Marx and History: From Primitive Society to the Communist Future
Marx’s Interpretation of History
Marx’s Theory of History
Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence
Standing by Karl Marx’s grave, Friedrich Engels spoke to the assembled mourners of Marx’s achievements. First among them he placed Marx’s discovery of “the law of development of human history,” a discovery he compared with Darwin’s discovery of the law of development of organic nature. Marx’s discovery was, Engels went on, that “mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.”
That Marx’s materialist conception of history is the core of his thought cannot be disputed; he said so himself on more than one occasion. Engels’s interpretation of it is another matter. The nature of Marx’s “law of development of human history” has been the subject of dispute since Marx’s own lifetime, when his Russian readers debated whether Russia would have to become a fully developed capitalist nation before it could pass over to socialism. Asked for his opinion, Marx replied that different circumstances could lead to different outcomes—a reply which must have cheered the Russians, but is not easy to reconcile with what he says elsewhere.
After Marx’s death, Engels had to handle a barrage of queries about the theory of history. His—and Marx’s—exasperation at some interpretations is shown by a letter in which he describes Marx, irked by misrepresentations of his theory, exclaiming: “All I know is that I am not a Marxist!” Yet the summary Engels gave at Marx’s graveside is obviously inadequate, for a chronological sequence is not a law of history. The problem is in what way the fact that we must first eat affects our later pursuit of politics, science, religion, and so on.
Engels’s role as authoritative interpreter of Marx’s legacy was unenviable. On the one hand he had to present the theory in a plausible form, a form not refuted by everyday observation of the effect of politics, science, religion, etc. on the process of production. At the same time, as his graveside parallel between Marx and Darwin indicates, he wanted to present Marx’s theory as a major scientific discovery.
There is tension between these aims. There has been an understandable tendency to make Marx’s theory more plausible by allowing that ideas can have an effect on the material process of production. But this threatens the scientific clarity of the theory that the process of production determines politics, ideas, religion, and so on. Once a two-way causal interaction between ideas and material production is admitted, how is the primary role of the latter to be established? Isn’t it like trying to say which came first, the chicken or the egg? What seemed to be a hard-edged theory is now in danger of dissolving into mush.
Faced with this choice, Engels hedged. He described the economic side as “ultimately” or “finally” determining everything else, though he never explained whether inserting these terms merely stretched the chain of material causes (leaving the theory no less rigid an account of one side causing everything on the other side) or whether they allowed a role for nonmaterial causes (thus softening the distinctive character of the theory).
Later Marxists took up both “hard” and “soft” extremes, as well as varied positions in between. The orthodox interpretation, in the communist movement especially, was always on the hard side, emphasizing the causal role of the level of technology. This reading made it easier to regard Marxism as a science, and it ruled supreme until 1923, when the Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács published History and Class Consciousness, which argued that Marx’s mature theory should be seen as a development from his earlier Hegelian ideas. Just as Hegel saw society as an organic whole, so, according to Lukács, Marx saw society as an interacting whole, though one in which material factors, not ideas, are most basic. This was a more philosophical, less scientific view of Marx. Predictably, Stalin forced Lukács to recant his heresies, and they did not dislodge the established view of Marx in the communist states. In the West, however, Lukács’s novel speculations were widely seen as confirmed by the publication, after the Second World War, of Marx’s hitherto unavailable early writings, as well as the Grundrisse, an enormous manuscript which is, in part, a rough draft for Capital. In these writings Marx’s Hegelianism is much more pronounced than in his published works.
The orthodox view of Marx, holding that the process of production determines politics and ideas, therefore passed out of favor in the West. It seemed to make Marx too rigid and too easy to refute. It was also tainted by its association with Stalin. Its place was taken by a new, more humanist Marx, a Marx of subtle and profound insights into the interrelatedness of everything with everything else.
This new image of Marx was not, however, expounded in any detail as far as Marx’s theory of history was concerned; nor was the more traditional interpretation given a sustained modern defense. This is astonishing in view of the heap of recent scholarly works on Marx, a heap discussed in these pages by Robert Heilbroner (NYR, June 29, 1978). In the past decade books have appeared on Marx’s life and thought, on his early years, on his inner psychological conflicts, on his theories of alienation, of revolution, of politics, of the state, and on almost everything else about Marx. Yet prior to the appearance of the books to be discussed in this review, the only full-length discussion of Marx’s theory of history available in English was M.M. Bober’s Karl Marx’s Interpretation of History, which first appeared in 1927, too early to take account of the previously unpublished writings which have been so influential in revising the understanding of Marx prevalent in the West.
