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International Socialism, Summer 1963


Alasdair MacIntyre

Prediction and Politics


From International Socialism, No.13, Summer 1963, p.15-19.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Alasdair MacIntyre teaches Philosophy at Oxford. Elements of his political history may be found in IS6.

‘What the bourgeoisie therefore produces is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.’ (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto)

‘As Marxists we do not hope for this or that, we confidently predict ...’ (Any sectarian group)

‘I cannot follow your habit of regarding economic inevitables as unworthy targets for opposition.’ (P. Sedgwick to IS Editors, IS 11)

‘History is on our side.’ (Any politician when drunk)


From Marx and Engels to the present words such as ‘inevitable’, ‘must’, ‘cannot’ and their logical kith and kin have flourished among socialists. It is perhaps worth disentangling the different strands of truth and error here in order to make sure that the maximum of sense is combined with the minimum of rhetoric. I have therefore in this article attempted to provide a revolutionary child’s guide to the use of these words. The paradox for socialists is that whereas the socialist message began with explaining to working people that the social order under which they lived, and in which they are excluded from social and economic power, is not inevitable but that their own choices and agency could begin to play a part in transforming social relations, too often socialists have ended by asserting that the overthrow of the existing social order is inevitable, and even mechanically inevitable. A liking for physical analogies and metaphors has not helped. ‘The wheel of history is still revolving forwards’ cried Dimitrov in the dock at Leipzig. Trotsky in Their Morals and Ours could write of ‘the deep conviction that the new historic flood will carry them to the other shore.’ But do the predictions that we make about the future history of human society ever resemble the predictions that we can make about eclipses, tides, wheels and mechanical systems? In order to answer this question we must first enquire about the nature of such predictions.


All systems of physical objects, larger than sub-atomic particles, are governed in their behaviour by laws such that, given an initial state of the system, we can confidently predict what future states of the system are going to be; provided, that is, that nothing interferes with the working of the system. Hence even in nature no future event is simply inevitable; it is at most inevitable that such and such an event should occur, if none of an indefinitely large class of other events occurs. The light put to the fuse does not make the explosion of the gunpowder inevitable, except on condition that in the intervening period rain does not extinguish the flame, Britain does not sink beneath the sea, and so on. Yet it is clear that for many systems we can be perfectly certain that there will be no such intervention. We do predict tides, eclipses, earthquakes and the like with perfect confidence.

Are social systems like physical systems? One central difference can be brought out as follows. If I learn what laws the particles in a physical system obey I do not thereby affect the operation of those laws, but I may have taken a first step towards altering what happens in the system. Learning the laws of gravity was not learning that flight was impossible, but was a necessary step in the invention of the aeroplane. By learning the laws of the system I learn what events I must bring about or prevent in order to bring about or prevent other laws. For all laws are of the form ‘If x, then y.’ If this is true of physical systems in which human intervention is from outside the system, it is also true of social systems where the human beings who may learn what the laws of the system are and proceed from what they have learnt to alter the laws of the system may themselves be part of the system which they are altering. Physical bodies, from particles to planets, must behave as they are going to behave, could not behave other than as they do behave, unless something else interferes with them; human beings in becoming conscious of the laws which govern their behaviour sometimes learn how to emancipate themselves from the laws in question. Compare the courses of the planets with the pig cycle.

The courses of the planets are so fixed by the laws governing the movement of bodies that tides and eclipses can be confidently predicted for many years to come. Where we cannot predict as confidently as this it is often simply because of complexity, because of the number of the factors involved.

So it is with the weather. And so some social scientists have supposed that it was with economic events. But the difficulty in prediction here is different in kind. Consider the pig cycle. In Britain between the wars a great many small farmers and small-holders went in for pig-breeding. Their activities followed a periodic cycle. At a time when very few farmers were breeding pigs, the demand and consequent price for pig products would be high and the cost of pig food so low as to be negligible. Consequently large numbers of fanners would conclude that there was profit in pigs. As the numbers of pig-breeders grew the price given for pig-products would fall and the price of pig food would rise. As a result the profit in pigs would diminish, large numbers of pig-breeders would recognise the unprofitability of the enterprise at about the same time, and the number of pig-breeders would decline sharply. Consequently the supply of pig products would fall, the price given for them would rise and the price of pig-food would fall, until once more and once more at about the same time large numbers of small farmers would conclude that there was profit in pigs, and the cycle would recommence. Given a knowledge of the number of farmers, the size of the market for pig products and so on, one could formulate the laws which governed the working of the cycle in such a way as to predict when there would be a glut and when a shortage of pig products, but the limitation on such prediction is not merely that of the complexity of the factors involved. There is also this limitation, that prediction of future events in the cycle depends on confidence in the continuance of the cycle, and the continuance of the cycle depended upon those whose activities constituted it remaining unconscious of its pattern. To become conscious of the pig-cycle or any other economic cycle is not all that is necessary to break its hold upon human behaviour; but unless men became conscious of such cycles, their hold could only be broken by other external factors impinging.

