Nigel Collingwood


Written c. 1978; for private circulation.

In what sense, if any, was Marx an economic determinist? That is, in what sense, if any, did Marx hold that non-economic factors in human life were determined, controlled, or influenced by such economic factors as methods of production, distribution and exchange? If we can answer that question, we can go on to ask what degree of truth or usefulness can be ascribed to Marx’s views on the matter – although in fact I intend to leave that mainly to discussion, so that I can concentrate on questions of theory.

Now it may be questioned straight away whether even to approach such questions is at all a suitable activity for a philosophy group. Surely questions about what are the important factors in human activity and history is a matter of historical and political judgement. You just have to sort out what influences what, and decide on degrees of importance from some standpoint or other. At best our questions could belong to political philosophy, hardly in the mainstream of philosophical enquiry. That certainly seemed to me to be the implication of the way in which Marxism was approached in the Greats course at Oxford in the late 40s. Yet it is the achievement of Marx and Marxism to make such a way of parcelling out things no longer self-evidently right. For Marx questioned the idea that philosophy or anything else can rise above the level of awareness appropriate to a particular socio-economic epoch: philosophy is thus seen as itself a part of the process of history, and any alleged separation from that process is a retreat from reality into a world of mere ideas. Hence the orientation of a journal like Radical Philosophy, where social, economic and political reality and the possibility of changing it is taken as the starting point of any worthwhile continuation of the long discussion that has constituted western philosophy.

Thus our questions can remain legitimately on the agenda, as long as we realise that their position is a little precarious: for a conclusion that the theory to be discussed (one that is quite central to Marxism) was of no value would suggest that after all the topic was, for us, ultra vires.

Marxism is itself best seen as a process, both within the writing life of Marx and Engels, and in the subsequent century of assessment, criticism and development. But within the process can be discerned a few central theses which interlock. It is this interlocking factor that makes it dangerous to consider only one thesis at a time – which is what we shall mainly be doing. Hence it is worthwhile to attempt the briefest of glances at the system as a whole. Hence my attempt at a definition:

Marxism is

a way of looking at history

that sees our changing methods of producing goods for consumption, and use, as crucial in setting limits to what is possible in human relationships and understanding of reality, and sees, in particular, the present highly industrialised method as initially requiring (a) production for profit, (b) a division between the exploiting and the exploited classes, (c) lack of self-expression (i.e. alienation) at work, and (d) mystification of the exploited by the exploiters (i.e. ideology), but as ultimately enabling the exploited to take control and to set up a classless society producing to meet needs;

hence it is also

a revolutionary project

in which the exploited can act together in seizing their opportunity to free themselves throughout the world by (a) dismantling the capitalist state, and (b) creating a genuine community where all can express themselves in the sharing of resources. The first paragraph is a statement of the primacy of the economic – the question we are to discuss. But its relationship to the possibility of change is made clear in the clause beginning “but as ultimately...”. From this follows its relevance to the revolutionary project, since it is claimed that the time for revolution is or will be ripe when industrial production is advanced to a stage where production for individual profit, and the consequent dichotomy of the population into exploiters and exploited, becomes an obstacle – in Marx’s phrase, becomes a “fetter” – to such production. Thus the thesis is a central element in the whole, and is arguably the most central element of all – or indeed, as Marx himself calls it, the guiding thread of my studies.

Let us turn to the exegesis of our passage. As Martin Nicolaus has pointed out1, it is part of a broad overview of the internal conflicts of capitalism. It is part of a Preface to a book only a small portion of which was ever published. Nor did his later Magnum Opus Capital, Nicolaus argues, really cover the same breadth of subject matter. It was only in the Grundrisse of (1858) – a rough draft not published until 1939 – that this was attempted. Thus we now have to hand the writing with which Marx could offer to give body to the grand claims of this paragraph. In other words, although Marx was given to setting out vast programmes for study, we have here something which is not merely programmatic, but a summary, written in 1859 when Marx was 41, of his position as a result of the lucubrations of the previous year, and his earlier studies.

