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On Historical Materialism

Recently, the author of the target of my last post responded to my critique.  Initially, since I found the response to be little more than a dodge of the criticisms and a flight into the supposed theory of historical materialism (apparently he was doing proper historical materialism and I wasn't), I planned to only respond in the comments string.  A response that fails to answer specific criticisms, and side-steps the issue with a red herring debate, is usually a response I wouldn't bother to take seriously.  But since he was making claims about historical materialism, and attempting to argue that my critique had nothing to do with proper historical materialism, I decided that the issues raised in my original comment deserved further exploration because of a larger problematic.  That is: what is historical materialism?

As someone whose doctorate was earned through a study and application of historical materialism, and as someone who is currently working on a book about the meaning of marxist philosophy (that is, philosophy applied to the historical and dialectical materialist method[s]), I take the meaning of this theoretical terrain quite seriously.  Moreover, it is the method I use consistently, much to the consternation of those who would find it "totalizing", and I defended my use of this method way back at the dawn of this blog in a very messy and unedited [like most of what I write] article called The Science of History.  None of this is to say that PhD expertise in the philosophy of historical materialism makes me more qualified than anyone else to talk about it, but it does mean I've had the privilege and time to make sense of the conceptual meaning of the methodology.

(Clearly, revolutionary praxis produces the best historical materialist engagements, but since the article I originally critiqued had nothing really to do with revolutionary praxis [it conflated spontaneism with revolution, separated revolutionary movements from theory, and seemed to be nothing more than a theoretical mindset emerging from the #occupy movement], then it would seem that the author's understanding of hismat (not to mention diamat) is primarily the result of academic engagement.  So if we are going to play the "I've studied more than you card" [he threw out names of key Marxist texts, "reminded" me that Lenin's What Is To Be Done? was influenced by Kautsky], then I think I'm well within my writes to note my credentials.  After all: if this is going to be simply about theoretical credentials, I can also play that game.)

Since the response article talks about historical materialism, but never clearly defines the meaning of historical materialism, I feel I should provide a definition.  If you're going to name yourself the authority of a given subject, you should be able to provide a definition; this is the first principle of all critical thought.  So what is historical materialism?  Louis Althusser has provided probably the most succinct definition, synthesized from The German Ideology and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, that I've encountered to date: "Historical materialism is the science of history.  We can define it more precisely as the science of modes of production, their specific structure, their constitution, their functioning, and the forms of transition whereby one mode passes into the other."  Expanding on this, we have to recognize that all revolutionary theories that are properly historical materialist must have a concrete understanding of a concrete situation––that is a materialist appreciation of history.  Most serious historical materialists posit the notion of a "living science" and argue that revolutionary theory has a dialectical relationship with world historical revolutions.  (And as I mentioned in the previous article, since I have discussed this aspect of historical materialism in past articles, I feel no reason to discuss it further here.)

Moreover, in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx argued that humans make history in circumstances directly encountered by the past: hence the need to approach history scientifically, to understand what can possibly be made at a given conjuncture, the limits of the social and political horizon provided by the past: history only presents, Marx often quipped, those questions we are able to answer.  By positing that humans make history (while, dialectically, being made by history) Marx and Engels were able to theorize the momentum of historical change: revolution.  Or, in Marx's words, "revolutions are the locomotives of history."  So here we have the following formulation: historical materialism is the science of history, the motion of which is revolution.  To have a scientific understanding of modes of production is to understand that every mode of production has a key class character; to make sense of the passage of one mode of production to another is to recognize the motion caused by the class contradictions inherent to these historical moments.

So if the motion of history is revolution, then theorizing revolution is extremely important for an historical materialist.  And though I know I'm brushing over all the debates between the forces and relations of production schools of thought, I think it's important to point out a few things: a) Marx intended Capital, his key historical materialist text, to be a theoretical weapon for the working class movement of his time; b) Marx and Engels' writings on the Paris Commune argued for the importance of a revolutionary theory to structure a revolutionary movement (here is where the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat appears in germ form), and they were able to make this theory based on the failure of a past movement that also had a theory (but an erroneous and not properly historical materialist theory); c) the First International was an attempt to provide theoretical unity to a proletarian movement.

Historical materialism was considered scientific by Marx and Engels (in The German Ideology, in Anti-Duhring, in every text where they mentioned these two words) because it was not historical idealism.  That is, it was a materialist engagement with history: the motion of history being revolution, history being nothing more than what was made by historically and socially embedded humans, and above all (to repeat) a concrete understanding of concrete circumstances.  To produce an historical materialist analysis is to abstract universal principles out of particular circumstances, analogous to a scientist working in hir lab, and then reapply them to the concrete instance.  (Now it may very well be that you don't like the terminology of "science" here, but that's the terminology Marx and Engels used and their justification for historical materialism.)  A failure to provide a concrete understanding of a concrete circumstance means that one is an historical idealist.

