Historical Materialism01 Nov 2020 20:39
An appalling name for an important idea. Namely: that in explaining history, culture, etc., we should have recourse only to the actual actions and conditions of human beings, and not invoke Zeitgeisten, the genius of nations, the Holy Spirit, the logical connection of the governing ideas of society, etc. Moreover, starting from the basic observation that those who don't survive have uniquely simple cultures, histories and societies, it goes on to say that the way societies perpetuate themselves severely restricts their other aspects, so studying those means of perpetuation is especially important to understanding societies. Finally, rivalry and competition for desirable things --- not just material wealth but also prestiege and power --- are ubiquitous, if not necessarily between individual people then certainly between groups, and understanding how the goodies get shared out, the competition for them and the means by which that competition is resolved or even prevented, is up there with understanding where they come from in the first place.
So much is, I think, entirely reasonable, even essential to a genuine social science, and in any case saying it is by now speaking prose. The most famous, but by no means the first, exponents of this way of studying societies were of course Marx and Engels, who however committed a number of unfortunate mistakes. Among them
- the name, which made a certain amount of sense when arguing with other Young Hegelians, but is really rather appalling;
- claiming that the processes of production was of paramount importance ("the economic interpretation of history");
- claiming that the abstract ideas people hold --- ideas about law, politics, religion, etc. --- are determined by their relationship to the "mode of production";
- claiming that ideas so fixed tend to help perpetuate that mode or advance the interests of those who hold them or reflect their relationship to that mode;
- claiming that modes of production succeed each other in a fixed, progressive sequence, each one being driven from the scene when it had been pushed as far as it could go;
- claiming that the next push will be the last one; moreover, after the next push competition will vanish.
Let's take these in turn.
- It's hard to see how a Zeitgeist could be described in materialist terms, but I suppose it's possible; Hobbes was able to give a materialist account of the Christian God, after all. More importantly: philosophical idealists have, in principle, no problem with saying that "real individuals, their activity and the conditions under which they live" are real and admitted into their system: so the question of idealism vs. materialism is irrelevant. Having said this, I confess I've not come up with a better name. "Naturalism" is tempting, but so many other things are called naturalism, and the question of whether or not we can assimilate human society to the (rest of the) natural world is, again, a separate issue. For now, it'll remain historical materialism, but under protest.
- Given that we're concerned with the concrete activities of real human beings, it doesn't follow that their economic, productive activities are more important than anything else. If you don't eat and don't have kids your culture will die out, but your culture will also die out if you're skewered by an invading army, wiped out by plague or desertification, or even if you adopt foreign ways or novelties. (One can describe the last in pristinely historical-materialist terms: see Sperber.) So the primacy of production doesn't follow just from the (sound) premise of historical materialism; it'd have to be an additional axiom, and I don't think it can be maintained in light of the historical record, where the mode of destruction looms at least as large as the mode of production --- except, perhaps, in the European world since the beginnings of capitalism and industrialism, which is of course the period which most concerned Marx and Engels.
- The unique determination of "superstructure" from the productive "basis" has come in for so much (well-deserved) bashing already that it'd be quite superfluous for me to go into that again here. I even suspect that in societies which have learned the trick of systematic and directed R&D, various aspects of culture (law and politics, especially) exert more control over the mode of production than vice versa.
- Even if, in light of what we've just said about (3), we amend (4) to read "ideas favored by the mode of production," it still doesn't follow. It might, if people not only consciously chose and produced ideas with this end in view, but also knew reliably which ideas would really contribute to this end; but of course neither of these assumptions is true. It is only the most vulgar of Marxists who think ideologists engage in deliberate deception, or that they really, in their secret deliberations, know and use Marxism, but pretend otherwise. Unless it's assumed that people possess internal Marxometers, which automatically calibrate their thoughts to their relation to the mode of production (no sense thinking above your means), this has got to go. More generally, there's no reason to think that the ideas a social structure favors will tend to make that structure endure, even if they approve of that structure.
