1. Particular Facts and General Statements
  2. Covering Laws or Understanding?
  3. Objective or Subjective?
  4. Case Study: Karl Marx

    'Green' Readings

    Teaching Notes 

When people first start learning history at school, it is often taught to them as a collection of objective facts about the past -- such as that World War I broke out in Europe in 1914. And if history did consist of nothing other than statements about what events happened when in the past, then there would be few questions to be asked concerning historical knowledge; but then history would also not be very interesting and hardly worth doing.

There is of course another side to history -- concerned for instance with the causes of World War I, or the reasons for which the US entered that war. Thus historians, as well as trying to discover what events happened when in the past, also try to explain or understand the events, and it is this that makes history interesting and worth doing; but it also gives rise to questions concerning the nature of historical explanation and understanding. Unlike science, say, which is 'obviously' useful, history is often criticized for serving no purpose, (especially by those, probably, who have not got further in its study than learning long lists of dates and the lineages of royal houses.) We are unable to learn from history, it is argued, either because precisely the same circumstances as in the past cannot arise again in future, or because if sufficiently similar circumstances did arise, we would not be able to act differently.

When Sting, in 1987, sang: "History will teach us nothing," he was actually following G.W.F. Hegel (German philosopher, 1770-1831):

What experience and history teach is this -- that people and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.
Philosophy of History, 1832, Introduction.
The opposite view is expressed in the line that George Santayana (Spanish-born American philosopher, 1863-1952) is most famous for: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." (He also wrote: "History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren't there.")
Questions 0.1.:
  1. Do you agree that "History will teach us nothing"? Or can you, on the contrary, think of any recent political debates which were informed by historical considerations?

  2. Where do you think history begins and ends? -- i.e. what are the earliest kinds of events that are (or can be) studied historically, and at 'our' end: how is history related to politics?
What purpose, if any, we attribute to history, and what role we give it in the life of society and in our individual thinking, will of course have a bearing on any discussion of the nature of historical explanation and understanding. So instead of raising the question of the purpose of history at the end of this section, as a conclusion, I shall put forward here the answer I have found most persuasive, as an introduction.
What is history for? My answer is that history is 'for' human self-knowledge. It is generally thought to be of importance to man that he should know himself: where knowing himself means knowing not his merely personal peculiarities, the things that distinguish him from other men, but his nature as man. Knowing yourself means knowing, first, what it is to be a man; secondly, knowing what it is to be the kind of man you are; and thirdly, knowing what it is to be the man YOU are and nobody else is. Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what he can do until he tries, the only clue to what man can do is what man has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.
R.G. Collingwood.
Exercise 0.2.:
In small groups, decide how you would write the history of an event you were all present at: something like your first day at the College, or the visit to the College by a very well-known person.

What differences were there between the approaches of different groups?

In this section we shall discuss what historical knowledge consists of; the nature of historical explanations; and whether history can be, or should be, objective.

1. Particular Facts and General Statements

In the natural sciences we have both statements of immediate observations, reporting for instance the outcome of an experiment, and general laws from which we can derive predictions. These two kinds of statements are justified in quite different ways: observational statements by perception, together perhaps with facts about some measuring apparatus; and general laws, by having been tested but not having been falsified (yet) by any experiments.

Those general laws, then, can have different degrees of generality. Thus, the law of gravitation is more general than the statement that all apples fall to earth, which is a special case of the law of gravitation.

While historical evidence is quite different from scientific observations, and historical understanding is not the same as scientific explanation, it is worth bearing in mind the distinctions of the previous two paragraphs as we consider the realm of historical knowledge.

Exercise 1.1.:
Consider the following seven statements about China's examination system.
  1. It was fortunate for the Chinese that the Confucian tradition became the chief intellectual force among the educated classes (p. 69.)
  2. The capital schools were primarily for the aristocracy, and candidates recommended by local governments were likely to be from the privileged classes (p. 104.)
  3. The T'ang system was the true start of the civil service merit system that is one of the greatest achievements of Chinese civilization (p. 104.)
  4. One is reminded of the classical education that produced a successful ruling class for the British Empire in modern times (p. 104.)
  5. After 1065 the examinations were held regularly every three years (p. 126.)
  6. The actual preparation of scholars began in the family and sometimes in the clan school (p. 190.)
  7. A Ministry of Education was created in 1906 to supervise them [i.e. new schools] (p. 393.)
John K. Fairbank, Edwin O. Reischauer,
China. Tradition and Transformation, 1979.
  1. Put the statements in order, or group them, according to how far they are from 'historical evidence'.
  2. For each of the statements, discuss how we have gained, or could justify, our knowledge of it.
  3. Discuss on what grounds the different propositions might have to be rejected. Which ones are most liable to bias?
The evidence, not necessarily written, which historical research is based on are the 'sources'. Sources need not be items that go back to the time in history which is being studied, but can be texts written since then about that time: the former are called primary, and the latter secondary sources.
Exercise 1.2.:
Here are titles, or descriptions, of various sources for the history of 16th-century Europe. Decide which of these are primary and which are secondary sources. (From an O.U. publication.)
  1. A.G. Dickens, The Age of Humanism and Reformation, (first published 1972.)
  2. John Knox, The History of the Reformation in Scotland, (first published 1587.)
  3. Journals of the House of Lords, 1520-1614.
  4. Reports of the Venetian Ambassadors to the Venetian Senate, covering the years 1496-1533.
  5. H.G. Koenigsberger and George L. Mosse, Europe in the Sixteenth Century, (first published 1968.)
  6. Nicolo Machiavelli, The Prince, (completed 1516, first published 1530.)
  7. Max Weber, ''Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus'' (''The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism'') in Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik (Archives of Social History and Social Politics,) Volume XX, 1904.
my answer

