Monday, August 21, 2006

OSE Chapter 15. Economic Historicism

Marx was not a Vulgar Marxist

The introduction to this chapter debunks the “Vulgar Marxist” idea that Marx is in competition with Freud and Adler in penetrating to the hidden springs of human motivation.
Marx, [Vulgar Marxists] think, taught the all-pervading influence of the economic motive in the life of men; he succeeded in explaining its overpowering strength by showing that ‘man’s overmastering need was to get the means of living’, he thus demonstrated the fundamental importance of such categories as the profit motive or the motive of class interest for the actions not only of individuals but also of social groups; and he showed how to use these categories for explaining the course of history. Indeed, they think that the very essence of Marxism is the doctrine that economic motives and especially class interest are the driving forces of history…The average Vulgar Marxist believes that Marxism lays bare the sinister secrets of social life by revealing the hidden motives of greed and lust for material gain which actuate the powers behind the scenes of history; powers that cunningly and consciously create war, depression, unemployment, hunger in the midst of plenty, and all the other forms of social misery, in order to gratify their vile desires for profit.

It must be admitted that he sometimes speaks of such psychological phenomena as greed and the profit motive, etc., but never in order to explain history. He interpreted them, rather, as symptoms of the corrupting influence of the social system, i.e. of a system of institutions developed during the course of history; as effects rather than causes of corruption; as repercussions rather than moving forces of history. Rightly or wrongly, he saw in such phenomena as war, depression, unemployment, and hunger in the midst of plenty, not the result of a cunning conspiracy on the part of ‘big business’ or of ‘imperialist war-mongers’, but the unwanted social consequences of actions, directed towards different results, by agents who are caught in the network of the social system.
Nor was he a vulgar materialist
Much has been said about Marx’s materialism that is quite untenable. The often repeated claim that Marx does not recognize anything beyond the ‘lower’ or ‘material’ aspects of human life is an especially ridiculous distortion…But in this sense, Marx cannot be called a materialist at all, even though he was strongly influenced by the eighteenth-century French Materialists, and even though he used to call himself a materialist, which is well in keeping with a good number of his doctrines. For there are some important passages which can hardly be interpreted as materialistic. The truth is, I think, that he was not much concerned with purely philosophical issues—less than Engels or Lenin, for instance—and that it was mainly the sociological and methodological side of the problem in which he was interested.
As a poet in his youth, an educated member of the cultured bourgeoisie, he did not denigrate things of the mind, even when he depicted the products of mind as part of the superstructure rather than the base of things. Popper’s “three world” theory could be applied to capture the interaction between material bodies, subjective minds and objective (public) ideas, though that was far in the future when Marx was at work.
There is a well-known passage in Capital, where Marx says that ‘in Hegel’s writing, dialectics stands on its head; one must turn it the right way up again ..’ Its tendency is clear. Marx wished to show that the ‘head’, i.e. human thought, is not itself the basis of human life but rather a kind of superstructure, on a physical basis. A similar tendency is expressed in the passage: ‘The ideal is nothing other than the material when it has been transposed and translated inside the human head.’ But it has not, perhaps, been sufficiently recognized that these passages do not exhibit a radical form of materialism; rather, they indicate a certain leaning towards a dualism of body and mind. It is, so to speak, a practical dualism. Although, theoretically, mind was to Marx apparently only another form (or another aspect, or perhaps an epiphenomenon) of matter, in practice it is different from matter, since it is another form of it. The passages quoted indicate that although our feet have to be kept, as it were, on the firm ground of the material world, our heads—and Marx thought highly of human heads—are concerned with thoughts or ideas. In my opinion, Marxism and its influence cannot be appreciated unless we recognize this dualism.

This is why we may describe Marx’s brand of historicism as economism, as opposed to Hegel’s idealism or to Mill’s psychologism. But it signifies a complete misunderstanding if we identify Marx’s economism with that kind of materialism
which implies a depreciatory attitude towards man’s mental life. Marx’s vision of the ‘kingdom of freedom’, i.e. of a partial but equitable liberation of men from the bondage of their material nature, might rather be described as idealistic. Considered in this way, the Marxist view of life appears to be consistent enough; and I believe that such apparent contradictions and difficulties as have been found in its partly determinist and partly libertarian view of human activities disappear.
In a passage of the third volume of Capital7, Marx very aptly describes the material side of social life, and especially its economic side, that of production and consumption, as an extension of human metabolism, i.e. of man’s exchange of matter with nature. He clearly states that our freedom must always be limited by the necessities of this metabolism. All that can be achieved in the direction of making us more free, he says, is ‘to conduct this metabolism rationally, .. with a minimum expenditure of energy and under conditions most dignified and adequate to human nature. Yet it will still remain the kingdom of necessity. Only outside and beyond it can that development of human faculties begin which constitutes an end in itself—the true kingdom of freedom. But this can flourish only on the ground occupied by the kingdom of necessity, which remains its basis ..’ Immediately before this, Marx says: ‘The kingdom of freedom actually begins only where drudgery, enforced by hardship and by external purposes, ends; it thus lies, quite naturally, beyond the sphere of proper material production.’ And he ends the whole passage by drawing a practical conclusion which clearly shows that it was his sole aim to open the way into that non-materialist kingdom of freedom for all men alike: ‘The shortening of the labour day is the fundamental prerequisite.’

The bearing of what I have called Marx’s dualism and his scientific determinism on his view of history is plain. Scientific history, which to him is identical with social science as a whole, must explore the laws according to which man’s exchange of matter with nature develops. Its central task must be the explanation of the development of the conditions of production. Social relationships have historical and scientific significance only in proportion to the degree in which they are bound up with the productive process—affecting it, or perhaps affected by it. ‘Just as the savage must wrestle with nature in order to satisfy his needs, to keep alive, and to reproduce, so must the civilized man; and he must continue to do so in all forms of society and under all possible forms of production. This kingdom of necessity expands with its development, and so does the range of human needs. Yet at the same time, there is an expansion of the productive forces which satisfy these needs.’ This, in brief, is Marx’s view of man’s history.
Critique – two aspects of historical materialism
If we now proceed to a criticism …then we may distinguish two different aspects. The first is historicism, the claim that the realm of social sciences coincides with that of the historical or evolutionary method, and especially with historical prophecy. This claim, I think, must be dismissed. The second is economism (or ‘materialism’), i.e. the claim that the economic organization of society, the organization of our exchange of matter with nature, is fundamental for all social institutions and especially for their historical development. This claim, I believe, is perfectly sound, so long as we take the term ‘fundamental’ in an ordinary vague sense, not laying too much stress upon it. In other words, there can be no doubt that practically all social studies, whether institutional or historical, may profit if they are carried out with an eye to the ‘economic conditions’ of society. Even the history of an abstract science such as mathematics is no exception.’ In this sense, Marx’s economism can be said to represent an extremely valuable advance in the methods of social science.

But, as I said before, we must not take the term ‘fundamental’ too seriously. Marx himself undoubtedly did so…For although the general importance of Marx’s economism can hardly be overrated, it is very easy to overrate the importance of the economic conditions in any particular case. Some knowledge of economic conditions may contribute considerably, for example, to a history of the problems of mathematics, but a knowledge of the problems of mathematics themselves is much more important for that purpose; and it is even possible to write a very good history of mathematical problems without referring at all to their ‘economic background’. (In my opinion, the ‘economic conditions’ or the ‘social relations’ of science are themes which can easily be overdone, and which are liable to degenerate into platitude.)


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