Historical Materialism

25 Jul 2023 10:47

(In memory of JVB, 2023)
"Historical Materialism" is 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

  1. the name, which made a certain amount of sense when arguing with other Young Hegelians, but is really rather appalling;
  2. claiming that the processes of production was of paramount importance ("the economic interpretation of history");
  3. claiming that the abstract ideas people hold --- ideas about law, politics, religion, etc. --- are determined by their relationship to the "mode of production";
  4. 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;
  5. 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;
  6. claiming that the next push will be the last one; moreover, after the next push competition will vanish.
Later, of course, Marx and Engels --- especially Engels --- added some qualifications to (2) and (3): these tend to reduce the system to vacuity.

Let's take these in turn.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.

See also: Archaeology; Economics; Human Ecology; Marxism; Sociology; Technology and Society; Thought and Society; World History, Macrohistory