The lesson therefore may be that consciousness or the lack of it is one of the keys to historical change. But at once two points must be made. The first is that consciousness is never enough. We may become conscious of the laws which govern our behaviour and yet be unable to change it; for there may be no alternative to behaving in the way that we do. Or again there may be alternatives, but not ones that enough of us would prefer to the present social system. Consciousness is a necessary, not a sufficient condition for liberating ourselves from a particular social system of whose workings we had previously been unconscious. The second is that the coming into being and passing out of existence of social systems is commonly no more a matter of conscious choices and agency than their operation while they are in being. Indeed in the view of Marx precisely what would differentiate socialist society from all earlier societies, and more specifically from bourgeois society, is that it would be brought into being consciously and intentionally. But we cannot understand either the notion of social action for ends of which the agent is unconscious or the notion of conscious social construction unless we understand that consciousness is not in this context a matter of all or nothing, but a matter of more or less.

The individuals who make up a social system describe themselves and each other in a variety of ways. The sum total of these descriptions, the vocabulary of kinship, of work, of social hierarchy, in their interrelationship make up a description of the total system. The individual may be unable to describe the whole social set-up, and even more unable to understand its workings, yet in so far as he operates within it he grasps it at least partly. And there is a crucial sense in which men cannot be mistaken about their own social system at this level. But if this is so then any wider consciousness of the social system and its working grows out of a consciousness which is already implicit in the activity of those who make up the system. All sorts of factors may limit social consciousness. But false consciousness is essentially a matter of partial and limited insight rather than of simple mistake.

I have up to this point used the Marxist term ‘consciousness’ without questioning it; but beyond this point in order to avoid pitfalls I shall abandon it, simply because it is too much of a portmanteau word, which carries too much around with it. Instead I shall examine the role of beliefs and choices, though very briefly. About beliefs I shall make two points. They are related to actions internally and logically, rather than externally and casually. That is to say, a man’s actions can be consistent or inconsistent with his beliefs, can follow or fail to follow from what he believes, just as one belief can be consistent with another. This is because what a man does is specified by his intentions and his intentions are formulated from the same stock of descriptions as his beliefs and indeed presuppose these beliefs. The possibilities of description and belief logically delimit the possibilities of action. Secondly beliefs are affected by theorizing in a variety of ways, some of them unpredictable in principle. They are unpredictable first because genuinely new ideas and theories do occur; and to call them new in any radical sense is to say precisely that they break with our prior conceptions and could not have been predicted on the basis of them. And they are unpredictable secondly because a genuinely new idea may have effects which could only have been predicted if we already had experience of the effects of similar ideas; but in calling it new or original we pick it out as not resembling any other such ideas. The original invention of ideas as different as Luther’s ‘Justification By Faith Alone’, Darwin’s views of the origin of species and Keynes’ general theory of money and employment was in no sense predictable or law-governed; and both because of this and because of my last point their social effect was not predictable or law-governed either. This does not mean that we cannot after the event set out all sorts of conditions which were favourable to their production and dissemination. But these conditions do not furnish us with laws.

Choices are intelligible only in terms of beliefs and therefore their predictability depends upon the predictability of beliefs. For it is in terms of beliefs that alternatives have to be formulated. But not only in terms of beliefs. For what alternatives confront a given agent or a given society depends upon historical circumstance, levels of economic and social development and so on. The beliefs of agents in a situation are partially constitutive of that situation, but only partially. Hence we can predict that some choices are doomed to frustration, simply because of uncontrollable circumstances. But of those choices which are not doomed to frustration, which are between alternatives which circumstances leave open we shall be less able to predict the outcome. And since choices and beliefs are on occasion effective in altering circumstances, social prediction is always in jeopardy in ways in which prediction about the natural world would never be.

