A Promethean Vision Reviewed by Sarmad Khawaja for Pakistan Development Review,

A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview by Eric Rahim.

Review by Sarmad Khawaja for Pakistan Development Review, the official journal of the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)

A Promethean Vision is the latest addition to the growing corpus of literature on Marx in the ongoing global Marxism renaissance. It is a fine exposition of Marx’s ideas about the evolution and structure of capitalist society, also called historical materialism. Though it is one of Marx’s great discoveries he did not publish a systematic account of historical materialism;[1]Neither did he produce a strategic plan nor a system of philosophy applicable at all times, in all situations because he understood that history never conforms to pure theory. For him theory belonged to action: it is ‘society becoming conscious of itself.’ For Marx, historical materialism was a practical method of social and historical analysis which he employed extensively—a point that this book underscores in an emphatically titled section (in chapter 6) Not a General Historical-Philosophical Theory, But a Conceptual Framework, echoing Frederick Engels’ concern: ‘All history must be studied afresh, the condition of existence of the different formations of society must be individually examined.’

The focus of the book up to 1848 underscores the point that Marx’s ideas had fully matured by then (he was then 30 years old). His ‘education as a political economic thinker was complete;’ He was deeply involved in the revolutionary movement in Europe; In this year he wrote (with Frederick Engels) TheCommunist Manifesto, ‘the most fundamental single piece of political writing since the French Revolutionary Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizens.’[2]TheCommunist Manifestois a precise summary of Marx’s worldview; the ‘culmination of the evolution of the Marxian vision. From this point on’, writes Prof Eric Rahim, ‘one could speak of a Marxian system of thought, an ideology of the working class, the driver of the revolutionary change this theory envisaged.’ A Promethean Vision’sfocus on Marx’s formative years, i.e. up to 1848, therefore also expands our understanding of this great communist landmark.

Prof Rahim is eminently qualified to undertake the exposition of historical materialism: He is a Marxist scholar of international repute; His mind is long attuned to the grand idea of Marxism; And, he renders historical materialism with a sympathetic grasp of Marx’s mission in life, which was to understand capitalism and ‘to overthrow capitalist society and the state institutions which it had brought into being.’[3]

So, what is historical materialism?

In his exposition Prof Rahim states first its basic premises: that the need to produce goods and services is the basic premise of human existence and, therefore, of all history; That the drive for social change and economic development lies within the system, in the demand for new goods and services; that the production of goods and services requires tools of production, methods of production and skills inherited from the previous generation, which are improved upon and passed on to the succeeding generation; that the nature of the relations between the owners of the means of production and those who work for them, the production relations, corresponds to the stage of economic development; and that the ‘superstructure’ or ‘realm of consciousness,’ i.e. belief systems, politics, culture, ways of thinking adapt to and are directly interwoven with the way the goods and services are produced.

Next, Prof Rahim turns to the central feature that makes historical materialism a uniquely Marxian conception: the law of historical development, which says that at a certain stage of economic development further progress in society is increasingly difficult within the current production relations, which consequently become fetters on progress. They are replaced with new production relations, by the class whose interests are aligned with the more developed production system and which fights for it. This fight is not only for political power, i.e. for control of the state, but also to assert ideological hegemony. Thus, ‘with the change of the economic foundation the whole vast superstructure is sooner or later entirely transformed.’ 

Finally, Prof Rahim explains the pre-conditions for the successful transition from capitalism to communism: the economic system must be able to produce an abundance of goods and services; and capitalism must have exhausted its potential for further development since no social order perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have fully developed.

This exposition of historical materialism Prof Rahim derives from chapters 1-5 which trace its evolution in the writings of Marx, a process which started while Marx was studying philosophy at Berlin University (1836-41). It is well-known that Marx wrote about historical materialism in fragments as the ideas matured in his mind. Chapters 1-5 collect together these fragments and explain them as part of Marx’s biography within the context of the intellectual, economic and political ferment of the time to give a materialistic interpretation.

