Is Marxism Deterministic?

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Chris Bambery assesses whether there is any validity to the common accusation that Marxism is deterministic.

Is Marxism deterministic? Take this quote from “The Poverty of Philosophy” -

“In acquiring new productive forces, men change their mode of production; and in changing their mode of production, in changing their way of earning a living, they change all their social relations. The handmill gives you society with a feudal lord; the steam mill society with an industrial capitalist.”

Easy peasey! Economic change leads to social change. Let’s sit tight and wait for socialism.

This mechanical Marxism was what came to dominate the Second International, the international organisation of social democratic and labour parties, in the years before the First World War. Its intellectual guru, Karl Kautsky, nodded his head towards the necessity of revolution but in reality said, “Don’t worry, we’re on board the train of progress whose next stop will be socialism.”

He could justify this with quotations from Marx – for instance:

“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces.”

The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real basis on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions social, political and intellectual life in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.

At a certain stage in their development the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.

With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed.” (Karl Marx; Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)

Kautsky and later Stalin could cite this to predict the inevitable victory of socialism. Because we are generally on the receiving end of defeat that is, inevitably, a comforting belief to cling on to.

Yet in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx says:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” (Marx,
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte)

If that’s true then there’s nothing inevitable about the triumph of socialism. The two statements seem to contradict each other.

But in reality I don’t think they do. The point Marx is trying to make is that the way human society develops in order to sustain the means of production act to block progress.

Indeed the ability of humans to carry through a fundamental change in those means of production, revolution, is not only in doubt but it acts against the odds.

In the majority of cases the old order blocks progress, often with disastrous results.

Indeed in the The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argued:

“The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (Marx, The Communist Manifesto)

Famously Jared Diamond has, in his book Collapse, the Easter Islanders cutting down their last tree in order to erect one more statue, and then having to evacuate the island. Actually this doesn’t fit the archaeological studies of Rapa Nui, which suggest the arrival of Europeans led to the population collapse through disease and slavery, but lets not let that intrude on a good story.

China had all the technological means to create an industrial society but the ruling order blocked their exploitation until Europeans, less developed at the start of their arrival, did so much damage.

Mayan civilisation seems to have ended with ecological collapse.

Capitalism in Europe had a long and difficult birth with the old feudal order actively intervening to destroy it in central Italy, Bohemia (the Czech Republic) and the Low Countries. Even after the first breakthrough it continued to try and thrust back progress launching the Thirty Years War which devastated central Europe.

The real breakthroughs, which created an unstoppable momentum, were the English revolution of the 1640′s and 50’s and the French Revolution of 1789-94, both of which depended on “parties” carrying them through. Those “parties” were Cromwell’s New Model Army and the Jacobins.

I use inverted commas because they did not have to organise in a tight way like the Bolsheviks did later on, because of something else Marx and Engels recognised. In both cases, in particular in France, the new bourgeoisie had assembled economic and ideological power in ways the working class cannot. They owned the new factories and banks, ran the new universities and published the new encyclopaedias – we own little or nothing.

Even so, in the English case, Cromwell and his supporters, had to thrust aside the moderate Presbyterian majority in Parliament to prosecute the Civil War to eventual end, and then to chop off the king’s head.

Robespierre and the Jacobins had to mobilise the nation (in itself a new concept) in order to win a war with the European old order (financed by Britain) they had not started.

Famously Trotsky asked if the October Revolution could have occurred without Lenin and answered “No,” not because Lenin was a “great man of history” but because he had been shaped in the Russian revolutionary tradition, had helped forge the Bolshevik Party and, from a minority position, won it in 1917 to the possibility of socialist revolution – something the Johnny-come-lately Trotsky, who only joined the party in the course of the revolution, could not have done.

Even the success of a revolutionary overthrow does not guarantee a happy outcome. In the cases of Haiti and Russia the old order intervened with invasion, war and blockade to stifle its development.

So we are back to the “common ruin of the contending classes,” or as Rosa Luxemburg posed it “socialism or barbarism.” When she wrote that. the First and Second World Wars, Auschwitz and Hiroshima, still lay ahead.

This is not a rational system because it’s based on the anarchy of production and because politics and ideology intervene. Take the family; capitalism could exist without it, between 1939-1945, when it needed women workers, it partially did. But “family values” remain central to the ruling order, even though it’s clear the nuclear family is not functioning well.

Today we are going to hell in a hand cart. Few can believe things will be better for our children, or, indeed ourselves. War has become a permanent fixture and it could easily escalate into a nuclear one. The strange weather we are living through is a reminder that ecological disasters have occurred before and probably lie ahead.

In other words, rather than being on the train hurtling towards progress, it’s racing towards disaster. Walter Benjamin in the 1930s told us we had to apply the emergency break and get off it – good advice.

So Marx was no determinist. For him socialism was the self emancipation of the working class but he also said, “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas.”

We have to make history but we wouldn’t choose to start from here!

Chris Bambery is a member of the International Socialist Group based in London.

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