So let's return to my previous post and the article it was critiquing.  The thrust of my critique was actually historically materialist because it was theoretically engaging with the historical circumstances of revolution and pretty much arguing that the article in question was idealist.  Oh it's all fine and good to call yourself an historical materialist, but if you make bizarre statements about the American Revolution, fail to understand its class content or the theory that was actually and HISTORICALLY used to structure said revolution, then you're not a historical materialist.  You're an idealist and your "historical materialism" is the historicism of Hegel, or at least Feuerbach.  Furthermore, when you ignore the content and meaning of world historical revolutions––those locomotives of history which form the principle of change for the historical materialist––then you are disappearing even further into the idealist universe.  To be an historical materialist is not to wax eloquent about what you think the theory is, but to engage the crude matter of history in an historically materialist manner: which that article failed to do in any way shape or form.  One must engage concretely with history and draw concrete concepts, not simply declare positions already proven erroneous by the momentum of revolutionary history.

Most importantly, if the historical materialist method is to be understood as properly scientific (and again I am using the terminology with which Marx and Engels loaded "historical materialism"), then it also has to stand above Marx and Engels.  That is, if it is a scientific method it can be brought to bear on the claims made by its progenitors––some of which were historically erroneous in retrospect (i.e. Engels's theories about indigenous nations in the Americas, Marx's theories about India)––in order to explain why they were erroneous and draw concrete lessons from a better materialist appreciation of history.  This is why Samir Amin, probably one of the greatest living theorists of historical materialism, argued that a marxism pre-Lenin and pre-Mao was the height of orthodoxy and dogmatism.  Ignoring those historical insights gleaned from the motion of history (world historical revolution) is a backwards gesture, a defiance of the historical materialist method.  Historical materialism is only valid as a [scientific] method if it remains open to the future, if we can be taught by failures and successes.

Nor can we be taught by failures and successes if we refuse to recognize and understand those moments of history where revolutionary theory was developed through struggle and a simultaneous engagement with the past.  The point of historical materialism, at least the point made by Marx and Engels in their mature works, is to establish universal principles through particular engagements with the motion of history––and correct universal principles can never be established if one has no appreciation of the concrete meaning of this moment in a given space and time.

Now we come to the importance of dialectical materialism which is both parallel and intersecting with historical materialism.  A logic that is neither dialectical idealism or crude materialism, but that understands that ideas emerge from the material base and that, at the same time, can become a material force ("self-determining force" as it was phrased in The German Ideology).  But since this entry focuses on the moment of historical, rather than dialectical, materialism (which should not really be separated but often need to be separated for reasons of philosophical clarity), I want to conclude with the following discussion: in the response to my previous post, the author inverts Lenin's claim about revolutionary theory to read "without a revolutionary movement there can be no revolutionary theory." And yet this claim was forestalled by the law of the excluded middle, by the dialectical method that is supposed to be at the core of historical materialism itself, when I already argued that theory both produces revolution and is produced by revolution.

That is, without revolutionary movements there can be no revolutionary theory AND without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movements.  I already attempted to walk the reader through this dialectical unity of opposites, but apparently it was unclear.  But let us be clear: Marx and Engels were the first to glean (especially in their analyses of the Paris Commune), through dialectical materialism, that there were theoretical points of unity of revolution––the self-determining force representing a specific class agenda is what defines the nature of a revolution; one cannot ignore world historical revolutions, and what these revolutions actually meant, and call this historical materialism.


  1. I am going to respond to your piece on GT, because this is a very interesting discussion for me. I hope we can continue it without rancor. (BTW: I think you mean the fallacy of the excluded middle, not the law of the exclude middle. In the latter, one proposition has to be true and the other false, while in the former, this is not true.)

    1. The law of the excluded middle is not the fallacy of the excluded middle (or "false dichotomy" to be more accurate). The law of the excluded middle is the unity of opposites and the essential law of dialectics (Hegel, Science of Logic). Please don't correct me in areas where you've clearly done very little investigation.

      I also have no interest in continuing this discussion further for various reasons. Your first response showed an inability to understand what I wrote and thus did not respond to any of the arguments. Your obsession with calling yourself "historical materialist" in a non-historical materialist manner – and thus demonstrating that you can't understand historical materialism when it's looking you in the face – smacks of first year undergraduate arrogance, and I have to deal with enough of that in my job. And I have a feeling your next response is going to similarly side-step the issues and make authoritative calls on areas of which you've demonstrated very little understanding.

