Economic Determinism of Dialectical Materialism

Feuerbach’s claim that the motive forces in social history are material meant for Marx that these forces are economic. The economic, moreover, meant for him the method of economic production, for he was convinced that any system of production carries with it a corresponding way of distributing the social product, the way which alone will keep the system operating, and in turn the distribution creates a structure of social classes, each of which is determined by its position in the system.
The method by which a society utilizes natural resources and produces the goods by which it lives is therefore for Marx the mainspring of its existence. Its mode of production at any given time explains its political and indeed its whole cultural condition at that time, and changes in the system of production explain the corresponding changes that occur in its politics and culture. This in bare outline is Marx’s theory of economic determinism, which is the concrete social and political meaning that he attached to dialectical materialism.

Considered in relation to the future this theory provided Marx with his program for a new working-class revolution, which is to abolish social inequality and ultimately to create a socialist and a classless society. Considered in relation to the past the theory provided him with his interpretation of the French Revolution. This was a middle class revolution by which the new capitalist class of an industrial society destroyed the political privileges of the nobility and the clergy and swept away the remnants of feudal law and government which had hampered the rising system of capitalist production.

It had rationalized and sanctified its purposes in the name of the rights of man, which it described as eternal and self-evident natural truths. From the point of view of a working class, however, the civil and political liberties of the democratic government are not the rights of man; they are the rights of the middle class. This does not mean that they are valueless, for the democratic republic is a higher stage of social evolution than the feudal society which it replaced; it is indeed the typical stage of a middle class society and the highest it can attain, though still far from the highest stage possible.

Marx’s attitude toward political and civil liberty was thus always ambivalent. In comparison with the undefined liberties which he imputed to a socialist society, he described rights like the suffrage, and political methods like representation, as mere formalities or mere concealment of an underlying class despotism. In general, however, he assumed that socialism would continue and extend political liberty. But this never depended on an analysis of socialism but only on an a priori belief that in a developing society nothing valuable can be lost.

Thus Marx arrived at an evolutionary theory of society in which the whole system of natural law fell into place as the ideology appropriate to a specific stage of development. The normal course of social development is feudalism, capitalism, socialism, with a form of political organization fitted to each.

Moreover, his theory of revolution made evident the mechanism by which political change taxes place: it is the incompatible interests of social classes and the struggle between them to dominate society in their own interest. The French Revolution relieved the middle class from exploitation by the older classes but left it an exploiting class.

The wage earning proletariat is an inevitable product of capitalism which rises pari passu with the bourgeoisie. The success of the bourgeois revolution opens the way for the more thoroughgoing proletarian revolution which in the end will sweep away the new exploiting class. But the final step will complete the process by abolishing classes and exploitation altogether.

Marx made it quite clear that he did not regard himself as having originated the theory of class antagonism. He took over and extended a theory created by French historians to explain the Revolution. In a letter to Engels he referred to Augustin Thievery as the father of the class struggle in French historical writing.

What Marx objected to in the middle-class historians was the presumption that the class struggle had ended with the rise to power of the bourgeoisie, just as he objected to the economists presumption that the laws of a capitalist economy were external and immutable.

In the revolutions of his own day Marx believed that he saw a new type of revolutionary uprising which had as its spear point not a middle class intent upon political rights but a working class rising to the consciousness of its own degradation and confusedly determined to alter not the political super Structure but the underlying economic causes of social inequality.

What did that was new was to prove:

  • (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular, historic phases in the development of production:
  • (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat;
  • (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.

The final step in Marx’s argument, therefore, is that the structure of classes that exists in a society at any given period is Itself an historical product which changes with the forces of economic production that the society is able to utilize. This he regarded as the ultimate cause to which the whole social, legal, and political framework of society can be traced back, while changes in this framework are to be correlated with changes in the methods of economic production, Writing in 1859, in one of the few autobiographical passages that occur in his works, Marx explained how a brief editorial experience with economic questions, for which he felt inadequately prepared, drove him back to a reconsideration of his Hegelian studies in philosophy and jurisprudence.

I was led by my studies to the conclusion that legal relations as well as forms of state could neither be understood by themselves, nor explained by the so-called general progress of the human mind, but that they are rooted in the material conditions of life, which are summed up by Hegel under the name of civic society; the anatomy of that civic society is to be sought in political economy.

