Is Marxism deterministic? | by Phil Gasper

by Jun 6, 2012All Articles

PHIL GASPER argues that Marx’s theory of history is vital for understanding social change, but it doesn’t claim that socialism is inevitable
KARL MARX’S key idea, in the words of his collaborator Frederick Engels, was that “the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, art, and even the ideas on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved.” Moreover, all class-based societies are characterized by conflict between exploiters and exploited that can only be ended by their revolutionary transformation.
One of the most common misconceptions about Marxism is that it is a deterministic theory that sees the course of history as preordained by economic and social forces. According to one recent commentator, for example, “In Marx’s theory, the oppressed class does not need to hope for social justice as merely a tentative possibility, because the laws of history are on their side and guarantee the outcome.”
Misinterpretations like this are often based on isolated quotations from Marx’s writings taken out of context, such as the passage in the Communist Manifesto that declares, “the victory of the proletariat [is] inevitable.” But this statement is simply a rhetorical flourish aimed at spurring on the Manifesto’s readers, since a few pages earlier Marx and Engels had already pointed out that the class struggle has no predetermined result, and can end “either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”
Others have believed that since Marx and Engels saw themselves as offering a scientific account of society, they were therefore committed to the existence of deterministic laws that would either leave no room for human agency and struggle to play a significant role or determine the outcome of such struggle. This argument rests on the false assumption that science is necessarily deterministic. But that idea is no longer accepted even in the physical sciences, let alone the biological and social sciences.
When Marx describes what he sees as the laws of motion of capitalism, he describes tendencies, not deterministic laws. So, for example, he argues that there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall in capitalist economies, since labor is the ultimate source of value and production tends to become more capital intensive. However, he immediately goes on to make clear that there are many counteracting influences that can keep the rate of profit high, including increasing the intensity of exploitation, pushing down wages below the value of labor power, lowering the value of capital goods, and the effects of foreign trade.
The upshot is that Marx does not claim that the rate of profit must always and everywhere decline under capitalism (which it obviously does not do), and if the rate of profit remains high for relatively long periods of time, Marxists have plenty of resources available to explain why this might be the case.
But while some have criticized Marxism for being deterministic, others have claimed that a theory of historical tendencies rather than deterministic processes is equally problematic.
This was the argument of the philosopher Karl Popper, who claimed that Marxism is unscientific because it “is not refutable by any conceivable event.” According to Popper:
In some of its earlier formulations…[the] predictions [of Marxist theory] were testable, and in fact falsified. Yet instead of accepting the refutations the followers of Marx re-interpreted both the theory and the evidence in order to make them agree. In this way they rescued the theory from refutation; but they did so at the price of adopting a device which made it irrefutable…and by this stratagem they destroyed its much advertised claim to scientific status.
Popper’s argument remains influential, even though philosophers of science have been shooting holes in it for several decades. To begin with, there is nothing wrong with modifying a scientific hypothesis when it fails to fit with the evidence. In fact it would be crazy to adopt the practice of abandoning a hypothesis every time it made an incorrect prediction, particularly if it already has a track record of success.
In fact, Popper initially argued that Darwin’s theory of evolution is also unscientific because it “is not refutable by any conceivable event.” Later, Popper retracted the claim that Darwinism is unscientific, but in doing so he effectively abandoned his whole account of what makes something scientific.
Popper assumes that scientific theories are tested by making accurate predictions that can be compared with the results of observation. But many sciences don’t make precise predictions. Darwin’s theory does make some predictions—for example, that we won’t find a rabbit fossil in a two-billion-year-old rock—but it doesn’t predict where we will find any particular fossils, or what species we will find in particular geographical areas, or how well adapted particular species are to their environments. And it can’t predict the future course of evolutionary development.
However, while Darwin’s theory isn’t very good at making predictions, it is very good at generating explanations. It can explain the patterns we observe in the fossil record, the facts of biogeographical distribution, and why organisms are only imperfectly adapted to their environments. It’s because it can explain these facts, and many others, by showing how natural selection acting on populations over time can account for what we observe, that Darwin’s theory is so well established.
Darwinism is compatible with many conceivable observations. If distinctive species of land mammals are found on an island many miles from the mainland, the theory can explain that. If there are no land mammals on the island, the theory can explain that too. But that doesn’t mean that the theory couldn’t be refuted. If in order to explain the biological facts, Darwinians were forced again and again to make highly implausible assumptions, or if someone could come up with a better explanation of the evidence, then we would have reason to reject the theory. But evolutionary explanations don’t require implausible assumptions, and there are no remotely satisfactory alternatives that can explain the same range of biological facts.
