Re: [OPE] Marx on the U.S. Civil War

From: Paul Cockshott <>
Date: Fri Feb 04 2011 - 15:44:53 EST

"To point to how the success of the Union in the Civil War was by
no means a certain outcome is to recognize not that 'anything is
possible' but rather that little, if anything, is certain in
advance in terms of the outcomes of individual historical struggles
in particular social formations.

When you say that little is certain in advance you have to distinguish two sorts
of uncertainty

1) Uncertainty that arises from our lack of knowledge of material conditions
    existing at a given point in time, and from the limitations on our ability to
   theoretically compute the future from what we do know
2) Fundamental physical uncertainty arising from the genuinely blurred or
   spread out nature of the world at the atomic level. This ensures that
   at a fundamental level the world is uncertain and that a multiplicity of
   pasts, presents and futures co-exist.

But this fundamental uncertainty does not mean that all pasts and all futures are
equally probable. The current quantum state of the world determines, by a strictly
linear process the the quantum states of the past and the future. Within this
aggregate state, there are an infinity of orthogonal basis states, each with an
amplitude and corresponding probability distribution. These basis states however
are so fine that, except in very small atomic systems that have been carefully prepared,
they are not individually distinguishable. What we see as a state of the world is a
sum over microstates that are indistinguishable to us at our coarse sensory level.
Statistical mechanics provides an abstract formalism for talking about the probability
distribution of macro states, characterising each macro state by a quantity - its entropy
which is proportional to the logarithm of the number of microstates that are compatible
with the macrostate in question.

If we are talking at the historical scale, one can say that at least in principle, each of the two
macrostates : Confederacy wins, or Conferderacy looses, corresponds to an enourmous
number of microstates - the different ways in which the Confederates might have won
or lost. The issue is then the probability density of the macrostates of confederate victory
or defeat, or in other words, how many microstates are compatible with these two outcomes.
If historical materialism is to have any value at all it should be able to say something about
the probability distribution of these outcomes, this, I think is the form of causality that
Marx and certainly the later Engels were concerned with. Was it more likely that the confederacy
would win or loose.

From: [] On Behalf Of GERALD LEVY []
Sent: Friday, February 04, 2011 7:06 PM
To: Outline on Political Economy mailing list
Subject: Re: [OPE] Marx on the U.S. Civil War

Hi Paul Z:

The issue here - from my perspective - has nothing to do with a
'reformist view of historical change'. Rather it concerns whether
the 'general conclusion' which Marx came to (as expressed in the 'Preface'
to _A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy_) can be applied
to each and every historical struggle. I think not - for a variety of reasons.
To begin with methodological objections, it would be a example of the
fallacy of division as applied to history. It also is inadequate
methodologically because it fails to satisfactorily grasp the role of
contingency in the outcome of social struggles. As someone who has
an affinity for Althusserian theory, you might want to consider
the concept of over-determination as it relates to this particular
issue: a consideration of possible outcomes of the US Civil War and
what were the variables in play during different periods.

To point to how the success of the Union in the Civil War was by
no means a certain outcome is to recognize not that 'anything is
possible' but rather that little, if anything, is certain in
advance in terms of the outcomes of individual historical struggles
in particular social formations.

In solidarity, Jerry

> I'll respond to the salient portion of your reply vis-a-vis Marx.
> On 2/3/2011 9:29 AM, GERALD LEVY wrote:
> > So, the question then becomes: could the CSA have survived for an
> > extended period as a sovereign nation?
> >
> > For Marx, the answer seems to have been 'no' - unless they were
> > successful in eventually expanding geographically. I suggested
> > another possibility - even if it became apparent to the slaveocracy
> > that their long-term survival as a class depended on expansion
> > (i.e. even if we grant Marx's argument) other outcomes were possible.
> > For instance, if slavery was becoming increasingly inefficient,
> > slave owners could gradually move their money into non-slave
> > production.
> I already addressed the above when I wrote that master-slave relation is
> quite distinct from the capitalist--wage labor relation. To suggest
> your simple transition erases, or greatly calls into question, this
> distinction, and becomes consistent with a reformist view of historical
> change (as in 'anything is possible'). You are entitled to such a view,
> but it is not Marx's, nor have I seen evidence that Engels disagreed
> with Marx, once Marx sent his private comment to Engels not to emphasis
> too much purely military questions.
> > It's also possible that - even if we accept the claim that
> > there would be a hindering of the productive forces - the CSA could
> > exist and be reproduced with a relatively stagnant economy (i.e. with
> > just enough surplus for the slave owners to maintain their customary
> > standard of living).
> >
> This is an income/surplus appropriation view of the interests of the
> dominant classes in history. Again, it amounts reformism ('anything is
> possible' as long as we in the dominant class, under any name, get our
> luxury goods).
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