Saturday, September 15, 2007

Is Marxism Economic Determinist?


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

Friday, September 14, 2007

What about human nature?


What about human nature?

In my experience the two most common objections to Marxism are 1) that it fails to take account of human nature, 2) that it reduces everything to economics.

Actually the two objections contradict each other – the ‘human nature’ argument suggests that socialism won’t work because people are basically greedy and self interested; the overestimating the economic factor argument claims that Marxism fails to take enough account of the role of ideas and ideals in history. The contradiction is not usually noticed because the two arguments are deployed in different spheres. The first is mostly encountered in the sphere of everyday political debate and discussion. The second is most common at the level of theoretical critique in the academic world. For this reason I shall devote a separate column to each.

We should begin by recognising the plausibility of the human nature argument. It is plausible partly because it has such a long pedigree. It embodies an idea that has been central to bourgeois ideology for centuries and to ruling class ideology for millennia. The Christian religion, for example, taught that people were all born ‘wicked’ and this justified both the power of the church to bring them salvation in the afterlife and the power of the state to keep them in order in this life. It is also plausible because it seems to fit with historical experience, with the simple fact that all past attempts to achieve a society of freedom and equality have failed. Finally it is plausible because it seems to explain a lot of our personal experience – all those occasions when we have been treated badly by workmates or let down by friends or people around us just seem to be apathetic.

All this plausibility, however, does not make the argument sound and it is precisely in the last area, the area of our personal experience, that we find the most obvious evidence of its falsity. Yes, it is true that everyday life presents plenty of examples of selfishness, callousness, lack of sympathy and so on, but it is also the case that it offers many examples of the opposite, of kindness, self sacrifice and solidarity – of people who help strangers in difficulties, who risk their lives to save those in danger, who devote their lives to what they see as good causes. IF it really were human nature to be selfish, if we were actually programmed to be that way, such altruistic behaviour would either be non-existent or at best extremely rare, but it is not. What experience actually shows is that human nature permits both selfish and unselfish behaviour, both apathy and commitment,

cowardice and bravery and that which predominates depends on both circumstances and conditioning.

Here we have to remember that the human behaviour we experience is behaviour under capitalism and that capitalism massively conditions people towards selfishness. Of course the system preaches morality and altruism to children but look at how schools are actually organised: the children required to compete to come top of the class (or be punished for not trying), to pass exams, to gain entry to ‘good’ schools and top universities, to get the best jobs, and with any deviation from this self interested agenda subject to severe condemnation.

Nor is it just a question of early socialisation and childhood conditioning. As adults the system virtually forces selfishness on people if they are to survive or be treated with any social respect. Capitalists obviously have to be greedy, in the sense of pursuing maximum profits, unless they are prepared to renounce being capitalists. The managers who work for them have to adhere to the profit/ greed agenda or be sacked. Only the workers are pushed towards, and have an interest in, solidarity (which is what makes workers the socialist class) and such solidarity is not only seriously stigmatised (‘militants’, ‘troublemakers’ etc) but also frequently illegal. The wonder, under capitalism, is not how little but how much self-sacrifice and social responsibility we encounter.

Much the same applies, in a different way, to broader social and historical experience. If we explain the failures of the French, Russian, Chinese and other revolutions – the return of tyranny in Napoleonic or Stalinist form – by human nature, either the greed or ambition of bad leaders or the apathy and inertia of the masses, how do we explain the revolutions in the first place? Of course, in a sense, everything that has happened in human history must be compatible with human nature or it wouldn’t have happened, but in explaining everything in this way we explain nothing.

This raises the question, very seldom asked by most of those who invoke the human nature argument, of just what is meant by ‘human nature’ or what it consists of. I shall take it that by ‘human nature’ is meant a combination of the characteristics which all, or almost all, humans have in common and the characteristics which distinguish humans as a species from other species.

A complete list of such universal characteristics (especially in the biological sense) is obviously immensely long but those that are relevant to the issue of socialism are fairly few and pretty simple. Above all they consist of a number of basic needs which all humans share and which have to be met for humans to survive: the need for air, water, food, clothing, shelter, for social interaction with other humans, for sex. Equally the key distinguishing characteristics of humans relate to the means by which these needs are met, namely collective social labour, followed by language and expanded social consciousness.

Do any of these common or distinguishing characteristics that make up human nature constitute an obstacle to an equal society or to socialism? Both history (real history not bourgeois myth) and reason give a resounding no to this question. History, because for hundreds of thousands of years prior to the development of agriculture, i.e. the vast bulk of human existence, when ‘human nature’ was being forged and consolidated, people lived as hunters and gatherers in deeply egalitarian communities, with no division into rich and poor or leaders and led and with distribution of goods based on the principle of sharing.

Reason, because a glance at the state of the world today shows that capitalism, despite an abundance of resources, is extremely poor at meeting these basic human needs for most of humanity at the best of times and its worst (through war, climate change etc) threatens

even the limited provision that exists. Socialism, by contrast, would make its whole point of departure and raison d’etre the planning of production to meet the basic physical and social needs of human nature

Far from human nature being incompatible with socialism, socialism is just what human nature needs.

John Molyneux

27 August 2007