Socialist Studies Socialist Studies

Was Marx an “Economic Determinist

There's a great line from Karl Marx's third THESES OF FEUERBACH that comments on Plato's concept of the philosopher king: "…the educator must first be educated”. So who will educate the educator?

Not Niall Ferguson. As a former professor of history at Oxford University and now celebrity professor of Economic History at Harvard University, his dull musings on economics have been periodically strewn across what were once the Conrad Black stables (now under the ownership of the Barclay Brothers), from the DAILY TELEGRAPH and SUNDAY TELEGRAPH to the SPECTATOR.

In his book THE CASH NEXUS: MONEY AND POWER IN THE MODERN WORLD, 1700 -2000 (2001), Professor Ferguson argues that the economic factor (or the “cash nexus” as he calls it) in history plays second fiddle to national politics which he believes to be the determining force for modern historical change. Great British Statesmen of the Empire, he contends, have made real history not the working class. The baton of Statesmanlike leadership has now been passed from Britain to the United States; the defining feature of “the special relationship” which Fergusson believes will live on in a free world of the free market and free trade.

Naturally it is a conservative conception of history that has British and European colonialists at the centre stage of historical change. Implicit in the conservative conception of history is an embedded racism and xenophobia. The English Statesman is white, male, public school educated and Oxbridge taught perhaps living at a comfortable country seat somewhere in Oxfordshire with membership of a smart club at an address in St James, London.

Conveniently forgetting that democracy has only a meaningful significance when there is common ownership of the means of production and distribution by all of society and not the present social system based on class monopoly and privilege, Professor Ferguson opines – with a nod to the Neo-Cons who once occupied the White House - that the US should be devoting a larger percentage of its vast resources to making the world safe for capitalism and democracy particularly “on “rogue” states while the going is good (p.422).

Killing defenceless women and children in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the torture of prisoners directly or by proxy and the stamp of the military boot on anyone who does not embrace the “New World Order” is the reality which Professor Fergusson supports. And an everlasting capitalism, which will go on and on, world without end, is the myth.

Along the way to the book’s conclusion of an American capitalism lasting forever in the reflection of its 19th century British prototype, we see a straw Marx weighed-down with economic determinist beliefs, and disposed of by appeals to the supposed chaos of historical events and the individual acts of the politically powerful to shape and determine history. In barely seven pages Marx is condescendingly written off as an “old economic determinist”. Marxism is derided as a “secular religion” (p.1) whatever that is meant to mean while Ferguson goes on to write contemptuously:

…Marx’s claim that the internal contradictions of capitalism would precipitate its own downfall was supposed to be “scientific” and “objective”. It was the inexorable rise of capitalism and the bourgeoisie that had overthrown the feudal aristocratic order; in turn, the formation in the factories of an impoverished but immense proletariat would inevitably destroy capitalism and the bourgeoisie (pp. 1-2).

Ferguson doesn’t even offer a coherent argument of why Marx’s theory of history was allegedly wrong – Marx gave no date for the establishment of Socialism dependent, as it is, upon the conscious and political formation of a working class Socialist majority. He just states the proposition that Marx was an “old economic determinist” as though simply by stating the proposition was sufficient to refute Marx’s theory of history. However Ferguson has to demonstrate that Marx was an economic determinist. And this is what Ferguson singularly fails to do.

However, Ferguson’s intention is clear enough. Fergusson attempts to replace the class struggle between the capitalist class and working class with a struggle between nation states. History, for Ferguson, is either the history of Nations or the deliberations of Statesmen. He rejects out of hand that it is anything to do with a “cash nexus” and the grubby self-interest of businessmen alluded to in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO. History is the fine eloquence and written word of Cabinet Meetings, of Gentleman’s Clubs and of discrete conversations at Oxbridge dining tables not the revolutionary struggle to replace one social system with another.

What historical aesthetes and dilettantes like Ferguson find objectionable is not the importance Marx stressed on the class struggle as the motor force of the historical change from one social system to the next but that he put the working class centre stage in the history of capitalism rather than the Statesman so beloved by conservative historians. History, for Marx, was to be made by the working class and that is what Ferguson objects to.