At the core of the passage is the statement of the primacy of social being over individual consciousness. We can perhaps see this as foreshadowing the later Wittgenstein’s preoccupation with different forms of activity, forms of life. But for Marx it was of course a standing of Hegel on his head. It is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence (a summary of Hegel’s position on history as equal to the history of ideas) but on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness2. This is such a concise statement that we will later have to unpack it in terms of the various propositions with which it is surrounded. But it is worth noting that the word used bestimmt is usually rendered “determines”, whereas in the previous sentence the corresponding word is bedingt, which can be translated as “conditions”, although in fact given as “determines” in the translation before us. Thus in the Lawrence and Wishart translation we read: The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life3. This seemingly weaker verb is enough to remind us that Marx, although a materialist in the sense of denying the primacy or sole reality of ideas, was not a mechanistic materialist. That is, he did not hold that human behaviour could be explained simply in terms of the causality exerted by physical objects on one another. As he wrote in the 3rd Thesis on Feuerbach in 1845:

The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that therefore changed men are products of other circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men that change circumstances and that the educator himself needs educating4.

Admittedly, the relationship between people and circumstances could be seen in a merely mechanistic way, as though it depends upon from which you start your enquiry, as with the chicken and the egg. But Marx is clearly offering an argument, and must therefore be pointing to the agency of people over circumstances, an agency in some sense free. As an argument, it begs the question. But at least it stands as an assertion of the commonsense view that deciding to do something, to change circumstances, is not the same as, cannot be reduced to, being controlled by, being determined by, circumstances. As far as I know, Marx nowhere addresses the classic difficulties over freewill versus determinism. His implicit assertion of a position favouring freewill nevertheless deserves to be noted.

However the capacity for free choice does not exist in a vacuum. It exists always, for Marx, in a social and historical context. A decision to fly to New York in four hours is only possible since the invention and production of Concorde. Previously, one could only have wished to do so. Marx was concerned with these limitations or boundaries, within which free choice is possible, as we shall see as we now move on to some of the other propositions in our passage.

In the social production which men carry on they enter into definite relations that are indispensible and independent of their will: these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of the material powers (or forces, in other translations) of production. Marx is here making in respect of the production of goods the same point that is often made regarding language: we take up the language that is available, enter it “independently of our will”, and so too we enter into relations of production; e.g. in feudal times people were born into a society where lords owned and serfs toiled. Thus Marx is showing us two tiers: first the material forces of production, and on top of that, as it were, the relations of production. These relations are conceived of as including both the relations between people engaged in production and property relations (See Michael Evans5.) Immediately he adds a third tier, “legal and political superstructures” which rise on the relations of production as if on a foundation. It is important to bear this tripartite division in mind when a simpler formula, that of base and superstructure, is employed – by Marxists, though not, I think, by Marx himself.

How are these three tiers related? Sometimes Marx uses the weak word “corresponds”, but a stronger relationship is expressed by “conditions” and “determines”. Raymond Williams6 points out that there is a sharp difference between an external cause which totally predicts or prefigures, indeed totally controls a subsequent activity, and a notion of determination as setting limits, exerting pressures. As we saw in the 3rd Thesis on Feuerbach, Marx adopted the second of these two positions in 1845, when speaking rather more loosely in terms of “circumstances” and their influence on people. Does he still take the same position in 1859? It would seem so. For writing later to J Bloch7 Engels explained: Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-a-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place and the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. Now if the “other elements”, i.e. elements higher in the three tiers of the model, can also influence the lower ones, the kind of “determination” spoken of must be of the limit-setting, pressure-exerting kind, not the mechanistic. For although reciprocal causality makes sense in physical terms, as when the air and the balloon around it “determine” one another’s shape, Engels explains in another letter that “automatic”, mechanistic causality is out of the question. Writing to W Borgius in 1894 he says: So it is not… that the economic situation produces an automatic effect. No. Men make their history themselves, only they do it in a given environment, which conditions it, and on the basis of actual relations already existing, among which the economic relations, however much they may be influenced by the other, the political and ideological relations, are still ultimately the decisive ones8.

Earlier in the former letter Engels states explicitly: According to the material conception of history, the ultimate determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure – political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas – also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.

What does Engels mean by the ultimate determining element and the economic movement finally asserts itself? Or what do modern writers mean when they speak of the economic being determining “in the last analysis”? How does one know that one is at the ultimate, final, last point of enquiry? Even if the answer to this question is clear, we seem to be back at the position of strong or mechanistic determination after all, if “the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary”.