Marx’s formative years was a time in Europe of political and intellectual ferment without parallel in European history.[4]It was marked by rebellions and uprisings of workers in France, Belgium and Poland in 1830s, rise of Chartism in England, demonstrations in Germany for unity and political freedoms, and against political repression: Germany’s landowning class dominated the legislative bodies and suppressed progressive thinking associated with the growing class of industrialists and bankers. German princes were restoring their feudal privileges, rights and restrictions destroyed by Napoleon’s invasion, and exorcizing the ‘specter of democratic revolution whose memory was sedulously kept alive by the more enlightened among their subject.’[5]

Yet, among the German intellectuals the rationalism of Locke, Voltaire, Fichte and Kant fanned an undercurrent of philosophical speculation and literary activity—the Aufklaerungor enlightenment. The ideas of rationalism and sensibility were gradually becoming part of the general attitude of European society. Marx’s father and future father-in-law who influenced him most in his early years were products of this enlightenment. They rejected religious authority and the social order associated with feudalism; And believed in the ultimate triumph of reason and moral goodness, which though were being discredited by the ongoing feudal restoration in Germany. Marx imbibed from his father rationalism and empiricism, which braced his realistic approach to the metaphysical philosophies he would later encounter; and from his mentor and future father-in-law, a love of romantic literature that remained with him in later life.

Marx’s ideas, says Isiah Berlin, derive their ‘structure and basic concepts from Hegel and the Young Hegelians, and its dynamic principles from Saint-Simon, its belief in the primacy of matter from Feuerbach, and its view of the proletariat from the French communist tradition.’[6] From Hegel Marx extracted the essence of his dialectical method, its ‘rational core,’[7]which provided the premise for his materialist outlook: ‘the object must be studied in its development .. as something imbued with contradictions in itself.’ Prof Rahim also notes Adam Smith’s influence on Marx through his discovery of the subjective essence of wealth that it is a product of labor, labor embodied, labor materialized, which Marx extended, turned it into the basic premise of historical materialism and integrated it with his philosophical standpoint. But Marx’s system goes far beyond the capitalist horizon set by classical political economy.

There were, as well, a multitude of progressive social and political theories in vogue at the time that Marx knew, critiqued, and/or further developed. These included: the Utopian socialism of Saint-Simon and Fourier who believed that social reform would have to be achieved gradually through the spread of education or the electoral process or the goodwill of the ruling classes; Democratic socialism of Louis Blanc who believed in political reform through the democratic process based on universal suffrage; Proudhon’s indictment of property; Carlyle’s furious attack on capitalism: ‘supply and demand is not the Law of Nature. Cash nexus is not the sole nexus of man with man. From the pursuit of monetary aims man will utterly fail to achieve happiness;’ Sismondi’s theory of regular economic crises; Rousseau’s claim that private property is the source of all the evils of society; Morelly’s famous principle: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs;[8]Schiller’s condemnation of corruption, extravagance and unearned privilege and denouncing of ‘the exploitation of man by man with an ardor that left nothing for Marx to add but scholarship.’[9]

From this mass of ideas of German philosophy, French rationalism and English political economy, which stood isolated from each other, Marx extracted what was true and fused that into an unbroken unity, his worldview, thereby giving each idea a new meaning and context. ‘If it had not been for him (Marx),’ Engels wrote later, ‘we should still be groping in a maze of confusion.’ Mayakovsky says it best:

Into the bay of communism still fogged with blinding mystery
We thought the waves of chance alone could bring us from our hell

Marx disclosed the deepest laws of history

Put the proletariat at the helm

Prof Rahim ferrets out the various aspects of historical materialism from Marx’s writings, in particular from The Hegel Critique(1843) and the Jewish Question(1843), in which Marx took ‘the first crucial step in the formation of his materialist outlook;’ The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, which synthesize Marx’s philosophical thinking with political economy;’ The Holy Family(1845), which is a polemic against the Young Hegelians who veered toward idealism asserting that ‘theoretical activity was the only dynamic force in history. Marx ‘emphasized the correspondence between politics and the economic structure;’ He used dialectics to explain the dynamic of socio-economic development: private owners are one part of the dialectic (thesis), the proletariat the other (anti-thesis); and brought out the lead role of the proletariat as the maker of history, who is compelled by his condition to resolve this conflict by abolishing private property.

By 1845, Marx had worked out his ‘own philosophical basis of communism developed as a critique of Feuerbach’ in Theses on Feuerbachand Philosophic-Economic Manuscripts. His complete vision of the historical process is set out in The German Ideology(1846), which Marx wrote together with Engels, and in The Poverty of Philosophy(1847), which was the first published statement of historical materialism.