The conservative conception of history

And the television is littered with “history” programmes celebrating the conservative conception of history where the only significant history, we are told, is to be found within the learned and scholarly articles and books written by selective Oxbridge Professors of history. No other history writing counts. So, we are going to have to live for years with the repeats of David Starkey, a student of the High Tory historian, Lord Elton, waxing lyrical on the monarchy. Here is an example of his pompous purple prose:

…out of the chaos of Dark Age Britain, the English created the world’s first nation state. One king, one country, one currency, one language – and a single, unified, representative national administration (CHANNEL 4 18th October 2004).

No mention is made of the class struggle and the use of enclosures to get the peasants off the land, the branding, mutilation and hanging of “sturdy beggars” often whipped from one parish to the next. Instead it is all national unity, national interest and class harmony under the Crown. What a wonderful conservative utopia Starkey gives us! Visually it could be the opening bucolic scene from Danny Boyle’s Olympic extravaganza.

David Starky’s history lesson is similar to the 19th century illustration by George Cruickshank of Britain as a bee hive. Here we have a harmonious image of the nation all working for the common good. In the illustration the Queen is shown at the top followed by the Royal family down to Peers of the Realm, - the free press “honest and independent”, Industrialists and at the bottom the working class all supported and protected by the machinery of government (“The British Beehive” illustrated in THE AGE OF CAPITAL 1848-1875 by E. J. Hobsbawn, 1984).

For the conservative historian, history is not about the Common Man and Woman. It is about the actions of Disraeli, Churchill, Thatcher and Blair. Why bother with the working class, what have they done? For historians like Ferguson to have to study the working class is equivalent to the Queen spending a Sunday afternoon having tea with a family on a windswept Leicester council housing estate.

We can recall, in this respect, the Oxford Don, Professor Samgrass in Waugh’s BRIDESHEAD REVISITED bedecked in tweed jacket, bow tie, Oxford bags, and brogues who ingratiates himself with the aristocracy in order to go through their papers in their precious country house libraries. To the Professor Samgrass’s of the world the libraries of the rich and famous are the place of historical research not the study of the working class evolving out of feudalism into capitalism to the point where they become makers of history. History, for the conservative conception of history, is not only “male” but it is about the winners not the losers, to paraphrase another Tory historian and sometime SUM columnist, Professor John Vincent

Not so for Marx. His historical subject in THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO was the working class as it evolved from an incoherent mass breaking machinery to a class capable of forming Trade Unions, taking political action with the creation of the Chartist movement, and finally to establish a Socialist political Party. The process of becoming a Socialist majority and winning the “battle for democracy” was not going to be a smooth and linear process and there would be problems and setbacks which are only to be expected from the struggles of real living people. Fatalism and economic determinism were totally absent from Marx’s theory of history.

Was Marx an economic determinist?

The conservative view of history defended by Ferguson is not new, nor, is the theories of economic determinism falsely attributed to Marx. The accusation that Marx was an economic determinist has a long history. The accusation is found in Bertrand Russell’s lectures delivered at the London School of Economics in 1896 and in A. D. Lindsay’s KARL MARX'S CAPITAL Capital, (ch II, Economic Determinism, 1925 pp. 27-53) given to the Independent Labour Party in Glasgow in 1924. Isaiah Berlin –truly an over-rated second class mind - Lord Acton, Karl Popper and other philosophers persistently accused Marx of fatalism and vulgar determinism, and these unsubstantiated assertions are now the received wisdom in philosophy and history departments worldwide.

Unfortunately matters have not been helped by comments made by some supporters of Marx. Ernest. Untermann, for one, – the first translator of the third volume of CAPITAL into English in 1909 - wrote, when studying Marx: "I had learned the truth of economic determinism and of the class struggle without knowing these terms” (HOW I BECAME A SOCIALIST, The Comrade, v. 2, no. 3 Dec. 1903, p. 63). While Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue, used the expression “economic determinism” to describe Marx’s method of working in his paper “Karl Marx’ Historischer Materialismus” published in the SDP’s theoretical journal NEUE ZEIT (Stuttgart Vol.12 Part 1, 1903/1904), translated and published later in the INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST REVIEW, (October 1907).

