Marx’s motto was to “Doubt everything”.
In an age where the internet provides us with unlimited access to the direct sources there appears to be no limits to the misunderstanding and distortion of Marx. In books and articles there is continuous reference to Marx, attacking him from all sides for claims that he never made. Many critiques basically accuses Marx of a economic determinism which makes men puppets in the hands of economic forces and the Materialist Conception of History interpreted as economic determinism is found in a collection of Marx’s critics.
Marx’s approach to history is explained in his Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy and in the Communist Manifesto. Marx’s scientific method was to proceed by simplifying concrete and complex manifestations into an abstraction, which becomes less and less complex until reaching the simplest conception. Then, by systematically adding complicating factors there is a return journey towards empirical reality. Marx was a believer in abstraction, systematic analysis, and successive approximations to a reality too complex to grasp directly. “Scientific socialism” was not so much the argument itself but the means by which the argument was first thought out and the habitual mode of thinking of the individual which was both open-minded and sceptical, willing to embrace or drop an idea depending on the evidence, willing to change the theory if the evidence demands it.
People makes their own history. Nobody has everything predetermined for him or her. That is not Marxism. The Material Conception of History does not deny the influence of ideas and it sets out to explain where ideas come from, as against those idealists who say that ideas have an independent existence, and are the primary cause of social change. Marx presented a theory of social change that locates the ultimate causes of change within the material and economic conditions of life that we have to examine the underlying economic factors. This does not commit Marx to a form of economic determinism which falsely argues that only the economics is of significance, nor does it mean that he denied the importance of ideas in social change but it does mean to understand the complexity of any society, to understand the complex pattern of development of that society, then an understanding of its economic development is crucial to an understanding of its politics, its culture and its social development.
From the Preface to the Critique:
“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces”.
Engels was asked a question in 1894 about the “relations of production”, and he answered it on 25th January, 1894 by listing what constituted “the relations of production”. First, the entire technique of production and transport. Second, the geographical basis in which they operate. Third, the survivals of earlier stages of economic development. Fourth, the external environment which surrounds this form of society. Engels was saying that economic relations must not be interpreted narrowly, that they go into a whole field, that they take in not merely the technique of production, but a number of other things as well. In the same letter, Engels emphasised the point that whilst it is the economic conditions which ultimately condition historical development, it should not be overlooked that all the derivative factors, political, juridical, philosophical, religious and artistic, not only interact with each other but also “react upon the economic basis”. Engels is saying that it should be recognised that there is an economic basis and that it produces a superstructure corresponding to it, but these various aspects of the superstructure interact with each other, and all of them react on the economic basis itself, so things are not simply in a watertight compartment like economic basis and the rest, nor should it be thought that the rest is simply the result of the economic basis.
Engels wrote in 1890:
“We make our history ourselves, but in the first place under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these, the economic ones are ultimately decisive, but the political etc., ones and even the traditions that haunt men’s minds also play a part, though not the decisive one…In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflict between many individual wills of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life…Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries who denied it, and we had not always the time or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction.” It is obvious that Engels is far from being a determinist.
Nor did Marx ever made the assumption that capitalists and their governments always understand what policies are really in their best interests. The situation facing the capitalist class is obviously confused and certain sections come into conflict, for example, protectionists and free traders. The Material Conception of History explains how basic ideas develop, and that once the ideas have been developed, the individual who has accepted them can take on family, group or class ideas which may lead them to act against their own material interest. In the Communist Manifesto it is pointed out that in every revolutionary period, some sections of the old ruling class come over to the side of the revolution. Marx and Engels also argued that individuals in the capitalist class who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole, can go over to the socialist movement. These people can hardly be said to have been acting out of their own personal individual interest such as Engels the factory owner. During the Spanish Civil War a call went out for an International Brigade, and workers from all over the world set out for Spain. To suggest that they were doing this out of monetary interest is, or course, absurd. But it presents no problem for the MCH. They had developed an idea of working class solidarity against oppression.
“the tradition of all past generations weighs like an incubus upon the brain of the living”, meaning that the ideas of the last social system persist into the new social system. Marx gave examples of the way in which old ideas carry on into the minds of new generations, and he dealt particularly with the way revolutionaries themselves do it. When a revolutionary comes forward, aiming to revolutionise society, the first thing he has to do is win the support of the masses of the population, peasants, workers or others. Revolutionaries, whether they think this out clearly or not, invariably hark back to some previous revolutionary situation. The point being that ideas, once they have been developed, attain a semi-independent existence of their own, and persist in their influence for quite a long time. As Marx always emphasised, you cannot judge a movement by its slogans and banners. In the course of economic development, ideas are brought forward and when these have developed, people can hold them quite passionately apart from their economic basis.
Marx and Engels looked at the development of capitalism. Looked at what was going on and attempted to say where it would lead. They laid down a general proposition. Nor did they believe that man at birth is like a blank sheet of paper, on which the culture writes its text. For Marx and Engels the aim of socialism was the emancipation of mankind, and the emancipation of mankind was the same as the self-realisation and development of the individual personality.
Deterministic - Not Us
Even today many hold the automatic “collapse of capitalism” concept. Some have said rather mechanically that all we had to do is sit back with folded arms and watch it happen. The SPGB never subscribed to this belief that ‘history’ would bring capitalism to a point where it would be forced to collapse.
Marx, of course, did not hold such a view, as his summary statement of the Materialist Conception of History in his Introduction to his “Critique of Political Economy” makes quite clear. He did indeed hold that “The mode of production of the material means of existence conditions the whole process of social, political and intellectual life” and that “with the change in the economic foundations the whole vast superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed”, and that there are in history “progressive epochs in the economic system of society” (the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal and the modern bourgeois), and that “bourgeois productive relationships are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production”, and “with this social system, therefore, the prehistory of human society comes to a close”. But vital to the whole conception for Marx was that it proceeds through periods of social revolution in which” men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out”. In the “Communist Manifesto” it was put in the phrase that history “is the history of class struggles”.
In the Socialist Standard (August 1910) Fitzgerald in debate with a Tory is reported as follows:-
“his opponent still persisted in saying that Marx stated that the economic was the only factor, and that man was determined by his surroundings, and in view of that he would read Marx’s own words which were: “The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society – the real foundation upon which rests the legal and political superstructure. Marx also said ‘Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth”.
There were many articles in the Socialist Standard on the Materialist Conception of History and none put the view attributed to the S.P.G.B. an economic determinist .
“Karl Marx in Current Criticism” by Adolph Kohn Socialist Standard, March 1913 went over the whole of Marx’s contribution to Socialist thought, including the M. C. of H. That part reads like a paraphrase of Marx’s summary in the “Critique”. It did not put the ” automatic process” “economic determinist” point of view but instead, as Marx did, on the vital element of class struggle. Among the statements made by Kohn are:
“History since the passing of Primitive Communism had been a history of class struggles”. This class struggle is the cardinal principle of the socialist party”.
So for Kohn a decisive factor was the class struggle:
“Marx rescued Socialism from the hands of the Utopians and placed it upon a foundation of scientific fact. Not moral appeals but organised political action was the way to fight the capitalists. Society, said Marx, moved not because of changing morals, but under the pressure of growing economic forces making a change in social forms inevitable”.
How completely the Socialist Party rejected “economic determinism” is shown in the pamphlet “Why capitalism will not collapse” (1932), as for example in the passage:-
“The lesson to be learned is that there is no simple way out of capitalism by leaving the system to collapse on its own accord. Until a sufficient number of workers are prepared to organise politically for the conscious purpose of ending capitalism, that system will stagger on indefinitely from one crisis to another”.