Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963


Since the last quarter of the nineteenth century, philosophers and historians have been involved in the controversy as to whether history provides knowledge sui generis or is a branch of science. Philosophers who support the latter alternative justify their view by a logical examination of the subject-matter and methods of history, which leads them to the conclusion that the reasons advanced for a sharp differentiation of history from science are untenable. This is also the view adopted by Marxist-Leninists but they reach it by a method of their own. The Marxist-Leninist examination of historical thinking begins with laying down the conditions which it must satisfy to be a branch of scientific knowledge. The conditions are established by an a priori argument. To be a science history must recognise the existence of historical laws, make the search for these laws its chief preoccupation, and demonstrate that determinism rules supreme over the whole course of historical development. To recognise that the development of society and its history conforms to objective regularities and causal necessity, is to adopt the materialist standpoint. On the other hand, to deny that there are historical laws is to reduce history to the level of narration and explanation concerned with sequences of unique events. This is the idealist approach to history which either keeps historical inquiry at its pre-scientific stage or destroys it as a scientific activity. For scientifically valid and significant knowledge is always knowledge of laws. As Bukharin put it, the “Windelband-Rickert opposition of ‘history’ to ‘theory’ must be put away in the archives” [1001].

This argument eliminates at a high level of abstraction any method of historical inquiry which does not consist in the discovery of laws. It does not reach its conclusion upon a prior examination of what principles underlie historical thinking and what a historian tries to do, but sets some standards of procedure as obligatory and tells historians what they ought to achieve. To suppose that one knows in advance what the right method with respect to a subject-matter is, is to commit oneself to an a priori conception of scientific method. The appropriateness and fruitfulness of a method cannot be proved a priori without running the risk of being led astray by false analogies or preconceived ideas. In the case of Marxist-Leninists, these preconceived ideas are written plain and large in what they say on the subject.

The first of them is the acceptance of the naive point of view that the historian can make a survey of the past and describe it as if it were there, for everybody to observe and to contemplate, with the same self-evident substantiality and existence independent of the mind as things of the common sense world have. This naive point of view prevailed in historiography until the establishment of modern historical scholarship in the nineteenth century, it ruled supreme in the philosophy of history, with the notable exception of Kant, and culminated in Hegel’s idea of the ‘grand phenomenon’ of the world history. It was Hegel who in the introduction to his lectures on the philosophy of history informed his audience that what he was going to say would be a ‘summary view’ of the whole course of history which ‘happens to be known to me because I have traversed the entire field’ [1002]. Marxist-Leninists often seem to vie with Hegel in this respect and they too make the claim to some kind of direct acquaintance with the world historical process. This claim is closely related to their adherence to the common sense view on the reality of the external world.

The hypostatisation of the subject of history, which has neither the spiritual subsistence of the Hegelian idea nor should be visualised in the image of Heraclitus’ river, for its reality is apparent and created through man’s constant effort to gain knowledge of his past, results from an implicit or explicit subordination of history to a philosophical principle, the proton pseudos of every speculative philosophy of history. The course advocated by Marxism-Leninism is precisely that which the founders of modern historical scholarship, Ranke or Burckhardt, had most emphatically repudiated as unhistorical and based on false premisses.

Expressed in terms of contemporary methodology, Marxist-Leninists confuse two totally different questions. They rightly assume that historical inquiry cannot dispense with some heuristic constructs, generalisations, and universal laws, and that the latter are as indispensable in historical research as in natural science. This particular point, taken by them for granted, has been established by Max Weber and, more recently, by logical empiricists. It does not imply, as Marxist-Leninists seem to think, that the search for universal laws is the essential purpose of historical inquiry. Max Weber, perhaps more than anybody else, contributed to the realisation that in the historical sciences the knowledge of the universal and general is not valuable in itself, but merely as a means and a heuristic instrument for attaining a causal explanation and an interpretative understanding of the significance which a concrete constellation of reality has for us in certain individual situations. To give a causal explanation of historical events the historian refers to recurrent causal relationships of everyday experience and to universal laws. But no law, unless it is a value-judgment or a precept in disguise, can tell us anything about the significance of causally connected events. Their value-relevance is ‘logically rooted’ in the fact that men are cultural beings, endowed with the will and capacity to adopt a deliberate attitude towards the world and to confer significance upon it[1003].