There are two main questions that must be asked regarding primary sources.

  1. The first of these concerns their authenticity, or genuineness. Suppose that we have, for instance, a painting of a particular historical event; then
  2. The other question concerns their completeness. We must bear in mind that the material available to us has already been systematically selected, in a variety of ways:
Exercise 1.3.:
  1. List as many primary sources as you can think of, and try to organize them into different categories if you can.
  2. Discuss the purposes with which different kinds of sources might originally have been made.
  3. What problems might there be with the evidence in each case?

2. Covering Laws or Understanding?

History would not be of interest, and would hardly be worth doing, if all that it consisted of was collecting facts: ''A mere collector of supposed facts is as useful as a collector of matchboxes'' (Febvre.) So the other thing historians do, apart from gathering factual information about past events, is to try and explain these events.

There is no general agreement on the form these explanations should take: in fact, this is the main topic of discussion in the philosophy of history today.

A. On one side there are those who hold that historical explanation must be like the scientific explanation of an event: to understand an historical event, we must have a general, or 'covering' law, so that from this law and a description of the historical situation we can deduce that the event would happen.

... general laws have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences, ... they form an indispensable instrument of historical research, and... they even constitute the common basis of various procedures which are often considered as characteristic of the social in contradistinction to the natural sciences. ...

Consider, for example, the statement that Dust Bowl farmers migrate to California 'because' continual drought and sandstorms render their existence increasingly precarious and because California seems to them to offer so much better living conditions. This explanation rests on some such universal hypothesis as that populations will tend to migrate to regions which offer better living conditions [-- though it would be difficult to state this as a general law.]

Carl Hempel, ''The Function of General Laws in History'', 1942.
This view may seem to gain some support from the consideration of what one might call the 'historical' as opposed to the experimental sciences.
The discipline of history is not usually considered to be a science, but something closer to the humanities. At best, history is classified among the social sciences, of which it rates as the least scientific. ...

One cannot deny that it is more difficult to extract general principles from studying history than from studying planetary orbits. However, the difficulties seem to me not fatal. Similar ones apply to other historical subjects whose place among the natural sciences is nevertheless secure, including astronomy, climatology, ecology, evolutionary biology, geology, and paleontology. People's image of science is unfortunately often based on physics and a few other fields with similar methodologies. ...

Historical sciences in the broad sense (including astronomy and the like) share many features that set them apart from nonhistorical sciences such as physics, chemistry, and molecular biology. I would single out four: methodology, causation, prediction, and complexity. ...

Thus, the difficulties historians face in establishing cause-and-effect relations in the history of human societies are broadly similar to the difficulties facing astronomers, climatologists, ecologists evolutionary biologists, geologists, and paleontologists. ...

... the histories of dinosaurs, nebulas [in astronomy], and glaciers are generally acknowledged to belong to fields of science rather than to the humanities. But introspection gives us far more insight into the ways of other humans than into those of dinosaurs. I am thus optimistic that historical studies of human societies can be pursued as scientifically as studies of dinosaurs.

