Marx and the concept of historical time

Tomlinson, George (2015) Marx and the concept of historical time. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


The guiding premise of this thesis is that the concept of historical time constitutes a distinct philosophical problem for Karl Marx’s work. Marx does not examine the relationship between time and history in his work, rendering the historicist framework of linear, progressive time the overriding framework through which he understands this relationship. However, the larger problem is that, despite this lack, the philosophical originality and critical function of Marx’s work is in no small measure defined by the contribution it makes towards our understanding of this relationship. Therefore, this thesis argues that it is necessary to construct a concept of historical time out of Marx’s work. Methodologically, this begins with an outline of the broad contours of the materialist concept of history in The German Ideology, and a temporal reading of the historical act – the creation of the means of human life – on which this concept is based. This reading is then ontologically grounded, first by Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, in order to establish how the act as such temporalises, and then by Jean-Paul Sartre’s Critique of Dialectical Reason, in order to grasp how this temporalisation can be thought in relation to the movement of historical totalisation, which is to say the ongoing totalisation of the time of all human lives. In short, Heidegger and Sartre enable us to secure labour and need – the two concepts upon which the materialist concept of history depends – as the two basic forces upon which historical temporalisation depends. Yet if, as Marx’s Capital reveals, the specifically capitalist category of ‘abstract labour’ is the condition of thinking the transhistorical category of ‘labour in general’, and if abstract labour exists to satisfy capital’s need to self-expand, not the human’s need to live, then capital – not the human – is the condition of thinking history. Capital and its times give history its intelligibility, such that capitalism is the only standpoint (to date) from which ‘history as such’, ‘history itself’, can be conceived. However, the concept of historical time cannot simply register that capital makes the category of history possible. It must also account for the historically changing character of the relationship between time and history, and hence the possibility of social and historical time after capitalism.

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