The Marxian View Of History

The Marxian View Of History

In a sense a person's philosophy cannot be evaluated. It can be sub­jected neither to any empirical examination nor to any test of its logical consistency with external phenomena. It is part of its possessor, his way of looking at things, his approach to an understanding of the universe, his basic assumptions, and his prejudices. It comes to him or upon him from the totality of his reactions to external stimuli—both mental and physical. There is but one test that can legitimately be applied to a person's philosophy. This involves an examination of the breadth and depth of his contact with other philosophies and with objective phenomena in the formu­lation of his own philosophy. In this sense a person's philosophy is of his own making, for he can either consciously and deliberately place himself in wide and open contact with the philosophies and objective phenomena of the universe, or he can shut himself up in his own closet and in its dark­ness spin out his own philosophy.

Evaluation of Marx's Philosophy

Needless to say, philosophies formulated under the latter circumstances are suspect. They lack the very stuff of which adequate philosophies must be made—contact with the thoughts of others and with the world as it is. In this respect no criticism can be leveled at Marx. Searching study of philoso­phies occupied the early years of his life. He struggled to the point of literal exhaustion over the conflicting philosophical systems he encountered. It was only after the most careful examination of the philosophical ideas of his day and of the past that he accepted the essence of Hegelian philosophy. Although his contacts with the outside world were limited during his early years, he was projected from his student life directly into the midst of a most active life in the world of reality. His numerous journalistic en­deavors, his contacts with workingmen's groups, and his years of study in the British Museum gave him an extensive and intimate knowledge of the world in which he had lived. Although his philosophy is in a sense chiefly the product of his philosophical studies, it nevertheless must have been conditioned and matured by these worldly contacts. By these tests, Marx's basic philosophy stands above criticism.

This, of course, does not mean that Marx necessarily found the one ultimate, absolute truth in the universe. It is just as meaningless to say that the Marxian philosophy was right and other philosophies were and are wrong as it is to say that tall men are better than short men or blue eyes better than brown without specifying arbitrarily some standard whereby they are to be judged. From the standpoint of its inherent quality, Marx's philosophy was no better than others that have been formulated out of equally sincere, comprehensive, and deep contact with ideas and events. Conversely, it could be innately worse than others only in the sense of hav­ing been fabricated out of shallow and less searching thought and experi­ence than other philosophies have been. Judged in this manner, the Marx­ian philosophy is quite adequate to justify its becoming, unchallenged, the philosophical starting point from which anyone who wishes to accept it may launch his attempts to understand the forces at work in the universe.

Application of Marxian Philosophy to an Interpretation of History

Other matters are involved, however, when one seeks to evaluate the ap­plication of this philosophy to an interpretation of history. A man's phil­osophy by its very nature may not be susceptible to evaluation. The same cannot be said for the manner in which he uses that philosophy or applies it to an ostensibly objective interpretation of specific events in the world in which he lives. Here certain rules of observation, logic, and consistency enter the picture as standards of evaluation. As a philosophical abstrac­tion, one might see fit to assume that all human action is dominated by selfish motives. As an abstraction, such a philosophy except for the tests of worth suggested earlier, could not be challenged. Yet the possessor of that philosophy could legitimately be challenged if he were to interpret every human act as actuated by desire for the greatest economic gain for himself. In this case either there are aspects of selfishness other than the economic, or the economic aspect is made so all-inclusive as to become meaningless. Failure to apply the basic philosophy so as to respect this point would merit criticism.

Indeed, it is just that sort of application of his philosophy for which Marx has been criticized. His basic philosophical assumption that all ob­jective phenomena are syntheses resulting from theses and antitheses at work in the world cannot be challenged, for reasons already noted. How­ever, he may well be criticized when, in applying this philosophy to the spe­cific explanation of just what has happened and will happen in the world, he either neglects all categories of these antitheses except the economic or so defines the economic as to include all others, thereby making it meaningless as a limited homogeneous category. He has a per­fect right to his basic philosophy because of the comprehension and depth of the thought and experiences out of which it grew, but his use of this philosophy violates commonly accepted rules of logic and consistency to such a degree that the practical worth of his economic interpretation of history may legitimately be questioned.

In passing, it should be noted that some modern adherents to Marx­ian theory refuse to make any distinction between Marx's philosophy and his economic interpretation of history. In a narrowly orthodox sense, they accept all of Marx and insist that it be all or nothing. His basic philosophy appears to them adequate, and once this is accepted they hold that all in­terpretations of historical events and prophecies of future events that he arrived at in the application of his philosophy must be accepted in minute detail. G. D. H. Cole has referred to this attitude as "the opium of the so­cialist orthodox" and to its adherents as "those who seek to save them­selves the pain of mental building by inhabiting dead men's minds."

Thus, although students of Marxian thought have seldom challenged his basic philosophy, they have been most critical of his application of that philosophy to a specific interpretation of historical events. It will be recalled that Marx found only economic theses and antitheses as the basic forces at work in the world. All other forces were derivatives of the eco­nomic which he termed, collectively and relative to any given point in time, the mode of production. This is held to be a one-sided interpreta­tion of history since, it is claimed, Marx has merely assumed without demonstration that the mode of production sets the content of all social institutions and processes, and that changes in this mode of production generate and determine the course of changes in all social institutions. Marx's critics have been quite voluble in pointing out forces they hold to be noneconomic but nonetheless deserving of inclusion among the inde­pendent and original forces that collectively determine the nature of exist­ing and future social institutions and processes.

Professor M. M. Bober, for instance, devotes a detailed discussion to this weakness in the economic interpretation of history. In fact, he con­cludes that "Marx's theory is impotent to account for historical processes, and the reason is that he failed to ascribe sufficient weight to the many noneconomic agencies in history." Although Marx admitted the existence of noneconomic forces, "he regarded them as emanations from the eco­nomic subsoil, and granted them the subordinate function of only accelerat­ing or retarding or slightly modifying the workings of the mode of production." Professor Bober contends that the factors emphasized by Marx as all-important are, in fact, plainly secondary to other factors. "The geo­graphical environment and man, with his intelligence and other traits, are the primary and basic factors of history. The mode of production can­not rank with them, because it is a derived phenomenon." Professor Bober admits that Marx recognizes the geographic factor but contends that he accords it insufficient influence of an economic character and neglects entirely its noneconomic effects.

Contributions of the Marxian Theory of History

If the Marxian theory of history and the predictions based on it are a one-sided oversimplification of the actual forces shaping the processes and institutions of society, it nevertheless has contributed substantially to human thought and understanding. It has offered a more realistic in­terpretation of history than certain other, also unbalanced theories that preceded and followed it. In comprehension and depth of understanding it is incomparably superior, for instance, to the "great man" theory of history, which holds that an institution is the lengthened shadow of one man. It emphasizes the continuity of history and, by searching for the causes of all historical events, it has challenged the concept of history as a collection of mere chaotic or chance happenings. It stresses the dynamic nature of human institutions, processes, and ideas. Although it is, of course, impossible to judge precisely how much of the modern historian's increasing interest in economic causation was inspired by Marx, without question his interpretation of history played a substantial part in creating this trend. Although Marx cannot be credited with originating the idea of evolution in social institutions, in its use he reached a level of effec­tiveness sufficiently high to stimulate emulation on the part of many others. He showed what a comprehensive monistic theory of history would be like if one could be found. In these ways, at least, the Marxian eco­nomic interpretation of history has contributed to an understanding of the sources of the economic world in which we live, of the closeness of the relationship between the economic and the other aspects of that world, and of the nature of historical processes.