This article was last modified on June 13, 2012.


Marxism’s Inner Contradiction?

There are any number of objections that someone could raise to the works of Karl Marx or Marxism in general. Indeed, both the original works of Marx and the plethora of philosophies it has spawned (Leninism, Stalinism, Chinese Communism, etc.) are full of controversy and potential flaws. And that is just on the political level! What about pure philosophy — is the logic of Marx sound? With regards to his views on determinism, it is hard to say.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx says, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” And in the Poverty of Philosophy, he declares, “Are men free to choose this or that form of society? By no means.” By saying men are not “free” and that the proletariat’s victory is “inevitable”, what is he saying about free will? Is he denying it?

The Varga Contradiction

From the introduction, you may gather that the contradiction in question is about free will and determinism. This has been pointed out by many philosophers.

Andrew C. Varga, for instance, writes that, “Marxist-Leninists cannot satisfactorily solve the contradiction between historical determinism and human freedom, which they defend. If man is free and history is made by men, communism as the ultimate goal of history is not inevitable. Man, in his freedom, can build other social systems than communism. The paradox of the communist thesis can be pointed out by asking the question: ‘Why should one organize a communist party and work hard to bring about a communism which will come anyhow by historical necessity?'” [Varga: 74-75]

This is an incredible point. If communism is “inevitable”, why should I bother to fight for it? Of course, if no one fights for it, it will not come to pass. But that would not be “inevitable”. Either Marx misspoke, or he truly believes that men will unwittingly rise up against capitalism. But then, what of free will?

The Lichtheim Response

George Lichtheim tries to excuse Marx from the taint of determinism and lay the blame at Engels’ feet. He says that Engels (and later Karl Kautsky) “transform” Marxism “from the vision of a unique historical breakthrough into the doctrine of a causally determined process analogous to the scheme of Darwinian evolution.” He cites one piece of evidence: Engels’ speech at Marx’s grave on March 17, 1883, where he said, “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” [Lichtheim: 237]

This approach is not wholly satisfactory, as it does no completely explain the earlier references to inevitability during Marx’s lifetime.

The Miliband Response

Says Ralph Miliband, a Marxist scholar, “Marx did believe that certain things must come to pass, notably the supercession of capitalism: but a belief in the inevitability of certain events is not the same as a belief in their particular ‘determination’.” [Miliband: 9]

This view seems very hard for me to wrap my head around. I read Miliband as saying that a belief in the inevitable is not a belief in the inevitable. Something is “inevitable” if it is “in such a manner as could not be otherwise” or is “necessarily so”. That, to me, sounds like the workers could choose not to lose their chains, but communism would still happen. Whether you want to call that “determined” or “fated”, it seems very clear to me that the outcome is the same: an unavoidable future.

The Fiala Response

Andrew Fiala, Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Fresno, says that “a Marxist would reply to Varga … by arguing against Varga’s idea of freedom. Varga seems to adhere to a sort of radical freedom that Hegel and Marx reject. For Hegel and Marx, freedom is always limited. We are not free to jump over a house. And I am not free to speak Chinese (at least not without serious effort). Freedom occurs within a context and that context is history.”

“When Varga says that ‘history is made by men’ he assumes that there is radical freedom in history. But this is clearly not true. History makes us in a sense. For example, constitutional democracy as we have here in the United States developed out of the limited monarchy of the British. We don’t have a parliamentary system because of this.”

“When Marx claims that communism is inevitable, it is his best guess about where the contradictions within 19th Century European capitalism will end up. Marx was enough of an empiricist that were he alive today, he would probably come up with a different analysis. But all we know is that he thought that conditions in Europe in the 19th Century were pressing in that direction. And he was partly right — we have adopted many of the reforms that he saw as necessary (we are more socialist now than we were in the 19th Century — for example, subsidized universities, social security, and disaster relief like after Hurricane Katrina).”

However, with Marx, “you have to distinguish between his political language and his philosophical ideas. The Communist Manifesto is not a philosophy book. It is a political document designed to fire up the masses. Political rhetoric is always infused with hyperbole. One must be careful to keep this context in mind.”

In short, the “inevitable” aspects of Marx’s philosophy should be taken with a grain of salt. Whereas Marx was quite serious and systematic in such works as Capital, his political language was not always meant to be precise and strictly literal.

Conclusion

Fiala does an excellent job defusing the criticism of Marx’s apparent contradiction between free will and determinism. As he says, one much distinguish between political rhetoric and philosophical discourse. Yet, there still remains that sticky problem, maybe not so easily explained away.

Working with a history of the world based on class struggles, I really think that Marx accepted that sooner or later communism was inevitable. Personally, I think he was wrong, but his claim does suggest that rhetoric or not, he thought it “inevitable”, and that keeps the problem alive: what does inevitable man, and why strive for communism (or strive against it) if it is going to happen anyway?

Marx’s defenders, such as Miliband, only further complicate the issue. While Fiala, who is not a Marxist, made a solid attempt to explain Marx and make his words sound reasonable, Miliband only further muddies the water. He tries to distinguish between inevitability and determinism, a nuance that is lost on me.

Many words have been written on this topic, and surely many more will be. Hopefully someday a conclusion can be reached.

Sources

Fiala, Andrew. E-mail to the Author. Received April 18, 2007.

Lichtheim, George. Marxism Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1964.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto Haymarket Books, 2005.

Marx, Karl. The Poverty of Philosophy General Books, 2009.

Miliband, Ralph. Marxism and Politics Oxford University Press, 1977.

Varga, Andrew C. On Being Human: Principles of Ethics Paulist Press, 1978.

Also try another article under Philosophical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

One Response to “Marxism’s Inner Contradiction?”

  1. Allan Says:

    I don’t think Marx believed in the inevitable victory of the proletariat. In the Communist Manifesto Marx outlines the view that class struggle can lead to the “common ruin of the contending classes” – in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte he also says “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” This suggests Marx saw that Communism was not inevitable but the only desirable result of the inevitable breakdown of Capitalism and choices and action of the proletariat. The problem with understanding Marx is that sometimes he is writing philosophically and at other times polemically – and if he does seem point to the inevitablity of communism it is only because he saw the alternative as some kind of descent into barbarism. To talk of the inevitable victory of the proletariat, I believe, what Marx meant was that the material strength of the proletariat was so enormous compared to that of the ruling class that if the proletariat as a whole wanted to defeat the ruling class then the outcome was as inevitable as if I should decide to step on an ant.

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