But whoever thought otherwise? Is not the emphasis on the nature of human action near the heart of Marx’s criticism of the French eighteenth-century materialists and of Feuerbach? Certainly, but the expulsion of mechanistic ideas of society from Marxism was not permanent. For these ideas recur, first with Engels and then with Stalin. And with them an entirely misleading concept of inevitability is developed.


This concept is familiar to the readers of the text-books. All nature is governed by laws. Darwin discovered the laws of the evolution of species, Marx the laws of the evolution of societies. Societies develop through a mechanical sequence of economic basis and social superstructure, with technological change as the lever of development. Ideas can hasten or retard development but cannot alter its direction. (Stalin). So far as capitalism is concerned ‘The forces operating in society work exactly like the forces operating in Nature ...’ so long as we refuse to understand them, and failure to understand is inherent in ‘the capitalist mode of production and its defenders.’ (Engels). ‘Thus past history proceeds in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion.’ Socialism will be different, for then men will understand social laws and thereby cease to be dominated by them. But up to the arrival of socialism the objective laws operate. Thus it follows that they govern the transition to socialism. Three forms of inevitable sequence are invoked.

The first is the large-scale sequence of types of society: pre-capitalist, capitalist, socialist. The second is the sequence of development of a capitalist economy : primitive accumulation, investment, expansion, periodic slump, final crisis. The third is the sequence of development of the consciousness of the working class. For the workers there is a progress from peasant outlook, through misery to comprehension culminating in revolutionary consciousness. These three sequences are interrelated. The second is a stage in the first. The third is what Engels calls a ‘reflex’ of the second. Together they constitute the proof of the inevitability of socialism.

The belief in inevitability suited the character of German social democracy before 1914 extremely well. Trotsky has written of how its tradition ‘bore a semi-automatic character: each day followed “naturally” from the day before and just as “naturally” prepared for the day to follow.’ The inevitability of socialism in the future when capitalism has worked its way through to its final crisis provided a sanction for merely routine activity in the present when capitalism cannot as yet be overthrown. But the very features of this mechanistic version of Marxism which made it acceptable to the bureaucrats of German social democracy rendered it totally unacceptable to the Bolsheviks. For the stage which Russia had reached in the sequence of development was still immensely remote from socialism. The Mensheviks accepted the inevitability thesis. Russian socialists on their view simply had to wait for the development of Russian capitalism and its political superstructure, the bourgeois state. But both Trotsky and Lenin refused to accept this mechanical view of social development. Neither of them however produced any coherent substitute. Both on occasion acted as voluntarists with no eye to the actual possible alternatives open. And this in general has been the Marxist pattern: periods of acting upon the inevitability thesis leading to reactions in which the question of the objective limitations of possibility never get raised at all. So Menshevik automatism led to Bolshevik voluntarism; Stalinism’s mechanistic philosophy to Trotskyism’s voluntaristic talk of crises of leadership; even the orthodoxy of the British CP to the voluntarism of the New Left. The details alter, but the pattern recurs. And one very good reason for this is that the pattern did not rest upon a simple mistake. For long stretches of time Engels’ description of capitalism remained true; capitalists did remain blind to the laws which governed their economic systems, boom and slump did recur, workers did become socialists in increasing numbers. But the mechanistic framework in which the system was embedded led to a belief that this process must inevitably continue. And yet its continuance was no more inevitable than that of the pig-cycle. Just as pig-breeders could, by becoming conscious of the pig-cycle, cease to be dominated by its ups and downs, so surely the capitalists too could by becoming conscious of the business cycle learn how not to be dominated by it. For Engels and for many later Marxists this possibility of capitalist consciousness is ruled out and just as much as the growth of proletarian consciousness is assured. The same mechanistic scheme entails both certainties. But what happened? It is vital to ask this because from Tribune Leftwards the idea of the inevitability of the fall of capitalism and the rise of socialism dies hard. Sooner or later that slump will come. Yet the roots of this idea are in Engels’ version of Marxism. And what that version of Marxism has to say about laws, prediction and inevitability is clearly incompatible with my own earlier argument about social systems and consciousness. So who is right? The answer can only be found by enquiry into what did happen to capitalist consciousness and proletarian consciousness.


