Marx Myths and Legends. Peter G. Stillman

The Myth of Marx’s Economic Determinism

Source: “The Myth of Marx’s Economic Determinism” was written for Marx Myths and Legends by Peter G. Stillman, in April 2005, and rights remain with the author, as per Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.

Marx has frequently been characterized as holding to economic determinism. During his lifetime, in Lenin’s writings, in Stalin’s diamat and the mirroring Western caricature, and in some scholarly books in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Marx and Marxism have been portrayed as presenting a theory in which economic factors determine non-economic spheres of life such as politics, religion, and ideology. Although some texts may appear to support the argument that Marx is an economic determinist (sec. I, below), the economic determinist interpretations of those texts is weak (sec. II) and the interpreter’s use of “economic” is misleading (sec. III). Moreover, when the reader moves from the questions and perspectives of the economic determinist to examine Marx’s project, he does not base his ideas on economic determinism (sec. IV).

I. The Case for Marx’s Economic Determinism.

Characterizing Marx as an economic determinist is based on some textual evidences. Perhaps the clearest and strongest statement of what is taken as economic determinism occurs in Marx’s “Preface” to his 1859 Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political, and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or -- what is but a legal expression for the same thing -- with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic -- in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. .... This consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production. (MER, 5)

This extensive passage contains some key elements for the economic determinist argument. As he rarely does elsewhere, Marx talks of the “economic structure” and the ideological “superstructure” that rises on it, and how change in the “economic foundation” leads to a transformation of “the entire immense superstructure.” He describes social change as a conflict between “material productive forces” and “existing relations of production.” He insists that the analyst should distinguish between the “economic conditions of production” and the “ideological forms” that men use to describe their positions.

Economic determinists can argue four possible forms of “determinism” from passages in the “Preface.” One determinism refers to the level of the individual: the human will is determined -- i.e., its contents and actions are causally formed by the circumstances in which the person lives. A second operates at the level of human interactions: in some ways the economic causes the political and the ideological. A third “determinism” can be independent or can sum and expand the first two: the course of history itself is inevitable. The fourth “determinism” derives from Marx’s claims that his critique of political economy is a science.

So an economic determinist’s interpretation of individuals in Marx’s system would assert that Marx’s is a deterministic system because it deprives human beings of agency or free will: “men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will.” Marx’s economic laws also seem to leave little scope for freedom, as is suggested in the “Preface,” above, where “economic conditions of production ... can be determined with the precision of natural science” or in Marx’s “Preface” to Capital, where he writes of “the natural laws of capitalist production” (MER, 296).

The economic determinist argument about society argues that either the (technological) “forces” of production or the (more broadly economic) “relations” of production (or “forces and relations” of production -- determinists differ here) serve as the causal variable in worldly life, with political and legal structures and ideological formations as the dependent variable, changing in lockstep with technology or economy. The forces, or forces and relations, of production are the locus, then, of all effective change and the cause of all that occurs in human life beyond the realm of production.

Lastly, some determinists argue determinism in history or through science. Some emphasize the inevitability of predictable or predicted historical change, as suggested in the Manifesto: “What the bourgeois ... produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (CM, I; MER, 483). In private letters Marx could be even more deterministic: on 5 March 1852 Marx wrote that he proved “that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, ... [and] that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society” (MER, 220). Here Marx seems to be making a straightforward prediction of what will “necessarily” happen. Others note that Marx frequently parallels his interpretations to modern natural science, both in the 1859 “Preface” and throughout his works.

It should be noted that determinist arguments can advocate “hard” or “strong” determinism: that, e.g., a specific set of productive forces “uniquely and directly cause” a specific set of political, legal, and ideological arrangements. Or there is a “softer” determinism, perhaps arguing that the specific set of productive forces causes “in the last instance” the superstructural elements. The text of the 1859 “Preface,” as well as other texts, has been used to support a range of determinisms from soft to hard.

2. The Myth of Economic Determinism.

But economic determinism in Marx’s thought is a myth. I argue against the economic determinist argument in three ways in this and next sections. One way of arguing, which I shall try to avoid most (but not all!) of the time, is to hurl quotations at your opponents hoping they have the power of Zeus’s lightening-bolts. Battles between opposing quotations rarely solve any disputes (or, rather, any disputes they solve have been long settled), if only because a quotation (like any fact or piece of evidence) requires an interpretive context if it is to understood and placed with other quotations (and their interpretations) into a larger theory.

