Was Karl Marx a Determinist

Deveraux & A ; DeloitteBrief No. 188994

Was Karl Marx a Determinist?

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The purpose of this essay is to turn to to what extent Karl Marx could be considered a fatalist. In making so it will see: ( a ) what constitutes determinism ; ( B ) Marx’s theories on history ; and ( degree Celsius ) whether these theories are compatible with the impression of determinism. Precedence is given to subdivision ( B ) due to the sheer volume of bing literature in this field. Analysis is limited to Marx’s personal theories on history as opposed to Marxist theory on history, as the latter is mostly digressive to the issue in inquiry. [ 1 ]

( a ) Determinism

Determinism has many aspects. In the wide sense it can be summarised as the philosophical proposition that every historical event is causally determined by an unbroken or predetermined concatenation of anterior events. In fundamental footings, hence, determinism is the antithesis of free will – the impression that there is no foreordained destiny for world except that which it determines for itself. Determinism should non be confused with fatalism, which dictates that all future events are already predetermined and will decidedly happen. Rather determinism is associated with and depends upon the constructs of philistinism and causality.

More specifically, it is economic determinism with which, justly or wrongly, Marx has become associated. Economic determinism can be defined as a signifier of determinism which explains societal construction and civilization as a merchandise of the societal and proficient administration of economic life. [ 2 ] It basically lends primacy to economic sciences over political relations in the development of human history. It has been interpreted as the belief that economic Torahs determine the class of history, in much the same manner as Auguste Comte considered that Torahs governed society. [ 3 ] On a more simple degree, Fleischer writes that as self-preservation is the supreme inherent aptitude in adult male, therefore the full form of human behavior must ever hold been governed by the cardinal Torahs regulating endurance – a dialectical procedure between adult male and nature. This concluding gives rise to the decision that all elements of historical effect consequence from economic determinism, or man’s natural attempt to last. [ 4 ] In order for us to understand Marx’s association with economic determinism, an analysis of his theories on history is indispensable.

( B ) Marx’s theories on history

Jon Elster writes that Marx had ‘both an empirical theory of history and a bad doctrine of history.’ [ 5 ] It is the former, better known as historical philistinism, which concerns us. Historical philistinism as an explanatory system has been expanded and refined by many academic surveies since Marx’s decease in 1883, despite no formal expounding of the construct of all time holding been published by Marx himself. [ 6 ] It looks for the causes of developments and alterations in human societies in the manner in which worlds jointly make the agencies to life, therefore giving an accent, through economic analysis, to everything that co-exists with the economic base of society, such as societal categories, political constructions and political orientations. While Marx claimed merely to be suggesting a guideline to historical research, by the 20th century the construct of historical philistinism had become a anchor of modern Communist philosophy.

An apprehension of the beginnings of Marx’s fond regard to philistinism is indispensable in appreciating its construct. These beginnings can mostly be attributed to his research on the doctrine of Epicurus and his reading of Adam Smith and other political economic experts. Historical philistinism builds upon the thought that became current in doctrine from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries that the development of human society has moved through a series of phases, from runing and assemblage, through pastoralism and cultivation, to commercial society. Marx argued that the history of Western society had progressed though the undermentioned phases or ‘modes of production.’ Each manner of production had its ain economic system which gave rise to a system of category division based around ownership of the agencies of production:

( I ) primitive communism

( two ) slave society

( three ) feudal system

( four ) capitalist economy

Marxists say that society moves from one phase to the following when the dominant category is displaced by a new emerging category. The concluding phase in the concatenation, communism ( as we know it today ) , would finally replace capitalist economy on a planetary graduated table, and would therefore represent both the intended mark and end consequence of societal history.

The cardinal theory of historical philistinism stems from the fact that people must secure or bring forth the necessities by which they can last and reproduce themselves. Human existences are manufacturers, and their production consists of two distinguishable facets: the stuff and the societal. The stuff refers to the physical necessities of life. In bring forthing physical necessities, human existences create the societal signifier, within which they produce. The societal signifier of production is a societal procedure by which people cooperate ( through a division of labor in more complex societal signifiers ) to bring forth the things they need. This aspect ever involves the societal dealingss of those involved. These dealingss crucially concern the control of the procedure of production and the distribution of its merchandises. The material facet of production implies a certain administration of production, ownership of the appropriate tools, and cognition. This material facet of production is known as the ‘productive forces.’ The societal signifier in which people produce is called the ‘relations of production.’ Together, the forces and dealingss of production make up the ‘mode of production.’