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel, 1997.
''Epilogue: the Future of Human History as a Science''
Exercise 2.1.:
  1. Try to list some of the differences in ''methodology, causation, prediction, and complexity'' that set the 'historical sciences' apart from the paradigm of the experimental sciences, like physics.
  2. For which period of history do you think the author's contention that history is an 'historical science' is most appropriate. Why?
    (The book that the passage is taken from calls itself ''a short history of everybody for the last 13,000 years,'' although it actually stops a few hundred years ago.)
  3. To what aspect of history, if any, do you think the author's contention does not do justice? Why not?
    Do you think historians are only looking for ''cause-and-effect relations''?
According to the extreme version of this view, the laws of history are quite independent of the actions of individuals or other particular influences.
These great changes seem to have come about with a certain inevitableness; there seems to have been an independent trend of events, some inexorable necessity controlling the progress of human affairs. ... Examined closely, weighed and measured carefully, set in true perspective, the personal, the casual, the individual influences in history sink into insignificance and the great cyclical forces loom up. Events come of themselves, so to speak; that is, they come so consistently and unavoidably as to rule out as causes not only physical phenomena but voluntary human action. So arises the conception of law in history. History, the great course of human affairs, has not been the result of voluntary efforts on the parts of individuals or groups of individuals, much less chance; but has been subject to law.
Edward P. Cheney, 1927.
This kind of extreme view was taken by Karl Marx (1818-93.) What is essential about particular historical situations, according to Marx, are the socio-economic conditions, and the development of these follows a necessary course, which he believed to have plotted, towards a particular kind of society.
Intrinsically it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.
Capital I, Preface to the First German Edition, 1867.
Although, then, the whole of this movement appears as a social process, and although the separate elements of this movement derive from the conscious will and specific aims of individuals, the totality of the process nevertheless appears as an objective relationship which comes into being naturally: emerging from the clash between conscious individuals, but being neither contained within their consciousness nor subsumed as a whole under them.
Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Law, 1844.
Underlying Marx's view of history is a belief that we can see in history some spirit moving forward, and that history is the unfolding of mankind's progress. This 'hopeful' outlook goes back to earlier idealist philosophers, like Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and G.W.F. Hegel (1770-1831):
One can take the history of mankind, on the large scale, as the completion of a hidden plan of nature to produce an internally, and therefore also externally, perfect constitution, as the only condition in which she can fully develop all her dispositions in mankind.
Kant, 1784.
B. On the other side there are those who hold that the historical explanation of an event consists of understanding it in its uniqueness, of 'making sense of it' and turning it into a coherent account or story, in the same way we make sense of the actions of others in every-day life.
History, then, is not, as it has so often been misdescribed, a story of successive events or an account of change. Unlike the natural scientist, the historian is not concerned with events as such at all. He is only concerned with those events which are the outward expression of thoughts. ...

Historical knowledge is the knowledge of what mind has done in the past, and at the same time it is the redoing of this, the perpetuation of past acts in the present. To the historian, the activities whose history he is studying are not spectacles to be watched, but experiences to be lived through in his own mind; ...

But historical knowledge is not concerned only with the remote past. If it is by historical thinking that we rethink and so rediscover the thought of Hammurabi or Solon, it is in the same way that we discover the thought of a friend who writes us a letter. Nor is it necessary that the historian should be one person and the subject of his enquiry another. ... In this sense all knowledge of mind is historical.

R.G. Collingwood, 1936.
Exercise 2.2.:
Try to give examples of historical 'laws', either universal, or relating to particular parts of the world and periods.

3. Objective or Subjective?

It may be helpful, not only for this section, to start with some definitions :
adj. 1. existing independently of perception or an individual's conceptions: are there objective moral values? 2. undistorted by emotion or personal bias. 3. of or relating to actual and external phenomena as opposed to thoughts, feelings, etc. ...

adj. 1. belonging to, proceeding from, or relating to the mind of the thinking subject and not the nature of the object being considered. 2. of, or relating to, or emanating from a person's emotions, prejudices, etc.: subjective views. ... 4. existing only as perceived and not as a thing in itself.

n. 1. mental tendency or inclination, esp. an irrational preference or prejudice. ...
vb. 9. (usually passive) to cause to have a bias; prejudice; influence. -- biased or biassed adj.
Collins English Dictionary.
For much of the time that history has been written, the work of the historian was not thought to be particularly problematic -- as long as he had the right intentions, he would just try to discover the truth, and ''tell how it really was.''
The first law for the historian is that he shall never dare utter an untruth. The second is that he shall suppress nothing that is true. Moreover, there shall be no suspicion of partiality in his writing, or of malice.
Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC,) De Oratore, II, 62.
You have reckoned that history ought to judge the past and to instruct the contemporary world as to the future. The present attempt does not yield to that high office. It will merely tell how it really was.
Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886,) 1824.
In recent times, though, history has been recognised to be subjective -- or accused of being 'merely' subjective, in the sense of saying something, or even more, about the person and times of the historian than about the reality of the historical event being studied. After a war, for instance, are not all the history books (re-)written by the victors, to present their view of events, rather than that of the loosers?
Historians seek to be detached, impassionate, impartial. In fact, however, no historian starts with his mind a blank, to be gradually filled by the evidence.
A.J.P. Taylor, in The Times Literary Supplement, 06.01.1956.

