Issue 68 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Autumn 1995 Copyright © International Socialism

Is Marxism deterministic?

JOHN MOLYNEUX

'Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it.'

This, the most famous of all Marx quotations, written almost at the beginning of his political and theoretical development, points to the fact that from the outset Marx was driven by a passionate will to fight for a better society. Engels, speaking at Marx's graveside, testified to the fact that this passionate will survived throughout his life:

The same, of course, is true for the overwhelming majority of socialists and Marxists today. Our starting point is the desire to fight back, the wish to contribute to the making of a better world. It is this which leads us to Marxist theory, rather than Marxist theory which makes us want to change things. Perhaps somewhere there is someone who made an exhaustive study of all of Marxism and of all rival philosophical, historical, social and economic theories and on that basis, at the age of 90, decided to become a Marxist. If so I have yet to encounter them.

However, it was also Marx's great achievement that he transformed socialism from a utopia into a science, or more accurately, from a utopia or a conspiracy into a science. Prior to Marx there were two dominant approaches to the establishment of socialism. The first, exemplified by Saint-Simon and Fourier in France and Owen in Britain, was to paint such a beautiful picture of socialism as a more rational form of society than capitalism that sooner or later everyone, including the ruling class, would be persuaded of its benefits. The second, derived from the Jacobin tradition in the French Revolution, exemplified in the 19th century by Blanqui, was that a small secret conspiracy of enlightened revolutionaries should seize power by means of a coup d'état and impose socialism on society from above.

Marx rejected both these approaches, not only by espousing socialism from below, by which he meant the self emancipation of the working class, but also by insisting that such emancipation was possible only on the basis of the internal contradictions and social forces objectively at work within capitalism. In The Communist Manifesto he wrote:

And in November 1850, following the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, Marx wrote:

Socialist theory, therefore, had to be founded on the scientific study of history and economics. Socialist strategy had to be founded on the scientific analysis of the objective situation. Revolutionary enthusiasm alone was not enough. Once again these problems are still with us. How many ardent new converts to socialism have felt they had only to tell everyone they met the good news for them all to see the light? How many young revolutionaries, after their first dramatic confrontation with the forces of the state in Trafalgar Square or Hyde Park, have thought that with a few more demonstrations like that the revolution would be round the corner?

These two elements, the revolutionary will to change the world and scientific analysis of the laws of history and society, are both present in Marx and Marxism. Individual lines of Marx can be quoted to make him appear the partisan of one element of the other. Taken in isolation, 'Philosophers have interpreted the world in various ways, the point, however, is to change it', might suggest complete indifference to philosophy or even theory as a whole. Whereas, 'The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist',4 might be held to suggest that new technology--the internet perhaps--will give us socialism without any revolutionary struggle or intervention. In reality, however, both activism and science coexist throughout Marx's life and work, and the history of Marxism.

But is there not an inconsistency here? If Marxism claims that history is governed by laws and human behaviour is shaped by material conditions, how can Marxism also claim that revolutionary socialist activity is vital? Or, to put it even more bluntly, if, as is sometimes claimed, Marx 'proved' that socialism is inevitable, why do we need to fight for it?

All of this raises the question of determinism--that is, the question of the extent to which history is determined by economic and other social forces independent of our will and actions as revolutionaries. It also raises the closely related question of the extent to which Marxism should be regarded as a deterministic theory.

Before dealing directly with these issues it is worth noting that bourgeois thought has never been able to resolve the problem of determinism. Rather it has swung back and forth between voluntarist idealism, which ignores social conditions and places all the emphasis on 'great' individuals and ideas, and mechanical materialism which stresses the unchangeable nature of people and society. Both these positions reflect aspects of bourgeois society viewed from the top down. On the one hand the bourgeoisie standing at the head of society, freed from productive labour and living off the exploitation of others, is able to flatter itself that its ideas and deeds rule the world. On the other hand looking down on the masses it sees them there as mere objects, passively driven this way and that by the requirements of capital accumulation. Bourgeois ideology thus attacks Marxism both for being too deterministic and for not being deterministic enough.

From Max Weber onwards bourgeois sociology and its related disciplines have condemned Marxism for its 'crude' economic determinism, its underestimation of the autonomy of ideology, politics and culture and its insistence on the central importance of class. Bourgeois historians have repeatedly tried to undermine any notion of an overall pattern of development in world history, concentrating their fire particularly on the schema outlined by Marx in The Communist Manifesto, and attacking the idea that the English and French Revolutions had any determinate class character or any historical necessity.

At the same time the socio-biologists have condemned Marxism and every form of left wing and socialist thought for its 'utopian' failure to grasp that inequality, hierarchy, class and competition (along with war, racism and sexism) are encoded in our genes and thus ineradicable.

Debates about determinism have also occurred amongst those claiming allegiance to Marxism. At different points in time both passive determinist and highly voluntarist interpretations of Marxism have flourished. The most important example of the determinist trend was the version of Marxism developed by Karl Kautsky which dominated German Social Democracy and the Second International in the period leading up to the First World War. In Kautsky's view the economic laws of capitalism guaranteed the growth in numbers and consciousness of the working class to the point where power would 'automatically' fall into its hands. All that was required of the socialist movement was that it build up its organisations, strengthen its vote and avoid adventures while patiently waiting for economic development to do its work.5 It was of this period that Gramsci wrote that 'the deterministic, fatalistic and mechanistic element has been a direct ideological "armour" emanating from the philosophy of praxis [Marxism-JM] rather like religion or drugs'.6

At the opposite pole, the most extreme cases of voluntarism trading under a Marxist label were Maoism and Guevarism. Maoism proclaimed not only the possibility of industrialising China by will power in the disastrous Great Leap Forward but even the direct transition to complete communism in China alone without any regard for objective material circumstances (this is discussed further below). Guevarism, basing itself on the special case of Cuba, developed a theory of revolution instigated by a small band of guerrillas in the countryside. 'It is not necessary', wrote Guevara, 'to wait until all the conditions for making revolution exist: the insurrection can create them'.7

Revolutionary Marxists have always sought to combat both these positions. Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky, followed later by Lukacs and Gramsci, subjected the fatalism and passive expectancy of the Second International to devastating criticism. Lenin and Trotsky also took up arms against the ultra-left voluntarist trend that developed among European communists in the early years of the Communist International.8 In the 1950s and 1960s it was largely supporters of this journal who produced a historical materialist critique of Maoism and Castroism.9 The problem of determinism, however, does not go away. The structure of capitalist society with its elevation of 'great' individuals and its suppression of the personality of the masses generates both mechanical determinism and voluntarist idealism and these pressures continue to bear upon Marxists.

Its is against this background that this article attempts to outline and defend an interpretation of historical materialism which avoids both these dangers remaining thoroughly materialist and resolutely activist. The first step in its argument is to consider absolute determinism and absolute indeterminism as limiting cases.

Determinism: absolute and relative

By absolute determinism I mean the view that every event in the history of the universe from the big bang to the end of time and every human action from the writing of Capital to whether or not I raise my right eyebrow is inevitable and could not be other than it has been, is or will be. The argument in favour of absolute determinism is that every event/action has its cause or causes, and that these causes determine precisely the nature of the said event/action and that these causes are themselves completely determined by prior causes. Thus every particular event or action is part of an infinitely complex but absolutely inevitable chain reaction inherent in the singularity or whatever lay at the origin of the universe.

