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Karl Marx and History

December 4, 2010

While reading Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ The German Ideology, I found it extremely interesting when they mentioned that society is basically compromised of the ruling ideas of the most powerful and ruling class. And because of this, Marx and Engels assert that

The individuals who comprise the ruling class posses among other things consciousness and thought. Insofar as they rule as a class and determine the extent of a historical epoch, it is self-evident that they do it in its entire range…Their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. (p. 787)

In other words, history is only written by those who were the most powerful in society because their ideals were the ones that prevailed. Whoever is the ruling class will “regulate” the ideas of the age by destroying any ideas that are not in agreement or supportive of that ruling class.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

There is a strong hint of truth to what Marx and Engels are saying. We can look all the back throughout history to see examples. Back in Ancient Greece, only white males technically had any power in the governments of the city-states. There are very few to no primary sources from then that are written by women or slaves, showing that their opinions and ideas about equality and slavery were not regarded because that was the way things worked. The things we learn about Ancient Greece are from the ideas of white male citizens, the ruling class. The things we tend to associate with certain periods of time are from the texts and stories that are handed down through the generations. We may never know how certain societies or peoples thought because their ideas were being suppressed by the ruling ideas of the class in power.


Can we truly regard this as the definition of history? Marx will assert in The Communist Manifesto that the history of all existing society is simply the “history of class struggles.” There may always be a ruling class and the rest of the society that is overpowered, but it is important to realize that history is something that is constantly changing. It is changing because everybody is exhibiting differing opinions about it, and it truly is important to regard all of these interpretations with equal consideration. As John Stuart Mill would think, we will all learn when we hear other opinions because that will make us examine our own beliefs. Karl Marx may not have had the definite meaning of history, but it is good for us to examine and interpret Marx so that we may develop a more sound judgment of the past.

  1. arichnerjr permalink
    December 5, 2010 1:18 PM

    I don’t agree with the “history of class struggles” idea, in fact I think it’s pretty absurd. Marx looked at the French Revolution and the populist movements of the 19th century and tried to apply them to the rest of history. Except for a few very isolated events (Peasant’s Revolt, German Peasants War) there were few instances of serious class conflict until the late 18th century. Certainly it was not a driving force in history up to that point. Most conflicts concerned external forces or internal conflicts within the nobility (especially concerning the centralization of the state, e.g. in the hands of a single ruler). Peasants or those without blue blood were largely complacent throughout history, more concerned with their own survival than with the mechanisms of the state.

  2. adamkornbluh permalink
    December 6, 2010 7:56 PM

    You bring up an interesting point and a topic that was brought up in my discussion. I believe Marx’s theory that history is written by the ruling class can be argued successfully, however, it is a theory which is becoming obsolete in the Information Age. In the past, those with power were the ones who controlled history. Only the educated could write, and only the wealthy and powerful were educated for the most part. The history of ancient civilizations and even ones of a hundred years ago generally fit this mold.

    However, with technology, I believe that the documentation of history has forever changed. In this new age of the internet and personal computing, nearly everyone is able to publish their own material, whether it be through statuses on Facebook or more formally through a blog. As I’m sure everyone knows, this information is not simply erased over time. From our period in history, there will be an influx in primary source documents because everyone is an author.

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