There will always be a connection between the way in which men contemplate the past and the way in which they contemplate the present. Buckle.

History is as much an art as a science. Ernest Renan (1823-92.)

Sometimes the subjective aspect of history has been denied altogether; consider for example the following programme for a collective historical work:
Our scheme requires that nothing shall reveal the country, the religion, or the party to which the writers belong. -- It is essential not only on the ground that impartiality is the character of legitimate history, but because the work is carried on by men acting together for no other object than the increase of accurate knowledge. -- The disclosure of personal views would lead to such confusion that all unity of design would disappear. ...
But usually the subjectiveness of their subject is readily admitted by historians themselves, and accepted as necessary -- or even embraced as essential.
The function of the historian is akin to that of the painter and not of the photographic camera; to discover and set forth, to single out and stress that which is the nature of the thing and not to reproduce indiscriminately all that meets the eye. ... History is therefore necessarily subjective and individual, conditioned by the interest and the vision of the historian.
L.B. Namier, Avenues of History.
Thus, even though history is concerned with the past, with things that can no longer change, history too, like all the other areas of knowledge that we have considered, even science, cannot give us absolute certainty, for various reasons -- and it would be misguided to demand it.

For even where history is capable of being objective, there are problems with the 'evidence' it is based on, as we have seen: the sources available may not be authentic, and they will certainly be incomplete. And to the extent that history is (necessarily) subjective, i.e. a matter of the position from which it is written, historical accounts or explanations are liable to the problem of bias, i.e. partiality, tendentiousness or even prejudice.

Some historians are more willing to face up to this than others.

The historian cannot be objective about the period which is his subject. In this he differs (to his intellectual advantage) from its most typical ideologists, who believed that the progress of technology, 'positive science' and society made it possible to view their present with the unanswerable impartiality of the natural scientist, whose methods they believed themselves (mistakenly) to understand. The author of this book cannot conceal a certain distaste, perhaps a certain contempt, for the age with which it deals, though one mitigated by admiration for its titanic material achievements and by the effort to understand even what he does not like. He does not share the nostalgic longing for the certainty, the self-confidence, of the mid-nineteenth-century bourgeois world which tempts many who look back upon it from the crisis-ridden western world a century later. His sympathies lie with those to whom few listened a century ago. In any case both the certainty and the self-confidence were mistaken.
Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Capital, 1848-1875, 1962, "Introduction"
Exercise 3.1.:
  1. Give examples of how bias may affect the work of historians: take some event in the past and imagine different ways in which its history could be written.
  2. Consider the above passage by Eric Hobsbawm. If bias is impossible to avoid completely, how do you think Hobsbawm would say an honest historian should write history?
Apart from the bias that historians may not be able to avoid, there is another kind of bias inherent in the teaching of history.
These days, history teaching in Britain focuses on almost exclusively on three episodes: Nazi Germany, the Tudors and Stuarts, and Stalin's Russia.

As subjects for the classroom, Nazi Germany and Stalin's Russia share one important feature. Lots of people got killed. For desperate teachers trying to interest recalcitrant teenagers in something that happened before last wekend, mass murder, especally when the perpetrators were two moustachioed villains, has obvious advantages.

... But all three subjects have something in common, too. They tend to show Britain in its best light. Studying Nazi Germany handily takes in Britain's "finest hour", when Winston Churchill, the nation's favourite bulldog, stood up against Europe's bullies. The Tudor period, similarly, offers plenty of opportunities to dwell on plucky little England defying Catholic Europe ... . (Spanish students, meanwhile, learn nothing of the Battle of the Armada.) Soviet Russia leads on to the cold war, during which Britian displayed more pluck against big European bullies. (American history students, meanwhile, learn that Britain was a small airbase off the north European coast.)

Does it matter if schoolchildren get a selective pciture of their country's past? Yes. At its best, history enables people to understand the world better. Just possibly, that may make them act better, too. At its worst, history allows people to see the past as they wish to see it, not as it was. The result is that they cannot make sense of the present. Children who are taught that the past was a series of glorious national triumphs will find it hard to explain to themselves how it is that Britain is not top dog any more, and that their prime minister is acting like a well-mannered butler to the American president.

... it might also be useful to reflect on national failure and humiliation. Economics may be duller than genocide, but shouldn't British schoolchildren know something about the country's economic decline over the past centruy? And what about the history of British or French imperialism in, say, the Middle East? Might that shed more light on the world's current troubles?

The Economist, November 3rd 2001.
Exercise 3.2.:
  1. Try to give examples of how the history that you have been taught has reflected a certain view of your country or your part of the world.
  2. Historical events or situations are often used to justify present political actions: an invasion of a hundred yeas ago is used to justify today's ethnic cleansing, former colonies demand compensation from former colonial powers, and so on.
    Discuss whether, and up to what point, such justifications are a valid use of history.