I do want to suggest, therefore, some interpretive issues related to the economic determinist interpretation of the 1859 “Preface.” The determinist’s claim that Marx’s system undermines free will seems argued only in a limited manner. Two arguments stand out, but on examination neither seems able to bear the weight of determinism. One suggests that human beings live in circumstances that exist independent of (and prior to) their will. But this seems to me to be a sociological truth for social theorists of all ideological stripes: we live in a world whose institutions, practices, and languages are pre-constituted by those who have lived before us, a constitution that is independent of our wills and that shapes our wills. Marx stated as much (but with a different emphasis from the “Preface”): “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past” (18thB, I; MER, 595). Marx seems to be suggesting that the already-constituted social world provides a context that limits the ways in which we can make our own history; he does not seem to be saying that the already-constituted social world so causally determines each one of us that, instead of making history, we are merely reacting to external causes that drive us.

The second argument for determinism, which builds on Marx’s statement about life determining consciousness, overlooks that statement’s peculiar twist. Marx engages frequently in a kind of contrapuntal statement, where he denies a left-wing Hegelian slogan and then presents his view as the reverse. But Marx’s aphorism -- “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” -- presents its assertion asymmetrically. Having denied the left-wing Hegelian stance that consciousness determines being, Marx reverses the terms but adds “social” -- and “social being” is not defined but seems to be more extensive than merely forces (or forces and relations) of production and indeed as “social” likely includes consciousness

Marx’s starker statement in The German Ideology -- “life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life” (MER, 155) -- does not add “social” but does present its own asymmetry. The left-wing Hegelians, pace Marx, think that consciousness determines life, as though consciousness were something independent of life, standing apart from it (like an individualized Geist-like spirit) and shaping it. But Marx in this section rejects the view of consciousness as independent of life (so that he goes on to reject that philosophy can be “an independent branch of knowledge”). Rather, he is trying to make consciousness a part of human life. So, when “life determines consciousness,” Marx is tautologically asserting, as part of his on-going argument, that life (a totality including consciousness) determines consciousness (because it is a part of life). As he himself writes, when we see that “life determines consciousness,” “the starting point ... is real living individuals themselves, and consciousness is considered solely as their consciousness” (MER, 155). So these statements do not deny free will so much as they put human consciousness into an intimate relation with other aspects of human life.

Some determinist interpreters insist that in Marx the economic -- the forces, or forces and relations, of production -- determines political, legal, and ideological institutions and structures. Indeed, it is important to Marx to emphasize (against philosophers and others who would ignore) the importance of the economic; and so it should be expected that Marx will mention frequently and give weight to economic factors. But giving weight to economic factors is far from determinism as causality, especially far from strong causality. And some of his mirrored statements also suggest how far from unidimensional causality Marx is: “circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances” (MER, 165).

The words that Marx uses should indicate how far from causality he is. The English translation conveys the feel of the German, and in a set of places where Marx could use “cause” (were he giving a monocausal, strongly causal, or even partially causal explanation of how economics causes non-economic factors), he uses instead “rises,” “correspond,” “conditions,” and “is ... transformed.” When the legal and political superstructure “rises,” “definite forms [note the plural] of social consciousness” “correspond” to it. Despite the frequent treatment of this paragraph of the 1859 “Preface” as deterministic, its language does not prima facie demand the theory of economic determinism.

Marx does suggest, I think, that forms of consciousness such as ideology are limited in what can be thought -- perhaps in parallel to the way that the circumstances into which we are born limit how we make history. Marx wishes to “explain” consciousness “from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production” (MER, 5). What human consciousness does is to try to understand the world. When social life is calm, so are ideologies; when class conflicts come into existence, so too do competing ideologies and conscious statements (CM, I; MER, 481); and only when a revolutionary class arises can revolutionary ideas come into being (MER, 173). To suggest limitations, however, seems very different from asserting causal connections.

Marx gives a fascinating specific example of limitation when he discusses the equality of value in commodities. He praises Aristotle for having clearly enunciated a number of basic principles about the money-form, value, and the requirement that exchange take place with equality and commensurability. Aristotle has attained many insights necessary for Marx’s economics.