Historically this position has its roots in Newtonian physics from which it draws its 'billiard-ball' view of causality (a view in which the causation of all events and processes is seen as analogous to the way in which the motion of a billiard ball is wholly determined by the speed and angle with which it is struck by another billiard ball).10 However, it also involves the belief that human behaviour is 'ultimately' reducible to the movements of the physical particles of which humans are made up and which are held to obey universal natural laws. Some such view as this, even if not openly proclaimed, seems to have influenced those Marxists who have held an absolute determinist position. Such Marxists, however, have generously held that for the purposes of social analysis it was unnecessary to effect a reduction to the level of physics since human behaviour was governed by social laws which were akin to natural laws in their operation.

Discussing absolute determinism, Ralph Miliband comments, 'This is not a view that can be argued with: it can only be accepted or rejected. I reject it and pass on'.11 Miliband has a point in that it is impossible to cite empirical evidence which refutes absolute determinism (just as it is impossible to cite facts which 'prove' it). Nevertheless it is a view which can be argued with. Bearing in mind Marx's dictum that:

It is possible to assess the advantages and disadvantages of absolute determinism from the standpoint of practice.

Absolute determinism has two important merits vis-a-vis anti or indeterminist theories and for this reason has played at times a certain progressive role. First it obliges us to look for materialist explanations of events and phenomena, be they wars, revolutions, juvenile crime or child sex abuse, rather than simply ascribing them to chance, divine or satanic intervention, or personal wickedness. Second, as Gramsci notes, when the working class was going through a period of defeats, mechanical determinism could become 'a tremendous force of moral resistance, of cohesion and of patient and obstinate perseverance. I have been defeated for a moment but the tide of history is working for me in the long term'.13 Nevertheless it has a number of disadvantages which require its rejection.

First of all absolute determinism is, in practice, impossible to live by. The fact is that all human beings experience making decisions or choices. While it is obviously true that none of these decisions can ever be completely 'free' if by 'free' is meant uninfluenced by prior conditioning and present circumstances, it is no less true that we distinguish between decisions that are strongly constrained or coerced, for example, those taken at gunpoint or under threat of starvation, and those which are voluntary or relatively so. If this distinction and the whole experience of decision making is an illusion, as the absolute determinist must claim, it is an illusion which is inescapable in practical life, including for the absolute determinist. Consequently in practice absolute determinism always contains an escape clause through which voluntarism returns by the back door. Typically it results in what Marx, in his critique of Feuerbach's mechanical materialism, described as 'dividing society into two parts, one of which is superior to the other'.14

Secondly, the Newtonian foundations of absolute determinism have been undermined by subsequent scientific developments such as thermodynamics, quantum mechanics including the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle and Schrödinger's Equation, and, most recently, the rise of chaos theory.15 For our purposes the two key points are that quantum mechanics, which deals with the behaviour of elementary particles, provides laws which are probabilistic rather than absolutely deterministic and that chaos theory shows that 'the tiniest difference in initial conditions (of a natural system such as the weather) could lead to enormous and unpredictable differences in outcome'.16 Of course it is a crude error to generalise mechanically from natural science to social science and it is perfectly possible that aspects of human behaviour, and therefore of history, are more strictly determined than the behaviour of sub-atomic particles and the weather (just as quantum mechanics allows Newtonian laws of motion to remain valid within certain limits). Nevertheless these scientific advances challenge the widespread implicit identifications of science with absolute determinism.

Thirdly the historical experience of the working class movement has shown that absolute determinism has tended to encourage serious political errors, in particular passivity at moments of revolutionary crisis and underestimation of the role of the revolutionary party. These questions will be discussed later but quotations from Gramsci and Trotsky both make the point. Gramsci, who had bitter personal experience of the damaging effects of deterministic passivity on the part of the Italian Socialist Party in 1919-1920, comments (in the obscure language he adopted to deceive the censor):

Trotsky, reflecting on his non-Bolshevisim prior to 1917, explained it in terms of his deterministic belief 'that the revolution would force the Mensheviks... to follow a revolutionary path', and offered this self criticism:

Absolute determinism therefore, must be rejected because it fails the decisive test of practice on three levels: the level of everyday life, the level of scientific practice and the level of political practice.

At the opposite pole to absolute determinism stands absolute indeterminism, the idea that human beings can do whatever they want without constraint and that everything which happens in history is purely accidental. This is such an absurd position that it is hard to see how it could be given coherent formulation. It is an inescapable fact that human behaviour is constrained and determined in a multitude of ways by, for example, the law of gravity or by the fact that if body temperature falls below a certain level we die. However strong, rather than absolute, indeterminism enjoys widespread circulation. By strong indeterminism I mean the denial of any overall shape or pattern of development in history and a heavy emphasis on the role of individuals as masters of their own fate and makers of history. In recent years postmodernism, with its 'incredulity towards metanarratives',19 has been the dominant academic representative of this view. In this respect the postmodernists are singing an old song long intoned by bourgeois historians of various persuasions. It also underpins innumerable second rate journalistic accounts of events purely in terms of the whims and personalities of individual politicians and leaders, and finds expression in numerous popular sayings such as 'Life is what you make of it', 'If you believe in yourself everything is possible', or, 'If you want something badly enough you can get it.'

Such strong indeterminism need not detain us long. It is plainly ideological in that it serves to mask all the real social forces, the concentrations and structures of economic, political, military and ideological power, which both shape individuals and limit their freedom of action. It mitigates against any attempt to consciously make history or change society by rendering history and society unintelligible. It is also plainly false. It is not true that the mass of working class children can grow up to be brain surgeons or film stars if they try hard enough. Quite apart from factors such as early social conditioning, economic deprivation and poor education there is the simple fact that the vacancies for brain surgeons and film stars are strictly limited. Strong indeterminism is refuted by the most elementary sociological evidence such as education, crime or health statistics which, despite their numerous problems and limitations, all demonstrate beyond serious question the powerful influence of, among other things, social class on life chances and social behaviour.

Strong indeterminism is just as impossible to live by as absolute determinism. Everyday life depends on the ability to predict both natural phenomena and human actions: that it will be cold in the winter and warmer in the summer; that barley seed will grow into barley, not wheat; that the number 17 bus will go to the town centre; that if you sell your labour power to an employer you will be paid at the end of the week. The predictions do not have to be exact or certain--we all know that there are mild winters, that harvests sometimes fail, buses break down and employers sometimes go bankrupt--but there has to be a degree of regularity and predictability or our social life would be impossible. A degree of predictability depends on a degree of determinism.

If both absolute determinism and absolute or strong indeterminism must be rejected this leaves relative determinism as the only practical option. If relative determinism is accepted as a general stance what we actually require from both natural and social science are theories which tell us what is determined and what is not and which establish for concrete situations the extent and limits of what is determined and the extent and limits of what can be altered by human decision and intervention. This is what is needed for everyday life, for farming the land, making goods and tools, planning a journey or driving a car. This is what is needed on a higher plane in a more systematic way for the project of consciously changing society.