A more fruitful line of enquiry will take us back to look in greater detail at what is meant by the economic base itself, the material forces of production, of “forces of material production”, equally a translation of the German phrase. (See Nicolaus.) At first sight it seems that Marx is referring literally to material objects such as spades, lathes and engines. Thus he writes in The Poverty of Philosophy in 1847 (cited by McLellan): the hand mill will give you a society with the feudal lord, the steam mill a society with the industrial capitalist. But these tools and machines need people to work them. As inert objects they are not productive at all; in Marx’s terms they represent “frozen labour”, and so need living labour to become productive. Hence the material forces of production must include the human productive element as well. This is not merely a semantic point. For if the material forces of production are physical objects and nothing more, then can exert only physical, mechanistic, causality, if any, and Marx would after all be a mechanistic materialist.

Thus the lowest tier, the economic, must be considered as a complex of productive practices, such that a given set of practices requires an appropriate set of social relations – by saying “an appropriate set” rather than “the appropriate set” allows us to retain the limit-setting sense of economic determination. This point about practices is well made by M Nicolaus (op. cit. p 324), who then goes on to give a convincing example, from Marx’s own theory, of the downward influence of the social relations upon the material forces of production: The forces of production are themselves a social and historical product, and the productive process is a social process for Marx. It is necessary to emphasise this point in order to make clear that the important role which Marx assigns to the development of the material production forces under capitalism does not make Marx a technological determinist. Quite the opposite is the case; it is not technology which compels the capitalist to accumulate, but the necessity to accumulate which compels him to develop the powers of technology.

Roy Bhaskar goes further, pointing out that ideas, usually assigned to the third, highest, tier, must be involved also in the productive processes of the first, lowest, one. He writes: all activity, including purely economic activity, necessarily has an ideational component or aspect. However, he continues a little later: Thus the crude distinction economic base/ideological superstructure must be rejected, and replaced instead by a conception of different ideologies associated with different practices. Now if this leaves us merely with an association of ideologies and practices, as it seems to do, Bhaskar has left Marxism behind him in any kind of primacy for the economic.

Is there then after all no stable position to hold between mechanistic determination on the one hand and Bhaskarian associationism on the other? I want to suggest that there is, on two sets of grounds. The first concerns the obvious fact that material, what Aristotle called “vegetative” life is the necessary basis on which individual intellectual life subsists. As I have argued this point in an earlier paper to this group9 I will only mention briefly that the argument turned on the fact that we are bodily beings with physical needs and expressive needs, neither of which can be adequately met by a system of production for profit rather than for use, i.e. commodity production. That form of production sets limits to what is possible, excluding the full satisfaction of both physical and expressive needs. It will be noticed that this attempt to hold a central position between mechanism and associationism depends on the factors we are ascribing to the process of determination i.e. on empirical factors, not on a formal distinction. But I suggest that it goes far enough by showing that the concept of a stable intermediate position is not an empty one.

The second ground is again empirical, and would lead us on to a consideration of the whole range of historical examples worked out by Marx. But if we keep to the broadest of perspectives it would seem to be obvious that a simple hunting economy did not permit the development of the kind of competitive, or in Marx’s terms “antagonistic”, society we take for granted today, simply because there could be no accumulated surplus to be individually appropriated (or plundered, or stolen). Again, given a machine-based culture and a capitalist mode of production the invention of a more efficient machine renders it impossible for an employer to keep to his old machines and remain competitive. But, as we have seen Nicolaus point out, the pressure to develop new machines (if capitalist A does not, he fears that capitalist B will) is a case of the social relation, competition between firms, influencing in its turn the material base.

Summing up, I have tried to show that Marx’s theory of economic determination is not mechanistic, but holds that the productive forces, which include the human element of the direct producers, condition, i.e. set limits to the possible development of, the social relationships of a given period, which in turn condition, in the same sense, the broad ways of thinking about and understanding the world generally prevalent at the same period. I have also offered, by way of illustration, a few empirical arguments for the truth of the theory.

1 Martin Nicolaus, The Unknown Marx, in Ideology and Social Science, ed. R Blackburn, Fontana/Collins, London 1972.
2 German Ideology, cited in D McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx, p 128.
3 in The Economics of Marx, selected readings ed. M C Howard and J E King, Penguin, 1976.
4 Marx-Engels, Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart, London 1968, p 28.
5 Michael Evans, Karl Marx, Allen & Unwin, London, 1975 p 63.
6 Raymond Williams, Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory, in Schooling and Capitalism, ed. R Dale and others, Routledge, London 1976.
7 Marx-Engels Sel. Works, p 692.
8 ibid. p 705.
9 Alienation and Bodies, p 10