This then was the final significance which Marx attached to materialism in contrast with Hegelian idealism. Hegel’s civil society and not his state is the primary factor in social evaluation. The legal and institutional relations that make up the state, and all the moral and religious ideas that accompany them, are only a superstructure built upon the underlying economic foundation of civil society.

The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding  forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.

The order of importance and of causal efficacy is reversed it is the economic order that produces while the mind merely reflects. As Marx said later, in Hegel dialectic stands on its head; dialectical materialism turned it right way up by removing the my stratification of idealism and substituting for them the substantial and tangible realities of the industrial system. Thus the dialectic no longer moves in the realm of logical abstractions but in the realm of real forces.

It is important to note, however, that it was not the dialectic which Marx changed but rather a metaphysical interpretation of it. The dialectic was a method, and it is quite clear that he meant to retain the main outline of Hegelian methodology. The purpose of the method in Hegel has been the essentially metaphysical one of establishing an order of precedence or of degrees of reality by which thought can rise from appearances to the Absolute Idea.

What Marx turned right way up was the order of precedence, while his forces of production remained a kind of material analogue to Hegel’s Absolute Spirit. Thus the actual facts and events of social, legal, and political history were still conceived by him as the phenomenal forms, the appearances or manifestations of this underlying reality, a kind of surface-play of transient and largely accidental circumstance which draws its necessity from the hidden force out of which it arises.

On purely empirical grounds the fact that political institutions and moral ideas are products of economic conditions would in no way entail the conclusion that they cannot in turn affect these conditions. In short, economic factors in dialectical materialism do not act merely as scientific causes which produce empirical consequences.

They are more nearly creative energies that operate like semi-personalized agents, though it is only fair to say that when Marx dealt with an actual problem of historical analysis, he was almost always better than his method. But the important critical question still remains, whether the dialectic was not a pseudo-method. In fact the sociological importance of Marx’s materialism depended on the degree in which it ceased to be in any definite sense dialectical and became simply empirical and causal.

In The Poverty of Philosophy Marx applied his new point of view to the criticism of economic science, both the classical economics and the economics of contemporary socialism, For the former he had high admiration, being convinced that as an account of Capitalism it was substantially correct. His objections against it were aimed largely at the incredible naivete of the economists in respect to the historical aspects of their subject.

As Engels said later, they argue as if Richarg the Lion Hearted, had he only known a little economics, might have saved six centuries of bungling by adopting free trade, instead of wasting his time on the crusades. As theologians divide religions into true and false, viz., their own and all others, so the economists treat all economic systems as if they were blundering approximations to capitalism, while they treat capitalism as if its relations and categories were natural and eternal.

Against this Marx defended the thesis that economics is an historical science. Its laws are applicable only to the stage of economic production to which they belong; its categories, such as profits, wages, and rent, are theoretical expressions, the abstractions, of the social relations of production.

These ideas, these categories, are as little eternal as the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products.

Thus economics became for Marx a combination of history and analysis of the relations prevailing in any given system of production, supplemented by the history of the rise and development of that system.

Toward humanitarian, utopian, and reformist criticisms of classical economics Marx was less tolerant. Such projects, in his opinion, offer palliatives, sentimentality, and idealist dreams without either history or analysis. In substance they all reduce to some plan for separating the good from the bad in capitalism, usually to some impossible way of uniting capitalist production with socialist distribution, Utopian socialism, he believed, refuses to face the hard fact that, given a system of production, distribution of the social product follows, and the whole class structure and political system with it.

In fact, he was much less than just to the utopian socialists, for his own theory of the classless society was as utopian as anything In Proudhon. He merely postponed utopia to an indefinite future. Marx shared with Hegel a contempt for any personal ideal or desire, which he identified with mere caprice. The ideal is all to be attributed to the internal drive of the system itself, and is good merely because it is inevitable; that is, the final goal of the system’s evolution.

The practical effect of this prepossession was that Marx discounted any attempt at reform. He considered legislation to be incapable of changing the industrial system in any important respect, and hence he valued social legislation merely as a step toward revolution. The capitalist system must in the end be smashed, and Marx never abandoned the essentially utopian idea that smashing one system is a sure way to create a better system.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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