In 1909, another article by Paul Lafargue under the heading Le déterminisme économique de Karl Marx was translated and published in the US journal INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST REVIEW as Economic Determinism and the Natural and Mathematical Sciences. Although the use of the term “economic determinism” in the texts written by Lafargue bear no resemblance to is use by Marx’s critics, it nevertheless gives unfortunate, although erroneous, “justification” to the accusation that Marx’s theory of history is an example of “economic determinism” Since Marx’s death, writers sympathetic to Marx have clarified statements Marx made on social systems and why they change.

Engels noted that:

It is not that the economic position is the cause alone and alone active, while everything else only has a passive effect. There is, rather, interaction on the basis of the economic necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself (FROM SELECTED CORRESPONDENCE OF MARX AND ENGELS, 25th January1894 to Starkenburg).

The Russian Marxist, G. V. Plekhanov dealt with the issue of the relationship between the individual and history in his pamphlet “THE ROLE OF THE INDIVIDUAL IN HISTORY” (1898). He wrote:

… it follows…that, by virtue of particular traits of their character, individuals can influence the fate of society. Sometimes this influence is very considerable; but the possibility of exercising this influence, and its extent, are determined by the form of organisation of society, by the relation of forces within it. The character of an individual is a “factor” in social development only where, when and to what extent that social relations permit it to be such.

And he concluded:

We may be told that the extent of personal influence may also be determined by the talents of the individual. We agree. But the individual can display his talents only when he occupies the position in society necessary for this…it is the form of organisation that in any given period determines the role and, consequently, the social significance that may fall to the lot of talented or incompetent individuals (Lawrence Wishart, 1950 edition, p.41)

While L. B. Boudin, in his “THE THEORETICAL SYSTEM OF KARL MARX” (1907) stated:

…as to determinism, it may be safely said that there is absolutely no warrant in anything that Marx himself wrote for the application of that term, in which it is used in this connection, to his historical theory. Neither the term itself, nor the idea for which it stands, are to be found in any of his writings. Furthermore, the idea is entirely foreign to the whole spirit of his theoretical system (p. 273).

Ferguson’s reading of “economic determinism” in Marx’s theory of history indicates his own specific intellectual limitations in coming to grips with the complex and subtle ideas employed by Marx in his writings. Marx not only said that history by itself changes nothing but held the view all his working life, that historical change came through human agency and the establishment of Socialism would be no different.

Marx often remarked that men and women made history although he added:

but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living” (18th BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE).

For Marx the working class were the agents of change; not as a class “in self” but a class “for itself”, acting both consciously and politically within a Socialist Party. Marx was not an “economic determinist”.

And ever since Marx set out a materialist conception of history there has been a great reluctance by his opponents to “attribute great intelligence or subtlety” to his work. Here is Isaiah Berlin who described parts of Capital as the work of a man who:

in the manner of an ancient Hebrew prophet…speaks the name of the elect, pronouncing the burden of capitalism, the doom of the accused system, the punishment that is in store for those who are blind to the course and goal of history and therefore self-destructive and condemned to liquidation” (DISRAELI AND MARX, p. 283).

A crasser and intellectually illiterate statement it is hard to find. It is easier to distort what Marx wrote than confront what he actually said head on.

As for “economic determinism”, Marx held no such view. He attacked earlier materialists for holding the belief that human events are predetermined along a rigid track of history.


The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and education forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that the educator must himself be educated” (1845 MEGA I/5, pp., 533-5).

And Marx concluded his considered thought on materialism in the ELEVENTH THESIS:

The philosophers have only interpreted the world in different ways; the point is to change it” (ibid).

Marx gave to the working class a scientific understanding of society, social systems and social relationships to assist workers in their class struggle to change their circumstances through conscious political action.

Not that the working class could change history in any way they liked. Circumstances constrained action. Socialist revolution had to be through a political party and the capture of the machinery of government. And Socialist revolution had to be the political action of the immense majority in the interests of the immense majority.

More specifically, of history Marx said:

History does nothing; it “does not possess immense riches”, it “does not fight battles”. It is men, real living men, who do all this, who possess things and fight battles. It is not “history” which uses men as a means of achieving –as if it were an individual person-its own ends. History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends (THE HOLY FAMILY, 1845 MEGA I/3, p.265).