- The fixed and progressive succession of modes of production doesn't even follow from assuming the primacy of production --- without assuming some sort of benevolent guiding spirit outside the world of humanity and nature, which violates our starting assumption. At best we might have some result like, "The mode of production will tend to change in whichever way most increases productive capacity at a given time," which is the kind of local optimization which can easily lead to blind alleys and even to being less productive than one was initially. (Evolutionary economics and evolutionary game theory become relevant here.) Without the primacy of production, there's no reason at all to assume that modes of production will have a nice, progressive succession.
- Again, the assumption of historical materialism on its own doesn't give us any reason to believe there's an ultimate mode of production, let alone that it's right around the corner. Even if our technical abilities have unsurpassable limits (from the speed of light, the uncertainity principle, 2nd law of thermodynamics, Ashby's law of requisite variety, etc.), the mode of production is not just technology but the way it is employed and the human institutions which employ it. The number of possibilities for that is Vast; even if there was an optimum (given our ultimate technology), it would take another Vast time to find it, and even then it might not be stable. (Paul David has some papers exploring this point, but talking about economic evolution and innovation, not Utopias.)
What's left is not worth calling a theory at all, not even a rigorous method, more a bunch of helpful hints to keep in mind while investigating societies: Pay attention to how goods are produced and allocated; pay attention to the sources of power, and who controls them, and how that power is exercised and passed on; examine carefully the distribution of goodies; look careful for conflicts between groups over the allocation of goodies; expect ideas about politics, society, economics, religion, etc. to harmonize with their thinkers' interests; etc. Ernest Gellner used to say that social structure is who you can marry, and culture is what to wear at the wedding: roughly, the sound idea is that social structure has a lot more influence on culture than vice versa, but in any case if they pull in opposite directions, one or the other will give before very long. We could look for more informative generalizations along these lines, through, say, careful comparative studies or simulation (see below), but extremely little has been done to pursue this, and the difficulties in its way are formidable. On the one hand, most theories in this area are so to speak invertebrate --- and not even invertebrates with exoskeletons, but floppy and pliable, like a jellyfish or a sea-cucumber, making it very hard to say just what the predict. On the other hand, they really should be accompanied by a good theory of the transmission of ideas, and another (related) theory of how institutions work, neither of which exist.
Having spent all this time talking about what Marx and Engels got wrong, I should emphasize what made their contribution so important (their intellectual contribution; their practical importance needs no argument, and was, to say the least, horrid.) People, and even social scientists and historians who should know better, are very tempted to explain things by invoking gods, Geisten, collective concepts, progressive tendencies, value structures, epistemes, and the like. They are tempted to suppose that these abstractions are actually causally effacious, can make things happen. This is rubbish and ought not to be allowed. (It's not rubbish that our ideas of gods can be causally effacious, but that's a completely different point.) Society is what you get when you put lots of people together, doing whatever; history is what happens to societies. The form of society and the course of history result from our actions, are the aggregate of our actions; but it doesn't follow that they have any close connection to what we hope or expect or want or even believe is the case.
- Recommended, general:
- Raymond Boudon
- Theories of Social Change: A Critical Appraisal [1984 (English translation, 1986). Argues, strongly, that trying to find the essence or driving force of social change in general is a futile undertaking, as opposed to constructing explanatory models with larger or smaller domains of application. There are interesting ties here to general model-based accounts of science, which Boudon does not discuss.]
- The Analysis of Ideology [1986 (English translation, 1989).]
- G. A. Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History: A Defense
- Jon Elster, Making Sense of Marx [1985. The much-shorter abridgement, An Introduction to Karl Marx (1986), is good, but you need the full volume to appreciate Elster's total, crushing command of the subject.]
- Leszek Kolakowski, Main Currents of Marxism vol. 1, The Founders. [1978. This has an excellent exposition of historical materialism as developed by Uncle Karl, information on his predecessors, and a very judicious summary of its flaws.]
- Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, Part I. [This was the first presentation of Marxian historical materialism, and probably the best one they ever wrote. The person who put it on-line is in error both as to the authorship, since it was co-written with Engels, and the date, since it was finished --- "left to the gnawing criticism of the mice" --- in 1847.]
