Karl Popper, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, offers a very distinct critique of what he characterises as Marx’s sociological determinism. Now, Popper does give us a classical misreading of Marx, but, oddly, in places he also gets closer to the truth than many other, explicitly Marxian thinkers.
In a nutshell, Popper recognises some of Marx’s merits but in the end he dismisses Marx as a false prophet. The expression ‘false prophet’ is quite often used in relation to Marx. Popper argues that Marx was a prophet of the course of history, a thinker who believed that history was dominated by the idea of inexorable laws of nature and historical development. And there are numerous books on Marx where he is now associated with the idea of inexorable laws of historical development.
Popper, an opponent of historicism, goes on to describe Marxism as the purist historicism of them all. And although I would suggest that Popper misunderstood Marx’s theory of history, his use of the term ‘purest historicism’ comes quite close to grasping one of the central features of Marx’s theory: that is, Marx reveals a very powerful disposition towards temporality. In this regard, Marx is quite unique among nineteenth-century thinkers - his work is infused by this disposition towards temporality. Yet aside from a couple of interpreters, this aspect of Marx’s intellectual project has been missed.
Whatever historicism means, and there are different ways of defining it, Marx’s own version certainly did not fall into the mechanical and teleological categories that Popper criticised. A reader will never find within Marx’s work itself anything that even remotely comes close to a belief in the inexorable laws of history or ‘historical destiny’. Of course, Popper’s criticisms of historical destiny are well-founded. And the tradition of teleological theories of history is a very powerful one during the nineteenth century. But Marx does not fall within this tradition.
The evolution of this idea of historical destiny is worth looking at. Since the Greeks, human development and change have often tended to be interpreted as the outcome of some kind of supra-human agency; a kind of divine providence that works behind the backs of human beings, making history happen. For example, according to St Augustine, who authored possibly the greatest religiously inspired philosophy of history: ‘In the torrential stream of human history, two currents meet and mix: the current of evil, which flows from Adam, and that of good, which comes from God.’
St Augustine gives a very clear voice to the idea of divine intervention, of historical providence. One of the problems with this interpretation of history is that the central status assigned to divine providence to explain historical development invariably provides a diminished role for genuine, human historical subjectivity. Instead, we are a bit like Hollywood extras, who enable something more powerful to be realised and defined.
In contrast to this, what Marx tried to do, based very much on the legacy of the Enlightenment - particularly on the contributions of Vico and Hegel - was to develop an idea which I have called elsewhere ‘historical thinking’ or ‘historical consciousness’. This rests on two important ideas. Firstly, there is the idea that genesis, transience and cumulative development are a feature of historical movement. And secondly, Marx, more than any other thinker before him, puts forward the idea of a humanised conception of historical agency.
Yet even Marx is not able, due to the limits of his time, to completely humanise agency and allow subjectivity to take its own course. So whether history ends with Marx’s theory in the way that he outlines it, or doesn’t, is a difficult and open question. After all, ‘where is history going?’ is something we are asking all the time, and many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theoreticians had very important ideas about it.
But what Marx did was forcefully elaborate the logic immanent in historical thinking. No matter what you read about Marx, there can be no doubt about what he actually argues. He says that when it comes to historical thinking, his theory does nothing. History does nothing. He says it possesses no immense wealth, it wages no battles. Instead, he says, it is man, real living man, who does all that, who possesses property and fights battles. ‘History’ is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; ‘history’ is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims. The reader might not agree with Marx, but it is very, very clear from his writings that there is no history over there that is external to human subjectivity. There are no inexorable laws to history, there is no supra-human agency operating with some kind of supra-human agenda. Rather, history consists of real men pursuing their aims. So when Marx says that history does nothing, he is alluding to a human-centred conception of change and development.
I am very comfortable with the idea of a human-centred conception of change and development. But for many others, this remains a very frightening concept. People find it very difficult to accept and embrace the idea that, ultimately, it is not his lordship up there, or some natural evolutionary process, or our genes or our biology, that shapes history; it is human subjectivity. It is that which bears complete responsibility for all of what has happened and what is to be. This is why there is open hostility in contemporary philosophical discussions to a human-centred social or philosophical theory.
