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Dialectical Investigations - Studying History Backward: A Neglected Feature of Marx's Materialist Conception of History < DIALECTICAL MARXISM: The Writings of Bertell Ollman Dialectical Investigations
Chapter 8

Studying History Backward: A Neglected Feature of Marx's Materialist Conception of History


History is the story of the past, and like any story it begins in the past and proceeds forward to the present or however near the present one wants to take it. This is how it happened. This is also the order in which this story is usually told. It doesn't follow, however, that this is the ideal order for studying the meaning of the story, especially as regards its final outcome. Marx, for one, believed that we could best approach how the past developed into the present by adopting the vantage point of the present to view the conditions that gave rise to it—in other words, if we studied history backward.1 In his words, "the actual movement starts from existing capital—i.e., the actual movement denotes developed capitalist production, which starts from and presupposes its own basis" (Marx, 1963, 513).

This is not a lesson to be gleaned from most writers on Marx's materialist conception of history, where the most popular debates deal with the nature of the "economic factor" and the effect it is presumed to have on the rest of society, with historical periodization, relative autonomy, and, above all, the paradoxical juxtaposition of freedom and determinism. Irrespective of their political views, virtually all sides in these debates examine history in the order in which it happened. Thus, whether one takes changes in the forces of production, or in the relations of production, or in economic structures, or in material existence as determining new developments in the social order (and no matter how strong or weak a sense is given to the notion of "determine"), what brings about the change is generally treated first and the change that is brought about second, with the latter being viewed from the vantage point of the former, as its "necessary" result. Basing themselves on the order in which Marx often presents his conclusions—"The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill society with the industrial capitalist" they have assumed, wrongly, that this is also the order in which Marx conducted his studies and would have us conduct ours (Marx, n.d., 122).

Marx's unusual approach to studying history is rooted in his acceptance of the Hegelian philosophy of internal relations, the much neglected foundation of his entire dialectical method. Based on this philosophy, each of the elements that come into Marx's analysis includes as aspects of what it is all those other elements with which it interacts and without which it could neither appear nor function as it does. In this way, labor and capital, for example, in virtue of their close interaction, are conceived of as aspects of each other. Labor-power could not be sold or get embodied in a product over which workers have no control if there were no capitalists to buy it; just as capitalists could not use labor to produce surplus value if labor-power were not available for sale. It is in this sense that Marx calls capital and labor "expressions of the same relation, only seen from the opposite pole" (Marx, 1971, 491). Likewise, the unfolding of this interaction over time, its real history, is viewed as internally related to is present forms. Things are conceived of, in Marx's words, "as they are and happen" (my emphasis), so that the process of their becoming is as much a part of what they are as the qualities associated with how they appear and function at this moment (Marx and Engels, 1964, 57).

With the philosophy of internal relations, a major problem arises whenever one wants to stress a particular aspect or temporal segment of this ongoing interaction without seeming to deny or trivialize its other elements. One of the main ways Marx tried to resolve this problem is with the notion of "precondition and result". Like contradiction, metamorphosis, and quantity/quality change—though less well known than any of these—the notion precondition and result enables Marx to pursue his studies more effectively by bringing certain aspects of change and interaction into sharper focus. Specifically, precondition and result is a double movement that processes in mutual interaction undergo in becoming both effects and makers of each other's effect simultaneously. For this, the two must be viewed dynamically (it is a matter of becoming a precondition and becoming a result), and organically (each process only takes place in and through the other).

According to Marx, capital and wage labor are "continually presupposed" and "continuing products" of capitalist production (Marx, 1971, 492). Indeed, "Every precondition of the social production process is at the same time its results, and every one of its results appears simultaneously as its preconditions. All the production relations within which the process moves are therefore just as much its product as they are its conditions" (Marx, 1971, 507). Besides capital and wage labor, Marx also treats foreign trade, the world market, money, and the supply of precious metals as both preconditions and results of capitalist production (Marx, 1971, 253; Marx, 1957, 344). Of crucial importance for us is that establishing something as a precondition occurs by abstracting it from a situation that it has not only helped to bring about but of which it is itself, grasped now as a result, a fully integrated part.

