(OPE-L) Marx and the "theory of history"

From: OPE-L Administrator (ope-admin@ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu)
Date: Sat May 17 2003 - 17:10:26 EDT

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Marx and the "theory of history"
From: Jurriaan Bendien <j.bendien@wolmail.nl> (by way of Rakesh Bhandari)
Date: Sat, May 17, 2003 1:48 pm

 From "Jurriaan Bendien"

Hi Rakesh,

I have been following a bit of your interesting discussion on OPE-L. I
have some further comment which you might consider at your leisure. I
really wanted to develop this into a paper and perhaps present it at a
conference, but that wasn't possible. I will just briefly outline the
essentials. You wrote inter alia:

"History is implied to have an inner drive for freedom--the forms of
exploitation are progressively less unfree. In Cohen's version
humanity (by which he really means Europeans) is driven along by the
mandate to develop the productive forces."

This is correct, as far as it goes, in my view. You can certainly find
this strand of thought in Marx, but really it comes from Hegels
philosophy, which was inspired a lot by the French revolution of 1789.
This is covered quite well e.g. by Joseph McCarney, Hegel on History
(London, 2000), chapter 5. Thus Hegels says for example, "we have
recognised the Idea in its determinacy as the self-knowing and
self-willing freedom whose sole end is itself" (op. cit., p. 66).
History for Hegel is the unfolding of human freedom and the growth of
rationality (indeed sometimes the implication seems to be that human
freedom and bourgeois rationality are more or less the same thing, which
is of course very attractive for academics and neoliberals, who love to
see freedom unfolding everywhere with some help from the
American armed forces; there is an ideological link from Strauss,
Kojeve, Fukuyama etc. to the White House).

Marx himself was quite aware that epochs of the development of the
productive forces could be interspersed with periods of economic and
cultural decline. I cannot give you chapter and verse here, since I do
not have the texts handy, but, e.g.  the so-called "dark ages" in
Medieval times, of which Marx was well aware, and the very idea of the
spectre of socialism or barbarism, raised originally by Engels already
suggests this. (But let's keep it in proportion: technically the
output per worker under developed capitalism is enormously greater than
in precapitalist societies, so, by comparison, economic decline in
precapitalist society was much less spectacular economically, yet more
decisive, since the total social product was much smaller, and the gap
between societies featuring economic growth and societies
featuring decline was much smaller as well. Of course, for the people of
precapitalist society economic decline might also be just as
dramatic as today, because they might starve en masse anyhow).

The dogma of productive force determinism and unilinear historical
progress really dates back to fin-de-siecle Marxism and socialism. At
that time, the European labour movement (see Walter Kendall, The
Labour Movement in Europe) seemed to be growing steadily all the time,
within what Chris Freeman and Fransisco Louca refer to as the third
Kondratiev wave (As Time Goes By, London, 2001). This provides the
backdrop for the outlook of Kautsky and others. Subsequently, of
course, Stalin adopted productive force determinism as an ideology to
justify accelerated and forced industrialisation/modernisation in the
USSR, and what was originally only a loose strand of thought in Marx,
became a systematic ideology of unilinear historical progress, through
inevitable stages.

The practical use of this ideology is rather obvious - as Stephanie
Coontz once explained in a lecture at the IIRE, must have been 1988, if
the march towards communism was depicted as an inevitable process, this
both confidently justified the position of the communist
officialdom, and simultaneously meant that the workers couldn't be
"active subjects" in the sense of changing the course of world history
(they could only be "active subjects" in the sense of fullfilling the
five-year plan by producing ever more and more coal, steel, tractors,
planes, tanks, buildings, roads and so forth, within the framework of
factory discipline and obedience to the Communist Party). If there are
indeed "iron laws of history" impervious to human intervention, then
there is, quite simply, nothing much the workers can do to change
their lot, except to follow the CP Central Committee which is
omnipotent and all-seeing, being equipped with the infallible science of
Marxism-Leninism to detect where history is leading us, in order to
guide the way forward.

If you study Gerald Cohen's life trajectory, you will find that he was
originally politically educated in a milieu where Kautskyist and
Stalinist-type Marxism predominated. This influenced his ideas about
Marx's alleged "theory of history".