Weber’s emphasis upon the value-interpretative approach and its priority in historical inquiry over psychological, sociological, economic and other kinds of explanations, reinforced the opinion that all knowledge of historical and cultural reality is always knowledge from a particular point of view, and, consequently, that it is never free from presuppositions and value-premisses. This does not imply that historical inquiry cannot establish any valid results and transcend the boundaries of the historian’s arbitrary world. For once the choice, circumscribed by the values involved, is made, there is nothing subjective or arbitrary in the historian’s procedure. He has to follow causal sequences, to submit to the evidence and universally valid rules of inference. On the other hand, Weber again put into relief the fact, which few historians ever questioned, that historical inquiry is concerned with the description of particular events. Although the historian cannot do without heuristic constructs, general and universal laws, his specific interest in singular events as such requires specific procedures. The logic of historical explanation can be only partly identified with the patterns applied in natural science. It also needs some methods of its own.

The Marxist-Leninist assumption that history would have no scientific significance if it did not search for laws which govern historical events is a survival of the times when the so-called principle of causality was regarded as a necessary presupposition of all scientific inquiry. The metaphysical belief in causality prompted the identification of scientific inquiry with the discovery of causal laws: Scire est per causas scire. For reasons of its own, nineteenth century positivism strongly fostered the belief that no inquiry is scientific unless it establishes laws. This prompted Durkheim to refuse history the name of science and to doubt whether it could ever gain this distinction[1004]. From this viewpoint singular events were of no interest unless they provided particular instances to confirm or illustrate a generalisation or a law. The interest in singular events as such was outside the sphere of science and could not be reconciled with the nature and purpose of scientific inquiry.

Marxist-Leninists thought that this view, nowadays somewhat old-fashioned, could be supported by some fresh arguments. In their opinion, the results of the controversy over the subject-matter of history conducted more than fifty years ago and revived in the ‘thirties in connection with the neo-positivistic programme of the unity of science supplied decisive evidence for the possibility of reducing history to a system of laws.

One of the difficulties obstructing the feasibility of the neo-positivistic programme was the dualistic conception of science, its division into Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften, natural inquiries and human studies, which had a considerable following on the Continent of Europe in the first decades of this century. It was widely accepted that what was variously called historical, moral, or cultural sciences, human studies or the humanities, differed from natural science not only in their respective procedures, individualising in the case of the former, generalising in that of the latter, but also in their respective subject-matter. While natural science deals with recurrent or repeatable occurrences, the humanities are always concerned not only with specific and singular but also with unique and non-recurrent events. This view was challenged by logical empiricists. Uniqueness is not a distinctive characteristic of historical events. Every event is unique, if thereby all its characteristics are meant, and in this sense no event, whether natural or historical, repeats itself. But events which are unique in this sense can have some common or similar specific characteristics, and this applies equally to both categories of events. For instance, every battle is a unique combination of circumstances and differs from every other battle. But they have also some similar characteristics, because otherwise we could neither appreciate the uniqueness of each nor even refer to them by means of a common term[1005].

Logical empiricists were content to disprove the assertion that ‘unique’ is a characteristic to be exclusively ascribed to historical events and that ‘unique’ is an absolute and not a relational predicate. For if ‘unique’ were an absolute predicate, no complete description of an event could be accomplished. Similarly, the past could not even be narrated. As Professor Butterfield observed, ‘between a succession of absolutely unique particles there can be no thread that would hold a narrative together’ [1006]. The view that the variety of historical events surpasses in degree the variety of other events, but that all events are ‘unique’ in some sense of this term, which is compatible with attributing to them common or similar specified characteristics, gave an operational meaning to the unique individuality of historical events. We speak of recurrent or non-recurrent events in accordance with procedure, generalising in the first, individualising in the second case.

