Rebellion Is Justified!: Historical Materialism vs. Historical Determinism

Tuesday, May 30

Historical Materialism vs. Historical Determinism

Marx’s outlook on historical development bears no similarity to what could be called historical determinism, or, a fatalistic concept of a mechanically determined predestination. Marx’s dialectical method is opposed to the mechanical method or determinist method in which the subjective, conscious aspect of human activity is totally negated. The materialist conception of history does not argue that man does not make history, but that man makes history within definite parameters set by the inherited conditions of society. Marx says, “men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” (Eighteenth Brumaire)

Marx’s own practice bears out his opposition to the historical determinist outlook. His role in proselytizing communist ideology, and in building revolutionary organization, coincide fully with his belief that the rule of the bourgeoisie would not fall of its own accord, but only with the conscious, determined efforts of a cadre among the masses of people.

Marx does not state that the communist society is inevitable, but instead points to the systemic crises of class rule, and the role the propertyless proletariat may play in replacing this society with classless, communist society. To Marx, the point was to grasp the essence of historical processes, not in order to imagine the alleged inevitability of this or that future course for society, but to carry out an actual, current revolutionary process fully in accord with historical opportunities. The subjective, conscious aspect of social development, without doubt, functions within a set of constraints. Historical necessity allows for varying possibilities within a certain scope of operation; it does not forecast definite or absolute outcomes. For instance, Marx and Engels do not see revolution as the inevitable triumph of a nascent class. Indeed, revolutions may cause “the common ruin of the contending classes” (Communist Manifesto).

Voluntarism makes the error of ignoring the objective constraints of the conditions inherited from history. Such was the error of the utopian socialists who sought to, parallel with and apart from the ascendant nation-states, affect a kind of communistic relations. Historical determinism makes the error of ignoring the subjective, conscious aspect of history as a process of human self-development. Often revisionists, but also at times genuine Marxists, have adopted a historical determinist stand when proclaiming that an increase in the development of the forces of production will absolutely lead to a corresponding leap to communism, apart from the class struggle in the realm of the superstructure.

In Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, in which he declares that “the philosophers have understood the world, the point however is to change it,” he answers the criticism that he upholds a mechanical, deterministic worldview. “The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society,” says Marx. Here, he clearly highlights the dynamic role of the subjective element in the making of history, without which, no human development can occur. The materialist conception of history fully accounts for both the objective and subjective factors contributing to social movement.

Works Cited

Marx, Karl. The German Ideology. New York: International Publishers, 1947.

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Frederick. “Theses on Feuerbach.” Marx/Engels Selected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969. 13-15.

Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press, 1978.


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