Karl Marx. 8kB

5. Case Study: Karl Marx

Marx's Life
1818 born in Trier, son of a solicitor;
-1835 growing up in a prosperous and cultured atmosphere;
attends local Jesuit grammar school;
1835- 41   at Bonn and at Berlin universities, where he studies law, philosophy, and history; increasingly influenced by Hegel's philosophy;
clashes with his father until his father's death in 1838;
gains his Doctor's degree;
1842 joins the staff of the liberal paper Rheinische Zeitung, whose editor-in-chief he soon becomes;
1843 has to leave the paper because of increasing difficulties with the censorship office; marries; moves to Paris;
start of the close collaboration with Friedrich Engels, son of a wealthy manufacturer, who supports Marx in his persistent financial troubles much of his life;
1845 is expelled from France at the demand of the Prussian government; moves to Brussels;
begins to publish a lot, becoming politically more involved with communist groups;
1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party;
revolutions in France, Germany, Hungary, Austria;
expelled from Belgium; back in Germany, as editor-in-chief of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung;
1849 accused of incitement to armed rebellion, but acquitted;
after the triumph of the counter-revolution, expelled as a state-less person; beginning of exile in London, where he spent much of his time studying in the British Museum and studying the conditions of the British working class;
1851 - contributing to New York Tribune as well as other papers: for the rest of his life he earned his living mostly by journalism;
constant poverty and ill-health; Jenny Marx suffers nervous breakdowns;
1864 founding of the First International, a union of all tendencies within the labour movement, which elects Marx as one of the 32-member General Council; his inaugural address is unanimously adopted;
1867 Capital I (II, III published by Engels after his death;)
1869 open clash with Michael Bakunin, the anarchist's leader;
1871 the Paris Commune;
1872 last congress of the International; Bakunin is expelled;
1883 death of Karl Marx.
A common fallacy ...
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, in about 1989, the view became widely accepted that the events meant the victory of Capitalism over Socialism, and that they showed that Marx was wrong. This is not a valid conclusion.

The next section is an attempt to explain some of Marx's ideas, especially related to history, by using quotes from his writings to answer a series of questions.

Questions and Answers: A Marxian Catechism

Why the above outline of his life?

This sketch ... is intended only to show that my views, however they may be judged and however little they may coincide with the interested prejudices of the ruling classes, are the result of conscientious investigation lasting many years.
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Preface.
What is the historical background?
In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; ...

The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of old ones.

Manifesto of the Communist Party.
What are the different classes in capitalist society?
The owners merely of labour-power, owners of capital, and landowners, whose respective sources of income are wages, profit and ground-rent, in other words wage-labourers, capitalists and land-owners, constitute the three big classes of modern society based upon the capitalist mode of production.
Capital III.
How is a class defined?
The separate individuals form a class only in so far as they have to carry on a common battle against another class; otherwise they are on hostile terms with each other as competitors. On the other hand, the class in its turn achieves an independent existence over against the individuals, so that the latter find their conditions of existence predestined, and hence have their position in life and their personal development assigned to them by their class, become subsumed under it.
The German Ideology.
Who determines the ideas in a society at any time?
The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e. the class, which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time of the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it.
The German Ideology.
What is the characteristic of capitalist production?
Capitalist production is in itself indifferent to the particular use-value and distinctive features of any commodity it produces. In every sphere of production it is only concerned with producing surplus-value, and appropriating a certain quantity of unpaid labour incorporated in the product of labour.
Capital III.
What, in general, is the value of a commodity? And what is the surplus-value produced in capitalist production?
The value of one commodity is to the value of any other, as the labour-time necessary for the production of the one is to that necessary for the production of the other. As values, all commodities are only definite masses of congealed labour-time. ...

The value of labour-power is determined, as in the case of every other commodity, by the labour time necessary for the production, and consequently also the reproduction of this special article. ... in other words, the value of labour-power is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the labourer. ...

Therefore the value of labour-power, and the value which that labour-power creates in the labour-process, are two entirely different magnitudes; and this difference of the two values was what the capitalist had in view, when he was purchasing the labour-power ...

Capital I.
What does the commodity character of labour mean for the labourer?
Commodities cannot go to market and make exchanges of their own account. We must, therefore, have recourse to their guardians, who are also their owners. ... The persons exist for one another merely as representatives of, and, therefore, as owners of commodities.
Capital I.
We have now considered the act of alienation of practical human activity, labour, from two aspects: (1) the relationship of the worker to the product of labour as an alien object which dominates him. This relationship is at the same time the relationship to the sensuous external world, to natural objects, as an alien and hostile world; (2) the relationship of the worker to the act of production within labour. This is the relationship of the worker to his own activity as something alien and not belonging to him, activity as suffering (passivity), ... his personal life ... as an activity which is directed against himself, independent of him and not belonging to him. This is self-alienation as against the above mentioned alienation of the thing. ...