There was, however, an important fact which prevented Aristotle from seeing that, to attribute value to commodities, is merely a mode of expressing all labour as equal human labour, and consequently as labour of equal quality. Greek society was founded upon slavery, and had, therefore, for its natural basis, the inequality of men and of their labour-powers (CI, 59-60).

So Aristotle could not see the equivalence of human labour -- and that equivalence cannot be discovered “until the notion of human equality has already acquired the fixity of a popular prejudice” (CI, 60). Aristotle’s range of thinking is limited by the practices of his society. But to me such limitation is far from determinism.

Economic determinism suggests historical determinism: inevitability and predictability. But most of Marx’s statements about the historical inevitably are in especially rhetorical works, like the Manifesto, or in minor documents (like his 1852 letter). When Marx is not trying directly to foment revolution, inevitability yields to judicious assessment; and in minor documents Marx’s opinions vary according to circumstances and audiences.

In both minor and major works it is striking how little and how rarely Marx claims an inevitable course for the future or predicts it. Those who seek to find a blueprint of the future society in Marx search in vain for a document that Marx did not produce. Enticing comments he did write. In The German Ideology, he stated that

in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming a hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic (MER, 160).

He echoes that thought at various places in Capital (C3, 820; MER, 441) but nowhere does he articulate an institutional context or psychological dynamics for that vision. The closest, perhaps, that Marx comes to a blueprint of the future is in the Manifesto’s “ten points” that “in the most advanced countries ... will be pretty generally applicable” (CM, II; MER, 490). But that list of 1848 Marx and Engels explicitly evaluated in their “Preface” to the 1872 English edition:

The practical application of the principles will depend ... everywhere and at all times, on the historical conditions for the time being existing, and, for that reason, no special stress is laid on the revolutionary measures proposed at the end of Section II. That passage would, in many respects, be worded differently today (MER, 470).

Rather than be a blueprint or a prediction, then, the ten points -- like so much else of what Marx wrote about the future -- depends on the specific historical conditions of the present out of which that future shall grow.

Moreover, when Marx analyses the present, he seems to do so in a way that emphasizes particularity and detail. It is difficult, I think, to read The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon or his Herald-Tribune articles without appreciating Marx’s attention to the specifics of history and his attempt to recognize the novelty, contingency, and variety of current events. In The Communist Manifesto, the “executive of the modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the bourgeoisie” (CM, I; MER, 475); four years later Marx writes about a very different kind of state in The Eighteenth Brumaire, one in which the individual President panders to almost all classes to support himself in power. (There are in all cases economic laws of motion which undergird the state, but, as Marx quotes a reviewer at one point, with all laws we look for the variations of the law as well as its uniformity [CI, Afterward to the Second German Edition; MER, 300]. The state executive varies from one country to another according to its economic formation, historical factors, and particularities.)

Despite the parallels that Marx draws between his critique of political economy and natural science, a careful examination of how Marx also contrasts them shows basic differences between Marxism and natural science. For instance, Marx refers to both chemistry and physics in the “Preface” to Capital’s first edition. Marx states that physics uses observation and experiment; but observation is of only limited usefulness for Marx’s economic analysis. To observe a commodity -- Marx’s example is a coat -- does not help in seeing the (exchange) value of a commodity; examine a commodity as much as you like, wear it until it is threadbare, and you still cannot see its value: “the coat is a depository of value, but though worn to a thread, it does not let this fact show through” (MER, 316). While chemistry uses “microscopes and chemical reagents,” Marx must use the “force of abstraction,” and, for instance, in his examination of the coat abstract from its physical properties to its status as an exchange value whose value determined by human labor time; “so far no chemist has ever discovered exchange-value either in a pearl or a diamond” (MER, 328). In brief, “a commodity appears, a first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties” (MER, 319).

Marx’s attempt to attain systematic knowledge of the commodity in all its relations and meanings is far removed from the methods and goals of modern natural science.

3. The Myth of Economic Determinism, cont.

Because the interpretation is labeled “economic determinism,” it might also be useful to think about the terminology. “Economic” is in some ways an odd term for economic determinists to use, because it tends to shift the emphasis from “forces and relations of production” to a reified sphere of human activity that, though changeable in its specific contents, scope, and power, gains an unchanging stability in the term “economic.” Much better to think in terms of “forces of production” and “relations of production.” These terms are not so susceptible to reification because of their specificity: they cover a less wide range than “economic” and refer to specific aspects of the full economic process. Consequently, using “forces” and “relations” of “production” makes it easier to think that they might change.