History and human agency
Marx was not the first person to couple history with the role of human agency. In fact, probably the earliest, clearest expression of this kind of thinking can be found in the writing of Giambattista Vico, a philosopher from Naples. In The New Science (1725), he wrote that the world of civil society has been made by man and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modification of the human mind. So it is the modification of the human mind and the world of man that is responsible for our society. What Vico did - and in this sense he was a man of his time - was understand that historical processes could not be entirely explained by the acts of specific individuals who pursued their subjective objectives. He understood that the outcomes produced are often unintended, that we set in motion certain processes, the consequences of which we did not anticipate.
Quite often, as Vico himself said, these consequences could be diametrically opposed to our original intentions. I know myself that, more often than I care to admit, I have woken up and realised that I have achieved the very opposite of what I set out to do. We do that not only on a minor, undistinguished, individual scale, but as a society, too. In a sense, when Vico developed this idea, when he realised that there were these outcomes that are at odds with subjective intent, what he effectively reintroduced was a trans-historical idea of providence. That is, there is something that works behind the backs of men. Having come up against the limits of subjectivity, Vico fell back upon the idea that maybe there is a providential design somewhere that needs to be taken into account.
But Vico drew attention to an important question, one which also concerned Marx: what is the relationship between human intent and the outcomes of history? We all know Marx’s very famous thesis in relation to this question: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please, they do not make it on their self-selected circumstances, but on their circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ But how many have ever actually dwelt on this thesis, and thought through its implications?
What Marx is pointing to is that, whether we like it or not, whether we’re explicit or implicit about it, we’re kind of dwelling on and dealing with history-making all of the time. So the question that immediately comes up does not just concern the relationship between history and subjectivity, but also who or what determines, influences or shapes human behaviour, and even if there is any kind of determination at all.
Now, this is one of those often misunderstood areas of Marxist theory. As I argued in the ‘Introduction’ to Ideology and Superstructure in Historical Materialism, the base-superstructure discussion is not particularly useful when attempting to understand the determinants of history. In fact, the idea that there is a base which determines a superstructure is a really an idiot’s version of Marx. Marx does of course argue that social existence determines human consciousness, and it’s a point that he makes in a couple of passages. But it is important to realise that the way he uses the idea of determinism is not one that should be confused with the concept of causality.
Determinations and determinants are not the same as causality; they do not imply a causal relationship. Certainly the idea that the economy determines political and cultural life is a fairly superficial interpretation, for the very simple reason that there is no fixed relationship. If you take the idea of determinants in the way that Marx uses them, it implicitly suggests that there is no fixed relationship between the different layers and the different concepts of his analysis. In any case, what constitutes social existence is itself not the same thing as either material reality or the economy. Social existence is not something that is exhausted by these two specific categories. Rather, what Marx suggests is that extant circumstances, or determinate circumstances, are subject to historical variations and variability.
I am often astounded that this is something almost totally missing from the literature on Marx. Because the really interesting idea that he puts forward is not that the base determines the superstructure, but rather the idea that there are determinant moments in human history through which the relationship between subject and object is mediated. Therefore, if the relationship of mediation between subject and object is susceptible to historical variations, then that leaves open the question of discovering what those mediating moments are. He writes, in volume three of Capital, that in Ancient Rome the mediation occurred through politics, and during the Middle Ages it occurred through Catholicism. He doesn’t write that in Ancient Rome the slave economy was determining the Roman superstructure, and he doesn’t say that in Medieval Europe it was the serf economy that determined the superstructure. He argues, rather, that there are moments when what we now call ideological factors acquired a determinant role. He uses the words ‘commanding influence’ to describe the role those factors acquired.
Likewise, Marx wrote his critique of political economy because political economy was determinant at a particular historical moment in time. He didn’t write a critique of Roman political economy because there was no political economy around. He wrote a critique of political economy because during his lifetime, it was political economy, particularly in its Scottish form, which represented the most interesting and clearest expression of what he took to be the fundamental relationships within society.