      You clearly have very little organizational experience or understanding of revolutionary movements, let alone a grasp on the theory you claim you are doing, and this blog is generally more concerned with engaging with people in this context rather than people whose entire [flawed] understanding of Marx is just used in a trollish manner.

  2. That's okay. You can break off this discussion just when you had the opportunity to correct my ideas. This, of course, is typical of Leninists who think no one else has anything to offer -- you have a lock on the truth. Even to the point of disparaging simple folks in the Occupy movement who are only making an honest effort to express their outrage in whatever form they have access to.

    However, here is my response to your points:

    1. And this is why I won't respond: you're incapable of responding to arguments, understanding critique, or even providing the minimum requirements of a historical materialist critique. Generally I find that is best to avoid arguing with dogmatists.

    2. Charlie Post's brilliant recent book on the making of US capitalism (I have a review of it coming out in Socialist Studies) emphatically does not refer to the American "revolution" as a of the virtues of poltiical marxism is to be very specific on 'historical locomotives'....The Civil War, however, was in some sense, a revolution, though it went through a serious Thermidor after Reconstruction was defeated.

    3. This comment really belongs on the previous post's comment string (aside from the connection to locomotives). There someone accused me of moralism because I reject the American Revolution as a world historical revolution: I agree that the Civil War was actually more of a bourgeois/capitalist revolution – like the French Revolution it was open to a future that went beyond its boundaries.

      As much as I think Post is a revisionist/opportunist/eurocentric scholar whose rejection of the theory of labour aristocracy puts him firmly in the imperialist camp in essence, if not in form, I meant to read this book... Even broken clocks, as one of our friends likes to quip, can be right twice in a day. I'll wait on your review.

    4. You can separate his current work from his historical work, as you can with others, right? Surely you wouldn't fault EP Thompson and Eric Hobsbawm's historical work for their support of Kruschev...I don't think of Post that way (but thats another debate).. Yeah - it should have been on the other post...I can loan you my copy of the book....

    5. The American Revolution was world-historical in the same sense, probably as the Dutch and British "Bourgeois Revolutions" (if we have to use that phrase) - but no more than that. I liked how you showed that it was a Lockean revolution.

    6. Yes, of course I can separate these things, which is why I am interested in reading his work on the development of capital in the US – it does look good. Hold off on loaning it to me, I have about five books on the go right now, and two on the back-burner, so I should probably clear some of those off the plate before adding another.

  3. Jehu, just because you knew fuck all about anything when you identified as a leninist, you don't need to denounce every other leninist who you think are the same as the clueless little Jehus of yesterday.
    Self-hatred isn't the path to revolution comrade.
    You must realize that theory is also a tool, and I doubt the effects of your theory are positive in any aspect.
    I don't know what you plan to achieve, other than pissing off everyone else who identifies as a communist. That doesn't seem a good strategy for anything, that seems more like the attitude of a little child who is pissed off and wants attention.
    You may want to analyze your own writing, because it reeks of arrogance. "Historical materialism is on my side! I WIN!!!" Shouts Jehu, as he clings to a few choice Marx quotes, his bald sweaty head pulsating. "People who disagree with me are therefore not proper historical materialists!" Declares Jehu triumphantly, not realizing that the words he just learned on wikipedia and reading the works of Marx on suddenly means that he has found great truth that most communists are not already aware of.
    "Allow me to dismiss Samir Amin completely writing 2 lines of text. I AM THAT GOOD."
    Then you go on to denounce vanguardism and theory created by the bourgeois and petit bourgeois intelligentsia, and claim, as you reject that, and every historical revolution that happened through that tradition, to be the one true marxist. Never mind that Marx himself had this class background, that he gathered with the german intelligentsia to found his party and that he planned to spread his ideas to the proletariat. Lenin wasn't inventing vanguardism, he was describing how shit got done. Marx himself acted this way. Are you ready to claim that Marx was no historical materialist? Hahaha.
    And then you go on to call everyone in this tradition sectarian. When most of us denounce sectarism, we are talking about people who aren't willing to give up theoretical differences to work together. You are the prime example of this. You couldn't work together with anyone, since clearly you are the only living historical materialist in the world.
    You may think you are creating a real polemic here. People are talking, but outside of maybe a couple of other clueless mates you have, they are mostly pointing to your texts and saying "look at this shit, this is what you shouldn't do". So I guess those are your contributions to the debate.

    1. 1. My argument is that theory is a tool -- I was told this was wrong.

      2. I did not try to piss anyone off.

      3. I made an argument why Lenin's formulation was fundamentally flawed. But JMP did not respond to my argument. I even made the assumption both of agreed to what historical materialism was, and did not refer to anyone as not knowing what it was.

      4. I have never read Samir Amin, so I was not dismissing him. I was dismissing a statement made by JMP regarding his views -- and said so twice.

