Marx writes in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that
"Men make their own history,but they do not make it as they please;they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already,given and transmitted from the past.The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living,"
What does this mean ? In particular ,how does this inform the relevance of considering political economy alongside more conventional approaches to economic theory?
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Marx's quote about the relationship that people have towards their past reflects some very keen insight. In order to fully envision this understanding, expanding on the quote might be helpful:
In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.
Marx's argument is that nothing is really ever "invented." Little is new. In human constructions, there is always a reliance on previous influences. The challenge lies in how we present these elements as new in a context that acknowledges our previous experiences.
Marx takes this idea to explain how the bourgeois seeks to maintain power. For Marx, the ruling classes and those in the position of power do not create something new, but instead seek to reinvent and reintroduce ideas from the past that would substantiate their own sense of power and control. Marx asserts that this becomes one of the distinctive elements of the bourgeoisie in the capitalist setting:
But unheroic though bourgeois society is, it nevertheless needed heroism, sacrifice, terror, civil war, and national wars to bring it into being....Similarly, at another stage of development a century earlier, Cromwell and the English people had borrowed from the Old Testament the speech, emotions, and illusions for their bourgeois revolution. When the real goal had been achieved and the bourgeois transformation of English society had been accomplished, Locke supplanted Habakkuk.
The meaning of Marx's ideas about how the past does not really leave or die is relevant to his dialectical materialist view of history. It underscores the relevance of political economy in Marx's understanding. For Marx, the repetition of the past in order to substantiate its own sense of power and to "bring it into being" is reflective of its desire to maintain control. Marx sees this desire as part of the story behind dialectical materialism or how history is determined. Marx's analysis differentiates itself from more conventional approaches to economic theory because it focuses on sociological reality and historical consciousness as much as economic laws. It is for this reason that Marx uses his understanding of history and human relationship to it as a way to explain the development that underscores his economic theory.
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