Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

For a scientific vision of the world: Determinism or free will?

by Charles Gagnon

First Published: Proletarian Unity No. 24 (vol 5 no 2), April-May-June 1981
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Malcolm and Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.

The history of mankind can be described as the history of the efforts of human communities to free themselves from the constraints always imposed by the necessity of meeting their daily survival needs and reproducing the species.

Banal at first glance, this statement in fact sums up one of the major conclusions of historical materialism. Unless we understand the implications of this correctly, we cannot wage a systematic and effective struggle against the various forms of idealism that underlie many of the political trends and theories so fashionable today. These range from open opposition to Marxism, whose scientific validity is increasingly challenged,[1] through the virulent condemnations of Marxism-Leninism, for which the “monster Stalin”[2] serves as the living and ever-so-repulsive embodiment.

We cannot hope to present a thorough defence of Marxism in the limits of a short article for the journal. In any case, this is undoubtedly not the last time we will be discussing this question. For one thing, the questions which we have drawn attention to about the struggle for socialism have not had the universal effect of getting people to undertake a more materialist and scientific examination of the struggle up to now. One other result of our questioning has been to open the door to various positions and points of view that are not unrelated to the current prevailing forms of idealism.

The limits of the brief notes that follow are obvious. Nonetheless, it seems useful to publish them as a contribution to a debate that is very necessary, a debate that is a political debate. For there are times when to make progress in our political practice we have to get seriously involved in the realm of theory. Now is one of these times.

One of the most troubling questions confronting humankind in trying to understand its own evolution is without a doubt the question of the role played by men and women in this evolution. In individual terms, it is the question of free will; in terms of society, it is the question of the relation between the objective factors and the subjective factors. Do men have free will? Can societies influence the course of their own development? These questions are certainly not new. They are, however, questions that are still worth asking today, and notably with respect to the framework of the struggle for socialism.

A journey back into the past

In the beginning, mankind was composed of many, many very primitive communities descended, let us not forget, from certain species of animals. With populations that were usually fairly small, these primitive communities developed in much the same way that herds of animals do, using their natural environment to ensure their survival and reproduction. The first human communities remained ignorant of the laws of nature for a long, long time. This was the period Engels described as the age of necessity: man was governed by nature, subjected to overwhelming natural forces. Water, fire, thunder, wind, the earth, animals, other human communities – all were uncontrollable, or nearly uncontrollable, enemy forces.

As mankind’s knowledge grew, as the natural and social sciences developed, the foundations were laid for the age of liberty. Human societies gradually came to master the laws of nature better and better. Their new knowledge allowed them to make more use of natural forces.

Meanwhile, the isolated primitive communities gradually evolved into the worldwide society of the 20th century. Worldwide society, because there is today an international division of labour – all societies throughout the world are now interdependent. The socialization of humanity has reached unprecedented levels.

The history of humanity is the history of human communities involved in the struggle for their existence. This phenomenon precedes the phenomenon of social classes. It is prior to class ideologies. It is even prior to societies’ awareness of their own organization and development.

All this means that history cannot be seen primarily as the result of the conscious actions of this or that class, and even less as the work of this or that individual. We have rejected the vision of history that says that the history of Europe in the early 19th century can be reduced to the Napoleonic Wars and Napoleon’s talents as a general. Now we also have to break with a similar vision that attributes the decisive role to Marx, Lenin or Stalin. What holds true for the 19th century holds true for today: the history of societies is the history of communities as a whole – human communities that want to survive and reproduce, human communities that increasingly want to do so with less expenditure of human energy, by making full use of the techniques they have developed to transform nature and benefit from the treasures it can provide.

From this point of view, capitalism is first and foremost enormous social progress. The generalization of industrial production, for example, holds the promise of much greater potential welfare for the human race than any previous method of production has. As well, the prodigious development of the sciences – especially since the 19th century, or, in other words, under capitalism – has created the conditions for even greater social progress.

Recognizing this does not mean ignoring the fact that this social progress has been accompanied by much suffering and many social ills. Indeed, in some respects the social ills under capitalism are just as great and just as abhorrent as any in pre-capitalist societies. Nonetheless, it is important not to see capitalism as a kind of universal scourge, whose emergence was the root of every evil imaginable. Capitalism should not be seen as something intrinsically evil, that mankind could and should have done without.

