Saturday, September 15, 2007

Is Marxism Economic Determinist?

KOREA COLUMN 30

Is Marxism Economic Determinist ?

The criticism of Marxism that it 'puts too much emphasis on the economic factor' or 'falsely reduces everything to economics' is the main theoretical objection to Marxism in academic circles. The reason it is so popular with professional sociologists, historians, political philosophers and the like is because it fits so neatly the needs of their social situation. Academics are people who earn their living, or like to believe they earn their living, on the basis of their ideas. Instinctively they are repelled by a theory which seems to downplay the role of ideas in history, and therefore to downplay the role of people like themselves. The professional ideologist is naturally drawn to theories which suggest that in the end it is the power of ideas that is decisive in shaping the world.

Within this there is a narrower career interest in theories that are 'sophisticated' and 'complex', and in questions 'in need of more research and development' - so many research grants and publication opportunities - and a strong bias against definite answers of any kind. 'Communism', the young Marx wrote,' is the riddle of history solved, and knows itself to be so', but such a claim would appall the typical academic who would much prefer the riddle to remain unsolved.

But if this explains the popularity of the objection we still have to assess its truth and on this I would start by saying that all talk of the primacy of ‘economics’ in Marxism or of Marxism reducing everything to ‘economics’ is inaccurate and, at best, ‘loose’. Marx’s theory of history, as The German Ideology makes clear, does not begin with ‘economics’ or with ‘economic motives’, but with human needs – both biologically determined and historically developed – and with the organization of production to meet those needs. Nor does Marx claim that the organization of production determines everything in history, merely that it constitutes a foundation or base on which everything else in history rests.

Moreover this fundamental Marxist proposition must be true, for the simple reason that any individual who is unable meet their needs for food, drink, shelter etc will die, and that any society unable to organize social production to meet those needs, at least to some degree, for most of its members, will cease to exist. To depart from this premise is, as Marx put it, ‘possible only in imagination’. Ruling classes and their ideologists can avoid it because the material work to meet their material needs is always done by others, and because those others (slaves, peasants, workers) are socially subordinate to them, and can be ignored or dismissed.

But isn’t this a round about way of saying everything reduces to economics? No. The human needs we are talking about range from the very basic and absolute need for air, to the only slightly less pressing needs for drink, food, clothing, and shelter, to the need for social interaction (care, language, socialization etc) for babies to grow up human, the needs for love and sex (both a necessity for the survival of the species and a felt need by individuals) and ‘spiritual’ needs for art, music etc. Which of these needs can be called ‘economic’? In a sense none of them – is the need for air an ‘economic’ need? At the same time without economics i.e. the social organization of production, none of these needs, except air, and even that may become problematic, can be met on a consistent basis. For example, without material production there can be no art, which requires such things as walls, paper, canvas, pencils, paint or whatever and above all people with the time and energy to be artists.

What then is the relationship between this economic base of organized production and what Marx calls the ‘superstructure’ of politics, law, philosophy, religion, art etc.? Clearly, as we have seen, economics is a necessary condition for the rest, but does it determine them in some mechanical or absolute sense? Not according to Marx who mainly speaks of shaping or conditioning rather than strict determination. The conditioning of the superstructure by the base is best understood, in my opinion, in terms of a combination of constraints and impulses.

First, the economic level of society constrains or set limits to what is possible at the ideological or superstructural level. For example, modern art and modern culture generally, is obviously impossible on a feudal or medieval economic base. Equally it was not possible to achieve modern political democracy- parliamentary government, universal suffrage etc. - without the development of capitalism with its cities and its working class.

Second, developments in the economic base create powerful impulses for change. For example the early development of the bourgeoisie within feudalism gave an impulse to the rise of a new form of Christianity – Protestantism- which would challenge the alliance of Catholicism and the feudal aristocracy. Similarly the later development of industrial capitalism into monopoly capitalism created a very powerful impulse towards imperialism, the division of the whole world between the ‘great’ powers, and that in turn generated a huge pressure towards war.

Thus neither the Reformation nor the First World War were accidents of history or mainly caused by ideology; on the contrary they had profound ‘economic’ causes or, more accurately, causes located in the development of the forces and relations of production. At the same time it was by no means economically determined that Martin Luther would nail his 95 Theses to door of the church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, or that world war would break out in August 1914 following an assassination in Sarajevo.

Let us apply this historical method to a contemporary problem: the likelihood of a US attack on Iran. On the hand there is a very strong economic impulse to attack Iran. To defend its global economic empire the US needs to assert its military dominance, especially over the crucial regions of the Middle East and Central Asia. The disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq create an incentive to try to recoup the situation with another throw of the dice in Iran, before Iran gets a nuclear weapon. But there are also certain basic constraints ( what the US can afford)and a number of complicating factors such as the real possibility of military defeat in Iran, the danger of provoking huge turmoil in the region with disastrous consequences, the probability of massive opposition domestically and internationally. In such a situation an attack on Iran is fundamentally economically caused and motivated, not ideological or religious, but it is also not absolutely economically determined. It hangs in the balance and may depend on factors such as the judgment and character of US political and military leaders, and the strength of resistance in the Middle East, the US and elsewhere.

John Molyneux

14 September 2007

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