Historical Inevitability: Berlin and Marx

Historical Inevitability

The opponents of Marx argue that Marx repudiated the role and significance of the individual in history. Marx's theory of history is also dismissed by academic historians as being economically or historically "determinist".

Critics usually pick on two examples of Marx's supposed "historical determinism". The first from the Communist Manifesto:

"What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable."

And the other from the Poverty of Philosophy:

"The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist"

These two examples are supposed to show that Marx believed socialism was "inevitable" and that mere technological change determines the type of social system: feudal or capitalist.

This criticism of Marx was the view of Isaiah Berlin in his 1954 essay HISTORICAL INEVITABILITY. The essay came from a lecture Berlin gave at the London School of Economics in 1953 at the beginning of the Cold War.

Berlin wanted to counterpoise "historical freedom" of individuals to "historical inevitability"; the freedom of individuals to change the future rather than the future being forced upon society in a determined way by class and class struggle. He wanted to provide an argument that the Soviet system was not inevitable and did not show us the future.

Generations of liberal and conservative historians have uncritically accepted at face value the misguided view of Isaiah Berlin that Marx advocated "historical inevitability" who believed in the rigid laws of history. In his lecture, in the few passages where Berlin does name Marx, no argument is put forward that Marx held this view. There are no quotations given, no references, and no footnotes just rhetorical assertions against Marx, which is no argument at all.

Few seem to have read Berlin's book in any depth. Even fewer have questioned its content; shallow as it is. Those who have read his book have often been too dazzled by Berlin's power as a rhetorician, the pyrotechnics of his delivery and the speed at which he rolls off names of dead philosophers to grand effect. Berlin was a superficial interpreter of those with whom he disagreed. And he vehemently disagreed with Marx. With Marx, there is no insight, just bile.

Not all stood in line. A critical article "Determinists All" appeared in the OBSERVER, 16 January 1955. It was written by the, author of a three volume apology for Leon Trotsky, Isaac Deutscher. Berlin never forgave Deutscher for the Observer review and blocked his academic advancement. Never trust a Liberal.

Deutscher said that all Berlin had done in his lecture was to create an intellectual guillotine with the legend "Historical Inevitability" hanging unceremoniously from the scaffold. Up the steps to the waiting executioner were led the philosophers and theologians, who Berlin had accused, without justification, of having committed the intellectual crime of "historical inevitability".

In his lecture, Berlin was going to be prosecutor, judge, jury...and executioner. By the end of the lecture, only two people remained alive, Berlin at the lectern, and his friend sitting in the audience, Karl Popper, another noted distorter of Marx’s ideas (THE OPEN SOCIETY AND IT'S ENEMIES and THE POVERTY OF HISTORICISM).

Berlin wanted to resist the outcome of historical determinism for political reasons. The Soviet Union claimed to be followers of Marx and furthermore they claimed "socialism" had been established in Russia. "Look to the Soviet Union and you will see the future". This was the view of their propagandists and useful idiots in the West. "The course of history ends in the triumph of Lenin and the Bolsheviks" was the proclamation from 16 Kings Street, Covent Garden. In 1953 the threat looked real.

The Cold War and the Battle of Ideas

The ideas and beliefs of Isaiah Berlin's lecture may have served the interests of the Cold War but it was poor scholarship. Berlin both misrepresented and misunderstood Marx. On page 8 of HISTORICALINEVITABILITY, Berlins stated that Marx was "ambiguous" on class because he treats class in the aggregate, as an "abstraction" and not as a sum of individuals with their own individual histories.

Marx, though, did not invent the category of class. He inherited the category class and class struggle from "bourgeois historians" and "bourgeois economists". In a letter to J Weydemeyer (March 5 1852) he said:

"...And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic economy of the classes.

What Marx did show was that socialism would involve the abolition of all classes and that capitalism was not "the highest point attainable in history". It is curious that not once in his lecture does Berlin make any reference to capitalism.

And Marx was able to explain how classes behaved in a society in which a minority own the means of production and the majority do not. And he showed how and why the working class were exploited and why the class struggle took place.

Later, in the lecture, Marx is condemned by Berlin for being a prophet of destruction; someone who takes pleasure in the creative destruction of history where people's lives are obliterated "from explosion to explosion to fulfil the great cosmic design" (page 23). And we are supposed to take Berlin seriously?