They also lack a clear and distinct meaning that sharply delineates them from other factors. Indeed, are the forces of production just tools and machinery? or are they the work force whose productivity varies depending on how it is organized? do the forces of production include the imaginative undertakings that modernize the forces? Relations of production is if anything more ambiguous: are they merely the relations of social labor? as social interactions, do relations have to include communication and consciousness, ideas and ideologies? what about political and legal relations that regulate social interactions? Marx’s terminology, when delved into, suggests that any single dimension of production is intimately related to other dimensions.

So too “economic” tends to ignore “labor” and “needs,” and in doing so occludes central human characteristics. For Marx human labor is a central category of economic analysis and a central dimension of our humanity:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering power and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. (MER, 344)

“Economic” is too bloodless and abstract to emphasize such labor, activity, development, and transformation of individual and society.

Finally, “economic” makes it difficult to imagine a future society, which will not have an “economic” sphere -- especially not one governed by the natural laws of capitalism -- even though there will of course be a realm of necessity, whose scope and specific requirements will vary and “beyond it begins the development of human energy which is an end in itself, the true realm of freedom” (C3, 820; MER, 441). So “economic” seems to be a reified, unitary, and static concept, that prevents us from seeing clearly the many relations and dimensions it includes and implies.

4. An Alternative View of Marxism

Even on their own grounds and using their own terms, the arguments of the economic determinists about Marx do not seem cogent, powerful, or convincing. The strongest arguments against Marx’s purported economic determinism, however, do not meet the determinists on their own grounds and their own interpretations of Marx’s texts. Economic determinist presentations require their authors to slight or ignore important dimensions that constitute Marx’s theoretical achievements and practical importance. In other words, even as they pick out good quotations from Marx’s corpus, the economic determinists ask the wrong questions and consequently look for the wrong answers. Imposing their questions on Marx, they ignore Marx’s questions. Marx does not focus on -- indeed, he does not even address -- the issue of whether human beings have free will. He is not attempting to create a causal (or monocausal) theory of human life, similar to theories in chemistry and physics, which allow for causal statements and scientific prediction. He is not concerned with causality or inevitability in history.

Marx, rather, thinks of human beings as active creators and shapers of their natural and social worlds who find their scope for free action drastically constrained by systems of private property and especially capitalism. He is concerned with the relations among forces of production, relations of production, and consciousness, but he is concerned to see those relations as an interrelated coherent totality in which human beings live and to present that totality in a systematic manner. Throughout his writings Marx is dialectical, looking at how practices (and the concepts that represent them) develop and change over time and in interaction with other practices.

Marx’s dialectic does not involve any kind of “thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis” triad: he nowhere uses that language. Nor does he use the language of cause-and-effect. Rather, what Marx’s dialectic involves is a careful analysis of the categories of bourgeois and human society. Just as Hegel begins his Science of Logic with the simplest logical (or mental) category he can imagine, being, and then analyses it to pull from it all the meanings inherent in it, so too Marx begins Capital with the commodity, the basic category of capitalist society, and analyses it. The progress of Capital cannot be seen as “thesis, anti-thesis, synthesis,” if only because there is no anti-thesis to the commodity that produces a clear synthesis; but the progress is rather the detailed articulation of the meaning and implications of the commodity. When Marx discusses money in the opening chapter, he does so in the terms that he has been using for commodities, to show how money is a logical outgrowth of commodities (and not, for instance, a conventional invention by human beings nor merely a historical development in economic history). Given Marx’s method of progressive articulation, it cannot be said that the “commodity” causes capitalism, or money, or the fetishism of commodities, or exchange: all of these categories are bound up with the commodity, and their meanings are explored as Marx explores the meaning of commodities; but the relation is not one of cause-and-effect but rather of inter-connected categories. (One cannot have capitalism without commodities, for instance, but it would be strange to say that extensive production and circulation of commodities causes capitalism; rather, both phrases are synonymous, emphasizing different aspects of the same economic formation.)