But if you look at Marx's texts closely, you will notice that Marx NEVER
even once used the term "historical materialism". This
expression surfaced after Marx's death in German intellectual circles
(the Germans having an affinity for philosophical "systems") and was
accepted, together with the label "Marxism", by the old Engels, who was
keen to popularise Marx's ideas in competition with other
socialisms (although Engels himself hardly ever, if ever, uses the term
"Marxism"). Marx and Engels were in fact quite competitive,
seeking to propagandise their own views and combat other socialisms by
ruthless (but often wrong) criticism (see e.g. Vincent Geoghegan,
Utopianism and Marxism, London, 1987 and Hal Draper, Karl Marx's
Theory of Revolution, Volume 4: The Critique of Other Socialisms,
Monthly Review Press).

This is not unsurprising, because Marx specifically rejected the
attempts by German intellectuals to turn his "materialist conception
(Aufassung) of history" into a "general philosophy of history".
Indeed, he goes further and suggests in all modesty that all his work on
the development and dynamics of capitalism is but a "sketch"
applicable primarily to Europe. In correspondence, he also explicitly
rejects the idea of unilinear historical development (from memory, his
letters to Vera Zasulich, who was wondering about how to apply his ideas
in Russia). I personally researched this issue very carefully in Marx's
texts as a student in 1981, and can therefore vouch for this, although I
do not have all the quotes and circumstantial evidence
handy in my present location. Gerald Cohen's book is useful in seeking
to identify what precisely Marx is commited to, but in so doing he
misses Marx's real approach and intention by a mile. Cohen's work on
justice and morality is really much more fruitful.

But WHY did Marx reject a "theory of history" or a "philosophy of
history" ? This is an important question to consider, but few people do
so. The reason is, that he aimed for a scientific approach to
history, which meant that scholars had to go out and dig up the facts
and construct data sets systematically, and systematically try to
explain real historical events and processes, before trying to
generalise from their findings, using the idea of the materialist
interpretation of history as a guide, or methodology. In other words,
they had to do some real hard research work and get their "hands
dirty".  Even then, Engels remarked how Marx and himself had often
placed too much emphasis on economic developments, at the expense of
"superstructural" or physical factors, so even as a research
guideline, the materialist conception of history had to be elaborated
and qualified more. As he grew old, Marx complained that scholars keen
on his views tended not actually to do this. Instead, they wanted to
quickly knock up a philosophical system of their own, combining bits of
Marx's texts with what Marx and Engels derisively called their
"skimpy knowledge" of history and various sciences. In fact, they went
as far as to suggest that only students who had done some real
research and successfully completed their doctorates, should be
admitted to party positions.

This false approach of a "theory of history" presented by Cohen, was
actually counter to Marx's very nature, because Marx always continued to
evolve in his ideas, breaking into and exploring new fields of
inquiry, and in fact, he even found it incredibly hard to present them
systematically in such works as Das Kapital, he was constantly
rewriting and reformulating his expositions to get it precisely
correct and nuanced, cautiously avoiding saying things which
extrapolated beyond the available evidence. Which meant that he had far
more drafts than published text. A typical example of Marx as the
revolutionary theorist and visionary is his discussion with Samuel Moore
about the possibility of studying the ups and downs of the
business cycle mathematically; Moore replied that the data necessary
were not available yet, in other words, Marx wanted to pursue a
perfectly valid question, before it could be actually researched in

Furthermore, Marx believed that the materialist conception of history
would itself have to be modified by the scientific findings which it
inspired, and by new historical experience. After all, the world
changes, and new experiences and new data might shed a different light
on the course of human history, in which case his "outline" would have
to be revised. (See in this context also Makoto Itoh's interesting
discussion of historical materialism in The Political Economy of
Socialism). In addition, the materialist conception of history had to be
self-reflexive, it had to explain the roots of its own
coming-into-being and development (this theme is covered to some
extent in an excellent text by Goran Therborn, Science, Class and
Society (Verso).

So Marx and Engels were creative pioneers who opened up a new world of
thought. But what happened subsequently was, that their work in social
science became systematised and popularised into a socialist ideology,
applied universally to political and scientific problems, sometimes to
an absurd extent (because not underpinned by any real research), as
under the regimes of Stalin and Mao. In part, Marx and Engels were
themselves to blame for this, since they sought to apply their
scientific insights directly to the problems of the labour movement, and
ordinary people who are not wellversed in critical and
self-critical scientific thinking just want a quick overview of the big
picture, or the basic norms and values involved.