As a Liberal, Berlin wanted to champion individual "choice", "free-will" and "freedom to be left alone", concepts he believed Marx's theory of history threatened or denied. Marx's idea, if taken seriously, was a threat, he thought, to the liberal way of life enjoyed by British academics. Life at an Oxbridge college in 1953 was far more free and agreeable than the one found in Moscow or Leningrad. History, for Berlin, was more about morality and moral behaviour than it was about historical trends, class, class relationships, class struggle and the clash of impersonal forces outside the control of human beings. If you were a historian, according to Berlin, you had to blame an individual if they were culpable of genocide. You could not hide behind economic or historical forces. History is confused by Berlin with morality.

Berlin did not refute Marx. In fact he distorted what Marx said. As a cold war warrior, Berlin need not have distorted Marx's theory of history. He could have been curious enough to question the supposed link between Marx's ideas and what passed for "Marxism" in the Soviet Union. He could even have described the Soviet Union as "state capitalist". Berlin could also have traced the distortions made of Marx's ideas by Lenin in his State and Revolution (1918). Marx placed the working class as agents of historical change while Lenin, instead, placed himself and the Bolsheviks as revolutionary agents with the power to establish socialism. And it did not take a genius to see the absurdity of conditions in 1917 Russia being unsuitable for the establishment of socialism.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain had already pointed this fact out as early as 1918:

"Is this huge mass of people, numbering about 160,000,000 and spread over eight and a half millions of square miles, ready for Socialism? Are the hunters of the North, the struggling peasant proprietors of the South, the agricultural wage slaves of the Central Provinces, and the industrial wage slaves of the towns convinced of the necessity, and equipped with the knowledge requisite, for the establishment of the social ownership of the means of life?

Unless a mental revolution such as the world has never seen before has taken place, or an economic change has occurred immensely more rapidly than history has recorded, the answer is "No!"

Berlin took sides. He was a stringent critic of the Soviet Union but said nothing about the United States and the United Kingdom. He turned a blind eye to their policies and said nothing about the atrocities he witnessed throughout his adult life. He gave the US unqualified support to "bomb North Vietnam back to the stone age" as Curtis Lemay, an American Air Force general once remarked. Berlin ignored the massacre of over a million men and women by the army taking place in Indonesia in 1965 which the US government had detailed knowledge of from the beginning. And he was quite happy to give a lecture to the Shah of Persia and his family, an authoritarian regime supported by both the US and UK, as the Shah's torturers and executioners went about their work in Tehran's prisons.

However, Berlin could not dismiss Marx entirely. In an interview in the OBSERVER (6.11.66) he begrudgingly said in his dense and Baroque literary manner:

"... there are certain originally resisted truths which Marxism put on the map. For example, the notion that . . . classes exist and class consciousness exists and has a decisive effect on men - that, although violently exaggerated, is now something no rational man denies. The notion of reification, to use a technical term -the idea that human beings tend to regard institutions which they themselves have in the past created as something objective and inexorable, the product of objective laws, like the phenomenon of gravitation - whereas they can in fact be altered by sufficient concentration and direction of human will-power and energy, if necessary by revolution - is again something which is by now accepted by quite a large number of sane thinkers".

The Emancipation of the Working Class

Well, at least Berlin thought Marx "sane". Marx was indeed aware from the beginning that any kind of economic or historical determinism not only denied human freedom, but led to a ruling class politics which produced theory to dominate society rather than the other way around. He famously said in the THIRD THESIS OF FEUERBACH:

The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

The coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-changing can be conceived and rationally understood only as revolutionary practice.


The working class, for Marx, learn in revolutionary practice. That is our educator. Thinking is related to activity. We are not passive recipients of other people's theory; to be moved around like pawns on a chess board. We think, we act, and we form political ideas in struggle and conflict. There is no educator who is not simultaneously being educated and no one who is being educated who is not simultaneously an educator. In changing social conditions, we also change ourselves. We do not need teachers, professors or leaders to do our thinking for us.

