the industrial revolution.
Around this time the economic powerhouse of European countries was being challenge by United States due to the US lowering their sales in trade and being one of the first countries to adopt capitalism. Which gave rise to industrialization and the industrial capitalist. The industrial class would gain immense power in the northern part of America, but the industrial class would have to share power with the southern slave owning class in the south until 1865 when slavery and the slave holding class was abolished. This allowed the industrial class and capitalism in a purer form to spread to the south.
As time went on the economy became more centralized and wealth was in fewer hands due to bigger businesses out competing smaller businesses becoming more powerful even more powerful than the state. This is where Adams starts to see the problem with capitalism and corporations. Adams see these big companies as putting their owner’s interest over that of society. Capitalism was a chaotic system due to this. Adams saw how not only financial capitalism hindered the colonial projects of countries for its own interest but also saw how many big businesses would go against the law or corrupt the law and how poorly the workers were treated with so few protections, long hours, and low wages. Along with child labor which Adams detested.
The decay of the Family which Adams saw as a key foundation of authority and society was another problem that Adams saw with capitalist society along with its failure to replace it with anything better. Adams also was concerned with the standardization of education which he saw as letting people be uncreative and not reach their full potential. Like in previous sections monopolization would lead to stagnation due profit becoming more important than creativity but even more exclusively about money then the feudal French aristocrats where in their time. Now while Adams was very critical of capitalism he was also critical of taxation due to taxation making “social diversity and inheritance of property negatable.”
All these conditions that Adams saw caused massive strikes and waves of violence in his time. To Adams if the state could not make the capitalist class follow the law or if the capitalist class does not make concessions to the workers or cannot become more orderly or find a new creative and intellectual energy. Then the Capitalist system and American Civilization would surely collapse. He believed a possible way forward would be state planning and imperialism could be a means to stop the American decline and over come capitalism without the collapse of America.
On one final note about Adams and capitalism is that he saw democracy as the “ally and dupe of the capitalist system. Which proves unable to fulfill the duties of sacrifice and leadership; So, the structure of social organization collapses, and the dreary cycle of endeavor commences afresh” as Russell Kirk explains it. Democracy just like capitalism lead to conflicting minds and interest leading to social warfare and destruction of civilization. Therefore, Adams saw the democratic philosophy as suicidal. He also saw equality and liberty as impossible
Marx and Adams
While Adams work attracted many American socialist at the time and there’s many similarities between Marx and Adams. From there critiques of capitalism and similar historical processes however, there are some clear differences between the two. It is clear to many of Adams works is that he is a man of order critiquing capitalism on this basis and more interested in reforming system rather than all out revolution, but he believes if there is no reform then revolution is inevitable. Marx on the other hand believed revolution was necessary to bring about the new system which was socialism. Another difference is that Adams never believed in an ended of history or end of stages of development like Marx’s did. Nor did Adams ever believe in a stateless or classless society is achievable unlike Marx.
The final major differences between the two is that Adams was a conservative in many ways and a man of order. Critiquing capitalism as a system that creates chaos putting profit above the national interest. Adams was also not hostile to the ideas of religion or the traditional family unlike Marx’s who believed these things held society back. One last difference is that Adam’s theory of history is cyclical while Marx’s view of history is linear. However, both would agree that one could not go back to the past but to Adams the Rise and fall of civilizations and class is never ending and that we may have lost something important in the past that we don’t have now unlike Marx’s who believe the struggle will end and man is moving forward to a brighter future. Adams was a lot more pessimistic about the industrialization of society but believed there was nothing that one could do to stop this process. He believed that state planning and imperialism could be away forward to American society.
Ernst Niekisch; The Left Winger of The Right.
Ernst Niekisch was a German Conservative Revolutionary thinker during the 1920s to 30s and one of main theorist behind German National Bolshevism which is a mixture of German Nationalism and Marxian Socialism. Despite taking major influence from Marx and the USSR. There are many differences between Marx’s historical materialism and Niekisch historical materialism however, both share many similarities, but they go in different direction.
Class struggle to Niekisch like Marx was the main drive of history however, Unlike Marx who saw class struggle as progressive and Anti Nationalist to Niekisch class struggle was a revolt against destiny and decay. Class struggle brought about National Liberation and National Revival. Niekisch saw the French and Russian Revolutions as a struggle that overthrew the Nobel and Feudal classes that were dying who were causing their countries to decay and become colonized by others. The class struggle liberated these countries to Niekisch and brought about a national revival in these countries. Transforming them back into major powers and forces to be reckoned with. In Niekisch’s view the working classes class struggle can only succeeded when it’s also a Nationalistic struggle for liberation.
Capitalism and the Destruction of Man
Both Karl Marx and Ernst Niekisch agreed that individualism, capitalism, and its advancements in technology would destroy nations, identities, cultures and create alienation of the workers. Both agree that capitalist use of technology for their own individual profits at the expense of the rest of society would destroy society. While Marx saw this as a necessary process to achieve socialism. Niekisch saw this as destroying a sense of belonging and duty to an organic community leading to workers only to become a part of the machine of a factory with no identity. Niekisch saw this process of the capitalist class monopolizing power and eroding nations as the workers doom. Therefore, workers should revolt and establish socialism before this process can become complete.
