Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963


The Marxist-Leninist rejoinder to the criticism based on historical relativism makes use of the conception of natural and social laws which has already been mentioned. Laws are not products of man’s perceptive and reasoning faculties, mere patterns of description or means of organising experience; they are factors of the external world, reflected with ‘approximate fidelity’ in man’s mind. Any other view on this matter makes Nature a part of reason, instead of regarding reason as a part of Nature. Lenin devoted much space to the defence of ‘objective law in Nature’ and what he said is still accepted without major modifications. Polish Marxist-Leninists invariably refer to Lenin’s idea of law and adopt it as their own[1016].

This conception of law needs further elucidation, for its implications with respect to the historical and social sciences are by no means clear. When the construction of heuristic instruments, which Marxist-Leninists apply to the analysis of social action, is followed step by step, it becomes clear that the conception of ‘objective law’ leads to the reification of their conceptual scheme.

Lange’s examination of the concept of law provides a suitable starting point for inquiring into the question as to where and how substances are found for the substantives and analytical constructs of the Marxist-Leninist discourse. “The economic laws,” writes Lange, “are the ‘exceptionless’ recurrent relations between particular component factors of the economic process” [1017]. At first it might appear that in Lange’s definition the component factors of the economic process are patterns of institutionalised or group behaviour and that economic laws state the relations obtaining between them, relative to different objects and to a situation, which sets some definite limiting conditions to possible ways of interaction. We should, therefore, assume that action or interaction of individual actors is the basic unit of Lange’s frame of reference. Since a system of such units is a relational concept – every action is oriented to various objects of the situation and its orientation is relevant to its description – economic inquiry should always distinguish two analytically different factors of its subject-matter. On the one hand, there is human action or rather the complexes of interaction between activities of many individuals, the product of human will dependent on the relations in which the individuals stand to each other. On the other, there is the objective situation, which human action tries to change and which confines the activities of many wills, setting the bounds to their outcome. The objective situation is a product of former activity, the sum total of the circumstances in which men find themselves, brought into existence and handed down to each generation by its predecessor. It is circumscribed by the productive forces, the relations of production, and, in general, the social forms of existence accumulated in the past. Although the objective situation is modified by each generation, it also exercises a restrictive power, prescribes the conditions of life, and provides the ‘necessary forms’ in which the activities of each generation are realised. This analysis of circumstances conditioning social action follows the lines familiar from The German Ideology or Marx’s letter to Annenkov[1018].

Further steps in Lange’s analysis become more elusive. For it implicitly assumes that the objective situation constitutes something more than the limiting conditions for possible social action. If the restrictive conditions were endowed merely with passive powers of resistance, they would be unable to determine effectively the activities of men, whose energy would remain the real dynamic force in historical, social and economic development. This is implicitly denied by an additional premiss added at this stage of the construction. It is assumed that what men actually do matters little for out of their actions comes something quite different from what they intend. Objective social laws cannot, therefore, correspond with subjective aims, and they cannot be deduced from individual motivation or individual action analysed in terms of means-ends relations. This implies that society is not a sum of isolated individuals, united by some artificial and mechanical bonds, devised by the ‘mathematical conception of society’, but a specific whole. The ‘efficient cause’ and the principle of change, impelling social development, must lie elsewhere. They are found in the limiting conditions, transformed from passive into active factors, into historical, social or economic forces, to which the human will has to conform. These objective factors, and not what men actually do, are the really decisive elements[1019].

‘Everything which sets men in motion must go through their minds’, Engels wrote, ‘but what form it will take in the mind will depend very much upon the circumstances’ [1020]. The circumstances are the realm of economic relations independent of man’s will, in which, contrary to appearances, the ultimate driving forces of history must be sought. Although productive forces and relations of production are technical, sociological or socio-economic concepts, they are hypostatised into effective forces operating behind actual events. They are assumed to have an objective existence ‘in the world’ and dynamic characteristics since they act as efficient causes. Heuristic constructs, reified into law-governed ‘forces’, work themselves out in social patterns, socio-economic formations and successions of historical events, in conformity with the universal laws of development.

The theory thus constructed, which is to provide an ultimate explanation of the economic, social and historical process, cannot be compared with the so-called transcendent hypotheses of natural science. For however abstract such hypotheses may be, they must remain testable, and this means that statements about perceptual objects must be derivable from them by logical deduction, to be confirmed or disconfirmed by actual experience. Otherwise they would have to be regarded as metaphysical theories. This condition is not satisfied by the hypothesis of abstract economic forces operating behind the historical scene, which from the start conflict with the elementary fact that reality consists of particular things and cannot be constituted by abstract entities.