It is true that Marx writes of the 'laws of society'. But those laws are not those of some inescapable historical destiny, but specific to the capitalist mode of production which he wants the working class to abolish. We do not sit in our armchairs, feet-up on a foot stool reading a newspaper and wait for socialism to come along like a train moving from station to station along history's railway track. Socialism has to be struggled for, and the establishment of socialism has to be by the democratic action of a socialist majority.

The theory of socialist revolution is grounded on Marx's fundamental principle that "the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself". To emancipate itself from capitalism requires the working class to engage in political action, political struggle and political organisation. If workers do not struggle for socialism nothing happens. Socialism will not happen by itself. Socialism is not inevitable.

As a socialist revolutionary, Marx held to the principal of the self-emancipation of the working class. He held this view throughout his entire life and it was formally introduced in the Preamble to the Rules of the International Working Men's Association in 1864. Here are the opening lines:

"That the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves..."
(THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO AND THE LAST HUNDRED YEARS, Socialist Party of Great Britain p. 14, 1948)

Marx's view that socialism could only be established by the working class distinguished his theory of revolutionary social change from two others: the utopian and the authoritarian. The first appealed to politicians and capitalists to change the world for the benefit of the working class (such as Robert Owen and Saint Simon) and the second relied on the determined political action of some "enlightened" minority of professional revolutionaries (such as Blanqui and Lenin) imposing change on the rest of society.

Marx's Theory of History

Free will is bound up with choice. What can we choose to do, or not choose to do? We have to work. We have to labour. We have to do work socially with others day-in and day-out. To work is a necessity. Human beings have to survive. We have to work on natural given materials to produce the necessaries of life and live before making history or becoming a professor of ideas. This means that life:

"involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things... the writing of history must always set out from these natural bases"
(K. Marx and F. Engels, THE GERMAN IDEOLOGY 1985 p. 48)

From the necessity for food, drink, clothing and so on, it follows that the basis of every society and all human history is the production, through social labour, of these means of subsistence. This leads Marx to make a further proposition:

"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."

Accordingly, this means that the development of the productive forces determines the social relations of production not the other way around. We enter into definite social relations which are independent of our will. The development of the forces of production opens up new possibilities, new social arrangements, and new ideas.

We are born into classes with different relations to the means of production and distribution. For the majority of us, the working class, it means having to find employment for a wage or salary. For a minority, the capitalist class, it means a life of privilege and luxury living off the unearned income of rent, interest and profit. We are forced into a class struggle whether we are conscious of it or not. Workers have to resist on a daily basis the extent and intensity of class exploitation. Our class position governs what we can do and what we cannot do. We have to protect ourselves in trade unions from the encroachment of capital. We do not enjoy the freedom to be left alone. The capitalist class will not let us.

In his POVERTY OF PHILOSOPHY, Marx made reference to the development of all the productive forces:

"For the oppressed class to be able to emancipate itself, it is necessary that the productive powers already acquired and the existing social relations should no longer be capable of existing side by side. Of all the instruments of production, the greatest productive power is the revolutionary class itself. The organization of revolutionary elements as a class supposes the existence of all the productive forces which could be engendered in the bosom of the old society" (THE POVERTY OF PHILOSOPHY, Ch. 2).

Even socialists are limited by events and circumstances. Without a socialist majority there can be no socialism.

The same problem of "choice" applies to economic laws. Marx was very clear that capitalism generates laws independent of the will of the economic actors involved. This is bought out clearly in competition between capitalists. Marx wrote:

"...competition makes the immanent laws of capitalist production to be felt by each individual capitalist, as external coercive laws. It compels him to keep constantly extending his capital, in order to preserve it, but extend it he cannot, except by means of progressive accumulation" (CAPITAL, volume I, chapter X, section 5 p. 592)


"Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!...Accumulation for accumulation's sake, production for production's sake..." (CAPITAL volume 1, Ch. XXIV, p. 595).

Capitalists have to compete; they have to destroy competitors. They have to exploit workers, make profit, re-invest capital and make more capital and profit. As "the personification of capital" they have to expand value. These are the facts of life for the capitalist class under capitalism. Their activity is governed by the outcome of "external coercive laws". They have no choice in the matter if they want to remain capitalists.

