Not Historicism

Contemporary Historical Materialism and Global Social Change

Brent Cooper
London School of Economics. MSc Political Sociology
SO407: Politics and Society
November 15th, 2010

The question I will set out to answer in this essay is “does ‘historical materialism’
provides a good starting point for understanding social change?” One must enter into such a
crowded field with humility as well as trepidation. To think of orthodox historical materialism is
to refer to something that was never articulated by Marx himself, but rather Engels, who was
doomed to fall short in summarizing Marx’s grand project (Wood, 2005: 12). There were
ambiguities in Engels’ version as well that have led many to misunderstand Marx’s intent.
Despite this, we have many different conceptions of historical materialism. Generations of
scholars have attempted to invoke Marx’s spirit in their advanced theories. In this paper I will
determine the utility of historical materialism in contemporary social theory as an important
component of macro-historical globalization.
I will begin by defining the concept. In the simplest sense, historical materialism is
Marx’s ground-breaking idea that the economic structure is the primary determinant in social
consciousness. Historical materialists hold that “any effort at social analysis must trace in
historically concrete detail the specifics of the group’s material conditions” and the connection of
those conditions to the character of the group (Ritzer, 1992). While critics may de-emphasize its
importance, there is no evidence to suggest abandoning the material base as a focus of analysis in
understanding social consciousness and change.
In my view, the core catalyst of Marx’s material conception of history is that “in the
social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are
independent of their will” (Marx, 1977). The reason for the importance of this is twofold: 1) that
fulfilling our basic needs (food, shelter) is our top priority from birth and that the economic
system naturally becomes an extension of that, and 2) that our will is secondary to these
processes. Marx did acknowledge reflexivity, and that is an important part of historical change,

however he maintained that at its root historical materialism reveals the predictable processes
that result from necessary human interaction.
Historical materialism has always been seen as part of unpopular grand theories which try
to unify the physical and social sciences. Louis Althusser contended that despite Marx’s
popularity, his doctrine has always been “radically misunderstood and underestimated" (Skinner,
1990: 144). Marx's contribution, 'the science of history' as Althusser calls it, is the discovery of a
'continent of knowledge' that established a new theoretical structure distinct from its
predecessors (Skinner, 144-145). Althusser conceded later that his attempt to formulate a
scientific worldview based on historical materialism had failed because our beliefs about the
divide between science and ideology are partially determined by the structured whole, and
therefore we cannot be entirely objective (Skinner, 155-156). Nevertheless, some such as Jurgen
Habermas have not given up on the validity of our “consensus theory of truth” in ascertaining
long term processes.
Habermas posits a 'reconstruction of historical materialism' and thus, in Giddens' words,
offers himself as a "Marx for our times" (Skinner, 17). To historical materialism, Habermas adds
a dimension to Marx’s species-being; he distinguishes between work and social/communicative
interaction (Ritzer, 1992:). Habermas is concerned with the “elimination of barriers to free
communication” (Ritzer, 293). In effect, he, like Marx, is writing ahead of his time in
anticipating cybernetic or network theories of society. Habermas attributes the rationalization of
purposive-rational action as being a, if not the, major problem in the modern world (Ritzer, 294).
Accordingly, the antidote to too much purposive-rational action is the rationalization of
communicative action. Barriers and distortions in communication can be overcome by a

therapeutic critique; Habermas calls for psychoanalysis at a societal level to resolve these
‘repressed blocks’ and ‘distortions’ in communication.
Social psychologist Siegfried Zepf argues this school of thought, although without
reference to Habermas, that we can define the social unconscious as “a generalization of parts of
the individual dynamic unconscious” (Zepf, 2007: 106). Analytic social psychology is to group
suffering and social consciousness as psychoanalytic therapy is to personal suffering and
individual consciousness. Social psychology can achieve changes in social structures by
addressing knowledge to political groups, just as a psychotherapist would direct their knowledge
to a patient. For Freud, and Zepf, a change in the unconscious precedes the conscious knowledge
about it. Many attempts have been made in applying psychoanalysis in problems of International
Relations, but it is yet to be seen if this approach will become mainstream in light of the new
globalization hypothesis outlined in this paper. Social psychoanalysis faces similar challenges to
historical materialism in its lack of scientific rigor. Neverthless, it is a strong ingredient to
contemporary historical materialism as described by Habermas and Zepf.
The most common critiques and approaches however focus on the economics of
globalization. In Historical Materialism and Globalization, Hannes Lacher argues that the
development of capitalism is inherently linked with the nation-state, but only insofar as it
facilitates its purpose of capital accumulation and growth. In the same vein, William Robinson
writes that ‘transnational capital’ supersedes the nation-state, prompting the emergence of a
‘transnational state apparatus (TNS)’ which coordinates international organizations such as the
IMF, World Bank and WTO. Moreover, the contradictions of capitalism that Marx critiqued are
featured in the rift between the expansive nature of capital and the “territorially national
boundedness of the capital relation” (Pozo-Martin and Anievas, 2002: 145). The tensions of