The following phase in the statement is more controversial. Initially, the interacting factors in the productive system of a class-based economic system, including the forces and dealingss of production, are in a province of comparative equilibrium. The forces of production determine and bound or at least correspond to the dealingss of production. Let us see an illustration to assist do this relationship more transparent. The earliest worlds reproduced themselves by runing animate beings and bring forthing simple harvests. Such a society could non bring forth autos, computing machines or prosecute in the mass production we have today. They lacked the tools and cognition to make so. Knowledge and tools are portion of the productive forces, which constrain the nature of the dealingss of production. This material restriction on what earlier societies could bring forth besides constrained the types of relationships that existed between people. However, at some point the spread outing forces of production clang with the undertaking dealingss of production. In mankind’s harnessing of engineering, the forces develop more quickly, and in a way incompatible with the dealingss of production. As the capacity to bring forth expands, the ownership of the agencies of production contracts. Consequently, the forces of production can no longer freely develop within the confines of the category construction. This struggle between the forces and dealingss of production intensifies until, by agencies of revolution, the societal dealingss are reorganised so as to harmonize with the productive forces. It is anticipated that world will finally set up control over the material powers of the economic system. [ 7 ]

Historians such as Jon Elster and David McLellan have scoured Marx’s Hagiographas for grounds of his principle on historical philistinism. Elster points toDas Kapital, Marx’s foreword inA Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and what he refers to as ‘rambling, disconnected passages’ inThe German Political orientationas cardinal beginnings. [ 8 ] He explains:

Historical philistinism is non merely a theory that accords a privileged topographic point to economic factors. It is, more specifically, a signifier of technological determinism. The rise and autumn of consecutive belongings governments are explained by their inclination to advance or shackle proficient alteration. [ 9 ]

On Marx’s Hagiographas on the historical manners of production, Elster argues that Marx ‘does non supply applications and elucidations of the general theory.’ [ 10 ] Harmonizing to Elster, there is no suggestion that each of the three precapitalist manners of production ( crude communism, slave society and feudal system ) divides into a progressive phase ( in which the dealingss of production correspond to the forces of production ) and a regressive phase ( in which the correspondence becomes a contradiction ) . On the contrary, Marx systematically claims that engineering was basically unchanging from antiquity to the early modern period ( with the exclusion of the innovation of gunpowder, the printing imperativeness and the compass ) , and that the destabilizing component in the ancient universe was non the development of the forces of production but population growing. Elster is besides critical of Marx’s history of the ( so ) impending passage from capitalist economy to communism. He argues that as Marx insisted that proficient alteration in capitalist economy was speed uping instead than decelerating down, he could non claim that capitalist economy was moribund in its stagnancy. Rather, Elster insists, Marx would hold to reason that the labor would be motivated by the chance of a Communist society which would profit from proficient alteration at an even more accelerated gait. This in itself is an improbable motive as people revolt when conditions deteriorate or when their outlooks of betterment are non fulfilled, instead than when there is an abstract possibility of a society in which conditions could be even better than they are already.

McLellan is less critical, looking to methodically signpost the bookman through the baffled abstracts. While he does non specifically mention determinism, he points to it by foregrounding the inevitableness of world-wide communist revolution above all else. He draws the reader’s attending to the undermentioned Marx citations:

Thingss have come to the point where persons must allow the bing entirety of productive forces non simply to accomplish self-activity but to procure their very being.

In all appropriations up to now a mass of persons remained subservient to a individual instrument of production. In the appropriation by the workers, a mass of instruments of production must be subservient to each person and the belongings of all. The lone manner for persons to command modern cosmopolitan interaction is to do it capable to the control of all.

Communism is non [ … ] a province of personal businesss still to be established, non an ideal to which world will hold to set. We call communism the existent motion which abolishes the present province of personal businesss. [ 11 ]

The salient point here is that McLellan draws on these transitions to exemplify that socialism for Marx was an economic world instead than an ethical ideal. This represents a paradigm of determinism in Marx’s authorship.

The cardinal premises of historical philistinism as viewed by Marx, irrespective of any period of history, can hence be summarised as follows:

  • worlds are societal animate beings who live in a complex society ;
  • human society consists of worlds jointly working on nature to do the agencies to life ;
  • human society develops a complex division of labor ;
  • over clip worlds advance their harnessing of nature through the development of scientific discipline and engineering ;
  • human existences have the ability to reflect on their society and interaction with nature, but their thought and administration are ever preconditioned by and dependant on the province of development of their society and of the power constructions in their society.