The constructs intended to establish the basis for interpretative explanations of patterns of group behaviour acquire an independent existence over and above interacting individuals. This means that statements about social processes, in which these constructs occur, are no longer ‘shorthand’ descriptions referring to group behaviour of individuals in some definite situations. They refer to some socio-economic ‘wholes’ and their inner regularities from which the laws of group behaviour are derived as its ‘necessary forms’. The latter determine, at least statistically, the behaviour of the individual within the group. The concepts and patterns of behaviour, primarily introduced for the descriptions of objective factors, which condition though not determine human action, become substantialised. They are supposedly discovered in the world as real and superior social entities, operating over men’s heads and subject to laws of their own. These holistic laws are endowed with the power which determines the behaviour of individuals and their various groups. The empirically observable types of group behaviour of individuals, who act in an intelligible way, strive for definite ends and influence each other in a manifold manner, are relevant only with respect to appearances where accident holds sway. Behind these ‘ideal driving forces’ there are hidden their motive causes, which conform to ‘inner general laws’ and govern the course of social development.

This is also made clear by particular instances of historical or socio-economic laws. They are holistic laws, macroscopic with respect to the microscopic world of human individuals, that is, irreducible to regularities which govern group behaviour of individuals in definite situations. For instance, the two basic laws of Marxist-Leninist political economy state ‘The relations of production must necessarily conform with the character of the productive forces’ and ‘The superstructure must necessarily conform to the economic basis’. The laws involve reified concepts as their variables and the relations obtaining between them are stated to be a faithful reflection of the regularities to which ‘objective’ social phenomena conform. Similarly, such constructs as ‘feudalism’, ‘capitalism’, and ‘socialism’ are not classificatory concepts or ideal types whose function in an empirical investigation is to provide a rational measure of comparison and a heuristic means of description of comprehensive thought and behaviour patterns. We are told that particular socio-economic formations – feudalism, capitalism, socialism – are not a ‘semiotic product of an arbitrary scientific classification but ‘exist objectively’ as real entities and ‘wholes’ which are not capable of interpretation in terms of their parts. Consequently, the claim is made that there is nothing arbitrary in the Marxist-Leninist classification, which reflects objective social facts and structures, each of which is unequivocally describable in terms of the inner laws governing its mode of existence and development[1021].

According to the Marxist-Leninist doctrine, the social sciences, such as sociology or economics, are logically posterior to the general theory of historical materialism, which investigates the laws of the whole of social history. Sociology and economics deal with particular aspects of individual concrete wholes, the socio-economic formations. They have to assume the laws of historical development and build on this foundation.

The same applies to historiography which shares its subject-matter with sociology and differs from it in its method of inquiry and exposition. Both historiography and sociology investigate the whole tissue of social relationship in all its manifold interdependence. Society is not a self-contained whole, since it is only one aspect of objective reality or Nature. The principles of natural necessitation, in so far as they must be considered in the study of history and society, are included in the general theory of historical development (historical materialism). The assumptions of historical materialism protect particular historical and social sciences from distortions, which otherwise would arise because of the necessary limitations of historical or social inquiry to a partial aspect of the whole of reality.

The relation between historiography and sociology is similar to that between economic history and economic theory. The social scientist examines in logical order the same facts which the historian follows chronologically, in specific situations and temporal sequences, often disturbed by the interference of chance events. A sociological inquiry produces a corrected reflection of the ‘real course of history itself’, in that each factor is considered at the stage of its mature form[1022].

Marxist-Leninists often say that one of the essential differences which divides the materialist and the idealist conception of history concerns the question of historical laws. The materialists do and the idealists do not recognise their existence. This statement is ambiguous and misleading. For those philosophers and historians who deny the existence of historical laws deny the existence of specifically historical laws, that is, of universal statements involving in their formulation specifically historical terms. Most of them would not deny, however, that the historian makes use of general laws to account for human action or to explain its outcome. These general laws are either taken over from other sciences or are assumed to be widely known as part of the common stock of life experience and wisdom. To establish the fact that historians refer in their explanations to some generalisations of everyday experience or to some universal statements of psychology, sociology, economics, and also biology and physics, does not mean that the existence of specifically historical laws has been established.

The application of the laws of science in a historical inquiry does not justify the claim that history conforms to laws. For this is commonly understood to mean that there is a set of laws which determine the course of human history. To maintain that the course of history is governed by laws and that these laws can be discovered is to adopt the viewpoint of historians. Historicism is in fact rejected by a considerable number of philosophers and historians on account of the lack of supporting evidence in its favour[1023].

It is incorrect to say that a Marxist-Leninist accepts and a non-Marxist refuses to accept the existence of historical laws. For both do not recognise the existence of specifically historical laws[1024]. What does differentiate them is historicism, which a Marxist-Leninist accepts, and a non-Marxist, as a rule, rejects.