Berlin: A Completely Genuine Charlatan

Marx never denied the importance of human agency in determining the course of history. The working class taking political action was fundamental to his thinking. However the actions of the working class were undertaken by men and women, most of whom were not known or even recorded in human history. And that matters. For Berlin, the only people to count in the production of ideas are intellectuals like himself. Berlin collects ideas like a Lepidopterist collects butterflies.

Berlin championed the study of "ideas". After all, he was a professional historian of ideas. In this sense, he was a crude idealist. Berlin ignored the causal role of material conditions in the production of ideas. He believed that ideas are logically prior to material reality where knowledge and consciousness are subjectively generated. The grubby world of "the cash nexus" was not for civilised academic conversation and debate. As Marx showed, ideas do not have their own autonomous causal existence within history without the intervention of practical human action. Ideas do not get into bed with each other to beget more ideas.

As a collector of "ideas", it is also doubtful if Berlin ever read the Putney debates or the works of Gerard Winstanley. The material conditions at the time of the English Civil War, which set in train ideas about democracy (the Levellers) and common property (Gerard Winstanley), seem not to have come up on Berlin’s radar. And for a very good reason: Berlin had little time for ideas produced by workers. It is doubtful that Berlin even considered workers were capable of producing political ideas of their own. He did not see the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

When Berlin was using the privilege of All Souls Oxford to give his early morning lectures against Marx to the children of the "Great and the Good", the working class served at the High Table of Oxbridge colleges; they did not sit there. And for his research, Berlin would have had access to the splendid library at All Souls which profits from the slave trade had helped to endow.

However, history has not treated Berlin well. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Berlin and his anti-Marxist ideas became irrelevant to the needs of the "New World Order". History, so we are told, has terminated in the form of the free market system of the United State and that there is now "no altnative to the market". Today he is considered by some as an intellectual dilettante and charlatan. This was indeed the conclusion of the two critical articles on Berlin's book on Marx, in SOCIALIST STUDIES 28, by our late comrade Jim D'Arcy. Here is a quotation from the first article:

In an interview with Steven Lukes of the SUNDAY TELEGRAPH (21 Sept 1997) Sir Isaiah told us that he was commissioned to write the book on Marx by the then Home University Library. He was their third choice. Professor Harold Laski and the present Lord Longford having both declined. Up to that time, on his own admission, he had never read a word of Marx or understood a word of Hegel but subsequently, in his own words, "he read more Marx than was good for anyone" (Sunday Telegraph - 21 September 1997). This dig at Marx, published over fifty years later, explains his hostility and also his superficial treatment of Marxist theories. This is inevitable when the author has no prior knowledge of the subject and is dependent on hurried research. Consequently, the quality of the book is poor as well as being misleading. Paraphrasing is used instead of direct quotation. Asserted opinion replaces argument. The result is a series of emasculated summaries, purporting to be Marx's main ideas together with a number of elementary errors.

This places Berlin's essay on HISTORICAL INEVITABILITY into some context. It was a political Manifesto for Western capitalism against the state capitalism of the Soviet Union. The essay added nothing to an understanding of Marx but it was never meant to be. Historical determinism suggests inevitability and predictability but there is nothing in Marx's writings to suggest this.

The use of the word "inevitability" in the COMMUNIST MANIFESTO is a literary flourish at the end of a political tract. The passage is a call for political action not an invitation to be quiescent and sit back and do nothing. The agent of revolutionary change, the working class, had to make a revolution and this involved struggle and effort. There had to be many grave diggers for socialism to be established. Someone had to make the spades. It involved effort to dig graves. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels even conceded that there could be the mutual destruction of the contending classes; a point always missed by those who want to damn Marx for holding views of historical inevitability.

And, of course, Marx did not hold views of historical inevitability. He famously said:

History does nothing, it "possesses no immense wealth", it "wages no battles". It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; "history" is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.
The Holy Family https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/holy-family/ch06_2.htm

And in the GERMAN IDEOLOGY he wrote:

"History is nothing but the succession of the separate generations, each of which uses the materials, the capital funds, the productive forces handed down to it by all proceeding generations, and thus, on the one hand, continues the traditional activity in completely changed circumstances and, on the other, modifies the old circumstances with a completely changed activity (p. 58).

Hardly the views of a supporter of historical inevitability.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.