Logical empiricists did not deny or try to obscure the distinction between the historical and natural sciences, which indubitably exist. They only emphasised that the recognition of the distinction does not imply either an ontological difference in the subject-matter of the historical and natural sciences or a total incomparability of their respective procedures, comprising, in fact, some common elements, mixed up together in most branches of knowledge and applied in a pure form only in the two instances of the extreme opposites, in theoretical physics on the one hand and in a historical chronicle on the other[1007].

This conclusion did not satisfy Polish Marxist-Leninists. They adopted the operational definition of uniqueness, established by logical empiricists, but rejected the opinion that an idiographic science, applying individualising methods, is either possible or desirable[1008]. For if all events are recurrent relative to some specified characteristics, uniqueness or unrepeatability is only a correlative concept with no factual reference. There can be no science of the unique and non-recurrent; it would require an infinite number of statements to describe an event in its unique individuality. Consequently, historical inquiry cannot be concerned with specific singular events in so far as they are unique, but only with respect to some of their recurrent traits. Recurrence provides, however, a logical ground for the acceptance of generalisations and universal laws. This establishes the case that in historical inquiry the subject-matter itself imposes the task of searching for general and universal laws. As Engels has shown, the only alternative to the conception of history which ultimately faces an incoherent ‘flux of disturbing fortuities’ and has to give up the possibility of acquiring any kind of knowledge, is to base historical inquiry on the acceptance of historical laws and to explain the events by means of recurrent patterns governed by these laws. Marxism-Leninism adopts the second conception, which is supposed to provide the only basis for a scientific study of history[1009].

There are some serious difficulties inherent in this point of view, discovered long ago and overlooked by Marxist-Leninists. Before they are considered, another point requires elucidation. When Marxist-Leninists say, ‘There are historical laws’, they do not mean, ‘It is our conjecture that there are historical laws and for this reason we search for these laws and encourage others to follow in our footsteps’. The statement ‘There are historical laws’ means literally ‘There are historical laws, for they have been discovered’. Because of this, the fact that historical events exhibit recurrent characteristics carries a logical significance, which it would not have otherwise. A recurrent sequence of events does not justify by itself the existence of universal laws, because a statement of recurrent sequence is not necessarily a universal law[1010]. On the other hand, if there are historical laws, there must also be repeatable sequences of social elements or patterns which recur at intervals. There could be no such repeatable patterns, if historical events were unique. Therefore, the recurrence of events with specified characteristics, however different they may be in other respects, corroborates the existence of historical laws.

This argument involves the fatal flaw of circular thinking, which was exposed with painstaking thoroughness by Max Weber in his examination of analytical constructs, of ideal types in particular, and of their role in the logic of explanation in the historical and cultural sciences. The assumptions of historical materialism define a point of view or provide principles of selection, by means of which facts are construed and arranged, conceptual schemes are constructed, stages and periods are distinguished[1011]. Weber emphasised that the clarity and explanatory power of such analytical constructs may produce the temptation to mix theory with history, ‘ideas’ with ‘things’, as Marx would have said, and to transform a point of view into a system of objectively valid laws. This would reverse the respective roles of facts and theoretical assumptions. The heuristic analytical instruments are framed for the purpose of serving historical knowledge and the confusion of theory and history with each other reduces historical knowledge to the role of evidence corroborating theory. The proof of the factual or metaphysical validity of the constructs cannot be achieved without inflicting distortions upon reality which is to be interpreted and explained. Weber criticised the Marxian theory from this point of view. He emphasised the soundness and fruitfulness of its socio-economic and developmental constructs as long as they are applied as ideal types and their perniciousness as soon as they are regarded as empirically and metaphysically valid ‘transcendent hypotheses’ concerning ‘decisive forces’ or ‘tendencies’ working with the necessity of a law[1012].