Dialectical reasoning does allow for fluidity and development: it allows for them in part because in any articulation of a concept the dialectician needs to follow wherever the logic demands, and so what appears as an early conclusion may be modified at later stages, dead ends can appear to require a change in focus, and the articulation of a social product can lead to conflict or contradiction. For instance, as Marx works out the implications of labor time and the length of the working day in capitalism, he notes that, in the exchange that is wage labor, “the capitalist maintains his rights as a purchaser when he tries to make the working-day as long as possible” and “the labourer maintains his right as seller when he wishes to reduce the working-day.” In the heart of capitalism “There is ... therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides” (MER, 364). Dialectic can both portray capitalism as a system and a conflict within capitalism that might destroy it.

Portraying capitalism as a totality -- by which Marx means a self-forming, structured, and evolving whole, that can have within itself contradictions and conflicts, forces of stability and openings for change -- is another important part of Marx’s social theory. In his discussion of method in the Grundrisse, Marx talks about how he is studying “a rich totality of many determinations and relations” (MER, 237).

Capital volume I presents such a totality. Even though it presents only the first of a promised four-book work, in Capital Marx presents the self-forming of capitalism on its own terms in “So-called Primitive Accumulation.” Most of the book is devoted to discerning and portraying capitalism as a structured, interconnected social formation in which the major elements are related to each other. In that presentation, Marx omits much. He leaves until later the circulation of capital (MER, 298). He discusses national differences briefly. He talks some of the ideological life of capitalism: he notes that “for a society based upon the production of commodities ... Christianity with its cultus of abstract man ... is the most fitting form of religion” (MER, 326) and in a paragraph of imaginative rhetoric suggests that the ideology of “Freedom, Equality, Property, and Bentham” descriptively replicates the sphere or simple circulation (MER, 343). Of the psycho-social implications of capitalism, he says at one point:

It is not the place, here, to go on to show how the division of labor seizes upon, not only the economic, but every other sphere of society, and everywhere lays the foundation of that all engrossing system of specialising and sorting men, that development in a man of one single faculty at the expense of all other faculties, which cause A. Ferguson, the master of Adam Smith, to exclaim: ‘We make a nation of Helots, and have no free citizens’ (MER, 394).

Not “here” but elsewhere in Marx’s writings the social -- and political and legal -- aspects of capitalism are discussed; what Smith includes in his political economy, Marx includes in his, and more.

Finally, capitalism as a totality is evolving. Capitalism includes contradictions and conflicts, as is indicated by the conflict between capitalist and worker about the length of the working day, a conflict of “right versus right” redolent of the conflicts in ancient Greece between Creon and Antigone and within the Oresteiea, conflicts which for Hegel signals the decay of Greek ethical life. Even in the more simple analysis of The German Ideology, the potential for conflict and change is inherent in any economic formation: “these three moments, the forces of production, the relations of production, and consciousness, can and must come into contradiction with one another” as long as the division of labor exists (MER, 159).

Capitalism also displays intimations of the future. From Marx’s tantalizing passages, two may be worth examining briefly.

Modern Industry ... compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, crippled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to a mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers (MER, 413-14).

However terrible and disgusting the dissolution , under the capitalist system, of the old family ties [through child labor, e.g.] may appear, nevertheless modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of relations between the sexes (MER, 415).

(One comment about technical or economic determinism: note that “modern industry” is doing the compelling and creating a new foundation, not some future technology; and in that future, built on modern industry, relations of production and social relations will be very different. In other words, while the forces of production remain recognizably similar to contemporary modern industry, the social relations of the future are significantly different from those of the present.) What Marx is indicating, I think, is that in current productive processes and practices can be seen the possibility of drastically transformed productive, social, developmental, and other relations: capitalism is a totality, and part of a totality usually includes possibilities for change. What Marx analyses are not isolated pieces of capitalism, but capitalism as an inter-related “ensemble of social relations” (TF, 6; MER, 145), in which the detailed analysis of any component requires that at some point it be re-placed in the totality.

When Marx presents capitalism as a totality using dialectics, his “science” is an interpretive science whose elements are systematically connected -- “science” in the sense of Hegel’s Wissenschaft, not modern natural science. Appearances deceive, and analysis must burrow through them:

the final pattern of economic relations as seen on the surface, in their real existence and consequently in the conceptions by which the bearers and agents of these relations seek to understand them, is very much different from, and indeed quite the reverse of, their inner but concealed essential pattern and the conception corresponding to it (C3, 209).

“All science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided” (C3, 817), and Marx’s goal is to discern that historically created and changing essence and to present it in a systematic, scientific manner.