Viewing precondition and result as movements, in the process of their becoming, and both of these movements as aspects of a single movement, requires in the first instance an abstraction of their extension (of what all is included) that is large enough to encompass the interaction of the elements referred to over time. Thus, as preconditions and results of one another, capital and wage-labor are each conceived of as including the other throughout the long course of their common evolution. Secondly, integrating the separate movements—in which capital serves as a precondition for wage labor and simultaneously becomes a result of wage labor—within a single combined movement without losing the distinctive character of each can only be done by changing vantage points for viewing them in mid analysis. To treat labor as a precondition for capital, in other words, it is necessary to view labor from the vantage point of capital already grasped as a result, since we only know that one thing is a precondition for another when the latter has emerged in some recognizable form. It is not only that we must have the result in hand in order to examine what served it as a precondition, but it is the very occurrence of the result that transforms its major interlocking processes, its present conditions, into preconditions. Only when capital assumes the form of a result can labor take on the form of its precondition, so that the one becoming a result and the other becoming a precondition can be said to take place simultaneously.

However, as we saw, capital always includes wage labor as one of its aspects. Thus, capital in its form as a result includes wage labor, now also in the form of a result. And it is by adopting the vantage point of labor in this latter form that we can see that one of its major preconditions is capital. Here, too, and for similar reasons, labor's becoming a result and capital's becoming a precondition occur simultaneously. And this takes place simultaneously with the processes referred to above by which capital becomes a result and labor becomes one of its main preconditions. In both cases, investigating how something that exists came to be proceeds from its present form, the result, backward through its necessary preconditions.

As the interaction between processes in an organic system is ongoing, so too is the acquisition of qualities that makes them into preconditions and results of one another. Wage labor has been both precondition and result of capital (and vice versa) throughout the long history of their relationship. Nevertheless, at any given moment, whenever either of these processes is singled out as a precondition, it is abstracted in extension as something less developed, possessing fewer of the qualities it eventually acquires in capitalism, than the result it is said to give rise to. Such is the case whenever two or more interacting processes are re abstracted, rearranged, to occur as a sequence. While interacting processes in an organic system are always mutually dependent, viewing their relations diachronically requires that they be abstracted at different phases in what has been a common evolution. This is necessary if Marx is to get at the distinctive influence of particular aspects of that interaction over time, avoiding the opposing pitfalls of a shallow eclecticism, where everything is equally important and hence nothing worth investigating, and causalism, where a major influence erases all others while leaving its own progress unaccounted for. It is Marx's way of establishing dialectical asymmetry, and with it of unraveling without distortion what might be called the double movement, systemic and historical, of the capitalist mode of production.


The double movement of precondition and result occupies the central place in most of Marx's historical studies. Searching for the preconditions of our capitalist present is the little appreciated key with which Marx opens up the past. It is what happened in the past that gave rise to this particular present that is of special concern to him, but what exactly this was can only be adequately observed and examined from the vantage point of what it turned into. As Marx says, "The anatomy of the human being is a key to the anatomy of the ape . . . . The bourgeois economy furnishes a key to ancient economy, etc." (Marx, 1904, 300). Though frequently quoted, the full implications of this remark, especially as regards Marx's method, have seldom been explored. It is essentially a directional signpost intended to guide our research, and the direction in which it points is back. And this applies to unique events and situations as well as to the processes and relations whose level of generality places them in modern capitalism, the capitalist era (the time frame for most of Marx's studies), the period of class history, or the lifetime of our species.

Reading history backward in this way does not mean Marx accepts a cause at the end of history, a "motor force" operating in reverse, a teleology. Instead, it is a matter of asking where the situation under hand comes from and what had to happen for it to acquire just these qualities, i.e., of asking what are its preconditions. In this case, the search for an answer is aided by what we already know about the present, the result. Knowing how the "story" came out, placing such knowledge at the start of our investigation, sets up criteria for relevance as well as research priorities.

It also provides a perspective for viewing and evaluating all that is found. Whereas, the alternative of viewing the present from some point in the past requires, first of all, that one justify the choice of just this moment with which to begin. With the result unknown, or only vaguely known and completely unanalyzed, there is no compelling reason to begin at one moment rather than another. Likewise, the choice of what kind of phenomena—social, economic, political, religious, etc. to emphasize at the start of such a study can only be justified on the basis of a principle drawn from outside history, since the historical investigation that might confirm its value has yet to take place. Also, associated with this approach is the tendency to offer single-track causal explanations of the ties between what has been separated out as the beginning and what is found to come after. By viewing the past from the vantage point of the present, Marx, on the other hand, can focus on what is most relevant in the past without compromising his adherence to a thoroughgoing mutual interaction throughout history.