- E. P. Thompson, "The Poverty of Theory" in The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays [1978. One of my favorite essays ever, a true master-piece of polemic and demolition of Althusser's "structuralist Marxism": but what Thompson suggests putting in its place is at least as vague and invertebrate, though much better-hearted and infinitely less pretentious.]
- Recommended, examples of historical materialism:
- Perry Anderson
- The Economist [In my humble opinion, the best newspaper on the planet. It's impeccably capitalist and Establishment, and its articles are full of 180-proof economic-interpretation-of-history: better proof that this idea has become common property could hardly be asked for.]
- Paul Krugman, Pop Internationalism [1996. As I try to bring out in my review, a fine instance of the way some originally Marxist ideas about ideology --- the sound ones --- are now such common property that a liberal neo-classical economist can make fine use of them.]
- Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn, Archaeology [1991. A standard and excellent introductory textbook, and displays, more or less unselfconsciously, the approach to politics and society which western archaeologists have developed in this century. This is about what Marxism would look like if it shed all the fru-fru appendages (dialectics, primitive communism, secondary role of military and political power, etc.) and paid lots of attention to empirical evidence. It is, alas, not very well-developed theoretically (but I suspect that if archaeologists had been more concerned with theory, they'd have wandered down some unprofitable dead-end).]
- Goran Therborn, What Does the Ruling Class Do When It Rules?
- Karl Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: Comparative Studies in Total Power [1957. A model of historical-materialist method, which deserves independent discussion of its own.]
- Recommended, examples of materialist alternatives to historical materialism:
- Stanislav Andreski, Military Organization and Society [1954. The first edition spelt the author's name is in the Polish fashion, as "Stanislaw Andrzejewksi". This does not explicitly controvert Marxism, but implicitly challenges it to explain away his evidence for the influence of the mode of destruction on society --- a challenge to which Marxists have ignominously failed to rise. In addition, he presents a semi-rigorous model which could be quantified and simulated relatively easily; even fit to empirical data. The same author's Elements of Comparative Sociology (1964) is also relevant.]
- Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies [1997. An impeccably "materialist" theory of history which looks nothing like Marx's, and gives due weight both to war and to disease and other aspects of non-human nature. I find it entirely convincing, up to the point where he tries to explain why western Europe, rather than any other comparable part of the old-world oecumene, achieved global hegemony, where it really goes off the rails. See the good review by Danny Yee.]
- Joshua Epstein and Robert Axtell, Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science from the Bottom Up [1996. Presents many of the tools needed to begin testing historical materialist ideas, though they don't seem to appreciate the connection.]
- Stanley Lieberson, A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashions, and Culture Change [2000. See under sociology.]
- Dani Rodrik, "When Ideas Trump Interests: Preferences, Worldviews, and Policy Innovations", Journal of Economic Perspectives 28 (2014): 189--208
- W. G. Runciman [A sociologist (and capitalist!) who has developed
a selectionist theory of social structure and cultural evolution, which is,
pretty explicitly, at least as "materialist" as Marxism.]
- WGR, "On the Tendency of Human Societies to Form Varieties," Proceedings of the British Academy 72 (1986): 149--165 [The 1986 Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology. An early version of his general theory. The title, of course, deliberately echoes that of the paper by Darwin and Wallace announcing natural selection.]
- WGR, "The `Triumph' of Capitalism as a Topic in the Theory of Social Selection," New Left Review 210 (March-April 1995): 33--47 [Application of the theory to the classic problem of Marxist historical materialism.]
- Michael Rustin, "A New Social Evolutionism?," New Left Review 234 (May-June 1999): 106--126 [Exposition and critique, from the standpoint of the weird mix of Marx and Nietzsche NLR is into these days]
- WGR, "Social Evolutionism: A Reply to Michael Rustin," New Left Review 236 (July-August 1999): 145--153
- The Social Animal [Popular summary of the theory. Well-written.]