Scholars delight in filling vacuums. This hole in the center of contemporary Marx studies has now been plugged by no fewer than four books on Marx’s theory of history. The quartet is split between the “hard” and “soft” interpretations, with the hard side getting a better defense than it has had for a long time. William H. Shaw portrays Marx as a “technological determinist,” and he implies no criticism by the term. G.A. Cohen is equally happy to call his version of Marx’s theory “technological,” although he is less sure about the propriety of “determinism.” Melvin Rader finds textual evidence for both hard and soft interpretations and tries to reconcile them, but his is definitely a softer, less scientific Marx. Finally D. Ross Gandy regards technological determinism as a distortion with which Marx is saddled by hostile critics who seize upon passages in which Marx wrote carelessly; the real Marx, Gandy thinks, saw society as an organic unity of interacting events.
All four books are serious and scholarly. Most readers would obtain some benefit from each of them. In the case of Gandy’s Marx and History, however, the benefit may be small. On its front flap this book is described as “based on extensive research, including an exhaustive study of the forty-volume Marx-Engels Werke.” (The Werke is the East German edition of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels.) The flap’s claim must be true, for the book’s 169 pages of text are followed by over a thousand footnotes, virtually all to the Werke; but extensive citations are no substitute for coherent exposition, which Gandy fails to provide. Moreover the value of all those footnotes is reduced by the fact that they simply give the volume and page of the Werke, not the title of the work being cited. If you can’t read German or don’t happen to have your forty-volume German edition handy, that is just too bad, for you won’t be able to discover from which texts Gandy quotes.
Rader’s Marx’s Interpretation of History is more helpful. Rader explores three models of history for which textual support can be found in Marx’s writings: “dialectical development,” “base and superstructure,” and “organic totality.” The base and superstructure model corresponds to the hard interpretation, and the organic totality model to the soft one; the model of dialectical development is somewhere between these two, and Rader has difficulty keeping it distinct from them. It is perhaps best thought of as a softer base and superstructure model in which the superstructure has a reciprocal causal effect on the base.
Rader develops his models patiently and illustrates them with well-chosen quotations. Unusually for the author of a book on Marx, he shows no strong feelings for or against his subject. (He is the only one of these four authors who does not present himself as defending Marx.) I found only one error of fact, the claim, on page 10, that Marx, unlike Engels, did not describe the economic side as “finally” or “ultimately” asserting itself. This is a myth which others have propagated, but a similar phrase occurs in the Grundrisse (on page 495 of the Vintage edition, translated by Martin Nicolaus).
Notwithstanding its patience, objectivity, and general accuracy, Marx’s Interpretation of History is an unsatisfying work. It reminded me of an essay by those diligent but timid students who when asked to write on a topic on which there are two opposing schools of thought carefully set out the contending positions and then abruptly conclude by saying that there is truth in both views. Sometimes, of course, this is correct; but we still need to know how the conflicting positions are to be reconciled.
I am not suggesting that Rader’s book is no better than a student essay. On its own superior level, however, Rader’s attempted reconciliation is similarly shallow. After several chapters of exposition of the different models, Rader spends only a few pages on trying to sort out the conflicts between them, and he leaves too many loose ends and unasked questions for these pages to be convincing. What, for instance, are we to make of these sentences from Rader’s penultimate paragraph, in which he suggests that there is no necessary conflict between the different models of history used by Marx:
The mode of production is the more efficacious, but all the other structural elements are involved in the “organic” play of forces. The simplistic concept of linear causality is replaced by the idea of dialectical interaction and interdependence within a comprehensive field. This solution accounts for both the holistic character of Marx’s thought and the strong emphasis on the mode of production.
Does it? Or does it simply glue conflicting models together into an artificial unity from which they will spring apart as soon as the flow of amalgamating prose dries up? “Dialectical interaction and interdependence within a comprehensive field” is simply incompatible with any hard-line base and superstructure model; and Rader never tells us how it is to be established that the mode of production is “more efficacious” within this interaction and interdependence.
The books by Cohen and Shaw seek to render Marx more precise and scientific. Both authors are less concerned with being faithful to every word Marx wrote than with expounding a theory of history that is both a tenable theory and a theory which Marx would have acknowledged as his own. Both dismiss the “organic totality” model which is so prominent in Rader’s book. They regard Marx’s notorious claim that “the handmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist” not as a careless exaggeration (as Gandy and Rader would have it) but merely as a blunt statement of Marx’s basic belief in the dominance of the forces of production over the form of society.