Marx said his approach used both "observation and deduction" (Marx, 1973, 460). He starts by examining existing society; he then deduces what it took for such complex phenomena to appear and function as they do; after which, he continues to research in the directions indicated by these deductions. By combining observation and deduction in this way—not once, but again and again—Marx can concentrate on what in the past proved to be most important and show why, while avoiding the parlor game, all too common among historians and the general public alike, of second-guessing what might have been. By ignoring the alternatives that were present at earlier stages, Marx is often misunderstood as denying that people could have chosen differently and that things might have taken another course. But this would only be true if he had begun with a cause located sometime in the past and had treated its subsequent effects as inevitable. Instead, starting with an already existing result, he is concerned to uncover what did in fact determine it, what the events themselves have transformed into its necessary preconditions. It is the necessity of the fait accompli, and only graspable retrospectively. Necessity read backward into the past is of an altogether different order than the necessity that begins in the past and follows a predetermined path into the future.

In investigating history backward, Marx makes an important distinction between preconditions that are themselves wholly results, albeit earlier forms of their own results now functioning as preconditions, and preconditions that have at least some features that come from previous social formations. It is the difference between what capitalism required to develop as compared to what it required to emerge in the first place. In the latter case, one precondition was the appearance in towns of large numbers of people who were willing and able to sell their labor power and become a proletariat. This condition was met by the massive exodus of serfs from the estates due mainly to the various acts of enclosure that characterized late feudalism. Similarly, the accumulation of wealth that capitalism required in order to get under way could only come from sources other than the exploitation of labor that capital alone makes possible. Once in place, even minimally so, the capitalist mode of production accumulates wealth through its own distinctive means, reproducing in this way one of its major preconditions. In Marx's words, "The conditions and presuppositions of the becoming, of the arising, of capital presuppose precisely that it is not yet in being but merely in becoming; they therefore disappear as real capital arises, capital which itself, on the basis of its own reality, posits the conditions for its realization" (Marx, 1973, 459).

The developments in feudalism that made the new turn toward capitalism possible were themselves, of course, internally related aspects of that mode of production, but they had no place or role in what came after. Marx refers to these developments as "suspended presuppositions" ("aufgehobne Voraussetzungen") (Marx, 1973, 461). They were necessary for the creation of capitalism, but there is no need for capitalism, once underway, to reproduce them. Examining currently existing capitalism backward through its preconditions and results leads in due course to the origins of the system. "Our method," Marx says, "indicates the points . . . where bourgeois economy as a merely historical form of the production process points beyond itself to earlier historical modes of production" (Marx, 1973, 460). At this point, in order to trace the transformation of feudalism into capitalism, distinctively capitalist preconditions and results get replaced as the main objects of study by the suspended presuppositions of feudalism. The question that guides research still is what capitalism—now viewed in its earliest stage—required, and the direction in which study proceeds remains as before—backward.

What needs emphasizing is that Marx seldom treats feudalism as just another mode of production alongside of capitalism. Hence, feudalism's most distinctive structures at the high point of their development receive little attention. Also, feudalism is seldom examined as the mode of production that produced capitalism—hence, the relative neglect of the former's internal dynamics. Instead, feudalism almost always comes into Marx's writings as the social formation in which the immediate origins of capitalism are to be found. "The formation of capitalism," Marx says, "is the dissolution process of feudalism" (My emphasis) (Marx, 1971, 491). It is as an essential part of capitalism that feudalism is studied. Thus, it is the particular ways in which the disintegration of feudalism occurs that is of prime interest to Marx, for it is here that he uncovers the preconditions of capitalism. And the same applies to earlier periods, for the roots of capitalism extend even there. They are all pre-capitalist, and of interest primarily as such. Consequently, moving from capitalism back through its preconditions to feudalism and slavery there is no pretension of offering these three stages as a model of development through which every country must pass, as too often occurs when they are treated in reverse order. This is another example of the difference between necessity read backward from the present and necessity read forward from some point in the past. Its wide popularity notwithstanding, what's called the "Marxist periodization of history" is but another unfortunate result of standing Marx's method on its head. In sum, looking back from the vantage point of what capitalism has become to what it presupposes enables Marx to concentrate on specific features in the rubble of the past that he would otherwise miss or underplay, just as it enhances his understanding—essentially transforming the last moments of a dying system into the birthing moments of a new one—of what is found.