This vision of things is not limited to history alone, and that is why it is so important. The social sciences in general, and anthropology in particular – or certain popularizations of anthropology, to be more precise – have created a tremendous fascination with pre-capitalist societies, especially primitive societies. Their way of life, their system of values, seem to hold such an attraction that some people, nostalgic for the “natural” life of primitive man, conclude that the progress achieved by class society has actually been a setback, and that the future of mankind lies in a return to the past.

This line of thinking ignores a number of very concrete realities, starting with demography: how could the billions of people who inhabit the earth today live from hunting and fishing and gathering wild plants? It ignores the progress made by science in general and the many positive ways this progress affects man’s living conditions, even if scientific progress also has some negative effects. Despite pollution, despite cancer, despite the lab monkeys deprived of their freedom, despite the carbon monoxide that chokes cyclists, it is nevertheless true that the life expectancy today – in some of the most polluted countries of the world – is 70 years and more. It is also true that there is a steady drop in the infant mortality rate, despite the “barbarism” of deliveries under spotlights in cold, modern stainless steel hospital rooms.

We could go on and on. What it comes down to is this: the possibility of entertaining the dream of a return to a “natural past” exists because of the material progress they enjoy today: and this material progress is itself conditional on the “unnatural” things, deplorable events and even negative side effects created by man that the dreamers complain so bitterly of.

Man has acquired steadily increasing control over nature, but at a price; and the price was the development and use of various practices, some of which are revolting and even loathsome by our standards today – for instance, cannibalism, slavery, class domination, the oppression of women and of smaller or weaker communities.

This much is admitted by most people: we cannot return to primitive society’s way of life except at the price of a disaster worse than any of the problems that plague the world today. Despite this, however, there are still some who argue that we need to return to the values of the past, and as far back in the past as possible. But these people forget that the “primitive values” they are so nostalgic for were the expression or reflection of social relations that no longer exist, social relations that corresponded to a very backward level of development and incomparably less scientific understanding than we have today.

Only an idealist can think like that, for it means assuming that there are eternal values that exist independently of the material conditions of existence of the societies that uphold and transmit any given values. And to believe in the existence of eternal or absolute natural values means disregarding the entire history of mankind; it means disregarding the history of life and the living beings on earth from which man evolved million of years ago. All moral values and cultural forms are the products of the societies that developed them in the course of history. And the most natural thing in the world for mankind is still its own evolution.

From this point of view, the purpose of socialist revolution is not to restore a “natural order of things” that was somehow get rid of at some point in history. The various forms of society in the past have been the responses worked out by men and women to surmount the problems of how to survive and reproduce. Cannibalism, for example – the practice some communities had of eating the members of communities they defeated – preceded slavery in some parts of the world, and was just as “natural” a practice as is capitalist exploitation today. And some of the prisoners condemned to spend 20, 30 or 40 years behind bars in our penal system tend to think it would be more “natural” to re-establish the death penalty.

No, the purpose of socialist revolution is instead to provide today’s society with a form of organization that corresponds to the material possibilities open to us today and that satisfies the cultural and moral values that current conditions and the history of mankind have taught us to consider most appropriate to the well-being of humanity. Contemporary society has the objective material capacities – in the developed societies, at any rate – to put an end to capitalist exploitation and all the forms of oppression that it perpetuates – the oppression of women, national oppression, the oppression of the different “minorities” in our society such as the old, the handicapped, homosexuals, etc. This is the basic and primary reason for working for socialism.

But socialism is not predestined

The question of the extent to which men are masters of their existence, the extent to which they can make real choices as individuals or social communities, is nearly as old as man himself. It is certainly as old as the study of philosophy; it dates back to the earliest times when men began to think about their world, life, themselves, began to try to understand why things happened the way they did, and whether they could happen differently, and how they could be made to happen differently.

This is much the same problem as the question of the relationship between the objective and subjective factors in the evolution of societies. The subjective factors are the expression of society’s freedom to change its situation; the objective factors are the things that society cannot directly change, the things it must accept as factors independent of its will.