The answer is the very opposite to what Engels had predicted. Capitalism was transformed by conscious, intelligent innovation, while working-class consciousness suffered diminution after diminution. And these two processes did not proceed independently of each other. Capitalist consciousness grew in three distinct ways. The first – which perhaps came last in time – is growth in economic expertise. One of the quaintest assumptions of Marxists since Engels is that capitalists could not possibly benefit from the reading of Capital. This assumption derived from the belief that the workings of the economic system were such that any capitalist who survived in it would have to behave in ways which promoted crisis within the system; and that to understand the system therefore would be to understand its inevitable final crisis. But in fact the expansion of the capitalist system was such that the search for profit and the regulation of the economy through government spending, state ownership and financial controls proved not merely compatible but essential to each other. It is not that capitalists stood back from the system, saw what it lacked and invited the economic experts to intervene. It is rather that in planning the enterprises of the individual firm the promotion of a stable economic environment for that enterprise became apparent.

What kind of economic expansion led to this enlarged capitalist vision? Many socialists have attacked or ignored post-Keynesian economics, almost uniformly without reading Keynes, because they have correctly understood that capitalism is an economic form in which the rule is : expand or perish. But they have wrongly supposed that the limits of capitalist expansion are fixed in advance. What they ignored and what Marx’s model in Capital ignores is the role of technological innovation. This innovation, itself in part the outcome of the stimulus of competition, provides profitable new fields for investment which know no logical limit. It was this and not the permanent war economy alone which stabilized post-1945 capitalism. For example, the American economy suffered from signs of impending slump before the Korean War; but it did not, as some Russian mythology has it, avoid that slump by war production for the Korean War. For it had begun to recover quite clearly and certainly before the Korean War started. Yet it is only in the Korean War period that the United States finally established the permanent war economy. This is not to minimize the role of so-called defence spending. For in both West and East now technological innovation is largely shaped by the needs of the armed forces. And economic expansion and defence spending consequently become so closely linked that in the long run problems of extreme complexity will arise – if there is a long run. But scientific education, competition in invention between Western capitalist firms and that between Western capitalism and Eastern capitalism, all boost the role of conscious technological innovation in the new capitalist economies.

Thirdly – and this came earliest in time – the rise of the trade union movement was accompanied by a realization by capitalists that to maximize the rate of exploitation was to create labour trouble in future. The stages by which the trade unions as institutions have been domesticated by capitalism are not fully intelligible unless we recognise the interest of the capitalists in a contented labour force. What contentment means in this context is entirely compatible with large pockets of unemployment, with low old age pensions and with areas of poverty. What it requires is a skilled, competitive and fragmented labour force, with relatively high rewards for precisely those workers who are in a strong bargaining position. Thus the ideology of trade union recognition, personnel management, joint productivity councils and the like is far too easily dismissed by socialists as mere bluff. It represents something very real and important for the contemporary capitalist. Thus economic and sociological self-consciousness did enter the system. If capitalists had behaved in the forties and fifties as they did in the twenties the apparently mechanical laws of the economy would have issued in a slump. But there are no longer slumps for the same reason that the pig-cycle is no longer with us : the changed self-consciousness of the participants. More than this, however, the capitalist class have confronted a working-class which has not moved in the least towards a revolutionary consciousness of the kind predicted by Marx and Engels. And this for at least two reasons. The first is that poverty radicalized workers no more than affluence does. Workers who are already politically conscious will respond to economic attack as in the General Strike. But wage-cuts and unemployment of themselves produce at best haphazard reactions, at worst apathy and distress. Yet more than this capitalism has in fact produced its own ill-distributed affluence. Secondly, the organizations of the working-class, both trade unions and social democratic political parties have responded to the capitalist invitation to persuade workers that it is within the capitalist framework that their hope lies. Moreover the very form of these organizations presupposes a break between the class and the party: workers are taught to be passive and that politics is a matter of a five-yearly vote. Those who have challenged social democrats in working-class parties have usually themselves been equally guilty here, for they have conceived their task so often as one of ‘changing the leadership’ that the party organization and not the working-class has been the scene of struggle. This is the great mistake in the so-called tactic of ‘entrism’.