Lenin, who was above all a revolutionary politician and party
lobbyist, sensed this reality very keenly, and defined Marxism as
"both a science and an ideology". He wanted to get Marxism into a form
where it could be easily assimilated by workers and peasants, who in
many cases were deeply religious and could not even read, and into a
form which clearly defined and rationalised the political positions of
the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party. He had nothing but
contempt for those socialist politicians who tried to turn Marx's
revolutionary ideas into a tepid, reformist mish-mash, without much
knowledge at all of empirical trends or recent scientific findings. He
specifically called his own brand of Marxism "revolutionary Marxism"
around the turn of the 20th century.

But in the process, an important insight is lost, which is simply that
no specific political recipe was automatically entailed from Marx's
scientific writings, amongst other things because Marx changed his
political opinions over time, calling for revolution at one point, at
other times suggesting that socialism might be arrived at peacefully
through reform in specific countries, depending on circumstances which
were constantly evolving. When Lenin falsely claims that Marx's
analyses do lead to only one political conclusion, he is basing
himself on the Marx of the Communist Manifesto, while agitating
against reformist trends in the labour movement of his time, seeking to
restore the revolutionary spirit to socialism.

Lenin's approach is very clear in such texts of Lenin's as "The three
components of Marxism" and so forth, where Marxism is defined as a
combination of German philosophy, French socialism and English
political economy. Lenin was very keen to prove that the ideas of Marx
and Engels came from the "high road" of human thought, that they
represented the best that contemporary intellectual thought had to

In one of Ernest Mandel's last texts, with the pretentious title "The
place of Marxism in history", Mandel actually tries to mimick Lenin in
this sense, filling the idea out a bit more with all sorts of
interesting observations and data (in themselves often valuable).
This, as Fritjof Tichelman pointed out to me, is a regression of
Mandel's thought from his 1960 position in Marxist Economic Theory, in
which he sought precisely to open up Marxist thought to new data and new
findings, and synthesise the experiences of different countries.

Point is, why should modern scientific socialism be based simply on 19th
century philosopy, economics and politics from Germany, Britain and
France ? Why should socialists not seek to assimilate "the high road of
human thought" such as it manifests itself today in other
European countries, the USA, China, Russia, Africa, Australiasia, or
anywhere else for that matter ?  This is exactly what authors such as
Jim Blaut have tried to do, combatting Eurocentrism and deformed views
of societies which Marx and Engels hardly studied, if at all. Mandel
tried to build an International to do it, but it got bogged down by its
own dogma.

In saying this, I do notwish to imply that Lenin's ideas have no
value, they do, particularly in the field of revolutionary politics and
imperialism. But why do they have value ? Precisely because Lenin very
carefully studied not just Marx's writings, but also lots of data
available to him, in order to extrapolate trends and draw political
conclusions about the nature of the epoch. For example, his notebooks on
imperialism, aimed at making an intervention in the debates about the
allegedly "progressive" character of imperialism, contained
extracts from 148 books and 232 articles in four languages, mainly in
German (he wrote a lot of this in exile in Switzerland - for an
excellent discussion, see V.G. Kiernan, Marxism and Imperialism,
London 1974). Even so, who can say that Lenin's short pamphlet,
abbreviated at the behest of Russian censors, can adequately capture the
nature of imperialism in 2003 ? This is just dogma.

Marx and Engels themselves regarded dogmatisation and fundamentalism as
"vulgar thought", uncritical and shallow thinking, if not a
recession into religious belief (however Engels notes at one point with
satisfaction that Das Kapital had become "the bible of the
working class", they had sacralised a piece of scientific research -
bear in mind the strong influence of christian religious dogma on
workers at the time).  But nevertheless, this dogmatisation proceeded,
up to absurdities such as the Lysenko case in the USSR.

Marx and Engels however had quite a different relationship between
theory and practice in mind. They basically aimed to inject scientific
insight into a broad, democratic workingclass party featuring
different trends of thinking, for the purpose of assisting the
emancipation of the working class, with the idea that  this
emancipation could not even occur, if we didn't know what we had to be
emancipated from (in which case we would be engaging in a Quixotic
politics). Lenin does the same, except that he goes much further than

One reason why he liked his "Benjamin" Nikolai Bukharin, was that
Bukharin had the gift of ideological systematisation, Bukharin could
convert analyses of reality into party-political doctrine more or less
on demand. At the same time, Lenin noted that Bukharin wasn't a great
dialectician (how could he be, if his task was to formulate party
ideology in a systematic, doctrinal way ?). Ernest Mandel functioned in
a similar way, although he was much superior to Bukharin, at least in my

In various works, Isaac Deutscher introduced the concept of classical
Marxism, to distinguish the Marxism of Marx, Engels, Kautsky, Lenin,
Trotsky, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg etc.  from what came later,
namely Marxism in the service of state policy, aimed at the forcible
modernisation of peasant societies. The former he thinks was good, the
latter mixed rational, scientific thought with primitive peasant
magic. But I think that thorough historical investigation will show that
there is actually no real basis for Deutscher's story, and that the real
problem goes deeper, I think the very concept of Marxism as a unified
theory has to be questioned. A Dutch socialist, Ger Harmsen, came close
to this idea (he wrote a book called "Marx contra de
Marxistische Ideologen" [Marx against the Marxist ideologists].