What is true of man's relationship to his work, to the product of his work and to himself, is also true of his relationship to other men, to their labour and to the objects of their labour.''

Economic and Political Manuscripts.
Marx valued communism above all because it would abolish alienation, in several senses of that term.

... Alienation can be described, very broadly, as the lack of a sense of meaning.

Jon Elster, An Introduction to Karl Marx.
What is the life of the workers under capitalism?
Hence Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society. To the outcry as to the physical and mental degradation, the premature death, the torture of over-work, it answers: Ought these to trouble us since they increase our profits? But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist. ...

This is the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation. Like all other laws it is modified in its working by many circumstances ...

It establishes an accumulation of misery corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital.

Capital I.
What is the role of religion in a capitalist society?
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.
Contribution to Hegel's Philosophy of Law. Introduction.
How then should one view capitalism?
Surplus-labour in general, as labour performed over and above the given requirement, must always remain. ... It is one of the civilizing aspects of capital that it enforces this surplus-labour in a manner and under conditions which are more advantageous to the development of the productive forces, social relations, and the creation of the elements for a new and higher form than under the preceding forms of slavery, serfdom, etc. Thus it gives rise to a stage, on the one hand, in which coercion and monopolization of a social development (including its material and intellectual advantages) by one portion of society at the expense of the other are eliminated; on the other hand, it creates the material means and embryonic conditions, making it possible in a higher form of society to combine this surplus-labour with a greater reduction of time devoted to material labour in general.
Capital III.
Dialectical processes in the world have similar stages. The most important example ... is probably the following three-step sequence .... . Society ... begins as a primitive, undifferentiated community. Persons are essentially similar to one another, without distinctive character traits or different productive functions. The community dominates the individual, who is left with little scope for free choice or individual self-realization. The next stage, the negation of the first one, occurs with the emergence of alienation ... of class societies ... . It is characterized by an extreme development of individuality and by an equally extreme disintegration of community. The third stage, the negation of the negation, restores community without, however, destroying individuality. It is in this respect the synthesis of the two previous stages.
Jon Elster, An Introduction to Karl Marx.
So what is the future development of the present class-system?
All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.
Manifesto of the Communist Party.
What kind of society will there be after the revolution ?
The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so called, since political power is precisely the official expression of antagonism in civil society.
The Poverty of Philosophy.
What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.
Letter to Josef Weydemeyer, dated March 5, 1852.
Why will the proletarian revolution come about? We can read this question in different ways: (a) What are the contradictions within capitalism ?
Along with the constantly diminishing number of magnates of capital ... grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united organized by the very mechanisms of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of production becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. ... The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.
Capital I.
The ultimate reason for all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses as opposed to the drive of capitalist production to develop the productive forces as though only the absolute consuming power of society constituted their limit.
Capital III.
(b) What are the underlying causes ?
Social relations are closely bound up with productive forces. In acquiring new productive forces men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing the ways of earning their living, they change all their social relations. The hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill, society with the industrial capitalist.
The Poverty of Philosophy.
In the social production of their life men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or - what is but a legal expression of the same thing - with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, 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.
A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Preface.
(c) What kind of necessity does it have?
Intrinsically it is not a question of the higher or lower degree of development of the social antagonisms that result from the natural laws of capitalist production. It is a question of these laws themselves, of these tendencies working with iron necessity towards inevitable results. The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future.
Capital I. Preface to the First German Edition.
The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era: i.e., on the co-operation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production.
Capital I.
(d) What is the role of individual action in it?
Although, then, the whole of this movement appears as a social process, and although the separate elements of this movement derive from the conscious will and specific aims of individuals, the totality of the process nevertheless appears as an objective relationship which comes into being naturally: emerging from the clash between conscious individuals, but being neither contained within their consciousness nor subsumed as a whole under them.
Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right.
History does nothing, it 'possesses no immense wealth,' it 'wages no battles.' It is man, real living man, that does all that, that possesses and fights: 'History' is not a person apart, using man as means for its own particular aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.
The Holy Family.
What are some of the main criticisms of Marx's thinking ?

  1. Because of his methodological holism (despite his ethical individualism) -- esp. as regards the collective entity 'Capital' and the collective subject 'Humanity' --, he fails to search for microfoundations of the processes and relations in his theories.