While this can be seen as Niekisch being anti-technology, but this is not the case. To Niekisch technological advancement was going to happen but technology did not have to be a destructive force like it was under capitalism. Niekisch believed that technology can be properly used when it’s placed under the collective interest over the individuals interest. Niekisch then points to Russia, China and Turkey doing this for their collective advantages. To finish off this section I’ll leave a quote by Niekisch on the subject of technology.
“By placing a living organizing power above the mechanizing tendencies of technology, the mechanization of Russia could be realized according to the rules of collectivism. They braced for and broke the individualist pressure of the technological spirit. Here, it did not open the way to the domination of the anonymous “three cents.” Henceforth, the state was on the rise. Certainly, the individualist principle of technology is in fundamental opposition with the collectivist form of life in Russia. Even the dangerous work of engineers testifies to this opposition. Collectivism is the social form that the organic will must adopt when it wants to affirm itself against the mortifying influences of technology and limit them to a minimum. Russia conserved this collectivist form of life such that it will have sufficient vital force to restrain the dangerous tendencies of technology. The hate that America and Europe demonstrate towards Russia is the protest of the techno-individualist spirit that collides with the organic barriers of self-defense and believes itself violated when it fails to achieve its work of biological destruction. The Western world, in its individualist irresponsibility, feels annoyed and provoked by the sole existence of a people that imposed the severe discipline of responsibility. The demon of technology feels frustrated with its wages: it would want the whole of humanity to burn on its altar. Right now, it foams in rage because the peoples of the East have restrained it and put it at their service, to become their domesticated genie. The Catholic curates, the Protestant pastors, and the apostles of Western civilization echo the horrible growls of this demon.” – Ernst Niekisch
Mussolini and The Stages of Capitalism
Mussolini was the leader of Italy between 1922 to 1945 and was one of the creator of the fascist ideology. While Mussolini and fascism are idealist or in other words the exact opposite of materialism, but Mussolini concept of the stages of capitalism and super capitalism takes a lot of influences from the Marxist and materialist intellectual Werner Sombart who coined the term late-stage capitalism. Due to this influence, I feel like this concept is at least worth mentioning. The idea was originally published in 1933 as a speech Mussolini gave on the corporate state and the short comings of capitalism. In a this speech Mussolini outlines three stages of capitalism. Heroic capitalism, Stagnate capitalism and Super capitalism.
Heroic Capitalism or the Dynamic Period is the first stage and the only stage that Mussolini has sympathy for. Mussolini believes this period started in 1830 and ended in 1870. Mussolini describes this period of technological advancements as the rise of the factory, Industrialization, urbanism, and competition. This stage is also a period where the state is merely an observer of economic affairs. When it comes to wars in this stage, they are short and not as devastating compared to that of the first world war.
The second stage of capitalism is the Stagnate Period which begins in 1870 and ended in 1914. The defining part of this stage is the monopolization of the economy in the hands of a few and the end of free competition. Wealth becomes consolidated in fewer and fewer hands. The capitalist class turns to the state to protect their class interest by enacting policies like custom protections that benefit them. The businesses become so big that they begin to influence every aspect of life, able to shape people on how the capitalist wants them to be shaped.
This leads to the final stage of capitalism, Super Capitalism which starts in 1914. In Super Capitalism according to Mussolini “finds inspiration and justification in the Utopia of unlimited consumption. The ideal of super-capitalism would be the standardization of mankind, from the cradle to the grave. Super-capitalism would like all babies to be born the same length so that cradles could be standardized; all children to want the same toys; all men to wear the same uniform, to read the same books, to like the same films; and everyone to crave a so-called labor-saving machine.”
At this stage capitalism is not only an economic but a social phenomenon that degrades men into consumer drones. Mussolini believes at this stage it is necessary for the state to intervene and take control of the economy to bring back order to society. This stage to Mussolini has led to the decline of Europe both spiritually and economically and can only be reversed by state intervention and the state taking control of these sectors.
Mussolini unlike Marx believed that capitalism was not a necessary stage, nor did he believe that Italy even had an industrial capitalist phase pointing to how must of the economy was still agricultural. He also points out how industry is also very small in Italy with most companies only having at most 500 workers compared to that of the capitalist nations who employ over 5000. Mussolini also points to the Italian State corporations which were guilds that help managed the economy. To Mussolini the corporate state goes beyond capitalism and socialism, creating a new synthesis that shares the positive aspects of both. The crisis of capitalism to Mussolini can only be solved with the corporate state but 3 conditions are needed which Mussolini sums up at the ended of his speech.
