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The Science of History (Part 1)

Both outside and inside academia there is a general disregard for coherent social theories. In the latter case, there is a preference to be spoon-fed disparate facts, dismissing any attempts to unify these facts as conspiracy theory. In the former case, the advent of post-modernism has produced a widespread scorn for “grand totalizing narratives”. And the “totalizing narratives” that are still acceptable tend to be idealist garbage, useful only for reinforcing the worldview of the status quo.

It is my opinion that the only social theory or methodology that can be truly critical is historical materialism. All other theoretical approaches are, by themselves, either useless or reactionary. The theoretical tradition of Marxism, then, is what I will defend, broadly, as the only methodology that can properly explain history and society. Furthermore, if one does not adopt a “grand totalizing” theory one might as well not be a social theorist. Historical materialism (Marxism, dialectical materialism, the philosophy of praxis, social dialectics) is the only coherent critical theory.

Those of us who are historical materialists are often surprised when we encounter the attitudes discussed above. Non-academic critics, for example, often express suspicion of our analysis––sometimes going so far as to label it “double-talk” as if we are vulgar Orwellian aparatchiks. And similar suspicion is evinced by the Western academic status quo, only we are derided for being behind the current intellectual fashions; we are curios, like a Norman Rockwell painting or an ugly-but-retro piece of furniture.

We who remain historical materialists, Marxists, communists, etc., are forced to fight an uphill battle when it comes to the terrain of social theory. In many cases we end up engaging with the red herring of the so-called “failure of communism”. In other cases we have to try and get beyond obscurantist language and jargon that alienates those outside of the academic world. And in still other cases we are homogenized as vulgar economic determinists who have not kept up with the contemporary currents of social theory.

We all have anecdotes in this regard. For example, I recently encountered another academic who told me that the Marxist tradition was useless for her critical race theory because, according to her, it was nothing more than a “narrow economic focus on modes of production.” A critical historical materialist, though, would agree that, in a tradition as varied and heterogenous as Marxism, there are indeed narrow and vulgar species of the theory. But criticizing this body of theory as a whole is laughably ignorant. In terms of the issue of race, the best anti-racist theorists (C.L.R. James, Angel Y. Davis, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, and the entire "3rd World" Marxist tradition ) have done a better job of critiquing and exposing white supremacy than any other theorist or body of theory. In fact, the often incoherent school of thought referred to as “post-colonial theory” (where the most fashionable anti-racist theorists gravitate these days) is often nothing more than pretentious footnotes to Fanon.

It is not that all of these non-Marxist theories should be dismissed out of hand––indeed, there are aspects to some of these philosophies that can be quiet useful. The point, though, is that if one lacks an overall historical materialist framework, there can be no useful examination and critique of history and society.

I - why historical materialism

Unless one is a radical skeptic, it cannot be denied that there are social and historical facts. I am not suggesting that many so-called historical facts do not fall victim to the interests of dominating powers––indeed, the historical materialist accepts this axiom as well. What I am saying is that there are numerous and general social-historical facts that only a few crackpots would dispute.

For instance, that capitalism first cohered in Western Europe is a fact, that there were people living in the Americas before the Europeans is a fact, that millions of slaves were taken from Africa is a fact. Or that, today, there are multinational corporations, America and its allies are fighting several wars, America is the hegemonic nation––these are all facts. Even the most reactionary school teacher will believe in these facts; she’ will just attribute to them a different meaning than would a progressive.

For an historical materialist, the fact that different interpretations can be assigned to certain sets of facts is, as aforementioned, important. Unlike the post-modernist, whose only recourse is to claim that the assignation of different meanings to fragmentary events possesses no real truth value––that all interpretations are merely power bids, one no more correct than another––the historical materialist claims that there are incorrect and correct interpretations. Moreover, historical materialism can explain why there are incorrect interpretations; the post-modern or post-structuralist tradition lacks this epistemic dimension. I will return to this point later, though. First of all I want to make some general comments regarding historical materialism.

Starting with the crude reality that there are such things as historical facts––ranging from the banal (ie. it is a fact that there are different religions) to the epoch-making (ie. in 1492 Columbus arrived in the Americas)––a theorist possesses two options: one, to see every historical fact as ultimately disconnected or, two, to see historical facts as somehow related. The former approach is characteristic of social theories such as post-modernism, whereas the latter is held by the historical materialist.

The reason that we historical materialists, we Marxists, believe that a plethora of socio-historical facts can be given a meaning is because the opposite approach is ludicrous. A medical scientist, for example, should not look at the varied symptoms of a patient suffering from an illness and then decide that no medical explanation can possibly be given. No, she tries to find an underlying cause for these symptoms. Returning to the terrain of history and society, we can find politically uncontested examples that demonstrate that history is more than a random eruption of disconnected events. If someone had not discovered the principle of flight with a crude flying apparatus, the modern jet-fighter could not have been invented. It is entirely absurd to imagine a jet-fighter plane being created in, say, the eighteenth century. Moreover, moving to a political example, one cannot imagine the worldwide African slave trade if Europeans had not been to the continent of Africa in the first place (and recognition of this connection leads a good historical materialist to ask, “just what were they doing there in the first place?”).