  2. Because of his distinction between a deep- and a surface-structure -- the essence and mere appearance, in terms of values and prices, respectively --, he denies at times the central element of choice in economics, (which is, in fact, not incompatible with the notion of force;) the behaviour of economic agents may have to be analysed in game-theoretical terms, such as varieties of the prisoner's dilemma and the free-rider problem.

  3. By applying it to particular events, and by failing to specify appropriate feedback-mechanisms, he tends to misuse functional explanation, i.e. of patterns of behaviour by their consequences; (in an important mode of Marxist explanation the behaviour of a class is explained by its beneficial consequences for the class members: here the 1st and the 3rd criticism apply.)

  4. Although Marx's (Hegelian) dialectic approach -- both as: progressing by the negation of the negation, and as: analysing social contradictions -- is methodologically important, there is no 'dialectical law' independently of actions which men undertake for purposes of their own.

(These criticisms are derived from Jon Elster, An Introduction to Karl Marx, 1986: rather abstract, but highly recommended, with a companion volume of readings.

Other introductory texts: uncritical but useful is Ernst Fischer (ed.), Marx in His Own Words, 1968; for a short introduction consider Peter Singer, Marx, 1980.)

'Green' Readings :

[14c; from Gk. histor, a learned person.]

The past, and what we can learn about it which will help us to understand the present and plan for the future. 'Behind us lies the wealth of history itself, the treasure-trove of knowledge -- of successes laden with promise and failures laden with fault. We are the heirs of a history which can teach us what we must avoid if we are to avoid immolation and what we must pursue if we are to realize freedom and self-fulfilment' (Murray Bookchin, 1986.)

[1854; from Lat. capitalis, of the head, chief, hence capitale, wealth.]

An economic, political and social system in which the amassing of private property and wealth and the creation of private profit are a given a high priority. An idea ... within which eminently praiseworthy ideals like the importance of the individual and the need to look after your own interests come face to face with ... the belief that everything can be given a cash value, that 'healthy competition' can benefit everybody, and that economic growth can solve every problem. ... Many green-thinkers, while acknowledging that capitalism has exacerbated many of our current problems, cannot agree that capitalism and only capitalism is the culprit -- after all, they say, look at the massive environmental problems in socialist societies. And again, modern capitalism has only been with us for less than a century and a half -- many destructive trends (patriarchy, anthropocentrism [and] local overpopulation ...) were well-established long before that.

[1897; named after Karl Marx, 1918-83.]

Social and economic theory and practice which derive from the work of Karl Marx. Many strands of Marxism can be traced into the late twentieth century, often differing enormously in their analyses and proposals, but although there is much in Marx's (copious and often contradictory) writings which can be criticised from a green perspective, it is as well to remember that Marx's most far-reaching legacy is his way of examining society. ... Marx tended to belittle everything which cannot be given an economic value, including landscape, spirituality, beauty and wilderness, and modern Marxists often view the green approach as idealistic and bourgeois (sometimes with complete justification.) While Marx wanted to see resources in the hands of the community rather than in those of capitalist entrepreneurs, he still saw nature as limitlessly abundant. On the other hand, his belief that change in society must come 'from below' still holds good. 'There are many particular elements in Marx that I still find useful, but the structure itself I have abandoned. For me Marxism is a quarry' (Rudolf Bahro, 1984.)
John Button, A Dictionary of Green Ideas, 1988.

Teaching Notes :

The central question should of course concern what knowledge we have, and in which ways we must be critical. Historical knowledge consists of
  1. the evidence ('sources') about past events, and
  2. explanations of these past events based on the sources.

What makes our knowledge uncertain is that

  1. the evidence may be unauthentic and is incomplete, and
  2. the explanations may be biased.

Note that there are, according to Arthur Marwick (as well as Collins English Dictionary,) different things we can mean by ''history'':

  1. the entire human past, as it actually happened;
  2. man's attempt to describe and interpret the past;
  3. an academic discipline, developed only in the 19th century.

Other reasons for doing history:

  1. ''I may be mistaken, but I believe that our patriotism would gain a great deal in both selflessness and in steadfastness if the knowledge of history and particularly of French history were more widely diffused among us and were to become in a certain sense more popular'' (Augustin Thierry, French historian in the first half of the 19th century.)
  2. ''Like all sciences, history, to be worthy of itself and beyond itself, must concentrate on one thing; the search for truth. It's real value as a social activity lies in the training it provides, the standards it sets, in this singularly human concern. Reason distinguishes man from the rest of creation, and the study of history justifies itself in so far as it assists reason to work and improve itself'' (G. R. Elton, Cambridge historian.)
  3. And we can hardly understand the present without knowledge of the past. For example, even British cooking ''commemorates the war'' (Paul Russell): it has been argued that the resilience of the British during World War II was partly due to the availability of the most British of meals, fish and chips.

