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A Critique of Economic Determinism

December 21, 2013

In our last post we explored how fatalistic mindsets limit what we do. Today, I want to explore determinism in an intellectual realm, specifically that of historiography.

Many types of determinism exist. Economic determinism, geographic determinism, cultural determinism… all these ideas are saying that ‘X set of conditions led to Y’. For instance, Jared Diamond argues in his seminal book Guns, Germs and Steel that climatic conditions only allowed agriculture to readily develop in some parts of the world. The development of agriculture was a prerequisite to people being able to specialise, and hence the creation of nation states etc. He does invoke other points as to why Europe developed the most that aren’t environmental. But, the premise of the book is a form of geographic determinism. Diamond’s work shall be the subject of another post.

The point is, one thing determined the rise of something else, which led to something, and then specialisation breeds specialisation… that’s what I mean by determinism.

The other issue is when theories are all encompassing – they can’t be falsified. Many types of determinism work like this. In fact, those who claim altruism doesn’t exist work on such a basis. For another day though.

So, what is Marxist historiography? What variant of economic determinism do Marxists hold to? Why is it wrong?

Marx’s theories rest upon the idea of ‘historical materialism’, the idea that throughout history people had fundamental physiological and material needs – “Life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus [emphasis mine] the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.” Marx then argues that we are never satisfied for ‘the satisfaction of the first need… leads to new needs.’ The idea that we adapt to our circumstances, and then need something new to get the same joy – the hedonistic treadmill, if you will.

Marx then looks at the way in which these material needs are met. That is, to produce things people enter into social relations. What these relations constitute has varied throughout history. We’ve gone through ancient society, feudalism, capitalism… Marx thought the next stage was socialism.

But, how do we progress through these stages?

For Marx all our political and legal systems were derived from these relations of production. There were not independent entities; they arose from historical materialism. They formed the superstructure of society. Throughout history each mode of production would contain ‘contradictions’ which led to it’s dissolution. Each stage in history also contained a dominant and subordinate class. Eventually the subordinate become aware of their oppressed state and overthrow the dominant class, ushering in a new type of productive relations. Ironically, a deterministic view of history still relies on human agency to bring about a new system.

The sort of example a Marxist would like to refer to is something like the rise of the merchant class and weakening of centralised political power in Europe, or specifically Britain, leading to things like the industrial revolution. Certainly, there are many things that Marxism can explain. It is a powerful view of history. Yet, is it perfectly true, or true to merely some extent? That’s the sort of question you get historians debating, for only some historians hold a purely Marxist viewpoint. Indeed, I oversimplified Marxist historiography in my explanation of it.

But some do hold such a purist viewpoint and we must deal with them. I think Elton is right when he says that such a theory does not arise out of the past, but is imposed upon it. People will twist the past to support their theory, their paradigm [1] . People can be attached to their theories. In Elton’s words “It takes a mental revolution equal to a spiritual conversion to separate a devotee from his theory, and the chances are that that will happen only if another theory stands by to catch the convert.”

Obviously, I broadly agree with Elton. So, what are of the general, theoretical attacks on Marxism:

  1. Reliance on needs never being satisfied

Marx claims we have ever expanding needs. For many that is true – hedonism and adaption to pleasure ensure this. Yet, some few people have demonstrated a remarkable contentedness and ascetic lifestyle in history and the present. If these people can attain a quiet satisfaction, or have their needs satisfied by something external to the production process – eg. Marvelling at the scenery which already exists – then so can we all, weakening the extent to which Marx is right.

  1. Foucault – power does not come from a single nature; it is to be diffused locally; there is no grand dialectical (Marx’s word) engagement
  2. Postructuralists – language can’t describe the past; ideology and language have no relation with the material world; not explaining today…
  3. Reliance on ‘class consciousness’ for overthrow… but what if class consciousness did not exist during a time of war or revolution?  Hill, a Marxist, himself said “Revolution[s] must be seen as a whole.”
  4. Structure vs. agency

If the superstructure is controlled hegemonically by the ruling class then how is it ever overthrown? The superstructure may not exist independently of material needs, but it still exerts influence! A case of Orwell’s notion of ‘democratic weapons’ ? See “You and the Atomic Bomb” (1945).

  1. Localised truths, hence rejection of meta-narratives, such as the Marxist meta-narrative

Now, let me give my own example, demonstrating some of these principles:

I’m researching Meiji Japan (1868-1912) for my history extension major work. I’m looking into what factors facilitated the incredible modernisation of the period. [2] Many historians point to the political stability of the early years of the Meiji Restoration in accounting for Japan’s successful transition towards industrialised existence by the 1900s. [3] They say that the revolution was contained within the samurai class. Modes of production changed, yet by and large the same class stayed in power.

Not wonderful for our Marxists.

What many Marxists tend to respond with is to say that the shogunate was undermined by peasant rebellions and that this was very important in the overthrow of the Tokugawa shogunate. Now these rebellions occurred. However, most historians agree that they were localised occurrences. That is, a national revolution didn’t occur out of a village. So, Marxist historians are emphasising these rebellions to fit their theory of class struggle.

That is, they’re being intellectually lazy and not seeking out the truth. Meta-narratives are all well and good, but they must be tempered by the fact that they might not always be true. For it is so easy to impose our understanding of the present upon the past and assume ideas to have remained constant. For it is so easy to rationalise ‘after the fact’, ex post facto! To rationalise after the fact is like making a law after some action has been done and then retroactively applying it. Eg. You walk across public property, yet that is later made private property and you are retroactively charged for trespassing. What!? Instead, we want laws to be applied from the time of their inception. Historically, we’d like theories with predictive as opposed to inferential power, as far as that’s possible. A coroner tends to have to always infer; that’s why some mistakes are made.

I say to you, read widely and learn more of the different explanations for various things. It may seem comforting to have a pet theory, but you will emerge better for knowing more, and knowing you are closer to the heart of the matter.


[1] – Check out Thomas Kuhn’s writing about paradigms and scientific revolutions. It’s very insightful. Read a secondary source to save yourself time.

[2] – Some specialists would claim it is not ‘incredible’ , citing the Tokugawa Shogunate – the previous ruling power – as being more advanced than is normally credited, hence the improvements less amazing… Even a simplification can be challenging to type on this fascinating topic!

[3] – If I didn’t specify the 1900s I’d risk debating exactly how the growth came about – potentially my specialist area of research.


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