group struggle are also exacerbated by the contradictions between the nation-state and global
sovereignty domains such as human rights and collective security.
Thus, through the historical-material processes of capitalism, a new class consciousness
emerges that changes the relations of production. We can see this occurring with the rise of the
global class Hardt and Negri describe in their book Multitude. Lacher concludes that if we are
correct about capitalism being extricable from the nation-state, it is possible that an alternative
mode of statehood will subsume the nation-state. This is not the mystery that Lacher suggests it
is if we accept historical materialism, as the latter is a continuous dialectical process and the
system will continue to reconstitute itself. In the same year, historian Philip Bobbitt commented
on the transition of nation-states to market-states as part of a macro-historical trend (Bobbitt,
Another prominent critique comes from Anthony Giddens. He claims that historical
materialism epitomizes the 'progressivist' interpretation of history, where the “dynamism of the
modern West is traced to a sequence linking the Classical world, feudalism and modern
societies" (Giddens, 1985: 83). For Giddens, this is too similar to 'social Darwinism’, and
upholds the ‘myth of progress’. Thus, he lumps evolutionist Herbert Spencer in with historical
materialism because of the shared view of seeing history as a process of struggles, demarcated
into developmental stages by substantial transformations in society. Spencer held that modern
societies were still in the midst of transition from military to industrial mode, and that there was
a certain violence necessary to maintain ‘fitness’ while passing through the phases of civilization
(Giddens, 344). From this, Giddens stipulates that history and social change should not be
equated for it would be both “logically mistaken and empirically wanting" (Giddens, 32).
Naturally, social Darwinism can and has been abused. However, in defense, Spencer writes that it

will never last because war has a repressive effect on industrial progresses; that is to say, it is not
only repressive on the human spirit, but also on economic strength.
Giddens rejects evolutionary analysis of "history", and that globalization is primarily
concerned with the world economy (Giddens, 17). In Globalization as Evolutionary Process,
George Modelski seeks to address the concerns of Giddens and Karl Popper who attacked
historical materialism. However, he notes that the notion that economic factors and the "capitalist
world economy" drive globalization already have wide currency, in world-systems theory for
example (Ibid.). Giddens complaints do not match up to the careful and rigorous theories of the
21st century, explains Modelski. The undeniable resilience of globalization acts as counter
evidence to the hard scientists who claim the future cannot be predicted. Some theorists
extrapolate so far into the future as to predict a technological “singularity”, where innovation and
knowledge become infinite and the world truly enters a new phase, where prediction is
impossible. (Giddens, 303) However, for now we are capable of constructing cogent algorithms
and models that can predict societal change.
A related reason for the rejection of historical materialism could be its scientific
indigestibility. Karl Popper excoriates anything that cannot be falsified. Post-structuralists have
made careers out of dismantling meta-narratives, however despite its apparent unfalsifiability I
argue that evolutionary globalization is one based in science. What debates about historical
materialism are really about is theories of societal evolution, or evolutionary globalization.
Modelski quotes Engels: "just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic matter, so
Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history" (Modelski, 2008: 18). Even biological
evolutionary theory is still largely contentious in public (American) thought and we must take
this into account. Moreover, macro-evolutionary explanations of globalization threaten not only

