Debating Marx’s Conception of Class in History
This chapter focuses on the regrettable extent to which many Marxist theorists—including some of the most influential and best known—have mistaken the elements of liberal social thought variously preserved in Marx’s work for original conceptions of his own, and most especially with respect to the history of class societies. Aside from the texts of “The German Ideology”, Marx’s ideas were developed primarily through the critique of political economy, only occasionally glancing retrospectively at precapitalist social relations. For his purposes, it was sufficient to assert that the history of human social development was the history of exploitive class society. While the historical details might be interesting, sometimes even suggestive, they were not essential in the way that the detailed critique of political economy and close political analysis of contemporary class societies were. It is the misguided efforts of Marxists to construct a history of precapitalist modes of production from his paltry sketches and retrospective commentaries that is really problematic; the occasional errors in his own works do not significantly affect the purposes for which they were intended. Particularly serious distortions of Marx’s ideas exist where they have been conceived in terms of economic determinism.