One of the great foundations of Marxism as a political and intellectual force was the power and lucidity found in its theory of history. Its tremendous appeal lay not only in explaining the past, but through its roadmap for the future – the triumph of the working class not through the petty desires of individuals, but as an objective historic force. Beyond even that, it made them the protagonist of ecumenical salvation, dissolving class society, realising a classless, stateless, and moneyless communist society. Like much of Marxist vocabulary, the theory and system developed by Karl Marx was named by his compatriot Friedrich Engels, who christened it historical materialism. I hope to briefly illuminate its main foundations, discuss the critical flaws revealed in them, and finally assess how more recent Marxists, primarily through the work of Louis Althusser, has sought to confront and overcome these errors, leaving us with the foundation of a critical theory of history that has much unrealised potential.
In broad terms, historical materialism can be chalked up into three main propositions: the primacy of class struggle, modes of production as stages of history, and the base over the superstructure. According to Marx, the main driver of historical change was class struggle, the contestation by classes for resources and the means of production. Hence, the materialism, as in relating to physical and economic things, and the social relations involving them, as opposed to the development and contestations of ideas that drive an idealist version of history. Perhaps more importantly, Marx viewed human history as progressing through several consecutive stages, dubbed modes of production. Each mode is centred around a specific means of production, be it hunting and gathering, agriculture, or industry, in a specific configuration of how the owners of the resources and labourers who operate them relate to each other – the relations of production. A mode of production is, therefore, the double combination, in Étienne Balibar’s terms, of a means of production with a type of relations of productions. Marx himself argued there are six of these modes, the forms of the past, which are still lingering on in most of the world: The Primitive (hunting-gathering), Asiatic, Slave (or the Classical), Feudal, Capitalist, and, the future holding the potential for the final mode, the Communist. Lastly, there is the important matter of the base and superstructure. This theory formulates society in terms of a building, with its base, consisting of the social and economic conditions, and the superstructure, literally the ‘above structure’ being its customs, laws, and ideologies. Like the rest of the building rests on its base, society’s ideas are dependent on its material reality, with the base shaping and influencing the superstructure. In other words, matter over mind.
As Gregory Claeys has done well to point out, Marxism’s, and by extension historical materialism’s, greatest strength was its flexibility; functioning simultaneously as clear formulations and vivid slogans for the masses, while retaining its theoretical complexity to gain the devotion of the intelligentsia. That said, its shortcomings revealed themselves in both incarnations. Apparent from the above is that Marxism, in its canonised form, is quite teleological, in that it envisions history as a long process culminating in the endpoint of Communism. However, this ended with the demise of the Soviet Union, itself succeeding the general defeat and downturn of organised labour since the Neoliberal triumph of the 1970s and 1980s. The inevitable victory of the Proletariat over capital hence seemed far more distant, if not entirely vanquished, than what it had only done decades before. History seemed to disprove historical materialism.
Furthermore, the stadial system also founds its problems in conflict with history. After all, it was not in the industrialised countries that socialist revolution triumphed in, but in the semi-industrial or non-industrial periphery: the Russian Empire, China, South-East Asia, and Cuba. Its predicting power found itself challenged even as the cause globally seemed to advance. The system is also starkly Eurocentric, its successive modes being the descriptive phases of Classical and European history, with the schizophrenic Asian Mode covering large parts of the globe, and with Marx himself changing his mind repeatedly on what it was supposed to mean, as either state-dominated hydraulic agriculture or the pervasiveness of local and kinship structures tied together by a distant authority. Reminiscent of the time it was formed, one can compare it to old world history volumes, where civilization begins in Mesopotamia, and is followed in Greece, Rome and then Latin Europe into the present, with one or two embarrassing volumes in-between telling us, regrettably, things of some consequence happened elsewhere as well.
However, it must be said these are in great part ancestral problems, derived from the intellectual inspirations of Marx. As Lenin’s famous maxim goes, Marxism is the synthesis of German idealism, French radicalism, and British political economy. Ignoring any elaborating on this somewhat simplistic explanation, it is from this direction the principal problems plaguing historical materialism, its teleology, and rigid Eurocentric stages come from. General optimism of future development was quite widespread and can be found in most Enlightenment thinkers, generally cheerful of economic and cultural development around them, with the more unique stadial system in large part inspired of the conjectural history of the Scottish Enlightenment, as perhaps most systemically found in the writing of Adam Smith. It argues that the history of society goes from hunting to pasturage, to agriculture and finally to commerce. This succession was understood in terms of morals and laws, rather than the material view of Marxism. However, it should also be pointed out that this baggage is not exclusive to Marxism and is also very much present in the various shades of contemporary liberalism, with their belief of the final stage of human development having largely been achieved, an unfound optimism in endless economic growth, and while being too flexible to formulate a formal stadial theory, still cling to notions of developed and undeveloped countries, democracies, and dictatorships.