Not, then, the writings of an economic determinist.

Who are the economic determinists?

In fact, contemporary opponents of Marx subscribe to a theory of economic determinism themselves, for example, - it was Margaret Thatcher who said, “There really is no alternative [to the market]” (Press Conference to American Correspondents 25th June 1980) and “There is no way in which one can buck the market” (House of Commons 1988 quoted in THE INDEPENDENT, 6th April 1998).

The “market” is of course a false abstraction. There are markets in the plural; the most important for Socialists being the historically formed labour market where workers were coerced into the wages system, forced to sell their ability to work as a commodity and then for their labour-power to be exploited in the process of production.

What does not exist is “the market” in the singular. “The Market” (free or otherwise) is a theoretical abstraction from various historically formed markets carrying on commodity exchange for profit which is then invested by economists with a life of its own with no history and carrying all the attributes of perfection and harmony. The “free market” also presents a false dichotomy between the State and various markets because the existence of the private ownership of the means of production and exchange for profit can only be guaranteed by the coercive forces of the capitalist state. Markets can never be free from the State. Free markets are a myth. Who introduced wages restraint and anti-trade union legislation? Who imprisoned workers? And who broke strikes? It was the capitalist class through their State – “the Executive of the bourgeoisie” (Marx) - which took these actions against trade unions and workers generally.

Defenders of capitalism also accept “economic laws” which are seen as emanating from a timeless and fixed human nature - the natural propensity of individuals to buck, barter and trade. Originally it was believed by early defenders of capitalism that economic laws were underpinned by “God and nature” as in Edmond Burke’s remark that “the law of commerce are the laws of nature and therefore the laws of God (l.c., pp.31,32) and Dr Browning that “Jesus Christ is free trade and free trade is Jesus Christ” (cited in Marx in, ON THE QUESTION OF FREE TRADE Trade MECW Volume 6, p. 450;) and there are fundamentalist preachers in the US Bible belt today who attempt to demonstrate by scriptural evidence the theological forces supporting the free market.

Today’s more secular free market economists like Hayek and von Mises, conceive “economic laws” in terms of gravity where the spontaneous economic order is supposed to be harmoniously controlled by the “invisible hand of the market” where competition leads to the best of all possible worlds. These “economic laws” are presented as outside and beyond, any possibility of human control and any attempt to resist or challenge the commodification of all human relationships through markets are depicted as simultaneously utopian, harmful and self-defeating.

Those who write-off Marx as an “economic determinist” – particularly historians like Niall Fergusson - do not apply the doctrine of economic determinism to the economic theories of the free market they themselves hold; namely the fallacious argument that capitalism is the last social system in human existence, destined to last forever and enshrined in determinist laws of the market and where the price mechanism is the only process through which rational and efficient decisions of production and distribution can take place. Socialists reject this dogmatic and reactionary view of capitalism. Social systems can and do change.

How did a reactionary “Brideshead” group of historians “nid-nodding over port” become to dominate history writing in the 1990’s? Partly because the nefarious influence of the capitalist left within academic history circles came to an abrupt end with the collapse of the Soviet Union and partly because of the rise of a one-dimensional cultural history associated with the New Labour government which celebrated social inclusiveness and cohesion not that of conflicting class interests and class struggle. And partly because what constituted working class history throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries was so narrowly defined by left-wing academics as to exclude almost all of the working class (see for example the writings of the Stalinist historian, Eric Hobsbawn).

As for writing of a working class history using specific Marxian categories of class, class interest and class struggle, there has to be, following E. P. Thompson (AGENDA FOR RADICAL HISTORY in Persons and Polemics, Historical Essays. p. 366, 1993); “the most exacting standards of historical discipline”. Working class history writing must be good history, and: “It must be as good as history can be”.p.366). The tragedy is that what usually passes itself off as “working class history” today – particular the writings of the so-called London Socialist Historians group - just doesn’t meet these exacting standards. A Twentieth century history of the working class within the framework infused with the rich suggestions of the communist manifesto has not yet been written.

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