Every course of political action, every strategic and tactical decision is dependent on judgements about what is and is not determined. For example: if the ideology of social groups is in no way determined by their economic position and class interest, then the utopian socialist project of persuading the ruling class of the virtues of a socialist society would be viable. If, on the other hand, the ideology of the individuals or social groups was mechanically and absolutely determined by their class interests there would be no point in trying to persuade anyone of anything, no point in any form of political argument or propaganda.

What Marxism provides better than any theory is precisely this: an account of what in human history and society is determined independent of our will and what it is possible to change through conscious intervention. It is this which makes Marxism 'not a dogma but a guide to action' in the struggle for workers' revolution and human liberation.

At this point it is necessary to note an apparent paradox. Provided one stops short of absolute determinism, which renders the concept of human freedom meaningless, determinism (in the theoretical sense) and freedom are not necessarily diversely related. On the contrary, the higher the level of human understanding of the natural and social forces that determine our lives, the more in practice is human choice and freedom expanded. For the uncomprehending, the laws of nature make it impossible to fly but a sophisticated understanding of those laws (along with the application of human labour) has made flight commonplace.

Another concept that needs signposting here is 'probabilistic determinism' (already mentioned in relation to quantum mechanics). Some things are very strongly determined and therefore virtually inevitable; some things are very probable but not certain; some things are likely; some things hang in the balance. Things which are only likely in individual cases become increasingly certain as the number of cases increases. It is certain that I will die. It is unlikely but not impossible that I will die tomorrow. It is probable but not certain that I will die before I reach 100. Given a million people it is virtually certain that the large majority die before the age of 100. If an individual middle class child is even marginally more likely to get to university than an individual working class child, it becomes virtually certain that a higher percentage of middle class children as a whole will go to university.

The concept of probabilistic determinism is politically important in at least three ways. First it plays a role in the current battle against ruling class ideology. The ruling class which is perfectly capable of grasping probabilistic determinism when it suits it (for instance when fixing insurance premiums) often denies it for propaganda purposes--as when rejecting a link between crime and unemployment. Secondly it is crucial in the understanding of history. Take the familiar question of the inevitability of the First World War. It makes no sense to argue that the outbreak of war was inevitable precisely at the beginning of August 1914. Princip might have missed his shot, the Austro-Hungarian government might have responded differently and so on. Nor should we be drawn into trying to prove the absolute inevitability of world war at some point. But it makes good sense to argue that given important rivalries the war was overwhelmingly likely (or virtually inevitable).

Thirdly it plays a central role in political tactics. The decision to call a strike or even a demonstration depends in considerable part on the assessment of the objective possibility of such an action taking place and being a success. Clearly there is no way in which such assessment can be rendered an exact science, but neither can it be dispensed with. Napoleon's oft quoted maxim, 'First engage, then we'll see', expresses an important truth, but only within definite limits. An army which engages in a pitched battle with an enemy that is better armed and many times its size will almost certainly be defeated, as will one which invades Russia without taking account of the highly deterministic effects of the Russian winter.

Finally it should be noted that, whereas absolute determinism renders conscious political action to change the world superfluous, and strong indeterminism renders it hopelessly ineffective, relative determinism puts a premium on such action. If in a given situation a particular desired outcome is either probable but not guaranteed or hangs in the balance, then every action taken towards that outcome (provided, of course, it is not counterproductive) increases the probability of it occurring and is therefore valuable. In the light of these theoretical considerations I shall now examine the extent and limits of determinism in the Marxist theory of history.

Forces and relations of production

Marx's theory of history begins with an assertion that is extremely simple and obvious:

Without food and water people die. This is so simple and obvious that one might wonder why Marx bothers with it (not once but repeatedly)21 and why I bother to cite it. The answer is that it is a necessary first premise and that 'the writing of history must always set out from these natural bases',22 but there are innumerable bourgeois theories and accounts of history and society which manage to lose sight of, conceal or evade this most fundamental point.

From the necessity for food, drink, clothing and so on, it follows, Marx argues, that the basis of every society and all human history is the production, through social labour, of these means of subsistence. This leads Marx to a further proposition:

This is a proposition which can be summarised as the thesis that the level of development of the productive forces determines the social relations of production (provided we leave open for the moment the precise meaning of determine in this context).

There is no doubt that within the 'classical' interpretation of Marxism--the line that runs from Marx, through Engels, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky--this thesis has been seen as a cornerstone of historical materialism. At the same time, however, every aspect of the proposition has been the subject of vigorous controversy, beginning with the meaning of the terms productive forces and relations of production.

Frequently the productive forces have been seen as simply the technology (tools/machinery) available to society--an interpretation which has served as the basis for viewing Marxism as essentially a theory of technological determinism. And certainly there is one passage in Marx which, taken in isolation, seems to support this interpretation, namely the famous statement in The Poverty of Philosophy that, 'The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist'.24 However, later in the same text Marx also writes that 'of all the instruments of production the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself'.25 This suggests a broader interpretation of productive forces as not only machinery but also the labour of the producers. Quotations from Marx apart from this latter interpretation make far more sense for the simple reason that tools and machinery have first to be produced by human labour and, even then, do not produce anything themselves without further human labour to set them in motion. What is more, the labour involved is more than a matter of muscle power. The sophistication of technology clearly depends on the scientific knowledge of its makers, while in many areas of work skilled or educated labour is more productive than unskilled labour. The productive forces are therefore best defined as the general capacity to produce of a given society.

A similar choice exists between narrower and broader definitions of the relations of production. On this question, however, there have been three main positions. The first defines the relations of production as legal property relations. The second distinguishes between legal ownership and effective possession or control but still restricts the definition of relations of production to relations of effective possession or control of the means of production. The third sees relations of production as the totality of social relations into which individuals enter in the process of production.

The first position suffers from the serious defect of elevating form over content and appearance over reality and has proved a major obstacle to understanding the enormously important phenomenon of state capitalism either in its fully developed form in Russia or its partial form in Western nationalised industries. It should therefore be rejected.

The difference between the second and third positions is best brought into focus by looking at how each definition specifies the relations of production in capitalist society. According to the former the relations of production consist only of the relations between the capitalist class as owners or controllers of the means of production and employers of labour power and the working class as non-owners of the means of production and sellers of labour power. According to the latter they consist of these relations plus relations between workers and workers, between workers and supervisors, between supervisors and managers, between managers and owners, owners and owners and so on.

Here the narrower definition has the advantage of highlighting those social relations which are constitutive of capitalism as a system and of its fundamental classes--the bourgeoisie and proletariat, but it also has certain disadvantages. It can lead either to an oversimplified view of the class structure as consisting solely of capitalists and workers and no intermediate layers, or to a theorisation of those intermediate layers in terms of consumption and lifestyle rather than relations of production. It also leads to a remarkably static view of the relations of production in which these remain unchanged through centuries of economic development. Thus the enormous transformation from early industrial capitalism to contemporary multinational capitalism, from an economy dominated by relatively small individually owned and managed firms to one dominated by giant bureaucratically managed multinational corporations, would be held to involve no change in the relations of production. Such a conclusion stands in clear contradiction to Marx's famous statement in The Communist Manifesto that, 'The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society'.26

Finally there is the simple fact that relations between worker and worker, worker and supervisor and so on, clearly are social relations entered into in the process of production, ie relations of production.

