The bourgeoisie creates a world in its image

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In what I hoped would be the positive culmination of my BA Philosophy degree I wrote my dissertation on the Marxist theory of history in its relevance to international relations. It’s the extent to which the historicism in Marx holds a normative element given that the Marxist tradition actually lacks a theory of international relations, just as it traditionally lacked a theory of government. In both instances there is a need, in international relations it is an evaluative criterion which is necessary. Below I have reproduced the introduction and linked the following chapters.

Over the last decade or more the question of military interventionism has been raised time and time again. Most recently in the form of newfound humanitarian pretext we have seen interventions justified in South-Eastern Europe, parts of Africa and West Asia. Given that the proponents of interventionism often rely on arguments going back to the classical liberal writers and thinkers of the 19th Century it is imperative that the radical critics of interventionism look to the same period. Karl Marx is by far the most obvious and important figure for leftists to look at in the 19th Century. In Marx’s writings we may well find a field of presuppositions into which we can ground a critique of doctrines of intervention.

The Marxist tradition of the Left as a critical engagement of capitalism has offered an oppositional standpoint to imperialism since at least the beginning of the 20th Century. Yet it is the precepts developed in the work of Lenin and in response to Leninism that has led to the emergence of an anti-imperialist movement. Before that time the Marxist Left was not principally non-interventionist, in its critique of political economy its opposition to imperial adventures would come in relation to its revolutionary commitment to socialism. The central aspect of the Marxist corpus has long been the materialist conception of history, its origin lying in Marx’s time as a left-Hegelian. In its centrality it is not just a description of the world-historical situation, it carries its own normative weight as its critical analysis demands an active engagement with the particular conditions of that situation.

In the first section I will consider historical materialism as an extension of Hegel’s influence on Marx, especially with regard to how this is interrelated with the Enlightenment notion of history as progress. Capitalism as a particular mode of development that tends towards the universalisation of a set of conditions in turn setting the wheels turning towards socialism and ultimately communism. We will see how this led Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to support in writing the Union in the American Civil War over the Confederacy. The theory of history taking on the role of a presupposed framework, its evaluative criteria holding industrial capitalism as an advance upon the pre-capitalist relations of slavery. With the ultimate aim of human emancipation in sight after much more modest forms of political emancipation devised in turning slaves into citizens by bestowing upon them rights and freedoms. The creation of a free citizenry is an advance on the oppression of the past while at the same time it is deficient and only transient in the teleological terms of Marx’s framework.

To follow on from this in the second section we will look at how this teleological framework may well fall short in its practical applications. I will look at the more troubling example of the position Marx took on British colonialism in India. There Marx accepted colonial rule as a necessary step in the transformation of the country and creating the pre-conditions for Indian emancipation. At the same time that the case of India has a great degree of difficulty attached to it, in its justification of empire, overestimation of the revolutionary potential of capitalism, these writings seem to suggest that there has to be a move beyond imperialism and capitalism. It holds consistent with Marx’s position on the emancipatory potential of rights, but only as deficient to human emancipation. By this point I will explore whether or not this is a non-moral position on the part of Marx. We will look at the argument presented by Sayers that the objectivity of Marx’s moral position may be implicitly grounded in his theory of history. If so we may reconsider the framework in terms of a multilinear conception that Marx seemed to have taken on in his later years.

First part: Progress under capitalism

Second part: Moral objectivity in history

About Joshua White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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