So there is no fixed relationship between determinations and determinants. What’s interesting, when you’re looking at Marx and his writings, is that the criticisms that are made of Marx by Popper are actually quite accurate. It’s just they are accurate not about Marx himself, but about virtually everybody else who was writing in the nineteenth century.
Revolt against individualism
What happened in the nineteenth century is that there was a fundamental reaction against the eighteenth century, against its rationalism, and against the social upheavals expressed most clearly by the French Revolution. For nineteenth-century thinkers, there was an incredible sense that through the application of reason, individuals had been severed from their traditional links and ties, that the French Revolution had destabilised communities and undermined traditional religion. The new force that such thinkers feared was coming to the fore: the atomised individual. Yet a lot of so-called Marxist writers, when they talk about this period, make the mistake of imagining that the nineteenth-century reaction was against a new emerging working-class.
The new working-class had not emerged at this point; it did not exist. In truth, the nineteenth-century reaction was against the threat of individualism. Edmund Burke’s writing is really about people who are entirely naked, on their own against the world. If you read, for example, French reactionary Catholic writing, it is all about the threat that the individual poses, it is all about what the individual represents. How, in the nineteenth century, do you combat the individual? What kind of intellectual weapons are at your disposal? What a thinker like De Maistre wanted to do is to bring back Medieval Catholicism, where everything was clear and certain, where there was a clear hierarchy and there was stability and tradition.
The trouble was that De Maistre et al were all intelligent enough to understand that you cannot bring back Medieval Catholicism. If you do, it becomes a caricature of itself. You cannot do that. So what do you do if you cannot bring back Catholicism? You bring back society. And it is at this point that the idea of the social emerges as the provisional solution to the perceived problem of the atomised individual. So in the nineteenth century, all of a sudden, society emerges as the answer to the problem of order.
There are different versions of the social argument. If you take the most sophisticated version, which is Scottish political economy, its advocates insist that what society does is enact order through the spontaneous interaction of people and the market. Society, through the market, creates an ordered and stable existence. Although Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson and some of the other great thinkers of this time understand that there is more to society than simply the invisible hand, they still maintain that it is through the impersonal forces of society that order is almost spontaneously re-enacted.
In France, Henri de Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte actually set about turning society into a religion. They were all atheists, but they wanted to make their atheism into a new religion through which they could develop new kinds of obedience. At this point in time, society does become, and the social does become, a kind of trans-historical, all-purpose answer and solution to the problems of mankind. And I think it’s important to remember this today, especially as there seems to be a historical amnesia about where the words ‘social’ and ‘society’ come from.
This is why, unfortunately, it has become very fashionable to uphold the social today and to see the individual as the problem. That is the way the idea of the social has evolved, where individualism is seen as this incredibly corrosive force that undermines society. If you look, for example, at the late nineteenth-century, early twentieth-century writings of Georg Simmel in Germany, or Emile Durkheim in France, similar sentiments are present. Durkheim says that society, sociology, is the study of social facts, and these social facts are possessed of inexorable power, an almost semi-coercive power to gain order and stability.
One of the things that I have learned recently is that when you look at most of the nineteenth century, there is virtually no political theory. Political theory goes into retirement in the nineteenth century. And in the twentieth century, when political theory returns, it is feeble. It lacks philosophical ambition. In fact, political theory goes into hibernation. If you look at England, you have these really undistinguished characters like TH Green, thinkers content to mess around at the margins. After Hegel, there’s very little attempt to grapple with the big issues. What you have instead is all that intellectual energy going into other disciplines, other domains of experience.
