Posts Tagged ‘materialism’


Daniel Little wants to have it both ways: on one hand, he wants to argue that the work of Karl Marx, after being buried for the umpteenth time, is relevant once again; on the other hand, his interpretation of Marx’s theoretical framework is so deterministic it’s a wonder Marx is relevant at all.

If this is Marxist theory, “All I know is that I am not a Marxist.”*

I don’t have the time to go through Little’s interpretation in detail. So, let me choose just his first point: materialism.

Social change is driven by material circumstances, the forces and relations of production. This encompasses the property system and the ensemble of technologies present in a given level of society. Materialism denies that ideas and thought drive social change; so religion, patriotism, nationalism, and ideologies of patriarchy are epiphenomena rather than originating causes.

Here, Little defines materialism as a kind of economic determinism, specifically property ownership and technology. And adds that, in his version of Marxian materialism, ideas and thought play no role.

That certainly is not my interpretation of materialism, which emphasizes historical and social explanation: the idea both that social phenomena emerge historically (and therefore change and develop over time, in a complex and contradictory fashion) and that each and every social event is the conjunctural result of all aspects of society (cultural as well as economic and political). Materialism is therefore counterposed to idealism, which means that social explanation cannot be reduced to an ideal or rational order (such as you get by focusing on the causal primacy of any one order of society like the economy).

In my view, it comes down to a distinction between discursive and causal priority. Marx focuses on the economy—and, within the economy, on class (which, to make a further distinction, is not the same as property)—not as a claim that the economy is the cause of everything else, but instead as a discursive entry point, a way of focusing attention and making a particularly Marxian sense of what is happening in society.

So, there’s a determinist Marx and a nondeterminist Marx, two very different interpretations of Marx’s writings. And Little and I clearly disagree in our interpretations. But that raises a second issue: anyone who puts forward a particular understanding of Marx also has to explain that there’s a large scholarly debate concerning Marx’s method, including a debate between more or less deterministic versions of Marx. Unfortunately, we don’t get any sense of that debate from Little’s list of “key theoretical frameworks.”

All of which leads me to say, if Marxism is reduced without debate to economic determinism, I am not a Marxist.


*According to Friedrich Engels, “Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French “Marxists” of the late [18]70s: ‘All I know is that I am not a Marxist’.”

Russian mir (мир) or obshchina (община)

Daniel Little has a useful posting on a letter that Marx wrote to Vera Zasulich, an important Russian Marxist, late in his life.

The letter is famous in Marxian circles because it indicates Marx’s interest in basing a Russian transition to communism on the existing peasant commune (mir or obshchina) rather than on the foundations laid by the full-fledged development of capitalism there.

Theoretically speaking, then, the Russian “rural commune” can preserve itself by developing its basis, the common ownership of land, and by eliminating the principle of private property which it also implies; it can become a direct point of departure for the economic system towards which modern society tends; it can turn over a new leaf without beginning by committing suicide; it can gain possession of the fruits with which capitalist production has enriched mankind, without passing through the capitalist regime, a regime which, considered solely from the point of view of its possible duration hardly counts in the life of society. But we must descend from pure theory to the Russian reality.

Little also understands that the letter addresses more general concerns. First, Marx’s materialism has nothing to do with predictive power. It is not an attempt to predict the future trajectory of society (in Russia or elsewhere) but to analyze existing social reality to intervene to create one possible, desirable trajectory. Second, it eschews any notion of a predetermined or necessary path of development.

It explicitly rejects the notion that Marx’s economic and historical theories are suited to the task of identifying the necessary or inevitable course of historical development. It summarily dismisses the idea of a necessary sequence of modes of production. Instead, Marx shows himself to recognize the contingency that exists in historical development, as well as the degree to which history creates new conditions in its course that influence future developments.

Marx’s letter turns out to be an important reminder of both the aleatory dimensions of Marxian materialism and the possibility of conceiving alternative paths to nonexploitative forms of economy and society that are rooted in contemporary reality rather than some necessary and predictable trajectory of history.