Marxism is in these respects analogous to Darwinism. It is not particularly good at making predictions, because the outcome of social and historical processes depends on too many interacting factors; and often, quite small differences between two otherwise similar situations can lead to very different outcomes. But it is highly successful in generating explanations, and showing which strategies for social change are likely to be successful and unsuccessful.
As an illustration of the difficulties of prediction, consider something that Leon Trotsky wrote about the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany in the 1930s. Trotsky’s analysis of fascism is a brilliant and incisive application of Marx’s framework to understand a complex historical and political development. Briefly, Trotsky analyzed fascism as a reactionary political movement based on the petite bourgeoisie, which emerged in a period of major economic crisis in reaction to the growth of mass revolutionary consciousness among the working class.
The fascists were anti–working class, but they were also, in rhetoric at least, highly critical of big capital. Hitler attacked both Communism and the financial system as part of an international Jewish conspiracy. Despite this, the German bourgeoisie turned to the Nazis in the early 1930s since the latter offered the only way of both crushing the possibility of working-class revolution and of pursuing Germany’s imperialist ambitions.
Trotsky pointed out the tensions that resulted from this alliance. He wrote: “While it makes use of fascism, the bourgeoisie nevertheless fears it,” and he noted that the Nazis’ aggressive promotion of their racist, pseudo-revolutionary ideology meant “playing with fire for the big bourgeoisie.” Nevertheless, Trotsky assumed that after the Nazis took power in 1933, they would quite rapidly become a military dictatorship acting in the interests of the German bourgeoisie.
This prediction was entirely reasonable given the Marxist view of the dominance of economics over politics, but it turned out to be mistaken. The conflicts between the Nazis and the traditional German ruling class were never fully overcome, and in fact as World War Two progressed, they became more pronounced, with the Nazis increasingly pursuing policies that were detrimental to both the war effort and to German capitalism, including most notably the Holocaust.
What Trotsky did not foresee was that in the context of the economic crisis of the 1930s, the Nazi regime was able to construct a huge state sector of the economy, effectively translating political power into economic power. This economic base gave the Nazis the ability to dominate private capital and to pursue their own ideological agenda.
None of this takes away from Trotsky’s analysis of fascism, which made clear the urgency of united working-class mobilizations to fight it. The tragedy was not that Trotsky was unable to predict in detail the future course of Nazism in power, but that there was no political organization capable of putting his ideas into practice.
But this example illustrates that Marxism as a theory is tested by its ability to explain events, not to predict them. In retrospect it is possible to explain the Nazis’ rise to power and their subsequent political trajectory in Marxist terms, but it was impossible to predict all of this in any detail before it happened, given the complexity of the many interacting elements that underlay what happened.
Marxism does not offer a deterministic account of society and history, and in fact it is not possible to do so. What it does offer is a scientific account of the social factors and contradictions that make certain futures possible or likely, and other futures unlikely or impossible. It is not a theory of the inevitability of the socialist transformation of society, but rather an account of the social factors and circumstances that make such a future possible and a guide to action for those fighting for socialism.
A moment ago I argued that the complexity of social life makes accurate prediction impossible. But preeminent among the complexities is the role of human choice and intervention. A persistent theme in Marx’s work from his earliest writings to his final letters is the crucial role of human agency in transforming society. In his most famous formulation, he puts it this way:“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.”
Marxism endeavors to provide a scientific understanding of those circumstances, which both set limits on what humans can do in any specific historical period, but which also create opportunities for individuals, groups, and classes to advance their own interests.
The broadest example of a limit on action is the fact that the level of material production in a given society restricts the possible forms that can be taken by the relationships of ownership and control. People have dreamed of a society free from exploitation and oppression for centuries, but socialism only became a historical possibility when the level of material production had increased to a sufficient level of abundance under capitalism.
Capitalism also provides an example of the way in which changed circumstances create new opportunities for social actors. By concentrating workers in integrated workplaces and large urban centers, the capitalist mode of production provides the working class with the opportunity to fight collectively for its interests and to transform the whole of society. Marxism can help illuminate those possibilities and help the working class to grasp them. But it is not a theory that this will or must happen automatically.
There is, however, one very general prediction that Marxism does make about the future of capitalist society—either it will be overthrown by socialist revolution or it will result in some form of barbarism, whether that be social collapse or environmental catastrophe. Marx’s theory of history is a vital tool in the struggle to bring about the first of these possibilities and to avoid the second.
Phil Gasper teaches philosophy at Notre Dame de Namur University in California and is editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document (Haymarket Books, 2005). He can be reached at
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