“A single political party, in order that political discipline may exist alongside of economic discipline and that the bond of a common fate may unite everyone above contrasting interests. Nor is this enough. Besides the single political party there must be a totalitarian State, a State which by absorbing the energy, interests, and aspirations of the people, may transform and uplift them.
But even this is not enough. The third and last and most important condition is to live in an atmosphere of strong ideal tension.
We, in Italy, are living in this atmosphere today.
That is why, step by step, we shall give force and consistency to all our achievements, why we shall translate all our doctrine into action.
Who can deny that the Fascist Era is an era of great ideal tension? No one can deny it. This is an age in which arms are crowned by victory, institutions renewed, land redeemed, and new cities founded.” – Benito Mussolini
James Burnham and The Managerial Revolution.
James Burnham was an American Trotskyist and later an American Conservative intellectual during the 1930s to 1980s. After Burnham left both Trotskyism and Marxism due to the errors of Marxian dialectical materialism, the decline of Marxism worldwide and the USSR not abolishing class and becoming more nationalistic. Burnham started to believe that socialism was not the next economic stage but Managerialism. In his book “The Managerial Revolution” published in 1941 Managerialism is defined as a form of state bureaucracy where the economy is run and planned by bureaucrats and mangers.
Burnham like Marx understood that capitalism was born out of the contradictions of feudalism and the rise of the merchant class that eventually destroyed the feudal system and brought about capitalism which brought about industrialization. Burnham and Marx both agreed that capitalism had major problems like mass unemployment, economic crashes and being unable to motivate the masses to support it. This according to both would eventually lead to the replacement of capitalism and the bringing about of a new system.
However, this is where Burnham separates from Marx. Instead of the workers becoming the new ruling class, professional managers or bureaucrats would become the new ruling class. Burnham points to how the Soviet Union has not abolished economic hierarchy, with the economy being controlled by bureaucrats. Along with pointing to the fact that the most powerful people in the Union control around 50 percent of the Soviet Union’s wealth. These developments to Burnham was that the Soviet Union was not socialist but managerial.
Burnham also points to the rise of Fascism, Nazism and New Dealism as bringing about managerialism due to how much the government plans and contributes to the economy making the capitalist class more marginalized and less powerful. Allowing the managers to have more control. Along with how Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy were rapidly beating the Liberal capitalist European nations in World War 2. Burnham believed that the capitalist would eventually be replaced by these professional managers as the state power grows.
Burnham saw this era bringing about new technologies and the world being controlled by 3 superpowers, that being the USA, Nazi Germany, and Japan. He also believed that in this era that wars would become more destructive and divesting. However, as World War 2 came to a ended it was clear that Burnham was right about the destructive nature but was wrong about Nazi Germany and Japan bringing about managerialism on the world stage. America also eventually started to reverse the new deal and America would remain a capitalist nation. All be it both government and corporate still being massive.
While some would point out that the collapse of capitalistic society still hasn’t happen and therefore these theories are wrong. However, that would be jumping the gun. Brook Adams theory of the downfall of capitalist society didn’t happen because the capitalist did what Adams said they should do that being reform. Ernst Niekisch was correct about the correlation between class struggle and nationalism. Almost every successful socialist revolution was also a nationalist one whether it be Cuba, China, Vietnam, Nicaragua, or North Korea. One could even argue that Niekisch despite labeling himself as a Bolshevik has liberated class struggle from the dogmas of Marxism and created a form of conservative/nationalistic class struggle.
Mussolini seems the most correct on what direction capitalism has taken. With consumerism and corporate monopolies being rampant in modern society. Burnham may have been wrong about Managerialism over coming capitalism in his lifetime or Germany becoming a superpower, but he was right about the rise of bureaucracy in modern society. It was corporate bureaucracy that became more dominant than state bureaucracy however both still exist. Although with the rise of China which resembles Burnham Managerialism it is still possible that Burnham theory will come true.
Let’s not pretend that capitalism is invincible either. Many of the problems that these thinkers have laid against capitalism are still problems like mass unemployment, economic crashes, the consolidation of wealth, and monopolies. Along with Alienation and the disintegration of traditional institutions/identities like the family, religion, and national identity.
We must remember that all civilizations and systems rise and fall. It’s only a matter of time before the capitalist system falls too and something else will take its place. What that system will be is yet to be determine.
The Theory of Social Revolution by Brooks Adams
The Conservative Mind Ch 10 Section 5 Brooks Adams and A world of terrible energies by Russel Kirk
The Collapse of Capitalistic Government by Brooks Adams
A Problem In Civilization by Brooks Adams
The Law of Civilization and Decay by Brooks Adams
“Speculators In Theories”: Henry and Brooks Adams
Class Struggle by Ernst Niekisch
Technology The Devourer of Man by Ernst Niekisch
The East is Dying – The Poison of Civilization by Ernst Niekisch
Mussolini on the Corporate State
The Managerial Revolution by James Burnham
Marxian Historical Materialism
Socialism, Utopia, and Scientific by Fredrick Engels
Dialectical and Historical Materialism by Joseph Stalin