On all these questions, be it the question of individual liberty or the role of subjective factors in the evolution of societies, philosophers have always wavered between two poles: pure determinism on the one hand, and absolute free will on the other.

It was in the 19th century that a scientific conception of the world began to win out definitively over previous ideologies, all more or less religious. There was considerable growth of scientific attitudes towards natural phenomena, but this development was much less pronounced when it came to attitudes towards people and societies. Idealist conceptions about the latter were much more tenacious: man is reluctant to acknowledge that his existence and that of societies are governed by laws that can be discovered and understood scientifically, just as all other natural laws can be.

Marxism can be described as the first rigorously scientific vision of society. The fundamental law of Marxism holds that the life of human society is in the final analysis determined by the level of development of the productive forces.

Does this mean that Marxism is a philosophy of social determinism? Does Marxism hold that the existence and development of societies are determined absolutely, that they have no freedom? If the answer to this is yes, then it is misleading and deceptive to hold out the prospect of revolution, for in the final analysis it would be the determinism of the productive forces that counts.

The idea is hard to accept. For one thing, everyone can think of situations in which it is possible to make choices. The people of El Salvador are today faced with the choice between continuing to be governed by a reactionary regime or waging a struggle to overthrow that regime and establish democracy and perhaps even socialism, furthermore, we can think of many, many historical situations in which societies have made choices that have altered the course of events. Men can make plans for their individual and collective existence, just as they can make plans to transform nature and put it to work for them.

The history of humanity, especially in the last few decades, provides ample proof that men can use nature for specific purposes and transform it to a considerable extent to suit their needs. How is this possible? It is possible inasmuch, and only inasmuch, as they rely on the laws governing the “life” of nature to transform it. Man is now capable of sending a spaceship outside our solar system; he can do so only because he has learned and mastered many of the laws governing gravity, energy, the strength of various metals, electronics and communications, etc. In other words, men’s freedom to transform nature depends on how well they understand it.

This is basically the same reason Marx and Engels studied the life of human societies, and especially capitalist society. Through their research, they gained a certain understanding and vision of history. They concluded that human life in society was historically determined by the level of development of productive forces, that is by the gradual and progressive development of man’s capacity to ensure his subsistence by transforming nature. This means that the first law of human society is that a society is determined by the need to ensure its own subsistence. Everything it does is ultimately oriented towards satisfying this “fundamental determinism”. The way a given society goes about doing this, the organizational forms it develops to satisfy this basic requirement, are determined by the level of development of the productive forces. This is what Marx and Engels meant when they said that the relations of production are, in the final analysis, determined by the development of the productive forces.

This raises the question of the action of the working class, and more specifically the action of communists, in relation to the struggle for socialism today. Does it even make sense to talk about waging the struggle for socialism? Should we not just view socialism as the necessary and inevitable result of the development of the productive forces? Isn’t the struggle for socialism a delusion?

Unless I am very mistaken, no communist, no socialist – of any stripe – has ever said that the struggle for socialism is a delusion, a sham. No one has ever categorically suggested that socialism would inevitably result from the development of the productive forces alone. Nonetheless, there have been times in the history of the communist movement when positions were defended which in practice boiled down to making the future of socialism solely dependent on the development of the productive forces. It can certainly be argued – although it has not yet been proven rigorously – that this point of view became predominant in the international communist movement after World War II, and that it was already predominant in the Second International by World War I.

As a matter of fact, certain phrases written by Marx and Engels can easily be invoked in support of such a view of historical development. Marx said that there is a “necessary correspondance” between the relations of production (and thus the various historical forms into which society has been organized) and the level of development of the productive forces. From this, it is sometimes rather easy to slip into saying something else: that a given level of development of productive forces will necessarily coincide with an equally advanced set of relations of production.

Yet there is an enormous difference between the two statements. It is one thing to say that capitalism emerged in Western Europe in the wake of feudalism and commodity production, because of the level of development of the productive forces that had been attained in that part of the world. It is another, quite different thing to say that it was inevitable (necessary) that capitalism emerge in Western Europe as soon as the Middle Ages were over.