Now, Marx himself was also involved in this. He was very much an individual who was influenced by the same kind of trends. Where he was a little bit different was that he was aware of the political dimension that needed to be taken into account. What he tried to do was to develop a conception of domination that wasn’t reducible to the social-domination ideas in evidence during the nineteenth century. This was based on his idea of the separation of the economic from the political. In that sense, he continued an idea that began with classical political economy, where, from Hume onwards, there is a sense that politics and economics are slightly different. That is, there is a growing tendency to identify the autonomy of the political sphere. What Marx does is he takes this idea forward a little bit, and notices that the separation of the economic from the political creates a form of compulsion that obscures the social character of domination. He says that this occurs because property, in the form of capital, acquires an independent form. Capital’s material properties become evident in its relationship to labour and appear as its distinctive character.
He says: ‘In this way, the social actions take the form of objects which rule the producers instead of being ruled by them.’
This is where he begins to develop his idea of commodity fetishism, where he writes about the way in which the autonomy of the political creates this distinct sphere of economics where domination takes place through the market and obscures the relations of power. His idea of commodity fetishism is really quite important, because what Marx is suggesting is a kind of perception whereby the human person is not seen as responsible for what is taking place, that things are creatively produced through capital. This is the point at which he talks about how inanimate objects almost take on human form. If you listen to the discussion on the banking crisis today, you will see that pundits discuss how ‘money talks’. I’ve never seen a pound coin talk to me (except maybe in my fantasies).
Or if you listen to Radio 4’s Today programme, there will often be a banker on it who uses a phrase such as ‘the financial markets say…’. There’s this idea that somehow these invisible forces are talking to us. This conception of the way that impersonal forces, working behind our backs, dominate us, is really subtly developed within Marx’s sociology. Capital, as he sees it, very rarely appears as what it really is, which is a relation of domination.
Marx’s representation of the spontaneous reproduction of social relations can be seen as a development of the arguments advanced by eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century political economy. So Scottish political economists like Smith and liberal utilitarian thinkers frequently claimed that the pursuit of individual interests would lead to the spontaneous formation of order. The big difference between this idea and what Marx thought is the way that the individual pursuit of interests was interpreted. Because what Marx argues is that actually, the pursuit of interest by individuals is rarely free, is rarely voluntary. And that’s because Marx understands the pursuit of individual interests within the terms of his wider theory of the subjugation of individuals to capital.
There is within the structure of these impersonal forces that dominate our lives, within, that is, a market economy, a potentially deterministic epistemology. And you could argue that Marx’s theory of capital and its epistemological assumptions are not dissimilar to that of the social theorists of the same time. You could even argue that, possibly, in his discussion of commodity fetishism and its impact on the human imagination, Marx may have gone a little too far down the road to social determinism.
However, what I think distinguishes Marx’s theory is his conception of the history-making potential of human subjectivity. This is really where there is a major rupture between what Marx was doing and between what others were doing.
Darwinism and determinism
One of the things I’ve been doing recently in the course of my work - for instance, writing a chapter about Saint Augustine and the Roman Empire - is asking if Marx ever said anything about those issues. And sure enough, if you Google, the young Marx’s essay on matriculation comes up. So I wondered if Marx had said anything about social Darwinism, because social Darwinism is actually the most deterministic of the social theories of the nineteenth century. (Because one of the things with great philosophers is that they have internal conversations with people they’ve never met - that is how they develop their ideas.) And sure enough, Marx did have something to say about social Darwinists; in fact, he was fascinated by their theories of history and society and he criticised their intellectual laziness. He was particularly ferocious in criticising their views that all history must be subsumed under one great big natural law.
It is very intellectually lazy, he argued, to try to reduce all of human history into this one law of evolution. I thought this was quite interesting, because it really indicates Marx’s attempt to break from teleology. He then goes on to criticise social Darwinists for objectifying history and expelling subjectivity. From the social Darwinist point of view, he argues, life appears as non-historical, while the historical appears as something separated from ordinary life - something extra super terrestrial.