Historical materialism is best explained in TheCommunist Manifesto(1848), which Marx wrote with Engels: In late 18thcentury Europe the feudal relations of production, of serf and lord, the attendant aristocratic privileges, feudal rights and restrictions, laws and rules, despotic officialdom, local feudal tariffs and taxes inhibited trade and industry, impeded progress. They couldn’t endure within the feudal order and had to be ‘burst asunder’ in a capitalist revolution. They were burst asunder in the French Revolution of 1789, which abolished ‘the political institutions, usually called feudal, that had for centuries reigned unopposed in most of the nations of Europe.’[10]Sprouting from the ruins of the feudal society was capitalist industry and liberal capitalist society, which got coherence and unity from the ideas of classical liberalism: constitutionalism, free trade, a secular state with civil liberties and guarantees of private enterprise, championed by Carlyle, Voltaire, Rousseau, Adam Smith. 

Nevertheless, in the new capitalist society the class antagonisms remained with ‘new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones.’[11]So the process repeats itself. Society split into two great classes directly facing each other—the capitalist class and the proletariat. And by 1848 a specter haunted Europe, the specter of communism. A new political force emerged on the stage of world history, the proletariat, destined to ‘overthrow capitalist society and the state institutions which it had brought into being.’[12]

The more capitalism grows the more society is polarized between the wealthy and the poor, the more workers it mobilizes. Their class consciousness increases, they get consolidated nationally and internationally. In The Poverty of PhilosophyMarx explains this: ‘large-scale industry concentrates in one place a crowd of people …maintenance of wages, this common interest...unites them. And in the face of always united capital…their association takes on a political character.’ In a greedy pursuit of profit factories multiply and so do the working people, as well, their struggle, as in Russia, where the economic strike developed into a political strike and the latter into insurrection.

However, the ‘old order,’ which is Pakistan means the rule of landlords and capitalists, does not breakdown mechanically. It is versatile. Often it has a popular mandate with a supporting mass media daily perpetuating the status quo. And, lurking beneath its democratic veneer is a frightening legal and security apparatus to batter and subdue the working people. Organizing the working people in a political party of their own, therefore, is no easy task.

In the Preface to the American Edition of The Condition of the Working Class in England Engels says: ‘In European countries, it took the working class years and years before they fully realized … that they formed a distinct … class; and it took years again to form … a distinct political party.’ Nonetheless, Lenin explains in Urgent Tasks of Our Movement that without a political party the working people ‘lose their political roots and become the tail of other parties.’ A fundamental principle of Marxism is that the emancipation of the working people must be the act of the working people themselves. The political party of the working people is an instrument to achieve this aim.

A revolution is, therefore, no cup of tea. It needs relentless effort to wage a war for the hearts and minds of the working people. It means persuading them, criticizing the status quo, throwing off the yoke of oppressive values and spreading ideas that are sensitive to the working people’s suffering. Such ideas become a force when they penetrate the masses. Also, it needs people with a will, passion, awareness and discipline to change the status quo. As Antonio Gramsci says in Prison Notebooks: ‘the emancipation of the masses is not a labor of little account and little men; only he who can keep his heart strong and his will as sharp as a sword…can be regarded as a fighter for the working masses.’

Marx’s historical materialism gives coherence and unity to the working people’s struggle for emancipation, and gives to them an understanding of their historic mission and revolutionary effort: to build a new society in which the desire for money and material gain is not the driving force of economic life but basic human needs, the interest of the common people. 


[1] His other great discovery is the theory of surplus value which explains how the capitalist exploits the worker.

[2] Introduction to the 2012 Edition of The Communist Manifesto by Eric Hobsbawm.

[3] Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx. Frederick Engels. March 17 1883

[4] Rousseau and Revolution. Will and Ariel Durant

[5] Karl Marx. His Life and Environment. Isaiah Berlin. 1963 page 20

[6] Ibid. page 129

[7] Afterword to 2ndEdition of Capital

[8] Rousseau and Revolution. Will and Ariel Durant page 81

[9] The Age of Napoleon. Ariel and Will Durant. 1975 page 621

[10 ] TheAncien Regimeand the French Revolution. De Tocqueville

[11] Communist Manifesto. Socialist Landmark. 1967

[12] Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx. Frederick Engels. March 17 1883

1 comment

  • Congratulations to both the author and reviewer of this most comprehensive tour of the evolution of Marxian thought, linking the life and times of Kar Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels. Its publication in Pakistan’s premier mainstream professional economic journal is itself of considerable significance — being perhaps the only substantive article ever published in it over its six-decade history. Hopefully, this will break its self-imposed taboo on Marxism in its parent intitute’s research and publications.

    Syed M Naseem

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