I recognize, of course, that this approach to history possesses the danger of determinism––as crude versions of historical materialism have evinced. To use the mundane example above, a good historical materialist would never say that the discovery of the principle of flight automatically determines the invention of the jet-fighter. Rather, we would only say that the invention of the jet-fighter is impossible without other previous inventions. Or, more accurately, that certain discoveries may produce necessities but that these necessities are not necessarily realized. The point is to look at where we are now and understand the historical development of how we got here, not to claim that history itself is a supernatural force that possesses laws as eternal as Plato’s forms. This is why Marx, in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, insists that, although our past gives meaning to our current world, history itself is a human product.

Once it is accepted that socio-historical facts are, indeed, not disconnected fragments, another problem arises. One can either give an idealist or materialist description of these facts. That is, returning to the example of the medical scientist, an idealist practitioner of medicine could decide that her patient’s symptoms are not due to a deficiency in the body but could claim, rather, that the patient is sick for supernatural reasons, ie. the devil caused the illness. Such an interpretation is idealist because it makes recourse to an idea beyond the physical world.

Idealism, though, is not always so obvious. All it means is that a certain, ahistorical idea––or set of ideas––is pre-supposed in order to make sense of material facts, rather than vice versa. In the introduction of the Grundrisse Marx gives a good example of such idealism when he explains that, under capitalism, “the individual appears detached from the natural bonds etc. which in earlier historical periods make him the accessory of a definite and limited human conglomerate…this eighteenth-century individual… appears as an ideal, whose existence they project into the past. Not as a historic result but as history’s point of departure.” (Marx, Grundrisse, p. 83) The idea of an isolated individual human, then, is presupposed as the building block of society. The truth, though, is that this idea was conceived by humans living under capitalism where the notion of competing and isolated individuals is the fundamental ethos.

We historical materialists believe that the socio-historical context generates ideologies that can serve as explanatory justifications for the status quo. The task of the historical materialist is to see the fundamental and material basis (the base, to use one of Marx’s popular metaphors) behind a myriad of ideas and philosophies (or superstructure). This is not to say that certain ideas cannot influence the material reality––the base and superstructure exist in a dialectical relationship––we merely believe that certain ideologies are connected to specific socio-historical moments. One cannot logically assert that the “protestant work ethic”, for example, emerged before capitalism (although an idealist like Max Weber certainly tried) anymore than one can claim that the wallpaper of a house could be slapped unto thin air and the foundations and framing built around it.

Furthermore, the starting point for historical materialism is that humans “make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please… but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” (Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, p.15) Humans make history and, at the same time, are made by the history and the societies made by previous generations of humans. (This is meant in a material sense: that what we call history is human history that is the product of human subjects interacting, producing, and creating. “Humans make history” is not meant to imply that history isn’t “real” but something made-up by a bunch of humans.) And, like any human creation, one can look back on previous and contemporary creations in order to understand the meaning of this creation––in this case, history and society.

Without a coherent, explanatory, and non-idealist methodology, one cannot adequately make sense of the world. Lazy, contradictory, impressionistic, and mundane explanations are the only alternative. I am not saying here that certain historical materialist analyses are exempt from making mistakes. There have, indeed, been many bad Marxist explanations of the world. The difference, though, is that these explanations are the result of the writer's, not the methodology’s, deficiencies. If Marx, for example, was better educated on the historical situation of India, he would not have made certain problematic claims in his India Diaries. But his own methodology can explain why he was not given the right data; he was only able to read ideological works on India and was not living there himself.


  1. Great post, JMP. I agree with every argument you make in it but I do have one question/comment.

    I agree with you that humans make history and are made by history. But then the question arises for me: Why exactly do we get very different sorts of people coming from the same historical-social-economic background? Why is it that one upper-middle class white youth may be a diehard communist calling for the abolition of his class background and his upper-middle class white youth roommate may be a bible-thumping reactionary? Are we perhaps treading onto the waters of psychoanalytic theory? That individuals are shaped not only by cultural, social, and economic background/conditions but also but personal, emotional, and sexual experiences throughout their life?

    I wonder what your thoughts are.

    1. Yes, I think we are treading on psychoanalytic territory here. The claim that "social being determines social consciousness" is a claim about the "last instance" and is meant to explain the general contours of class, not all of the exceptions where people, through other social experiences, may end up being drawn towards various ideologies and practices that may (or may not) be connected to their social position. We can also speak of people from proletarian social positions who are drawn to the ideas of the ruling class, some becoming reactionaries, because these ideas are often the most compelling. I think it is true to consider that we are also, in smaller ways, shaped by personal/emotional/sexual experiences, but are these also not moments of social conditioning? One of the reasons I've been drawn back to Althusser in the past year and a half is because of his focus on these questions of ideology and subjectivication that, while I don't always agree with him, demonstrate an understanding of social structure and these complex examples. It is also the reason why Althusser popularized Lacan (and in a different, but similar, way the reason why the Frankfurt School argued for a materialist engagement with Freud). Clearly we can accept "social being determines social consciousness" in an axiomatic sense, because this is proved as a universal concept in many ways (i.e. even the diehard communsit from a privileged background, such as myself, if s/he hasn't declassed will need reeducation in a revolution, and most often will not like this as history has demonstrated). At the same time, we have to avoid a positivist one-to-one definition of this problem which is, as I'm sure you know, the reason why there are so many crude marxisms out there.


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