One of the main accusations thrown at Marxists over the years, particularly in bourgeois academic circles, is that Marxism is determinist – a crude form of mechanistic materialism which neglects to take into account individual human beings.
It is argued that, because Marxism recognises the material as primary and, therefore, sees the mode of production in any society as forming an economic basis – “the real foundation on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness” (Marx, Preface to Critique of Political Economy) – Marxists believe that the course of history can be predicted directly from the economic facts.
Marxism is painted as something akin to a mystical belief in destiny. The argument then proceeds that, since Marxism ‘predicted’ the collapse of capitalism and a transition to a communist society yet capitalism still exists, Marxism has failed and must be consigned to the dustbin of history.
In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Marxists argue that the basis of our society is its division into classes and that these classes are determined by an underlying economic basis. However, an understanding of class as first constituted in the economic by no means implies that this is the only factor affecting class, or indeed that it is necessarily the primary means through which class is experienced.
This was an issue identified by Engels as early as 1890, when he wrote, in a letter to Joseph Bloch, “[a]ccording to the materialist conception of history the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction of in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one then he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure – political forms … constitutions … forms of law … political, legal, philosophical theories, religious ideas … – also exercise their influence upon the course of historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an intersection of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents … the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history one chose would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree. We make our own history, but … under very definite presuppositions and conditions [all italics are author’s originals]”.
This gives a clear answer to the role of the economic basis as not the “only” determining factor but the “ultimately” determining factor. The whole complex of social life is conceptualised here but, in the “intersection of all these elements”, “amid all the endless host of accidents”, there will be a tendency for the economic basis to “assert itself as necessary”. However, it does leave one question unanswered, or at least only partially answered.
This is the role of agency, the extent to which people are able to assert their free will. Some clue is given by the final statement of the above quotation: “we make our own history but … under very definite presuppositions and conditions.” However, Engels goes on to elaborate how this happens: “history makes itself in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each again has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant – the historical event. … But from the fact that individual wills – of which each desires what he is impelled to by his physical condition and external, in the last resort, economic circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general) – do not attain what they want but are merged into a collective mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that their value is equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this degree involved in it” (Engels, Letter to Joseph Bloch).
There are essentially two arguments here. Firstly, that history is directed by the outcomes of many different interactions between individual wills (agency), each contributing to the overall effect. In this way, major historical decisions can be seen as the composite (or “resultant”) of millions of individual decisions, each of which may seem insignificant in its own right but each of which is essential to the final outcome. Secondly, each of these individuals is exercising free will, but within the constraints of their “physical constitution and external circumstances” and influenced by (even constructed by) “a host of particular conditions of life” – past and present. “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 circumstances are changed precisely by men and that the educator must himself be educated.” (Marx, Theses on Feuerbach).