In any case, the wider Marxist tradition has not been silent on the above issue. These have come in various forms, with limited degrees of success and clarification, but I would like to elaborate on the one I find the most ambitious and with the greatest potential: the French philosopher Louis Althusser’s materialism of the encounter. He dubs it the ‘underground current’, ‘the materialism of the rain, the swerve and the encounter’, tracing it throughout western philosophy, from the Atomism of Democritus and Epicurus to the philosophies of Spinoza, Hobbes, Rosseau, Marx, Heidegger, and Derrida, hidden in the shadow of the main current of idealism. This materialism is distinct from Marxian materialism, which Althusser and others have argued remains fundamentally idealist in its view of the steady progress of history, focus on human actors, and its understanding that things happen by necessity. Rather this shadowy form is aleatory, that is involving a certain degree of randomness, of chance.
This insight allows historical materialism to be reworked, shedding most its Enlightenment baggage. Unlike the gradual development from beginning to end we find in a teleological view of history; an aleatory view is unconcerned with beginning and end alike, rather it is atomic, viewing history as a myriad of separate elements, that is classes, systems, ideologies, and structures forming together in a specific constellation, an encounter. It being aleatory does not mean things happen just because, but that there is a great element of chance involved in all historical change. We can talk of trajectories and laws all we like, but unexpected forks in the road are increasingly likely to come about as it goes on; an election is lost, a central figure suddenly dies, or pandemics blossom. As a result, reality goes back to ‘nothingness’, as a new encounter, a new configuration of circumstances, systems and people take hold. Things can be undone as swiftly as they had been created, its components swerve unexpectedly into a new shape.
Trying to clear up this admittedly abstract explanation, its utility for historical materialism and the historical discipline has much potential. For one thing, it argues for the distinctiveness of historical periods, as specific encounters, that need their own laws and approaches to understand them, the Middle Ages is separate from Late Modernity. Yet, since they share composite elements, that develop through the encounters, we can trace their histories as well, of states, cultures, classes, ideologies, and ways of life. In short, it gives us both breaks and distance in understanding epochs, but also the means to comprehend their continuity. Another recognition that an aleatory historical approach opens is that there is always chance involved in outcomes. One can argue for a great number of causal explanations, leaving one stuck with trying to explain exactly how one thing happened, which ends up being proscriptive. That which has happened was the only thing that could have happened. Here the chance comes in, like a roll of the dice, the cluster of elements in an encounter resolves itself, leaving room for multiple, collaborating explanations. In that roll of the dice, we can also find a place for that quarrelsome topic of human agency, which often struggles to find room for itself in teleological explanations.
On the narrower topic of Marxism, materialism of the encounter goes beyond just letting go of teleology but also the established Marxist stages of history smoulders away in this framework. Rather than a linear set of stages that must be completed, one after the other, an aleatory approach opens a myriad of different modes of production, each transitioning from one to another depending on the resident actors, structures, and factors existing in that specific society. The rejection of the six modes of Marx is also something other Marxist historians like Perry Anderson have opined for, pointing out that while most of the world has ended up under one mode of production, the incredible variety of global pre-capitalist society has taken many different forms depending on time and place. Meaning we can unashamedly drop the troublesome Asiatic mode. There is also no longer justification for a specific model being the final one, as it can still develop in different directions, that is not necessarily desirable. All it takes is a series of bad rolls or unfortunate shuffling of cards. There is therefore no end to history.
To conclude, while the rejection of the Enlightenment ideological assumptions enables us a better and more flexible theory of history, it also means rejecting its political optimism. A turn that reflects the increased academic orientation of much of the left since the 1950s, as Marxism turned inwards to solve its intellectual contradictions and grievances when the realm of political action became murky and unhopeful. In the west, a social-democratic consensus was reached, and the eastern bloc became increasingly transparent as another headache to be approached with a certain distance. For many, it would be melancholic to abandon the victory always distantly waiting on the horizon, despite it merely adjusting to what has already happened. History remains the guide of historical materialism, either proving it right or being adjusted to conform to it. Still, that is no reason to give up on it. At the very least, Marx’s core optimism towards history showing the way forward should not be abandoned.
Written by Inge Erdal
Althusser, Louis. “The Underground Current of the Materialism of the Encounter.” In Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978-1987, trans. G.M. Goshgarian. London: Verso, 2006, 163-206.
Anderson, Perry. The Lineages of the Absolutist State. 2nd Edition. London: Verso, 1996.
Balibar, Étienne. The Philosophy of Marx. London: Verso, 2017.
Claeys, Gregory. Marx and Marxism. London: Pelican Books, 2018.
Fraser, Nancy. “Behind Marx’s Hidden Abode.” New Left Review 86 (2014): 55-72.
Woolf, Daniel. A Global History of History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.