For all these reasons it is preferable to adopt the wider and more flexible definition. In doing so, however, it is necessary to keep in mind the distinction between gradual quantitative shifts in the relations of production which do not change which class owns and controls the means of production and fundamental qualitative changes which do. The former changes affect the balance of power within a given mode of production. Only the latter mark the transition from one mode to another.

This brings us to the central question of the determination of the relations of production by the forces of production. As we have seen, Marx, in the 1859 Preface, writes of 'relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of these material productive forces.' He then argues that:

However, this whole conception of the primacy of the forces of production has come under attack from various quarters. We have already mentioned what was historically the most significant of these attacks, that of Maoism. The Maoist claim to be constructing socialism, or even full communism, within the framework of the impoverished and predominantly rural country necessitated downplaying the significance of the productive forces. Thus the leading theoretician of Maoism in Europe, Charles Bettleheim, argued that, 'What is happening in China proves that a low level of development of the productive forces is no obstacle to a socialist transformation of social relations'.28 In this case the denial of the primacy of the productive forces was associated with an extreme idealism and voluntarism which elevated the role of will power and political leadership in opposition to objective material conditions and social forces in a way that constituted a complete break with historical materialism in all but name. Moreover what happened in China proved that a low level of development of the productive forces was not only an obstacle to socialist transformation but even to the development of state capitalism in one country.

More surprising but also of more theoretical interest is the fact that Alex Callinicos in his Marxism and Philosophy has argued in favour of 'starting from the relations of production, and treating them, not the forces of production, as the independent variable'.29 Alex appears to have come to this conclusion out of a desire to avoid the passive technological determinism of the Second International and the less passive but even more mechanical and dogmatic determinism of high Stalinism. In support of his position Callinicos cites Marx's account in Capital of how capitalist relations of production provided the impetus to the development of the productive forces which led to the industrial revolution. He also argues that the primacy of the productive forces derives from the early undeveloped formulation of historical materialism in The German Ideology rather than the mature version in the later works (with the 1859 Preface rejected as 'technological determinism' and 'to a large extent, a summary of The German Ideology').30

In fairness to Alex it should be said that he no longer holds this position. Nevertheless it is useful to consider these arguments and in considering them it is first of all necessary to recognise that the relations of production certainly do exert a powerful influence on the forces of production. This is both empirically verifiable and allowed for in Marx's classic formulation. The 1859 Preface indicates two possible kinds of influence of the relations on the forces of production: they can be 'forms of their development' (which I take to include positively encouraging their development) or they can become 'fetters' (ie they can restrict or hold back their development). Indeed Marx's analysis of the contradictions of capitalism--above all the tendency to overproduction and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall--shows that capitalist relations of production both drive the forces of production forwards and throw them backwards simultaneously with the development tendency predominating in times of booms and the 'fettering' tendency predominating in slumps, and the tendency towards slump increasing as the system ages.

Nevertheless there are strong reasons for continuing to assert the primacy of the productive forces and regarding the influence of the relations of productions as a secondary or derivative 'reaction back' upon the forces.31 The most important reason is that if primacy is accorded to the relations of production then no explanation can be given for why the relations of production are what they are in any particular society or epoch. The concept of the relations of production is left, as it were, hanging in the air and the coherence of historical materialism as an overall theory of historical development is destroyed. In the process two other fundamental tenets of classical Marxism are undermined: the theory of revolution as rooted in the productive forces coming into conflict with the relations, and the theory that the fundamental economic prerequisite of socialism is the development of the productive forces to the point where it is possible to provide a decent life for all.32 The same problem does not arise, however, if the forces of production are seen as primary since both the existence and growth of the productive forces are explained, in the final analysis, by the struggle to meet biologically given human needs, which are themselves the product of natural evolution.

An additional argument in favour of this position is that it conforms to the large majority of the classic accounts of historical materialism by Marx and Engels, not only in the 1859 Preface and The German Ideology but also in The Poverty of Philosophy, The Communist Manifesto, Anti-Dühring, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State and elsewhere. Even the quotation from Capital chosen by Alex as favourable to his position contains a reference to the ultimate priority of the productive forces which is very similar to the formulation in the 1859 Preface:

Finally Chris Harman has provided persuasive theoretical and empirical backing for the primacy of the productive forces in relation to the important test case of the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The influential American Marxist Robert Brenner has argued that this transition is to be explained primarily in terms of the class struggle in the countryside between lords and peasants (ie relations of production) rather than the development of trade, industry and the bourgeoisie in the towns (forces of production). In opposition both to Brenner and the earlier theories of Pirenne, Sweezy and Wallerstein, Harman draws on the work of Le Geff, Kriedle and other historians to vindicate--in more developed form--Marx's account of 'the way in which the growth of the forces of production within feudalism threw up new relations of production, relations which came into collision with the old society and led to bourgeois revolution... centred in the towns... reinforced by the revolt of the rural classes'.34

But if the productive forces are primary and their state of development must be the point of departure for all Marxist historical analysis, their relationship to the relations of production cannot be one of mechanical or automatic determination. Any notion of automatic determination here is refuted by the historical fact of social revolution since social revolution involves precisely a radical transformation of the relations of production on the basis of a given level of development of the productive forces. In Russia the relations of production in 1918 were substantially different from those which had existed in 1916 while the productive forces had, if anything, declined. Moreover Marx's concept of the forces of production coming into conflict with the existing relations of production would be impossible if there were absolute or mechanical determination of relations of forces. Clearly, therefore, we are again in the realm of relative determinism. The nature of this relative determinism is, I believe, best understood as a combination of constraint and impulse.

On the one hand the level of development of the productive forces sets definite limits to the relations of production possible at a given point of time. Thus in the earliest stages of human history, when the forces of production restricted human beings to nomadic hunting and gathering, exploitative relations of production (ie the division of society into classes) were excluded. The productive forces in Europe in the 11th century, however, excluded the possibility of either primitive communist or modern socialist relations of production. The population (itself a force of production) had long since far exceeded the number that could be supported by hunting and gathering, and surplus was being generated which permitted the ruling class to maintain armed forces easily able to crush any experiment in primitive egalitarianism. At the same time the productive forces were sufficient to support a decent life only for a tiny minority: no matter how production was organised or goods distributed it was not possible to liberate the population as a whole from poverty, hunger and a life of endless toil. In contrast the productive forces in contemporary society exclude either primitive communist or feudal relations of production: they permit only capitalist or socialist relations or, to be exact, relations transitional to socialism.

On the other hand the development of the productive forces in Europe from, at least, the 15th century onwards generated a powerful impulse to the rise of capitalist relations of production developing, as Marx put it, 'in the interstices of feudal society'. From the early 19th century onwards the development of the productive forces has created an increasingly powerful impulse towards socialism. The increasing socialisation of production, the growth of the world working class, the rise of the world economy, the advances of science and technology (with their immense potential for destruction as well as construction) all press humanity in the direction of social ownership and democratic planning.

However, historical experience has demonstrated conclusively that the development of the productive forces is not in itself enough to determine the transition from one mode of production to another, either from feudalism to capitalism or from capitalism to socialism. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition. For such a transition to occur it is also necessary that a new social class (the rise of which is both determined by, and part of, the growth of the productive forces) should actually overthrow the old ruling class (which owes its position to the old mode of production and has a vested interest in its preservation) and wrest state power from its hands. It is in this sense that the class struggle is the locomotive of history.