the worldview of large populations of anti-evolutionists, but also secular anti-globalists. Indeed,
evolutionary globalization, as an outgrowth of historical materialism, may be abused in order to
promote capitalist interests by forcing down barriers to capital. This could be seen as reflecting
the same overzealous mistakes of social Darwinism. However, since agency does matter, it is
better to accept what is inevitable and focus on establishing agreeable terms. To this effect, The
Communist Manifesto is a promotion of agency such that "history can be modified by conscious
human action." (Wood, 13). What is really in question is how can we participate in macrohistorical evolution in a politically correct and equitable way?
The teleology of historical materialism is a constant victim of reproach, however IR
scholar Alexander Wendt argues for the inevitability of the world state based on self-organization
theory and the ‘logic of anarchy’. Wendt admittedly is part of the ‘progressivist’ camp but argues
that “there are many pathways by which a world state may be achieved, and human agency
matters along every one” (Wendt, 2003: 491). Explicit in his theory, although bracketed, is also
the ‘logic of capitalism’ and how it “which forms a distinct developmental dynamic in the
system. The logic of capital generates distributional struggles that cannot be reduced to the
struggle for recognition.” (Wendt, 494) However, the important focus here is agency, and this
relates to Marx’s claim that material conditions induce consciousness and change regardless of
individual will. What force is at work here is that of a greater (collective) will. To clarify, “loss of
some agency at the micro-level may create agency at the macro-level.” (Wendt, 502) The
necessity to enter into relations of production with others drives macro processes that effectively
make historical materialism true to the extent that we measure those relations. Wendt’s thesis
also validates Spencer’s claim that interstate violence will end as the world state is constituted on
the global monopoly on the use of force.

The solution to the problem of agency also addresses the critique of historical
materialism that factors other than economy determine superstructural aspects; that is to say,
ideas (and ideological structures) matter. If groups, rogue states, or fundamentalist religions can
posit bankrupt worldviews that retard social change, then clearly the economic base is not always
exclusively determining the superstructure or social consciousness. In the grand scheme Wendt
characterizes this as ‘two steps forward, one step back.’ Antonio Gramsci writes that these
aberrations or blocks to development can be viewed as ‘morbid symptoms’, and appear “usually
in the form of the resurrection of old ideas and practices long thought extinct” (Wood, 18). Thus,
if agency is recognized as a responsibility to be taken on in a greater deterministic process, we
can be free to create a harmonious global society, because “anarchy is (still) what states (and
other actors) make of it” [sic] (Wendt, 529). No one is more qualified that Wendt to make these
claims, as he is often referred to as one of the fathers of Constructivist theory in International
To return to Marx, Philip Wood offers a new interpretation of historical materialism as
non-deterministic and empirical. He writes that Marx actually blurred the distinction between the
material-ideal cause-effect relationship. As such, Wood describes them as not “distinct entities
connected in a causal sequence, but rather two sides of the same coin” (Wood, 17). Despite this,
the real struggles of classes are based on material premises that have definite historical form.
This can actually be quite difficult to demonstrate over long periods of history, as in the case of
examining the material origins of Christianity in order to understand it in the present day, for
example. However, when the connections are discovered they are all the more potent for
understanding current conditions of social consciousness.

A contemporary understanding of historical materialism brings us from reinterpretations
of Marx himself to cutting edge theories of progressivist evolutionary globalization and various
approaches in between, such as psychoanalysis and world-systems theory. In answering the
question, “does ‘historical materialism’ provides a good starting point for understanding social
change?” it seems evident that one is better off to accept the contemporary tenets of historical
materialism. There alternative seems to be to reject it prima facie and thereby strengthen
uneconomical or disparaging views such as moral relativism or radical constructivism (It’s all in
our head). The sooner humans concede how much of their reality is dependent on their economic
historical circumstances, the better we can understand ourselves and where we are headed.

Works Cited
Wood, Philip. "Historical Materialism." Blakeley, Georgina, Valerie Bryson, Marx and other
Four-Letter Words. London: Pluto Press, 2005. 12-27. Print.
Bobbitt, Philip. The shield of Achilles: war, peace, and the course of history. New York: Knopf,
2002. Print.
Giddens, Anthony. A contemporary critique of historical materialism. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1985. Print.
Marx, Karl. A contribution to the critique of political economy. Moscow: Progress Publishers,
1977. Print.
Modelski, George, Tessaleno C. Devezas, and William R. Thompson. Globalization as
evolutionary process: modeling global change. London: Routledge, 2008. Print.
Pozo-Martin, Gonso, and Alexander Anievas. "Review: Historical Materialism and
Globalization." Capital and Class 88 (2002): 144-147. Print.
Ritzer, George. Sociological Theory. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992. Print.
Skinner, Quentin. "Jurgen Habermas." The Return of grand theory in the human sciences. 1985.
Reprint. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990. 121-140. Print.
Wendt, Alexander. "Why a World State is Inevitable." European Journal of International
Relations 9.4 (2003): 491–542. Print.
MATERIALISM." Psychoanalysis, Culture & Society 12 (2007): 105-123. Print.

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