We therefore confront a period in which the specific predictions of classical post-Engels Marxism are more of a hindrance than a help. But to say this is in no sense to abandon a Marxist analysis of society. For Marx was not a post-Engels classical Marxist, whoever else may have been. And in his own work, particularly his historical work, we do not find this type of mechanical prediction. We find instead two kinds of explanation, with consequently two kinds of prediction. On the one hand there are conditional predictions, in which it is asserted that given certain initial preconditions certain other consequences must follow. These concern states of affairs where no matter how conscious the participants in the system might be of what was occurring, they could not substantially alter it once the system had been set in motion. So for example we can predict that if capital accumulation is set on foot by means of an industrial revolution which begins from peasant labour, we shall get a corresponding class structure created, no matter what the private, individual wills of the participants. But within that class structure all kinds of alternatives will arise at various points, and here our predictions will be of a different order, just as our explanations are of a different order. For here we are predicting that if the objectively available alternatives are such and such at a given time, and if the level of consciousness is such at a given time, then we can expect this or that. So Marx explains the activities of different French social groupings in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in just this pattern. He does not predict the mechanical development of consciousness, but knowing how and of what people are conscious predicts what alternatives will lie before them, and even sometimes, on a basis of knowledge of their past choices, predicts which alternative they will choose. We can now see that the damage done by mechanistic error to Marxism was of two quite distinct kinds. First of all it involved us in actually making erroneous predictions. But secondly because it saw all predictions as being made on the basis of over-all knowledge of a single mechanical system – capitalism-in-the-world-market – it blurred the variety of types of explanation and prediction to which we are committed. And this error is itself a component part in some political mistakes which socialists have made. Let us consider two of them. The argument is that because socialists have been trapped by a single mistaken concept of inevitability they have both erred as to what is inevitable and as to what is not. They have either supposed that what could not be altered could be or supposed that what can be altered cannot be. And both suppositions have sprung from the same picture which appears to present the alternatives of a mechanistic economism or a voluntaristic irrationalism. It is precisely those trapped by this picture who will frame charges of economism when limitations upon action are pointed out to them. The first of the two examples concerns .the development of peasant economies by industrialization under conditions which necessarily concentrate the disposal of capital. Such a society is Cuba. It is not that there are no alternatives before Cuba; it is rather that all the available alternatives fall within the framework of state capitalism and here consciousness does not enter into the factors which are sovereign and decisive. So that those who locate Cuba’s advance into state capitalism in Castro’s mistaken policies, or in his union with the Communist Party miss the point. Short of a change in consciousness in some key class in Cuba the system does evolve mechanically, as much of nineteenth-century capitalism evolved. The second example is the Common Market issue. Here the mistake is a more complex one. For the condition of there being an alternative to either rationalization of British capitalism within the Common Market or rationalization outside it (EFTA and the Commonwealth) is that there should be a higher level of consciousness in both the British and the European working class. But since there is not, it is not that British entry was or was not inevitable; but that what was inevitable was some sort of capitalist rationalization. To oppose entry therefore was mistaken precisely because the only political alternative immediately open was a capitalist alternative. This is how socialists found themselves supporting the Commonwealth. But to oppose entry was doubly mistaken for a condition for the changed working-class consciousness we need is precisely a break in the national framework which entry would have helped to bring about. Hence the alternative for socialists was not: entry or staying out. It was : policies which are designed to create and foster class-consciousness, or policies which will inhibit its growth.

The type of prediction involved here does no.t concern the mechanical workings of a system, but the nature of the choices which both capitalists and workers are called upon to make. What is possible is always limited both by economic circumstance and by the attitudes, beliefs and decisions of different social groups. The latter are never merely the shadow or the reflex of the former; and it is from supposing that they are that the mistake arises of thinking that our choices should be concerned with this or that economic alternative within the capitalist system, instead of with creating the kind of consciousness which will make the predictable outcomes of the system no longer predictable. The fall of capitalism is in no way inevitable; but nor is its survival. The condition of its fall is a long-term mass change in consciousness; and there are no conditions which can make such a change either inevitable or impossible. It depends on us. but not upon us, because we are borne along by the wheel or tides of history; nor upon us, because we are leaders exempt from the workings of social systems. But upon us because with our working-class allies we may yet learn both what now makes us behave as we do, and what may transform our action until we become capable of making the transition to socialism.

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