In other words, historical materialism enables us to understand to a certain extent – for we still have much to learn about this – some stages in the evolution of human societies; but it does not tell us that these stages were inevitable. Nor does it enable us to foretell the future. In short, historical materialism cannot be treated as a magic recipe for the sure-fired road to socialism. To try and do so would be to commit the mirror image of the same mistake that many have made in trying to understand past history, when they conclude that the “failures” of socialism are the result of a poor application of Marxism-Leninism.

The development of societies does not follow a predestined, predetermined course. Societies can act on and influence their development. But – and this is the fundamental lesson of Marxism – societies cannot act in ways that contradict the laws currently governing the evolution of societies. It is important to learn to understand these laws, because then we can intervene more effectively in the process of social change in the future and, above all, better serve the cause of socialism.

Some practical consequences

Theoretical arguments like these sometimes seem very abstract and far removed from “real political problems”. Yet, take any “real political problem”, any at all, and it is clear that there is a constant need to defend the solutions to these problems based on a materialist theoretical approach against all the various solutions rooted in what are basically idealist conceptions of society. Let’s look at a few examples.

Many, many socialists and democratic people in Quebec are in favour of independence for the Quebec nation. They have various different reasons: they want to prevent the assimilation of French-speaking Quebecois; achieve a national identity; put an end to their oppression; weaken the federal State and hasten the victory of socialism in Quebec and all of Canada... There is nothing wrong with any of these reasons, in themselves. Many struggles have been waged in the past, and more will be waged in the future, for these goals.

But in looking at the question of independence from the point of view of historical materialism, the basic question is: is political independence important enough for any class in Quebec society to justify revolution, and if so, for what class? For in the current situation, it is hard to imagine Quebec winning its independence through negotiations among a dozen first ministers. Unless and until there is a serious answer to this question, we have to conclude that the interests of the masses of ordinary Quebecois are not served by the “independence and socialism” programme that some offer them; on the contrary, such a programme perpetuates illusions that will eventually give way to severe disillusionment.

There are at least as many political tendencies and trends in the women’s movement as in any other mass movement. Some of these tendencies give priority to changing people’s “consciousness”, rather than women’s material conditions. This does not reflect a materialist way of looking at reality, and can also lead to setbacks and dead-end solutions. Changes in ideology can only be lasting if they are grounded in transformations in material conditions.

Significantly, the women most involved in the women’s movement are usually women who are active outside their homes, who are in direct contact with social reality, who are confronted with the contradictions in society without the intermediary – shield or smokescreen – of a man who supports them. Women activists are mostly workers (sometimes unionized, sometimes not), farmers’ wives, students, single mother (many of whom are forced to live on welfare), and so on.

This is why it is important, from a materialist point of view, to support struggles to improve women’s access to jobs and to benefit from the same working conditions that men have. This is why it is equally important to combat the tendency to reduce the women’s struggle to a promotion of “feminine values” in contrast to “masculine values”. These values do exist. But most, if not all, of them are more the result of the age-old oppression of women than the expression of any specifically feminine nature. More often than not, they have been used to justify an inferior status for women.

If we lose sight of the relationship between ideology – including moral values and cultural expressions – and the social relations that constitute its main “material foundation” or the conditions of their existence, then we run the risk, in this specific instance, of playing into the hands of the bourgeoisie. In today’s society, the idea that women are different by their very nature is a justification for confining them to specific roles, the effect of which is to keep them in a situation of material and social inferiority.

It is very probable that the women’s liberation movement will not become an irreversible tide unless and until the vast majority of women attain sufficient material autonomy to have a decisive political influence on the course of events. So far, the political force of a social class or section of class has been drawn from its material force, namely its place in production – not only in the production of goods (with a use value) like meals for the family, but also, under capitalism, in the production of commodities (with an exchange value) that generate capital.

It is very fashionable to criticize “Stalinist parties” these days. Indeed, in some circles any political party is Stalinist almost by definition. Anarchism, or libertarian socialism, has a very definite influence among people on the left today, and its most radical followers totally reject any kind of party. In its place they advocate a federation of various organizations based on people’s affinities as much as on common interests. Others who call themselves libertarian socialists or who are attracted by these ideas argue for a new kind of party that would be neither Stalinist (read “communist”) nor social-democratic, a party that would not operate on the basis of democratic centralism, that ultimate expression of Stalinism! As well, there are many self-described social democrats who clearly welcome the new enthusiasm for condemning Stalinism.