Base and superstructure

At this point it is possible to make some general comments on the much debated question of the determination of the superstructure of society by the economic base. Speaking at Marx's graveside Engels stated:

The insistence on the primacy of the economic base in relation to the superstructure, on the explanation of the latter by the former 'instead of vice versa', on the determination of consciousness by social being, not being by consciousness, is common to all the classic accounts of historical materialism by its founders and is clearly fundamental to Marxism as a whole.

Yet in noting this we should also observe that in the large majority of these statements Marx and Engels formulate the relationship between superstructure and base in terms of 'correspondence', 'conditioning', or 'arising from' rather than strict determination. Thus in the 1859 Preface we find:

Moreover Engels, in his late letters, repeatedly stresses that neither he nor Marx intended to suggest a mechanical or absolute determination of the superstructure by the base:

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx himself gives vivid expression to the way in which ideas can outlive the economic and social conditions from which they arose:

And in his Preface to The History of the Russian Revolution Trotsky draws the connection between this absence of mechanical determinism and the fact of revolution:

It is therefore clear that any charge against Marxism of mechanical or crude economic determinism completely misses the mark. On the question of base and superstructure, as on the question of forces and relations of production, what historical materialism stands for is relative determinism and the concepts of constraint and impulse are again applicable.

On the one hand the nature of the economic base sets definite limits to the nature of the superstructure so that, for example, a feudal base is incompatible with universal suffrage and parliamentary democracy and obviously could not give rise to the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the economics of Adam Smith, the novel as the dominant literary form or the paintings of either Rembrandt or Jackson Pollock. On the other hand developments in the base, both in the forces and the relations of production, continually generate pressures for change in the superstructure. Thus the first stirrings of capitalism in Europe generated pressures for a challenge to the Catholic Church which was both a major feudal landowner in its own right and provided ideological legitimation for the feudal order as a whole. The eventual outcome of these pressures was the Reformation in the 16th century and the emergence with Calvinism of a new form of Christianity favourable to the needs of early capitalist accumulation. While the Industrial Revolution in Britain provided an impulse for the enfranchisement, first, of the industrial bourgeoisie and middle class, and then, of the industrial working class (resulting in the Reform Acts of 1832, 1867 and 1884). Similarly a change in the base--the massive rise in paid employment of women during the post-war economic boom provided the impulse for a significant, though partial, change in the dominant social attitude towards women. Though, it must immediately be added, none of these impulses were realised automatically or without bitter conflict, the outcome of which might have been different.

At this point we can consider the difficult and complex question of the extent to which different elements of the superstructure are more or less strictly determined by the base. In general it can be said that those elements of the superstructure which have immediate practical implications such as the law, the judiciary, the police, the military, the education system and so on are more closely tied to the base and in particular to the economic interests of the ruling class than are the more ideological elements such as religious doctrines, philosophy and art. Thus a modern capitalist economy could not coexist with laws which were anti-capitalist in that they either looked back to feudalism by, for example, prohibiting usury (lending money and charging interest) or anticipated socialism by banning the employment of wage labour or legalising the expropriation of the rich by the poor. A capitalist economy can, however, coexist with art that yearns for the feudal past (the Pre-Raphaelites in Victorian England, the poetry of Ema Pound, the fantasy novels of J R R Tolkien) or makes propaganda for the socialist future (the plays of Brecht, the paintings of Leger and so on). It is also possible to differentiate between art forms with architecture, for example, more directly influenced and more strictly limited by economics than poetry. Certainly capitalism can and does coexist with a wide variety of religions that long predate capitalism in their origins (though of course to survive the religions have to adapt themselves to capitalism).

However, all such generalisations require substantial qualification. Engels takes great care to explain the relative autonomy of the legal sphere:

Similarly Marx's analysis of Bonapartism and Trotsky's of fascism deal with situations in which the capitalist state machine passes out of the direct control of the capitalist class and can therefore impose certain policies which are not in the interests of that class: for example, the Nazi Holocaust which cannot be accounted for by either the economic or political needs of the German bourgeoisie.41

Whereas in philosophy and art many of the finest achievements derive their greatness precisely from their close relationship to the economic base. Marxism itself is an example of this in that its power consists not in its autonomy or detachment but in its accurate reflection of the fundamental contradictions in the economic basis of society and its exact expression of the interests of the main productive force in society, namely the proletariat.42 In art one can cite such paintings as Rembrandt's numerous portraits of the newly ascendant Dutch bourgeoisie (for example The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Tulp, The Night Watch, and The Syndics) or Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed which dramatically evokes that great driving force of 19th century capitalism, the locomotive, or the manifestos, poems and paintings of the Futurists which self consciously celebrate the arrival of the automobile, electricity and the 20th century metropolis, while in literature the novels of Defoe, Austen, Balzac and Dickens (to name but a few) all show a direct relationship to economic and social developments.

Clearly, however, it is a consequence of the relative determinist position that in the whole area of base and superstructure and particularly in the ideological sphere all generalisations, all schema--though necessary--are of only limited value and must rapidly make way for concrete analysis.

Laws of motion of capitalism

One significant aspect of the overall problem of determinism and of base and superstructure is the extent of the determination of human behaviour by the economic laws of motion of capitalism. The fact that Marx devoted the major part of his life to laying bare these laws in his master work, Capital, shows that he considered them to be of the highest importance in shaping contemporary and future human actions. Moreover the very notion of an economic law of motion implies a high level of determinism.

In fact when it comes to the economic behaviour of individuals and even more so of classes, Marxism is at its most deterministic. Marxism insists that the working class as a whole has no choice but to sell its labour power to the employers43 and little choice about which employer it sells it to. Equally it insists that capitalists, and capitalist managers, have, because of competition, no choice but to strive to maximise their accumulation of capital and therefore to maximise their rate of exploitation. It argues that the values of commodities, including the value of labour power, and therefore, in the long run, their prices, are objectively rather than subjectively determined and are certainly not arbitrary.44

It argues further that competitive capital accumulation on the basis of the laws of value leads inevitably to a tendency for the rate of profit to decline,45 which in turn leads to economic crisis in the form of recessions of increasing frequency and severity.

The validity or otherwise of Marxist economic analysis and its theory of crisis cannot be debated here.46 I merely wish to stress its highly deterministic character.

Even here we are not talking of absolute or mechanical determinism. Individual workers may become new age travellers or full time revolutionaries. Individual capitalists may become philanthropists and certainly make serious errors in their pursuit of profit. Various factors, foreseen and unforeseen, can counteract the falling rate of profit and thus defer the crisis.47 There is nothing in Marxist theory which can totally exclude the possibility of a cosmic accident upsetting the whole process. Nevertheless the element of determinism in this area is clearly very strong.

This strong determinism with regard to the laws of motion of capitalism leads to a point of sharp political conflict between Marxism and all varieties of reformism. Reformists of all stripes believe, or at least say they believe, that governments staffed by people of goodwill and sagacity (namely themselves) will be able, without first overthrowing capitalist relations of production, to manipulate the working of the capitalist economy so as to cure its crisis, moderate its exploitation and generally make it work in the interests of working people. Marxists argue that this is a disastrous illusion and that the economic laws of capitalism are far stronger than the good intentions of reformist politicians.