1. Particular Facts and General Statements
Exercise 1.3.:
''It does not seem to me then, that such a statement as 'Peter Pipkin paid twopenee rent' need fear any comparison against 'this gas is oxygen;' ... But one feature of ... [the former] deserves some little attention: it contains the phrase 'paid rent,' and this is a phrase which refers to a set of rights and duties which are not precisely defined. Such 'open texture' is characteristic of statements of historians'' (John Passmore, ''The Objectivity of History'', 1958.)
''The so-called 'sources' of history only record such facts as appeared sufficiently interesting to record, so that sources will contain only facts that fit in with a preconceived theory'' (Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, 1945.) Note, though, that this is not the same as the bias of the historian.

2. Covering Laws or Understanding?
In the lecture, if there is one, a distinction may be made between two approaches: some historians are 'lumpers', others are 'splitters'.

Exercise 2.2.:

  1. Chinese history of the past few thousands of years has been described as cyclic: each dynasty, after a generally peaceful period of strong central government, gradually disintegrates due to corruption, and loses control over the further regions of the vast empire to strife, so that it lacks the resources to defend itself against outside attacks, and is eventually replaced by a new dynasty set up by invaders from the 'barbaric' north-west -- which adopts the dominant Chinese culture as its own, and starts a new cycle.
  2. Otto Spengler (1880 -1936) describes three distinct stages of development, which each of the eight independent cultures he distinguishes passes through: a symbolic early culture, a metaphysical-religious high culture, and a late culture of civilization.
  3. Jakob Burckhardt, in his World-Historical Reflections, 1870, relegates all particular facts to copious appendices and instead writes about general principles; he covers:
    1. the three powers: State, Religion, Culture,
    2. the six dependencies: Culture on the State, Culture on Religion, the State on Religion, and so on, and then discusses:
    3. historical crises, the individual and the universal, and fortune and misfortune in world history.
3. Objective or Subjective?
The fact that history is subjective, to some extent, and a matter of interpreting the evidence, means that it is possible to give different explanations of the same events, from different positions. This is no proof that they are not valid, nor do we need to choose between them: they are valid to the extent to which they are true to the facts and can show us how the events of the past are related.

There is an analogous situation in the arts: though literary critics may give different readings of the same novel or poem, or art critics different interpretations of a painting, say, these are valid to the extent to which they give us a better appreciation of the work.-- And in psychoanalysis: though different analysts, especially from different schools, may make different interpretations of the same material, these are valid to the extent to which the patient understands himself better and is 'cured'.

It is deliberate that in sections 2. and 3. of these notes no particular position is explicitly taken on the alternatives posed in the headings.

''Well, one can see why there have been arguments about its relation both to literature and to science. If we mean by 'science' the attempt to find out what really happens, then history is a science. ... If, however, we mean by science the search for general theories, then history is not a science; indeed, in so far as it tries to show us something through a particularized pattern of action, it stands closer to the novel and the drama ... . It differs from literature, however, in two important respects: human society, not individual entanglements, provides it with its themes -- and, more important ..., it is both sensible and necessary to ask whether its narrative 'really happened like that' '' (John Passmore, ''The Objectivity of History'', 1958.)
4. Case Study: Karl Marx
The emphasis here should of course be on the materialist view of history to be found in Marx's writing, but it is also worth discussing some of his economic concepts and his method of critical analysis -- not just for historical reasons, but because they continue to be relevant today:

For it seems to me to be a gross error to dismiss the whole of Marx's (and Marxist) thought, as it seems to be fashionable to do since the collapse of the Soviet Union, just because the philosophical, political and economic structures that were erected using his name turned out to have been fraudulent and inefficient, and to have failed those who put their trust in them.

Moreover, while the revolution in Russia was a colossal mistake, and while it seems that the revolution that Marx expected, even predicted, would happen in the industrialised countries has not occurred, one should remember that he had explicitly warned the Russian revolutionaries, arguing that their time had not come yet; and that in the industrialised countries something like a Marxist revolution has actually taken place: in the developed world, the social changes since Marx's time, towards the kind of society that he was envisaging, have been so enormous that we must call them 'revolutionary' -- do we really want to complain that the revolution happened gradually, without violence in the streets?

Reading :
Alwin Diemer, Ivo Frenzel (eds.), Fischer Lexikon Philosophie, 1967. Fischer.

Patrick Gardiner (ed.), The Philosophy of History, 1974. Oxford Readings in Philosophy, OUP.

Theory of Knowledge: Teachers' Guide, 1989. IB Publication.

Picture of Marx from: Microsoft Bookshelf 1993.