Let us now consider whether these premises are compatible with the construct of economic determinism.

( degree Celsius ) Marxist theory and economic determinism

As discussed in subdivision ( B ) , harmonizing to Marx, each societal manner of production produces the material conditions of its reproduction, that is political orientation ( which encompasses all the political, jurisprudence and cultural domains ) . Thus political orientation permits the manner of production to reproduce itself. Marx besides believed that in the event of a radical force altering the manner of production, the dominant category would instantly put out to make a new society to protect this new economic order. In the 19th century, Marx felt as if the middle class had basically accomplished the constitution of a new societal and economic order, instinctively making a society protective of their capitalist involvements. This prompted Marx ( and Engels ) to direct this statement from theCommunist Manifestoat the middle class:

Your really thoughts are but the branch of conditions of your businessperson production and businessperson belongings, merely as your law is but the will of your category, made into jurisprudence for all, a will whose indispensable character and way are determined by the economic conditions of the being of your category. [ 12 ]

From this, it is argued that Marx and Engels did non believe work forces could randomly take any one of several signifiers of society, but merely that one which promotes the prevalent manner of production. The very nature of man’s mercenary fundamental law requires that he make this. Marx hence criticised man’s disaffection, a construct which he latter replaced by the review of trade good fetichism. ‘Vulgar Marxism’ has considered that the relation between the economical substructure and the ideological superstructure was an unicausal one, and therefore believed in economic determinism. This has been criticised by Marxist theoreticians such as Helmut Fleischer, who dismissed it as a signifier of economism or economic reductionism. He claimed the relationship is much more mutual and complex than one-sided determinism would hold it.

There are besides bookmans who reject this position. Fleischer high spots those who objected that economic determinism is a nonmeaningful generalization, and that any serious historical account of economic worlds must besides mention to non-economic worlds. This becomes a more conspicuous job when it is ill-defined which subdivision of determinism is implied. In this regard, when Marx writes of the ‘economic base’ and the ‘ideological superstructure’ of society, he was doing a generalization about the wide expanse of history, to the consequence that people finally will follow their stuff opportunisms, whatever else they may conceive of about their motives. However, harmonizing to Marx, the kineticss of history were shaped exactly by the clang of those involvements ( category battle ) , and that clang could non be understood merely in footings of economic opportunism, because it besides involved human traditions and values. The terminal consequence of economic determinism in this position is both economism ( a narrow focal point on how people earn their support ) and economic reductionism ( the effort to cut down a complex societal world to one factor – i.e. the economic – such that this one factor causes all other facets of society ) . This plays straight into the custodies of the concern category, and finally ended in an anti-working category place, whereby the commitment of the on the job category is simply a ‘tool’ to be used by the political category to modernize an economic system, with the assistance of forced labor if need be. [ 13 ]

Taking the above points into history, it could be argued that Marx considered economic determinism as the originative force in human development. He clearly advocated a alteration in economic construction as the lone executable agencies by which to consequence societal alteration and to polish the rational makeup of humanity. His protagonism of the inevitableness of world-wide socialist revolution and communist society could surely be described as deterministic in mentality. At the same clip it should be remembered that Marx was to the full cognizant that the economic facets of life did non represent the sum sum of mankind’s preoccupation and societal makeup. On this footing, hence, it would look that Marx’s historical philistinism is compatible with the specific impression of economic determinism, instead than falling under the broader class of determinism as a whole.


Berlin, Isaiah, ‘Historical Materialism’ in Tom Bottomore ( ed. ) ,Karl Marx( Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973 )

Easton, Loyd D. & A ; Guddat, Kurt H. ( trans. & A ; ed. ) ,Hagiographas of the immature Marx on doctrine and society( Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967 )

Elster, Jon,An Introduction to Karl Marx( Cambridge: CUP, 1986 )

Fleischer, Helmut,Marxism and History( New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1973 )

McLellan, David,The Thought of Karl Marx: An Introduction( London: Macmillan, 1971 )

Rader, Melvin,Marx’s Interpretation of History( New York: OUP, 1979 )

Web mentions

Economic determinism,Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences, maintained by Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada ( hypertext transfer protocol: //bitbucket.icaap.org )

Karl Marx & A ; Friedrich Engels,Manifesto of the Communist Party,Australian National University ( www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/classics/manifesto.html )


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