To be sure, Marx can also examine the relation of precondition and result from the vantage point of the former, beginning in the past and looking ahead; in which case, it is more accurate to speak of "cause" (or "condition") and "effect," and he occasionally adopts this order (and these terms) in expounding his conclusions, especially in more popular works, such as his Preface to contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). What makes cause and effect less satisfactory as a way of organizing research is that before we have an effect it is difficult to know what constitutes the cause, or—once we've decided what the cause is—to know where the cause comes from, or—having determined that—to know where in its own evolution as the cause to begin our study. Consequently, the complex interaction by which the cause is itself shaped and made adequate to its task by the effect, now functioning in its turn as a cause, is easily lost or distorted, even where—as in Marx's case—causes and effects are viewed as internally related. If Marx still uses the formulation "cause" and "effect" (or "condition," "determine," and "produce" in the sense of "cause"), this is usually a handy shorthand and first approximation for bringing out for purposes of exposition some special feature in a conclusion whose essential connections have been uncovered by studying them as preconditions and results.

Unable to follow Marx's practice in making abstractions, lacking a conception of internal relations and a workable grasp of the often conflicting demands of inquiry and exposition, most of Marx's readers have forced his words on precondition and result into a causal framework. The components of capitalism get divided into causes (or conditions, generally understood as weak or broad causes) and effects, with the result that the former, separated from their real causes, are made to appear ahistorical, possibly natural, as something that cannot be changed or even seriously questioned. Thus, when Marx presents man as a social product, the multiple ways in which people also create society are distorted if not completely missed. While, conversely, those who emphasize Marx's comments on human beings as creators of society generally miss the full impact of what is meant in his references to people as social products. Whereas, for Marx, man is "the permanent precondition of human history, likewise its permanent product and result" (Marx, 1971, 491). Unable to sustain this dialectical tension, bourgeois ideology is replete with one sided distortions that come from causal interpretations of this and other similar remarks in Marx's writings.


The same double movement of precondition and result that dominates Marx's study of the past plays a decisive role in his inquiry into the future. In the philosophy of internal relations, the future is an essential moment in the present. It is not only what the present becomes, but whatever happens in the future exists in the present, within all present forms, as potential. In the same way that Marx's fuller study of the present extends back into its origins, it extends forward into its possible and likely outcomes. For him, anything less would detract from our understanding of what the present is and our ability to mold it to our purposes. Antonio Gramsci has said that for a Marxist the question "What is man?" is really a question about what man can become (Gramsci, 1971, 351). Whether directed at human beings, a set of institutions, or a whole society, the unfolding of a potential has a privileged status in Marx's studies. But how does one go about studying the future as part of the present?

According to Marx, investigating the past as "suspended presuppositions" of the present "likewise leads at the same time to the points at which the suspension of the present form of production relations gives signs of its becoming foreshadowings of the future. Just as, on one side, the pre bourgeois phases appear as merely historical, i.e., suspend presuppositions, so do the contemporary conditions of production likewise appear as engaged in suspending themselves and hence in posing the historical presuppositions for a new state of society" (Marx, 1973, 461). Whether studying the past or the future, it is chiefly a matter of looking back, deriving presuppositions from the forms that contain them. We have seen Marx apply this to the past grasped as the presuppositions of the present, but how can he grasp the present as presuppositions of a future that has yet to occur? Whence the sense of the future that allows him to look back at the present as its presuppositions?

