The term “economic determinism” and the interpretation of Marx’s Materialist Conception of History as economic determinism is found in a mixed collection of opponents of Marx. Those who did hold that view were necessarily committed to the automatic “collapse of capitalism” concept. Some said rather mechanically that all we had to do was to sit back with folded arms and watch it happen. The S.P.G.B. never subscribed to the belief which was popular among so many social democrats before the First World War 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 S.P.G.B. 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”.