Karl Marx, part 3: Men make their own history. Peter Thompson (The Guardian. 2011-04-18)By Jesus Mari Intxauspe Arregi • Apr 18th, 2011 • Category: Albistekaria
Karl Marx, part 3: Men make their own history
Peter Thompson. Director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies at the University of Sheffield.
One of the common objections that has been raised in the responses to these pieces is that Marxism itself is nothing more than a secularised form of dogmatic religious belief. It is argued that his use of a Hegelian dialectical approach belies an essential determinism at work and that the categories he lays down as ways of understanding history are actually prescriptive, in that they present history as simply a set of stages by which communism will automatically be achieved. This is a traditional liberal individualist objection to Marx and it is found most coherently expressed in Karl Popper‘s writings on totalitarianism and scientific falsifiability. For Popper, Marxism is nothing more than Hegelian teleology in quasi-religious clothing, in which history is seen as merely a means of reaching a pre-existing endpoint.
This view is then linked to the second most common objection to Marx and Marxism; that the belief in and the process of attaining this teleological endpoint led directly to the gulag, the Great Leap Forward, the Berlin Wall and Pol Pot’s torture chambers. Marx, on this reading, is directly responsible for many millions of deaths and becomes one of the greatest, if not the greatest, mass murderers in history. It doesn’t help much to counter that all previous and contemporary forms of social organisation have also caused and continue to cause millions of deaths through poverty, pillage, civil war, colonial imperialism, the accumulation of other people’s wealth, genocide, pogroms, inquisitions, fascism etc. Marx has the disadvantage that his name can be put to a number, whereas the millions who have suffered and perished over the course of history to get us to the point we are now represent a sort of “vanishing mediator“.
The point, however, is that Popper’s description of Marxism as teleological historicism – as Popper described it – in Marxism not only misinterprets Marx, but also the Hegelian dialectic on which he based his philosophy. Even if we take the famous preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859, often seen as one of the most determinist of his texts, we can see that for Marx the development of history emerges out of the relationship between the material forces of production (how stuff is produced) and the social relations of production (how society is organised around the production of that stuff) and not in some pre-ordained way.
Marx’s sense of the development of the history of society rather than believing in automaticity is actually based on an analysis of self-generating and contingent contradictions within society. There are no “iron laws of history” applicable to all forms of human society, and the one invariant operator there is, class struggle, is itself presented as something which takes different forms and paths at different points in history.
For society to have reached the point it had, everything that happened beforehand was of course necessary, but it was not necessary in any metaphysical way. Seeking out patterns in the way human society had developed did not mean positing that those patterns were anything other than an expression of a concrete self-generating process in which the next stage would be the product of subjective political action as well as objective material circumstances.
As Antonio Gramsci pointed out, if Marx thought it would all come about automatically, then there was no need for his 11th thesis on Feuerbach, which declared that it was more important to change the world than to interpret it.
Equally for Hegel, “werden”, or becoming, was the password to understanding how the “absolute spirit” not only expressed itself but, more importantly, generated itself through the process of history. The German word for unfolding – entfaltung – also means development, and the process of emergent creation, or autopoiesis, was also the process by which Hegel’s absolute spirit was not only working in the world but creating itself at the same time.
Ernst Bloch, perhaps the most Hegelian of Marxists, maintained that this meant that Hegel and Marx were both talking about transcendence (in the sense of transcending that which exists) without the transcendent (in the sense of a transcendent realm – religious or social – towards which all things must move). The dialectic in Marx and Hegel can therefore be categorised as the relationship between autonomy and dependence, between voluntarism and determinism and between what is possible (Aristotle’s kata to dynaton) and what might become possible (dynámei on). As Marx put it most succinctly in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte from 1852: “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.”