There would appear to be two main answers. First, and especially as regards the near future (what lies just ahead in capitalism) and the middle future (represented by the socialist revolution), what is expected is derived by projecting existing tendencies (laws) and contradictions forward. The vantage point is the present but a present that has been abstracted in extension to include the overlapping trajectories and buildup of various pressures that emerge from the immediate past. As regards the near future, Marx frequently abstracted the processes he saw in the world as having a temporal extension large enough to include what they were becoming as part of what they are, going so far as to use the name associated with where they were heading but have not yet arrived to refer to the whole journey there. In this way, all labor that produces or is on the verge of producing commodities in capitalism is called "wage labor"; money that is about to buy means of production is called "capital"; small businessmen who are going bankrupt and peasants who are losing their land are referred to as "working class," and so on (Marx, 1963, 409 10, 396; Marx and Engels, 1945, 16). Marx frequently signals the futuristic bias in his naming practice with such phrases as "in itself," "in its intention," "in its destiny," "in essence," and "potentially".

As regards the middle future, the moment of qualitative change not in one or a few processes but in the whole social formation of which they are part, Marx's chief point of departure is the knot of major contradictions that he found in investigating capitalism. "The fact," he says, "that bourgeois production is compelled by its own immanent laws, on the one hand, to develop the productive forces as if production did not take place on a narrow restricted social foundation, while, on the other hand, it can develop these forces only within these narrow limits, is the deepest and most hidden cause of crises, of the crying contradictions within which bourgeois production is carried on and which even at a cursory glance reveal it as only a transitional, historical form" (Marx, 1971, 84). "Even at a cursory glance," Marx believes, it is clear that capitalism cannot go on much longer. All we have to see is that it builds upon and requires a social foundation—essentially, private appropriation of an expanding social product—that cannot support its growing weight.

Projecting capitalism's major contradictions forward in this manner involves subjective as well as objective conditions—in Marxist terms, class struggle as well as the accumulation of capital—in their distinctive interaction. Marx never doubts that it is people who make history, but, as he is quick to add, "not in circumstances of their own choosing" (Marx and Engels, 1951a, 225). Most of Marx's own work is devoted to uncovering these circumstances for the capitalist era, but always in connection with how they affect and are likely to affect the classes (the relevant abstraction for people) operating in them. Responding to pressures from their social and economic situation and to the results of their own socialization, these classes are further predisposed to choose and act as they do by the range of alternatives available to them. But all the circumstances pertaining to capitalism and modern capitalism that are mainly responsible for how people behave are changing. Projecting the sum of such changes forward, organizing the narrowing options that they provide as contradictions, Marx can foresee a time when a renewed burst of class struggle will bring the capitalist era to a close. There is nothing in any of these unfolding and overlapping tendencies and contradictions that allows Marx to predict with absolute certainty what will happen, and especially not when and how it will happen. The future so conceived does not fit together neatly like the pieces of a puzzle, but is itself a set of alternative outcomes, no one of which is more than highly probable. Such is the dialectical form of the future within the present, the sense of "determined" contained in the notion of "potential."

The second main way in which Marx constructs a future from which to look back at the present applies chiefly, though not solely, to the far future or socialist/communist society that he believes will follow the revolution. In studying the presuppositions of the present in the past, Marx's focus is on the capitalist character of the present and its origins in a pre capitalist past. Unlike those of our qualities that partake of the human condition, the qualities that have arisen as part of capitalism can be expected to change drastically or even disappear altogether when capitalism does. Having been posited as a historically specific result, capitalist forms of life can now be posited as the historical premise for what they in turn make possible. We have simply reproduced the relations these present forms were found to have with their real past with their likely future, except that the position and therefore the role of the present has been reversed. The point is that if the forms of life associated with capitalism belong to the order of things that have historical presuppositions—which is to say, if they emerged in real historical time—they are also capable of serving as presuppositions for what follows. And for Marx, as we saw, it is the very analysis that reveals them as the one (as results) that reveals them "at the same time" as the other (as presuppositions), and in the process gives us "foreshadowings of the future."

Marx constructs his vision of the far future by abstracting out the historically specific conditions of capitalism (treating as preconditions what has proved to be historical results) as well as by projecting existing tendencies and contradictions forward, taking full account of changes in standards and priorities that would occur under a socialist government. We learn, for example, that "The workmen, if they were dominant, if they were allowed to produce for themselves, would very soon, and without great exertion, bring the capital (to use a phrase of the vulgar economists) up to the standard of their needs." Here, the "workers, as subjects, employ the means of production—in the accusative case—in order to produce wealth for themselves. It is of course assumed here that capitalist production has already developed the productive forces of labor in general to a sufficiently high level for this revolution to take place" (Marx, 1963, 580). Marx begins by removing the historically specific conditions of capitalist production that have made workers into a means for producing surplus value (itself the result of earlier history) and then projects forward what these workers would be able to do with the instruments of production once left on their own. Having constructed some part of the socialist future from the vantage point of the present, he then reverses himself and looks back at the present from the vantage point of this future to specify one of its major preconditions, which is highly developed productive forces.