Confronted with the realities of the capitalist economy reformist governments either (and this is the most common scenario) surrender their programmes for reform and meekly adapt themselves to capitalist priorities or if, under mass pressure from below, they are more stubborn, are rapidly thrown into chaos and disarray. The one thing they are not able to do is substantially modify either the logic of the system or its tendency to crisis. Once again this is not the place to argue in any detail the Marxist case on the question of social democratic governments. Suffice to say that the historical record--including the record of seven Labour governments in Britain since 1924, of the Weimar Republic, of Popular Unity in Chile, of Mitterrand in France and Gonzalez in Spain--testifies strongly in favour of Marxist determinism.

Yet at the same time as emphasising this determining power of the laws of motion of capitalism Marxism also takes, at a different level of the argument, an anti-deterministic position with regard to those laws. The general tendency among outright supporters and ideologists of capitalism--its professional economists, politicians and so on, and among capitalists themselves, is to treat these laws, laws of the market as they call them, as eternal and unchanging. Sometimes they are seen directly as laws of nature--it was Margaret Thatcher who said, 'You can no more defy the laws of the market than you can defy the laws of gravity.' Alternatively they are seen as emanating from a timeless and fixed human nature--the selfish, atomised, benefit maximising homo economicus of the classical economists. Either way they are presented as outside, and beyond, any possibility of human control and any attempt to resist or challenge them is depicted as simultaneously utopian, harmful and wicked.

Marxism rejects this. It maintains that contemporary economic laws derive neither from nature nor human nature but exclusively from capitalist relations of production which are a product of history, ie of past human actions, and which can be changed by human action. As long as capitalist relations of production remain in place, however, the laws of motion of capitalism will remain in operation and will, in the long run, prevail over all opposition and resistance.48

Before leaving the question of the determining role of the laws of capitalism it is necessary to consider the relative freedom of action of the different social classes. Here we confront an apparent paradox. When it is a matter of personal or individual behaviour it is obvious that members of the capitalist class have vastly more freedom than members of the working class. They can dwell, holiday, eat, drink and play where they want. By contrast workers have little or no choice in these areas. But when it comes to social and political action, to action as a class, there is a vital sense in which the working class is freer, less determined, than the bourgeoisie. Historically the bourgeoisie are locked into the system they preside over, prisoners of both its drive to accumulate and its contradictions. They are at home in their alienation, and, as Marx puts it, 'the capitalist is merely capital personified and functions in the process of production solely as the agent of capital'.49 The working class, however, can and does resist the imperatives of capital. And, from the moment they resist, workers become more than mere personifications of labour power. They make a start on the road to the transcendence of their alienation and to becoming conscious directors of production, society and history.

The contrast between the captivity of the bourgeoisie and the (relative) freedom of the proletariat also has implications for the intermediate strata commonly referred to as the middle class. Within the left wing of this layer the political strategy of reformism is intimately connected with the personal strategy of advancement up the hierarchy of the professions and institutions. The social worker, the local government officer, the teacher and the journalist tell themselves and others that they have to rise through the management structure to run their department, school, paper or whatever so as to put their ideas into practice and have the power to change things. In reality the higher the individual rises the more they become circumscribed by the logic of capital, the more they lose their freedom to oppose that logic, and in that sense the more determined their behaviour becomes.

Determinism and the class struggle

The greater relative freedom of the proletariat, its ability to choose to resist the imperatives of capital, leads directly to the question of determinism and the class struggle. To what extent is the existence, course and outcome of the class struggle objectively determined independently of the will, consciousness and deliberate intervention of workers and revolutionary socialists? This question or series of questions is politically the most important aspect of the whole question of determinism. It is the point at which the philosophical debate bears most directly on socialist practice.

It is, of course, one of the central pillars of historical materialism that the class struggle throughout history derives from exploitative relations of production. Indeed it is exploitation, the appropriation of surplus labour extorted from the immediate producers, which generates the conflict in which class struggle takes shape. As G E M de Ste Croix has put it, 'Class (essentially a relationship) is the collective social expression of the fact of exploitation, the way in which exploitation is embodied in a social structure.'50 In capitalist society it is the extraction of surplus value hidden within the relationship of wage labour which gives rise to the antagonism and struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat. There is an objective conflict of interests between the classes in which the capitalists, driven by competition, strive continually to increase the rate of exploitation (by lowering wages, extending the working day and increasing productivity) and the workers, driven by naturally given and socially developed needs, strive to restrict it. This is a battle which goes on every working day of every working week in every workplace throughout the capitalist world and throughout the capitalist epoch and which, in more or less mediated form, permeates every other aspect and level of society. The existence of class struggle is therefore not something invented, created, stirred up or otherwise brought into being by Marx or Marxists, or agitators or troublemakers. It is an economically determined and inevitable feature of capitalist society.

The level of intensity of the class struggle, however, varies enormously. Bourgeois society passes through periods of apparent class peace when class conflict, though continuing, is buried beneath the surface and through periods of open class warfare in the literal sense of revolution and civil war, and through every intermediate level between these extremes.

In analysing the extent to which the level of the class struggle is economically or otherwise determined it is necessary briefly to return to the distinction made earlier between the relative freedom of action of the bourgeoisie and proletariat. The bourgeois and proletarian sides of the class struggle are obviously interrelated but they are not identical or exactly symmetrical. The bourgeois side is strongly economically determined. Clearly political, historical and even individual psychological factors do play a part in influencing both the tactics and ferocity with which it pursues its interests. Nevertheless the compulsion of economics is very powerful and the bourgeoisie has developed a very strong 'class instinct', ie a very clear practical awareness of where its interests lie. It is therefore possible to formulate the general rule or 'law' that in times of economic crisis when profit rates fall and competition between capitals intensifies the bourgeoisie will step up its assault on working class living standards.

However, when it comes to the proletarian side we cannot say, à la Newton, that every (bourgeois) action meets with an equal and opposite reaction. It is an empirical fact that there has always been resistance to exploitation and oppression even in the most difficult circumstances (even in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, even in the death camps and the gulag). But it is no less a fact that there is always also acquiescence and even collaboration. The relative proportions of these different responses vary enormously and not in any fixed or mechanical relationship to economic conditions.

Clearly the level of development of the productive forces, and their accompanying relations of production, together with the immediate economic conjuncture constitute the point of departure for the level of working class struggle. The degree and nature of industrialisation in a society determines the size of the working class and its objective weight within the economy. It thus also determines the potential strength of the working class in struggle but what it does not, in itself, determine is the extent to which this potential will actually be realised. In the early years of this century the working class in economically advanced Germany and Britain were larger and potentially more powerful than the working class in backward Russia but the level of struggle in Russia was much higher. The immediate economic situation can provide powerful impulses to struggle--inflation, for example, is a strong impetus to the fight for higher wages--but again the response is not automatic.

Trotsky discussed this question on a number of occasions.51 He argued that the rise of a mass revolutionary workers' movement and a successful struggle for state power were undoubtedly premised on a generalised crisis of the capitalist order, ie an exacerbation of the fundamental contradiction between the forces and relations of production which produces a prolonged period of instability and rapid alteration of booms and slumps. But he rejects the idea of any 'automatic dependence of the proletarian revolutionary movement upon a crisis. There is only dialectical interaction'.52 In particular Trotsky stresses how in certain circumstances, especially where the working class is exhausted after major battles, prolonged unemployment can demoralise and weaken its struggles, whereas a temporary economic revival can raise the level of struggle.