Anybody who reads Marx’s account of social Darwinism could be in no doubt where he stands in relation to the charge of historicism. This is important to grasp. Because at precisely the same time as Marx was criticising social Darwinist determinism, in the United States of America, the emerging discipline of sociology was saying entirely the opposite. For example, Albion Small, who nobody has ever heard of except me and two of my friends, was the founder of the first department of sociology in the US, at the University of Chicago. His very first article, written in the very first volume of a journal called The Era of Sociology, justifies sociology in precisely the terms of social Darwinism:
‘Modern thought assumes that the fixed factors in human conditions are insignificant as compared with the elements that may be determined by agreement. Popular judgement is just now intoxicated with the splendid half-truth that society is what man chooses to make it.’
Small then goes on to attack popular philosophy for its speculations about institutional rearrangement without due estimation of human limitations. Sociology and social theory in its modern form begins its career, then, by reminding us time and time again of our human, nature-imposed limitations. You have got to remember that this is the same historical moment when Marx is criticising social Darwinism for its silliness in reducing everything to one law. Marx’s response to Small, if they had known each other, would have been that society is not what man chooses to make of it; it is what man means by it. What is really important in this is not just simply the making of society, or the limitations to the making of society; it is about the meanings you give to society. At this point we come to a key issue: the role of freedom.
The glorious confusions of freedom
It was Hegel who gave an account of history as the realisation of the idea of freedom. I reread Hegel recently, particularly his little history book, and it is fantastic. I do not know why I got so little out of it in my youth. It is quite a monumental achievement for Hegel, at the time he was writing, to see freedom at work as an important element in history. So he talks about history as the realisation of the idea of freedom, as a forward movement through which the idea of freedom would gain greater meaning.
But unfortunately, Hegel was very reluctant, and understandably so, as Vico was before him, to project the forward momentum of history and to run with it. Therefore, he ended up with an apologetic closure of historical development and its alleged climax in the European civilisation of the Germanic world. So, for Hegel, history comes to an end with the Prussian state. The reason for this was that Hegel, for all his philosophical subtleties, could not conceptualise history as being irrepressibly open. That was not something that was possible in his day.
By contrast, Marx did not foreclose the possibility that historical development would continue. I think that Marx, too, was to some extent the product of his time. But unlike Hegel, he didn’t formally announce the end of history. Because he was a product of his era, Marx tended to project into the future the problems and solutions of his own time. Therefore, in the sense that he saw the possibility of freedom as an emancipation from necessity as realised in the future, he still thought that it could be almost solidified, planned out. He himself doesn’t do that, but he does implicitly reintroduce a kind of teleology into his theory - that is, the realisation of freedom in communism. I would suggest that what Marx is really doing is similar to what Vico did prior to Marx. Marx developed an idea of communism which was not immanent to the history; it was a way he saw of coming to terms with freedom as the end of history.
Kant tried to resolve this problem with the categorical imperative. But you could argue that it is almost a bit of an afterthought with which he tries to close up shop. Everyone does it. I do it all the time; you get so far with an idea and you ask: how do I tie this up? And if you’re a slob like me, you sometimes write a couple of sentences and hope it will make sense tomorrow. Even great thinkers do that, but in a much more obviously sophisticated and elegant kind of way.
It seems to me that what Marx fails to grasp, something that we understand now, is that history doesn’t end; it is continually in the process of becoming. More importantly, in the very realisation of the idea of freedom, we actually undermine the suppositions and the premises on which that original freedom was built. The interesting thing about freedom is that in the act of being free, you become aware of a new world where your freedom is contingent. In other words, the act of freedom creates the destruction of the certainties that had gone on beforehand. That’s something that we become very, very sensitive to; the freer we are, the more we take control of our destiny, the more things seem to be uncertain, beyond our grasp.
It is the impossibility of living with this uncertainty, of even embracing this uncertainty, of getting pleasure out of this uncertainty, which has led to the idea of freedom and liberty becoming so devalued and stigmatised today. For many people, real freedom and real liberty don’t really mean very much, because in the very act of intuiting what freedom is, we become aware of all the attendant uncertainties, confusions and difficulties. To me, that’s the human experience. It’s something we should embrace, enjoy and even desire, rather than being repelled by it. But that’s another story, for another lecture.
Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here. This essay is based on a lecture about Marx and historical determinism at The Academy in July 2012.