Historicism, Idealism and Materialism

Although there are no immutable ‘laws’ of history, Karl Marx came close to developing a set and certainly he provided a framework to view and analyse historical progression. His concept of historical materialism and the dialectic of class antagonisms are a vehicle to view social development.

Marx was both an iconoclast and a creator of icons. Whilst his historical theories posited revolution and the tearing down of the vestiges of the past, he was in essence a millenarian. To him history was the logical progression towards the ideal, the classless society – read Communism, read the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thus Marxist ‘ecclesiology’ was as much concerned about icons and symbols as any religion.  Notwithstanding Marx’s infamous reference to religion as being the ‘opiate’ of the people, Marxism became the secular religion of the C20th. It became a creed to which the ‘enlightened and ‘a-theistic’ intelligentsia could respectably grasp, something that provided them with a ‘weltanschauung’, a world-view, an explanation of the world and all its doings.  It gave them a readily explicable and secular cause.

This in turn spawned a number of icons glorifying the working classes – the hammer and sickle being paramount among all. But the art of the socialist realism school is nothing short of iconic in its praise of the working man and woman and its idealised portrayals of their triumphant journey to the kingdom of communism.

In a post-Darwin world Christianity became unfashionable. It was increasingly seen in many quarters as being an unbelievable fairy story, a primitive creationist account of the world; whereas Marxism provided a pseudo-scientific explanation of, at least, politics and history. The abstractions of Judaic-Christian teleology were difficult to sustain and defend whereas Marxism was deceptively easy to understand.

This is however to do Marx the philosopher much disservice. Within his voluminous writings lies a wealth of literature of great historical and philosophical interest. Unfortunately, Marxist scholars of the dark years of so-called scientific Marxism neglected this in their quest to justify the shifting ideological sands that constituted international communism.

Karl Marx did not offer a template for a new world. He provided an historical account of the old world, a critique of the [then] current one and an idealised vision of the future. Despite his ‘scientific’ claims, he remained a metaphysician in the German tradition. He was, in my view, and old style historicist, holding to the view that the affairs of the world should always be viewed in the terms of their historical development.

Despite his celebrated break from traditional Hegelianism, I will later argue that Marx, far from being a materialist, remained true to the idealist tradition.  

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