The hunchback Stalin is such a huge, grotesque target for these critics that his figure seems to have cast a shadow on history long enough to push people like Bakunin, Bernstein and Kautsky[3], completely out of view – along with the political trends they stood for. Stalin becomes a mere whipping boy used to discredit communism, and this suits the detractors of Stalin just fine. It means they can usually gloss over the fact that the history of libertarian socialism (or Utopian socialism and anarchism) and social democracy goes back at least as far as the history of communism. It would therefore be entirely appropriate to examine their contributions to the development of the struggle for socialism as well. What happened to the worker-controlled communities modelled on the ideas of Owen and Fourier in Great Britain, the United States and elsewhere? How has socialism progressed since the social democrats held power in Great Britain, in West Germany or in various provinces in Canada? These experiments and experiences are also part of history, and deserve to be examined.

The libertarian school of thought is an expression of idealism, both in its simplistic vision of history and in its understanding of revolutionary political action. It promotes the cult of spontaneity, individualism and supposed total democracy. Strip democratic centralism of its label, the libertarians argue, and you have authoritarianism; and in the name of rejecting this authoritarianism, they call for structures of direct democracy in which everybody is of course free to say whatever they want to, but in which just as surely certain individuals in practice are in a position to make the decisions they want to, when they want to. The libertarians call this “revolutionary democracy”; it bears a remarkable resemblance to the kind of democracy practiced by the Liberal Party.

The same goes for their opposition to the Stalinist party: they do not justify their criticism on the basis of an analysis of the relative strength of the political forces involved, or in the light of a coherent strategic line; no, their criticism stems rather from an out-of hand categorical rejection of organization, discipline and collective work.

The line of the libertarian socialists and, more generally, the “anti-Stalinists” on the party and democratic centralism is also a political expression of idealism.[4] It is based on ideas and aspirations that are present, all right, in bourgeois society, ideas that are indeed opposed to exploitation and oppression. But the libertarian line stays on the level of these ideas. An effort is made to apply them in practice without taking a look at the material bases which generated the ideas in the first place, without taking any account of the material conditions that have to be met in order to implement those ideas that truly reflect the interests of the majority of people.

The libertarians, incidentally, are very fond of an argument that used to be found exclusively in bourgeois propaganda: “By what right,” they argue, “can communists claim to represent the interests of the majority?” Such a question assumes that all points of view are equally valid, that each individual spontaneously acquires a clear and progressive vision of things. It denies the possibility of a progressively more thorough and more scientific understanding of reality, if we only take the trouble to study it. It ignores the fact that we are bombarded with bourgeois ideology in what we see and read, in the symbols and advertising that surround us, on television, in the newspapers, at work, in school, day in, day out, from when we get up to when we go to bed...

These are very brief and very summary examples. Nonetheless, I think they adequately illustrate the urgent necessity of making a much more thorough examination and analysis of history and the present-day situation as well as the importance of waging a firm struggle against the political expressions of idealism. If we ignore these tasks, the criticism of revisionism is liable to be transformed into its opposite, paving the way for political trends that are entirely foreign to historical materialism.


[1] The Monde Diplomatique for February 1981 reports that French academics have set themselves the task of destroying Marxism’s “hegemony”. Well-known biologists like Jacques Monod and Henri Laborit make insidious attacks on the scientific nature of dialectical materialism. Theirs and other points of view find an echo, even in progressive circles.

[2] These positions are defended by “libertarian socialists” like Dimitri Roussopoulos, of the magazine Our Generation. In less extreme form, they are also defended by most of the “anti-Stalinists”, who characteristically reject the “vanguard party based on democratic centralism...”

[3] Bakunin was a leading member of the anarchist trend and actively promoted it in the workers movement. German Social Democratic Party members Edouard Bernstein and Karl Kaustky were leading defenders of variants of the reformist position and the reformist section of the workers movement.

[4] This does not mean that everyone who criticizes, even severely, the positions and actions of Stalin is an “anti-Stalinist”. The term is used here to designate those who use the criticism of Stalin as a pretext for opposing the party and democratic centralism.