These observations are extremely useful pointers or guidelines but can no more be treated as universally valid generalisations than the mechanical notion that slump equals revolt. Firstly because even in purely economic terms no two booms and no two slumps are the same. Secondly because the relationship between economic conditions and workers' struggle is mediated by numerous factors--the level and quality of trade union organisation, the level and quality of political organisation, the level of general political consciousness, the level of anger, the behaviour of trade union and political leadership, and the strength, confidence, cleverness and so on, of the capitalist class--all of which are conditioned not only by the current situation but also by the immediate and even by the more distant past, and all of which are involved in a complex interaction.

Thus any satisfactory account of the level and course of the class struggle either in the past or the present must be a concrete analysis which takes economic conditions as its starting point but includes all these elements. The complexity of this means that any attempt to predict the shape of working class struggle even in the immediate future, and certainly beyond, must be undertaken with great caution. Gramsci's warning is salutary:

However, the ultimate purpose of all Marxist analysis of the class struggle is neither to predict its future nor to provide an adequate explanation of its history, but to intervene in it so as to help shape its direction. And it is precisely from the standpoint of intervention that the level of the class struggle must within certain limits be regarded, by either the individual socialist militant or the revolutionary party, as given, ie as objectively determined independently of the will of the individual or the party. As every shop steward or union rep knows (or soon learns) strikes cannot be called at will in the absence of a genuine wish to fight on the part of the workers concerned. This applies even more strongly to general strikes or insurrections and any violation of this law of revolutionary strategy invariably has disastrous consequences. (The classic negative example of this rule is the March Action of 1921 in which the German Communist Party artificially attempted to goad the German working class into revolution and succeeded only in shattering its own membership and authority).56 By the same token there are times when sections of the working class or even the majority of the class move into struggle regardless of the objections or reservations of even its most advanced leaders. Such a movement was the February Revolution of 1917 when the mass revolt that overthrew Tsarism began, despite an initially reluctant Bolshevik Party. As Trotsky records:

In both these sets of circumstances would-be revolutionary leaders of local or national level have first to adjust themselves to objectively determined reality.

This recognition of necessity is, however, only the starting point of action. Leadership designed to focus the struggle, and raise its level further, is necessary to ensure its success. It is equally part of the experience of every rank and file militant and every political leadership that there are moments when a single speech at a mass meeting, a bold lead by a shop stewards committee or a concerted intervention by a political party can make a significant or even decisive difference to the course of the struggle, either positively or negatively. Thus the decision of the NUM and TUC leadership in October 1992 to march the first great demonstration against pit closures around Hyde Park rather than leading it directly to parliament made an immense difference to the ability of the Tory government to ride out that crisis. Conversely the decision, or rather series of decisions, by the Socialist Workers Party in 1977 to confront the National Front at Lewisham, and to launch the Anti Nazi League, made an enormous difference to the struggle against fascism in Britain.

This brings us to the question of whether the final outcome of the class struggle can be regarded as determined, that is to the old question of the 'inevitability of socialism'. It has to be admitted that there has been a certain ambiguity in this question within the classical Marxist tradition. Even in The Communist Manifesto itself we find conflicting formulations. On the one hand:

On the other:

Of course there is an element of rhetorical flourish in that 'equally inevitable' just as there is a lack of specificity in 'the common ruin of the contending classes'. But nearly 150 years on from the Manifesto the rhetoric of inevitability has a hollow ring whereas the concrete form of 'common ruin' has become all too clear. From the moment capitalism armed itself with nuclear weapons and thus demonstrated its capacity to destroy itself and humanity with it, talk of the inevitability of socialism became absurd.60

However, it is not just a question of the possibility of nuclear holocaust, the experience of 20th century workers' revolutions has demonstrated the same point. After the Russian Revolution, the German Revolution, the Spanish Revolution and others it is palpably false to see socialist revolution as a wholly determined or guaranteed process. To acknowledge this is not to reduce socialism to a utopia or to regard the victory of the working class as a matter of chance. On the contrary, as Marxism has always argued, there are powerful and objectively determined historical forces working in favour of proletarian victory. These include: its immense numerical superiority over the bourgeoisie; its concentration in workplaces and in cities; the dependence of the bourgeoisie on the working class for all its operations including the operation of its state; and the fact that the working class can rule society without the bourgeoisie but the bourgeoisie cannot exist without the working class, which means that the bourgeoisie has to go on defeating the working class indefinitely but the proletariat has only to defeat the bourgeoisie once (in the world historical sense). These factors make the eventual victory of the proletariat a realistic possibility. They may even make it probable. However they do not guarantee it.

They do not guarantee it because in order to make the transition from subordinate to ruling class the proletariat has to pass through an acute confrontation with the bourgeoisie, in which, for a period, the power of the two classes is almost equal and at which point the bourgeoisie, if given the chance, will strike back at the working class with tremendous force. At this point, therefore, history can go either way. Trotsky, writing on the eve of Hitler's triumph in Germany, used a striking metaphor to describe such a situation.

The Russian Revolution passed through just such a moment in September and October of 1917. The counter-revolution in the shape of General Kornilov had attempted to drown the revolution in blood and had been repulsed. It was preparing to strike again. The Bolsheviks had won a majority in the Soviets and the working class was looking to them to turn their words into deeds. The Provisional Government under Kerensky was paralysed and crumbling. The fate of the revolution was poised on a knife edge between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the dictatorship of the counter-revolution.

No one understood this better than Lenin. In a remarkable series of speeches, articles and letters Lenin bombarded the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party with ever more urgent demands that they 'seize the time' and organise the insurrection. The theme of these texts, repeated again and again, is that the revolution has reached a decisive turning point and that 'procrastination is like unto death'.62 On 29 September, 1917 Lenin writes:

On 24 October he writes:

Reflecting on this episode, and also on the equally crucial 'April Days' when Lenin reoriented the Bolshevik Party away from the idea of completing the bourgeois revolution and in favour of soviet power, Trotsky concluded that Lenin's role in the victory of the revolution had been indispensable. Without Lenin, he wrote, 'there would have been no October Revolution; the leadership of the Bolshevik Party would have prevented it from occurring'.65

The significance of this conclusion for the question of determinism as a whole is brought out by Isaac Deutscher who criticises Trotsky on precisely this point. In The Prophet Outcast Deutscher charges Trotsky with exaggerating the role of Lenin, with succumbing, in this instance, to the Lenin 'cult' and with presenting an argument, 'which goes strongly against the grain of the Marxist intellectual tradition'.66 He cites as his authority, and as 'highly representative of that tradition', Plekhanov's The Role of the Individual in History which argues that 'influential individuals can change the individual features of events and some of their particular consequence but they cannot change their general trend which is determined by other forces'67[emphasis in original].

