Find Enlightenment

The Problem of Self-Referentiality in Marx's Historical Materialism
by Diana Mertz Hsieh

Date: 5 Apr 95
Forum: Washington University in St-Louis, Kant and 19th Century Philosophy class
Copyright: Diana Mertz Hsieh

This is a rather short essay, which I include here for the purposes of showing a general style of mine in academic philosophy classes that served me well: showing the inherent contradictions in a given philosophical claim.

Marx's historical materialism, especially as it is presented in his later writings, proposes a thoroughly deterministic model of the development of history, in which all historical change is the result of change in the material means of production. Even the development of ideas is only a consequence of changes in the material realm; the changes in ideologies are only the "forms in which men become conscious of [material conflict] and fight it out." (Marx-Engels Reader, 5) This account of historical transformation is ultimately self-defeating, because any attempt to apply Marx's historical materialism to his own theory leads to nothing but contradiction.

Marx's account of the development of history is very similar in methodology to Hegel's, although each of these philosophers have radically different views of what is the primary causal agent in history. Hegel's account of history is solely focussed on the rational, deterministic development of the "spirit" which gradually becomes self-aware. Marx, on the other hand, holds that the process of history can only be understood as rational, deterministic change in the material means through which men sustain themselves. These material forces determine every aspect of society: its socio-politico-economic structure, its ideology, and the relations between its members. Like Hegel, Marx's conception of history is rational and simplistic, for, according to Marx, all change can be traced to a single deterministic source, which men are not capable of consciously changing or even influencing.

Marx's materialistic and deterministic conception of historical development, in which all changes in human society can be essentially traced back to changes in the means by which humans sustain their physical existence, forces him to deny that ideas have any causal efficacy, and thus to treat them as simple epiphenomenon. Marx clearly states that "we cannot judge [an ideological] period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production." (Marx-Engels Reader, 5) Ideological conflicts are simply the manifestations of material conflicts, and so not influence the course of history in any way. The illusion that ideas cause change is a result of the fact that ideology is so closely tied to historical change, since we only become aware of the social conflict through ideology.

By regarding ideas as simple epiphenomenon, Marx has acquired an enormous weapon to yield against all other ideologies. Any theory, from biology to ethics, can be traced to some prejudices of the originator, or simply deemed an outdated expression of past social conflict. For example, Hobbes' view of human nature can be regarded as a reflection of the emerging ideology of capitalism; my advocacy of libertarianism could be analyzed as nothing more than a bourgeois desire to preserve the property I own. But the advantage of this type of analysis disappears entirely when one applies Marxist analysis of the generation of ideas to Marx's own ideology.

If one analyzes Marx's own theory of the generation of ideology using the method of historical materialism, contradictions inevitably arise. Marx cannot possibly claim that his ideas are true, i.e. that they are an accurate description of historical change, when it is impossible for any ideas, Marx's included, to gain such an objective perspective. Marx's ideas must simply be regarded as reflecting the outdated prejudices of his time and society and as the result of some ideological reflex of his era. In this way, Marx's own theory of historical materialism invalidates itself.

There are three possible responses to this self-contradiction, none of which both resolve the contradiction and preserve historical materialism. Marx could claim that he has obtained an objective perspective which no other philosopher could manage; he could declare that the self-contradiction is irrelevant; or he could give up strict historical materialism.

The first possibility, that Marx does actually have some perspective which other philosophers could not hope to attain is, problematic on its face. The possibility of such an epistemological feat is clearly deemed impossible by the Marxist account of the generation of ideas. So such an attempt would necessarily throw us into the second possibility, declaring that self-contradiction is irrelevant. But this tactic is literally incomprehensible, since it would entail rejecting the law of non-contradiction, upon which every argument depends.

The third response, which seems to be the only possibility, would be to give up a large portion of historical materialism. Marx must modify his claims about the origin of ideas so he can both claim the truth of his ideas and grant his ideas some level of causal efficacy. This weakening of historical materialism might well destroy the foundations of other areas of Marxist thought, as well as withdraw the means of so strongly criticize other theories on the grounds that they are simply a reflection of the prejudices of the ruling class, but such a move might at least save a portion of Marx's ideas from helpless self-contradiction.

In order to save at least part of Marx's account of history, we must admit that individuals are capable of choice, that ideas have casual power, and that the progression of history cannot be so simplistically reduced to one primary casual agent. Marx must allow for an individual's capacity for choice in order to make his own claims comprehensible, for Marx cannot possibly claim truth for his theories if they are simply the determined reaction to outside influences. Marx must admit that ideas have causal power in order to make his choice to write philosophy compatible with his world-view and in order to fully explain how material forces of production change. Marx would not have devoted his life to the spread of his ideas if he did not think that they could have some impact. Also, in order to fully explain how material forces of production change, it is necessary to grant ideas causal power, since advances in technology do not happen spontaneously; they are the result of scientific discovery. Although one can argue that those scientific discoveries can only come about when material conditions are ripe, that does not detract from the fundamental principle that ideas do cause change in the material realm. That both material change and ideological change influence the course of history indicates that Marx cannot survive on his simplistic account of the course of history. Although being able to trace the development of history to one single cause would be convenient, such a simplistic model of history inevitably fails because it cannot possible capture all the complexity of the actual process of history. Nevertheless, in what sense this type of radical modification of Marx's conception of history would remain "historical materialism" is entirely unclear.

Marx himself does not seem to be aware of the problem of self-referentiality in his own theory, for after he sketches the basic principles of historical materialism, he claims that "[his] views, however they may be judged and however little they coincide with the interested prejudices of the ruling classes, are the result of conscientious investigation lasting many years." (Marx-Engels Reader, 6) Marx views his own work as the volitional effort of his own mind, not "conditioned by definite development of [the] productive forces and the intercourse corresponding to [it]" as all other ideas necessarily are. (Nineteenth Century Philosophy, 287) The "Manifesto of the Communist Party," a document written as a "theoretical and practical programme of the Party," was not written simply to express a reaction to changes in modes of production, but to incite the workers of the world to unite, to indicate what the proper course of action for communists, and to criticize other communist movements. (Marx-Engles Reader, 469) Indeed, Marx's whole life work in writing seems completely unintelligible given his historical materialism.

I do think that these changes in the Marxist conception of history would eventually undermine Marx's entire philosophical system. Marx could not have predicted the inevitable advance of communism without his simple model of history, nor can he so easily refute the claims of other philosophers, as well as the current understanding of how markets actually function, if we allowed for such drastic modification of his historical materialism.

Find Enlightenment at