For Marx human activity is central. When Marx in The German Ideology goes back to the “first premise of human existence” to ask what human beings are like, he sees that “the first historical act is ... the production of the means to satisfy ... needs, the production of material life itself”; from that follows the “second point,” “that the satisfaction of the first need ... leads to new needs.” Human beings then begin to interact with each other, form families and other social relations, and develop consciousness (MER, 155-60).

Marx distinguishes his materialism from all previous materialism, in which “the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively”; so a materialism like Feuerbach does “not grasp the significance of ‘revolutionary,’ of practical-critical activity” (TF, 1; MER, 143). Objects that he sees -- like cheery-trees in France, are an “historical product, the result of the activity of a whole succession of generations” (MER, 170). In the Manifesto, Marx praises the bourgeoisie because “it has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about” (CM, I; MER, 476). And the long quotation above from Capital about labor is yet another presentation of human beings as active beings who transform nature and themselves by their activity.

Of course human activity always has occurred under constraints; in a society with a division of labor,

Man’s own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him .... This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now. (MER, 160).

Marx spends three-quarters of a page in Capital (I, 645) summarizing just some of the constraints, limitations, and convolutions imposed by capitalism. Human beings are and always have been active beings, but they have always had to act under severe constraints.

Marx wishes to abolish, as much as possible, those constraints. Active human beings, able to unify with others in the class, formed by the Communist Party and become gradually more conscious of their goals, can revolt against capitalism, overthrow it, and remove these alien limits in order to liberate human activity and unfetter human development. In the place of the myth of economic determinism, Marx’s theory presents the interpretation of a complex, dynamic totality by a careful dialectic, an interpretation that shows that active human beings can by revolution transform the world, tear down alien structures and powers, and build on the potentials of modern industry.


I would like to thank Megan Gallagher and Matt Rand for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article. They helped save me from a number of infelicities and they are of course not responsible for those that remain.


Bibliographical Note

For the most powerful and cogent arguments that Marx in some senses is an economic determinist, see the following three books, whose common date of publication constitutes an interesting coincidence:

Cohen, G. A., Karl Marx’s theory of history : a defence (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1978);

McMurtry, John, The structure of Marx’s world-view (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1978);

Shaw, William H., Marx’s theory of history (Stanford, Calif. : Stanford University Press, 1978).

The classical arguments against the Second International, Leninist, and (German) SPD views of Marx as an economic determinist can be found, most famously, in:

Lukács, György, History and class consciousness; studies in Marxist dialectics trans. by Rodney Livingstone (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press,1971).

Other important Eastern European interpreters of Marx after the Russian Revolution who were open to seeing him not as an economic determinist include:

Karl Korsch, Marxism and philosophy, trans. and introd. by Fred Halliday (New York, Monthly Review Press, 1971);

Rozdolski, Roman, The Making of Marx’s ‘Capital’, trans. by Pete Burgess (London : Pluto Press, 1977); and

I. I. Rubin, Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value (Detroit: Black and Red, 1972).

More recent works include:

Avineri, Shlomo, The social and political thought of Karl Marx (Cambridge : University Press, 1968), and

Ollman, Bertell, Alienation: Marx’s conception of man in capitalist society (Cambridge, University Press, 1971).

For a further development of some of my arguments, see:

“Marx’s Enterprise of Critique,” in J. Roland Pennock, ed., Marxism (NOMOS Series; New York: New York University Press, 1983), pp. 252-76.

In addition, just about any interpretation of Marx finds itself tending to one side or the other in the debate about economic determinism. As many have suggested, it may well be that those who come to Marx via economics or Engels tend to see him as an economic determinist, whereas those who come to Marx through Hegel (or come to see the importance of Hegel in his thought) see him not as an economic determinist.

Works Cited

All references to quotations are in parentheses in the text, and are to works by Marx. Because the Marx-Engels Reader is a common text, I have tried to cite all quotations to that work whenever possible; in addition, in many cases I have also cited the specific book in question.

MER, Tucker, Robert C., ed. The Marx-Engels Reader (Second edition; New York: W. W. Norton, 1978)

CI Marx, Karl. Capital, volume 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1967)

C3 Marx, Karl. Capital, volume 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1967)

CM Marx, Karl. Manifesto of the Communist Party (cited to section number)

18thB Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (cited to section number)

TF Marx, Karl. “Theses on Feuerbach” (cited to Thesis number)