On the specifics of the issue the evidence strongly favours Trotsky in that it is extremely unlikely that any other revolutionary leader in Russia in 1917 could have done what Lenin did, ie win the Bolshevik leadership to an insurrectionary perspective.68 But what is important is that the logic of the Plekhanov/Deutscher argument extends beyond the particular case of Lenin to the whole historical role of party leadership, for it was not as an individual inspirer of the masses that Lenin made his decisive contribution but in and through the Bolshevik Party. As I have written elsewhere:

Plekhanov and Deutscher stand here, as elsewhere, as representatives of a strongly determinist interpretation of Marxism which slides all too easily into passive fatalism and which it is one of the main purposes of this article to reject.70

Further confirmation of the anti-determinist position is provided by the fate of the German Revolution. The German Revolution, viewed as an overall process, lasted five years from the end of 1918 to the end of 1923, but it was in 1923 that it came to a head. In the summer and autumn of that year all the objective forces making for an acute revolutionary situation came together: a generalised economic, social and political crisis greatly sharpened by the French occupation of the Ruhr, leading to catastrophic inflation; sudden and massive pauperisation of the majority of the population; a large and powerful working class movement; a rapid disillusionment with the reformist leaders and organisations; a massive spontaneous strike wave; a mass revolutionary party (the KPD) rapidly gaining the support of the majority of the working class. And yet this outstanding revolutionary opportunity was allowed to go begging. The KPD failed throughout the summer of 1923 to draw up any coherent plan of action for the struggle for power or to give a strong revolutionary lead. Continuously looking to Moscow for advice, it continued its vacillation between forming local coalition governments with social democrats and playing with insurrection right through to the fiasco of an isolated uprising of a few hundred Communists in Hamburg in October which was crushed in 48 hours. As Trotsky observed, 'We witnessed in Germany a classic demonstration of how it is possible to miss a perfectly exceptional revolutionary situation of world-historic importance'.71

It is impossible to explain the victory in Russia and the defeat in Germany by means of a theory of absolute economic or social determinism. The difference lay in the subjective factor, the quality of revolutionary leadership, in that Heinrick Brandler and the other leaders of the KPD failed to take the initiative at the crucial moment. Of course, with hindsight, it is possible to offer reasons why the German leadership failed--they were being restrained and misadvised by Zinoviev (and Stalin) in Moscow; they were demoralised and conservative as a result of their mistakes in the March action. However, the interrogation of each of these reasons leads back to events and circumstances that could easily have been different: if Lenin had not suffered a stroke and had been in command in Moscow; if the Russian leadership had acceded to Brandler's request that Trotsky should go to Germany; if Luxemburg, by far the greatest of the KPD leaders, had not been murdered in 1919. But to accept the possibility of revolutionary victory in Germany in 1923 is to accept the possibility that subsequent world history would have been completely different--no fascism in Germany, no Stalinism in Russia and the real possibility of world revolution.72

To summarise, we can say that on the question of class struggle Marxism takes the same relative determinist position that was argued for on abstract grounds earlier in this article. It treats the existence of the class struggle as extremely strongly determined, its general level as strongly but by no means completely determined and its final outcome as hanging in the balance.

However, it hangs in the balance between strongly determined alternatives, ultimately between socialism and barbarism. Capitalism is of course continuously barbaric--think of the Somme, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Gulf War, Rwanda and many other examples--but in the socialist tradition the term barbarism has another, related but distinct, meaning. 'It may denote the total destruction of civilisation by the decline of society into an ahistorical era'73 or Marx's 'common ruin of the contending classes'. It is in the latter sense that I use it here, for the highly determined dynamic and contradictions of capitalism are such that if capitalism is allowed to survive indefinitely it will destroy us all.

This analysis has very clear implications for socialist practice. It means that in every concrete situation there is a definite limit on what we by our conscious action can achieve. At the same time every action, no matter how small, which assists the working class struggle also contributes, albeit only in small measure, to making its eventual victory more likely. By far the most effective action that socialists can take is to combine and co-ordinate their efforts in a political party which both works to advance the class struggle to the maximum in the here and now and prepares for the moment or moments of decisive confrontation in the future.

Clearly it is not possible to 'arrange' in advance to have a Lenin, or a Trotsky or a Luxemburg present at the appropriate time, but building a strong revolutionary party is still the most, or rather the only, effective way of achieving an effective leadership. For as Lenin writes:

And as Trotsky put it:

Conclusion: the long view

Bourgeois ideology, as we noted in the opening section of this article, oscillates between idealist voluntarism, which rejects the determining role of material conditions and social relations, and mechanical materialism which sees human beings as passive objects and denies the role of conscious human practice. Both these modes of thought are generalisations arising from contradictory aspects of the social being of the bourgeoisie and the social nature of capitalism. Idealist voluntarism reflects the position of the bourgeoisie as a ruling class, living off the labours of others, which imagines that its ideas and its will are the demiurge of history. Mechanical materialism reflects the subordination of the bourgeoisie itself to the economic laws of capitalism and its view of the working masses as mere factors of production.

Marxism rejects both these positions by taking as its starting point the social being of the working class. The working class encounters directly and inescapably the determining effects of both physical nature, the weight of the stone, the resistance of the metal, the cold of the winter, the heat of the sun, and of economic and social relations, the pressure of poverty, the necessity to sell its labour power, the impact of unemployment, the invisible but real obstacles to social mobility. Yet, at the same time, the working class is continuously and directly involved in the conscious effort to transform both nature and social relations. Potentially it has the collective power to overturn the entire social system and establish a new society in which it will simultaneously produce and consciously direct production. It is on this foundation that Marxism transcends idealism and mechanical materialism in dialectical materialism which finds its highest expression in conscious revolutionary practice. Conscious revolutionary practice is activity which makes use of the fullest possible understanding of all the natural and social forces constraining and shaping human behaviour in order to tip the balance in favour of the working class and rescue humanity from the abyss.

In every historical situation there is a tension between necessity and freedom, between what is objectively determined and what we can affect or change, but the balance between necessity and freedom is not fixed or stable. At the dawn of human history and for a long time thereafter the element of necessity was heavily dominant. Human behaviour was massively dominated by forces beyond our control, by the interaction between external nature and our own physical constitution. Yet also present from the beginning--indeed it is what marks the beginning--is the embryo of human freedom, namely conscious social labour. The whole of history is the struggle to expand human freedom through the development of the power of human labour.76

However this development has not been smooth or harmonious. It has proceeded dialectically, which is to say through contradictions. The raising of the productivity of social labour involved the division of society into antagonistic classes and the subordination of the labour of the majority to the direction and exploitation of a small minority. This process comes to a head under capitalism which leads to an unprecedented development of the productive forces and, therewith, mastery over nature, yet subjects the entire globe, including and especially the capitalist class itself, to the impersonal and inhuman laws of the market, the first of which is accumulation for accumulation's sake.

The socialist revolution is this resolution of this contradiction. It is, in Engels' phrase, 'humanity's leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom'.77 The realm of necessity is not, of course, abolished. Natural laws and forces continue to operate on human beings and compel them to labour,78 and in its first phase socialism is 'still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges'.79 Nevertheless with the establishment of workers' power the balance between necessity and freedom begins to shift decisively in favour of freedom. With each step taken towards the international abolition of classes and the unification of humanity, human beings take increasing control of their own destiny. As material scarcity is progressively overcome, so the 'tyranny of economics' is ended. What was hitherto the 'ultimately determining factor' in history, namely the production of the necessities of human life, while not disappearing, will play an ever decreasing role in shaping human behaviour. A new society will be established in which 'the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all'.80 At this point historical materialism, having achieved its goal, also reaches its limit.

Notes


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