The basic problem of our time is that we live in a transitional epoch,
an interregnum if you like, in which "the old" has proved not to work
anymore (old dogmas have been smashed) but "the new" has yet to be born,
to enter the stage of history. This is reflected in intellectual trends,
as the elites gropes clumsily for new ideologies to justify their
policies in the eyes of ordinary people ( and if for example
neoclassical economics fails to explain very much at all, then we hive
off into psychology and behavioural science, and devise all sorts of
hybrid sciences, so long as the existence of class society and
exploitation are denied). What we are seeing these days is that the
elite intellectuals seize on all sorts of fads in order to grasp the
world situation, or try to pick other people's brains for lack of any
ideas of their own, if necessary through spying. For a scientific
socialist, however, it is in my view not so much a question of
decrying this trendy, fashion-following habit armed with Leninist
vituperation and a handful of quotes, or to launch a search to
discover new Marxist geniuses,  but rather to do good, thorough social
scientific research about what is really going on.

We don't want to throw out the baby out with the bathwater, saying that
Marxism was a complete waste of time. It wasn't, it changed the world
and contributed to human progress. On the other hand, we are forced to
innovate, since old recipes don't work anymore. The question then
becomes one of how we could innovate along a consistent pattern, if you
like, a Lakatosian research programme. But here Marxists often get
stuck, because they are still trapped in sentimentally upheld
orthodoxy and dogma, they furiously search for a consistent approach,
that maybe is not even there. I have tried to show in this mail, that
really there is no basis for this crisis in the writings and actions of
Marx and Engels themselves.

But the real questions which need to be freely discussed, and which
mostly are not discussed, are: what is the overall aim and purpose of
the materialist conception of history, and how do we best honour that ?
What is the aim and goal of Marxist economics, and how do we best
develop that ? What is the aim of Marxist politics, and how is it best
pursued ? Why should we try to mimic Marx and Engels, or other
Marxists ? What is socialism, really ?  What are really the enduring
core concepts of Marxism, never mind the dogma ? These sorts of
foundational questions aren't discussed, mostly because we quickly see
the old dogmatic reflexes returning, yet this gets in the way of

The way I solved this for myself years ago, is simply to abandon the
label and concept of Marxism, and to return to the original goal of Marx
and Engels: the achievement of an egalitarian society without classes
(socialism, or communism; but the term communism has been
discredited after too frequent abuse) in which the direct producers
rule. This has lots of advantages; you can criticise Marx, Engels and
the Marxists without committing sacrilege; you can avoid those
Marxists who believe they have all of the answers to all of the
questions already; you are not bogged down by old languages; you can do
your own research and thinking without worries of orthodoxy; you make
room for innovation; you can think anew about the political and
scientific issues from the point of view of your own experience, and
take up new themes that you feel like looking at; you can recognise that
people who don't care much about Marx can still make valuable
contributions to socialism; you can get out of scholastic and
philological disputes, and concentrate on understanding the real
world; and so on.

This doesn't mean throwing Marx out, but focusing more on those
aspects of his method and theory which happen to be valuable or
relevant today. This is similar to Gyorgy Lukacs's point in his book
History and Class Consciousness, except that Lukacs tries to
eternalise Marx's method as universally valid, whereas I think that if a
method doesn't work in a particular area, you should abandon it, in
favour of an alternative method that works better. I believe this way of
seeing things will eventually win out; it is the only approach
which, for example, recognises that substantive popular democracy was
never a result of capitalism or of the market, but a political
conquest of the working class (see on this for example Goran
Therborn's interesting essay in New Left Review).

I cannot claim to have innovated very much yet as a socialist, in the
past decade or so, mainly because circumstances of life, including
mishaps, have prevented me from doing a lot of the research I intended
to do. But I hope to summarise my ideas some time and publish them at
some stage. (you can post this if you like).



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