- Bertrand Russell, Power: A New Social Analysis 
- Dan Sperber, Explaining Culture: A Naturalistic Approach [1996. Begins with a fine chapter on "How to Be a True Materialist in Anthropology." Review: How to Catch Insanity from Your Kids (Among Others); or, Histoire naturelle de l'infame]
- Recommended, methodological and theoretical wrangling:
- Ernest Gellner, State and Society in Soviet Thought [1988. A collection of his articles which are really about the flaws historical materialism in even its non-vacuous Marxist forms; and how Soviet scholars tried to handle the problems this presented to them. A far more compact statement of his critique is the article "The Economic Interpretation of History," in The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics. Most of Gellner's writing on anthropological method and functionalism is very relevant to a broader and more defensible sort of historical materialism.]
- Ronald Meek, "The Scottish Contribution to Marxist Sociology" [1954; collected in his Economics and Ideology and Other Essays, 1967. Such luminaries as Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith. This influence was actually acknowledged. In The German Ideology, right after announcing their theme that "men be in a position to live in order to be able to `make history'", Marx and Engels say "The French and the English, even if they have conceived the relation of this fact with so-called history only in an extremely one-sided fashion, particularly as long as they remained in the toils of political ideology, have nevertheless made the first attempts to give the writing of history a materialistic basis by being the first to write histories of civil society, of commerce and industry."]
- Karl Popper, The Poverty of Historicism [1943. Why predicting the future, in particular, is rubbish.]
- Sebastiano Timpanaro, On Materialism [1975. A futile plea to his fellow Marxists to remember that they were supposed to be materialists. Does not, however, engage the problem of why the (correct) premises of physical and biological materialism should lead to historical materialism in the Marxist sense, i.e., the causal primacy of the mode of production. Further remarks.]
- To read:
- Bailey and Llobera (eds.), The Asiatic Mode of Production: Science and Politics
- Charles A. Beard, The Economic Basis of Politics
- Paul Blackledge and Graeme Kirkpatrick (eds.), Historical Materialism and Social Evolution
- Alex Callinicos, Making History: Agency, Structure and Change in Social Theory
- Alan Carling [Attempt at selectionist Marxism. Thanks to Jim Farmelant for the references]
- Carver and Thomas (eds.), Rational Choice Marxism
- William M. Dugger and Howard Sherman, Reclaiming Evolution: A Dialogue on How Societies Evolve
- F. Fernandez-Armesto, Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature [Classification of civilizations based on ecological settings and natural-resource bases]
- Maurice Godelier
- The Mental and the Material
- Rationality and Irrationality in Economics
- Eric L. Jones, Cultures Merging: A Historical and Economic Critique of Culture
- Karl Kautsky, Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History
- Labriola, Essays on the Materialist Conception of History [On-line]
- Andrew Levine, Elliott Sober, and Erik Olin Wright, Reconstructing Marxism: Essays on Explanation and the Theory of History
- Ian Morris, Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve
- Adam Przeworksi, "The Last Instance: Are Institutions the Primary Cause of Economic Development?", European Journal of Sociology 45 (2004): 165--188 ["neo-institutionalists claim that institutions are the 'primary' cause of economic development, 'deeper' than the supply of factors and methods for their use, which Marxists would call 'forces of production'. Yet while the conclusion is different, the historical narratives differ little across these perspectives. How, then, are such conclusions derived? Can anything be said to be 'primary'? ... 'causal primacy' is an answer to an incorrectly posed question. Institutions and development are mutually endogenous and the most we can hope for is to identify their reciprocal impacts."]
- Martin Seliger, The Marxist Conception of Ideology: A Critical Essay
- Roger Smith, Being Human: Historical Knowledge and the Creation of Human Nature
- John Torrance, Karl Marx's Theory of Ideas
- Eric R. Wolf, Envisioning Power: Ideologies of Dominance and Crisis
- Robert Paul Wolff, "Methodological Individualism and Marx: Some Remarks on Jon Elster, Game Theory, and Other Things", Canadian Journal of Philosophy 20 (1990): 469--486 [JSTOR, PDF reprint from Wolff]