In projecting existing tendencies and contradictions into the future (whether near, middle, or far), the eventual outcome is viewed as the further extension of a result that has its central core in the present. With the shift of vantage point to the future, however, the future becomes the result, and what exists now becomes part of its extended preconditions, along with what had formerly been set off as the present's own preconditions. By having its status changed from that of a result to that of a precondition, the way the present instructs us about the future also changes. Taken as a result, present forms are used as a basis for projecting the tendencies and contradictions that constitute its own real history forward. While viewing present forms together with their origins as preconditions of the future allows Marx to use the present to help clarify the future in much the same way that he uses the past to help clarify the present. By examining the conditions of earlier times from the vantage point of capitalism, as its presuppositions, Marx could learn not only what led to our present but obtain a fuller understanding of capitalism as a later development and transformation of just these presuppositions. Chiefly, it was a way of singling out what had proved to be the most important parts of our history and embedding them, now suitably altered, as essential features in a dialectically arranged present.

Similarly, our image of the future acquires clearer definition to the extent that important elements in present day society can be treated as its preconditions. Criteria of relevance and research priorities for studying what is coming into being are also affected. Naturally, there are severe limits that this approach places on the amount of detail Marx can offer about the future. Unlike the free flights of fancy with which utopian socialists constructed their future societies, Marx never severs the internal relations that connect the future to its past, and therefore to the variety of possibilities as well as to the dominant tendencies inherent in that past. Marx gives no detailed blueprints of the future, it appears, because his method does not permit him to have any.2

The sequence presented above deserves to be restated: Marx begins by viewing the past from the vantage point of the present (moving from result to precondition). Again, from the vantage point of the present, but including now the ties that have been uncovered with the past, he projects this present forward to some stage of the future (moving from one part of the result to another). Finally, adopting the vantage point of what has been established in the future, he examines the present taken together with its ties to the past (moving from result to preconditions). Marx could not construct any part of the future without treating it as a development out of the present. The present would not exhibit any development unless it was first constituted as a system of interacting processes arising out of its past. And the future would not emerge even to the minimal degree it does in Marx's writings if he had not taken the final step of adopting the vantage point of the future to look back on the present. Paradoxically, it is this last move that also rounds out Marx's analysis of the capitalist present.

The main effect of casting the relation between past, present, and future as part of the interaction of precondition and result is that it enabled Marx to bring into focus for purposes of study the historical movement of the capitalist mode of production without either dismissing or trivializing its organic movement. He can now fix upon the present in a way that throws into the sharpest possible relief the changes (already made) that tie it to its real past and those (in the process of taking place) that connect it to its probable future, pointing to major influences where they exist while holding fast to the mutual interaction that characterizes each stage in the development.

Further, viewing the present from the vantage point of its as yet unrealized potential gives to our capitalist present the value of a stepping stone. From a sense of having arrived, we become newly aware and highly sensitized to the fact of going somewhere, of constructing here and now—from somewhere in the middle of the historical process—the foundations for a totally different future. With this, the project and our intentions as part of it assume a greater place in our consciousness, and in class consciousness, with a corresponding impact on our actions. Marx's future oriented study of the present becomes increasingly relevant, therefore, just as this future, as indicated by this same study, becomes more and more of a realistic possibility.3

  1. This chapter makes heavy use of the three modes of abstraction, especially that of vantage point, described in the last chapter. Those who experience difficulty following how Marx used the process of abstraction to study history will benefit from re-reading the relevant sections on abstraction above.

  2. This being said, there is a considerable amount of information on what communism will look like scattered throughout Marx's writings. For a reconstruction of the way of life that emerges from these comments, see my "Marx's Vision of Communism," Social and Sexual Revolution, pp. 48 98.

  3. For a more detailed account of how Marx investigated the future inside the present, see my forthcoming book, Communism: Ours, Not Theirs.