The logic of the social sciences, as formulated by Weber, was the outcome of the failure suffered by the positivistic historiography. The collapse of the positivistic programme established the fact that no historical theory or point of view ever emerges by itself from the raw material of research. The theory must be brought, as it were, from the outside, to be in this sense a priori, to help to organise the material, to ask questions, and to raise problems. There are no facts in history apart from a point of view or a theory. For what counts as a fact is relative to a theoretical scheme of reference or to a tentative assumption of what are the essential features and connections in the sequence of events to be studied by the historian. Consequently, no historian can present a simple record and narrative of facts. A more objective study of history consists in the recognition of the limitations inherent in the historian’s craft, in making explicit his implicit value premisses and assumptions which define his specific point of view and provide him with his guiding rules of research.

Marxist-Leninists ignore this development, reject the methodology of historical relativism, and continue to define the task of historical inquiry in terms of nineteenth century positivism. Historical relativism is unacceptable to a Marxist-Leninist, for by its acceptance he would commit himself to the recognition of points of view other than his own. Moreover, as Lenin put it, the ‘materialist’ conception of history is no longer a hypothesis, but a scientifically demonstrated proposition’, not ‘a scientific conception of history’ but ‘the only scientific conception of history’ [1013]. It provides an absolutely objective frame of reference for the discovery of laws to which social relations and historical processes conform. It is self-evident that the claim of subjectivism – this term is used by Marxist-Leninists? in preference to relativism – with its open admission of the limitations on objectivity to be accepted in historical inquiry is unjustifiable. While objectivity is unobtainable as long as we try to secure it by means of logic alone, it is achieved by the recognition of law, order, regularity, causality, and necessity in Nature capable of being faithfully reflected in the mind.

Lenin’s restatement of the Marxian viewpoint bears no relevance to the issues raised by historical relativism. It should be noted that historical materialism did not originate in opposition to historical relativism but to the Hegelian or idealist conception of history which conceives history as the development of ideas and regards Reason as its ultimate metaphysical reality. Marx and Engels did not assert that their own interpretation was ‘devoid of premisses’, but that these premisses, formulated in terms of ‘real individuals’ and their activities in the material conditions under which they live, could be verified in a purely empirical way[1014].

From the methodological point of view the historical materialism of Marx and Engels is a particular strand in the broad current of nineteenth century positivistic historiography, with its ideal of assimilating the process of history to a kind of natural process and history to natural science. Facts were to be ascertained and the laws framed by generalisations, inductive reasoning, the formulation and testing of hypotheses. This programme failed, for neither historical facts nor historical hypotheses are methodologically comparable with those of natural science. The nineteenth century model has become out-dated because it failed to solve the baffling problem of objectivity in history. The assumptions and the theoretical scheme of reference which the historian brings with him to his work and which results in conflicting historical interpretations of the same set of events, are not testable, either directly or indirectly, by observation, for there is no common body of evidence for these events recognised by all historians irrespective of their adopted point of view. Historical facts are relative to interpretations and thus they cannot confirm the adopted interpretation in the same manner as natural facts may test the validity of the proposed hypothesis.

While the Marxian conception of history provides an alternative to the idealist interpretation of history, it is not an alternative to historical relativism. It is not enough, as Lenin and his followers assume, to state the former to refute the latter. There are few historians to-day who would not make use of historical materialism as an analytical tool and as a principle of historical explanation. But historical materialism is a method of investigation or one hypothesis among many other possible points of view. This is more in keeping with Marx’s own opinion of the role to be assigned to historical hypotheses than the current claim made by Marxist-Leninist philosophers and historians that one and only one of them is not arbitrary, is absolutely true and universally valid. There is no universal passe-partout to historical events, Marx wrote towards the end of his life. A particular historico-philosophical theory which explains everything explains nothing, and its supreme virtue consists in being super-historical[1015].