      5. What revolution did I reject? Please point to a statement I made saying that.

      6. I did not say, or imply, the intelligentsia could not create revolutionary theory. I only argued the working class could as well.

      7. Yes. I did say you are sectarians. I plead guilty.

      8. As a historical materialist I work well with anarchists, anarcho-capitalists, libertarians, and anyone else.

      9. At least you are talking to me, which you weren't willing to do before. Remember when you proved your anti-sectarian bona fides by banning me from r/communism? :)

    2. I am getting tired of your trolling and anti-marxist attitude towards reality. (Point #8: no historical materialist worthy of the name would work with "anarcho-capitalists" and "libertarians"... read what Engels says about working with these elements in his book on the Peasant Revolutions which is a key historical materialist text, or read what Marx says in 18th Brumaire, another key text... But oh, wait, you know more about historical materialism than Marx and Engels and everyone – now it is your term to make of it what you want, "historical materialism" can mean anything that reflects your own behaviour.)

      Although I'm not a participant on /r/communism I can guess why you were banned: you're a troll, you are not in any way shape or form a "historical materialism" because you are dogmatically committed to Marx and Engels as sacred texts (that's "idealism", comrade), and your dogmatic commitment isn't even that good. Nor is banning necessarily sectarian. Like the term "historical materialism" you seem to assume that "sectarianism" can be anything you want it to be. Concepts have specific historical articulations and the term "sectarian" in the movement didn't mean being committed to a set of "principles"... you've loaded it with notions of liberal tolerance – which I will explain below in my reply to your snarky comment about my support for an organization in Canada.

  4. No this isn't sectarian: "As a sympathizer/supporter of the PCR-RCP, I have written several articles expressing why I see them as the only current revolutionary party in the context of Canada"

    1. Now you are trolling, but I will respond to this asinine comment quickly. Considering that your entire approach is the essence of sectarianism (everyone else in the world is sectarian but me, etc.), taking this statement to mean "sectarian" is arguing in bad faith, but okay...

      Supporting a group on theoretical and political principle doesn't necessarily mean "sectarian". Otherwise being communist, by the same logic, would be sectarian because it means to be committed to principles that are automatically differentiated from, for example, liberals. To be sectarian is to be close-minded about your principles, be unwilling to change, and cling dogmatically to a tiny little corner of theoretical and political thought (sound famiilar?). If you had actually read the posts where I outline *why* I support the PCR-RCP, then you would understand that one of the reasons I support them as revolutionary is because they behave in an entirely NON-sectarian manner. That is, although they are clearly united around a theoretical and practical approach, they have consistently worked with other organizations, helped build coalitions, and have even defended and supported the actions of anarchists from other "communists" who have been typically scornful of anarchist praxis. They have always maintained that they their growth and development will prove their theoretical approach and if they fail to grow –and they do not poach members, or act in insultingly sectarian ways to other groups – then their theoretical approach will be proved wrong.

      This is why I support them as the only *current* revolutionary party in the context of Canada. Why? Because they are growing and act in a professional, honest, and decidedly non-sectarian manner. They engage in line struggle with those groups who are openly revisionist, yes, but that is called being "principled" and not sectarian. You really need to look into the history of the term, and maybe your own "I know more about the real Marx and more than everyone else from my slipshod reading" attitude, which is the height of sectarianism, before making leap comments about things you clearly know nothing about.

    2. And finally allow me to add that I have zero tolerance for trolling behaviour and have long figured out that logic and rational debate will never change the minds of dogmatists, whatever they call themselves. It's a bit like arguing with a Mormon or a Jehovahs Witness: you're not going to convince them that their ideas are bullshit because of their dogmatism. So feel free to imagine that you've won your debates when you just repeat your same notions and fail to respond in any way to the critiques I've raised. You may well imagine yourself a historical materialist, but it's already clear that you're a liberal who brands himself such and, through terrible readings of Marx, has convinced himself that Marx justifies liberalism.

      It's easier to argue with your position if you call it what it really is: historical idealism, which Marx abhorred. Stop pretending you're using Marx's method when all you're doing is returning to the mystic shell from which Marx wrenched the rational kernel of dialectics. And don't waste anymore of my time: I have to deal enough with liberals in my day-to-day existence, I don't need them wasting time on my blog and pretending they're historical materialists.

    3. Let me remind you: you engaged my argument, I have never commented on anything you write. I did not come over here to debate you uninvited.

      Good bye. :)

    4. That's certainly true, Jehu--because you have been completely unable to grasp the terms of the debate, effectively you have indeed "never commented on anything" JMP has written. It is of course slightly irritating that you seem not to understand that you do not understand the basic parameters of the argument.


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