The Marxist-Leninist historicism is naturalistic, though to classify it in this manner requires certain qualifications. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and the present-day Marxist-Leninists agree that social evolution is a ‘process of natural history’, a uniform law-governed natural process. Marx proclaimed that its successive stages cannot be cleared by ‘bold leaps’ and ‘legal enactments’. A human society exists and changes under the laws of Nature. Marxist-Leninists do not subscribe to this thesis any longer; their historicism has become somewhat less naturalistic. They accept the possibility that the laws of Nature may, as it were, be suspended in their blind operation, be deflected and made use of for some consciously set purpose. Thus society becomes increasingly governed by its own laws. However wide a meaning is given to the term ‘law of Nature’, some of the laws of the Marxist-Leninist doctrine, for instance, those concerned with the relation of the superstructure to the basis, do not fall into this category. The retreat from the Marxian naturalism is concealed by the claim that the discovery of the objective laws governing the development of the system of social relations can be utilised for the purpose of directing social and economic activities, of framing programmes and policies on the basis of rational predictions[1025].

The laws of social development are sui generis. They are neither of physical nor chemical nor of biological type, and they must be ‘theoretically grasped’ precisely in their specific character, in their ‘new quality’, which they manifest. “The overcoming of the “naturalist’ point of view,” Bukharin wrote, ‘is far from implying an obligatory transition to the standpoint of idealist metaphysics. The idea of historicism is far from being the private property of the idealist tendencies in thought. Historical ‘laws of movement’ of society can in fact be discovered only by means of materialist dialectics” [1026]. Historical laws exhibit the emergent qualities of highly organised matter and are the outcome of the dialectic process which brings a new set of laws into operation.

The laws of social development reveal the connections of social life with and its transcendence over Nature. The social process is both a natural and a sociohistorical development and the corresponding laws bear the same character. On the one hand, they are as objective, i.e. independent of man’s will, as natural laws. On the other, they have some specific characteristics and differ from laws of Nature in two respects. The laws of social development are impermanent, they apply to a definite historical period and in due course give place to new laws; moreover, they belong to the superstructure and have an ideological or class content. These are Stalin’s formulations[1027]. In Poland they were revised by Lange and made methodologically more acceptable.

The view that the social and historical sciences are ideological in character goes back to The German Ideology. The problems raised by the concept of ideology will be considered later. For the moment two points must be touched upon. In The German Ideology Marx emphasised that in the whole field of human studies the facts are not examined objectively owing to the interference of classdetermined interests which are reflected in the prevailing ideas in metaphysics, the theory of knowledge, ethics, history, economics and jurisprudence. Together with the polemically advanced opinion that in these matters the questions of truth are obscured or distorted by implicitly accepted norms and valuations bound up with class interests, there is associated the conviction that this is not unavoidable. For true knowledge of the regular processes of ‘real life’ would reveal how the essential purposes of human activities and their norms emerge from the material conditions of life. Thus, facts may support and justify values. Marxism-Leninism has taken up this thread in the Marxian thought in its theory and practice. The other theme, which appeared in Marx’s later works, is of a different nature. It implies the close relations between what we recognise as a matter of fact and our value premisses, between our theories and our evaluative approach to social reality. This theme has been widely, if not universally, accepted and prompted a critical examination of the position prevailing in the social sciences.

There is an essential and vital difference between the natural and the social sciences. While in natural science we deal only with problems of fact, in the social sciences we are confronted by problems of fact and problems of value. To be more precise, in the social sciences factual and value-loaded concepts and assumptions interpenetrate each other and cannot be always satisfactorily disentangled from each other in the present state of knowledge. There might be differences of degree in the influence which value premisses exercise on analysis of facts but their influence is universal and enters into every conceptual scheme in the social sciences. Although there is a grain of truth in what is often said, namely, that by realising how our apprehension of social phenomena is conditioned by some value presuppositions we can somewhat neutralise their effect, the question of objectivity in the social sciences constitutes a major methodological problem.

Very few Marxist-Leninists, and even then only at rare moments, are willing to accept these conclusions. Most of them adhere to the official doctrine which operates with two kinds of ideology. There is a mystifying and falsifying kind of ideology, and there is an ideology of another sort, which illuminates the phenomena of social life. While all the opponents of Marxism-Leninism are, consciously or unconsciously, dominated by the first kind of ideology, Marxist-Leninists? alone enjoy the advantages of the second. In other words, Marxist-Leninists? make use of the special conception of ideology in Mannheim’s sense. They can recognise bias, prejudices, and aberrations in the point of view of others, but feel themselves immune from these common human failings. Thus, they are able to maintain both that the assertion ‘The course of history is governed by laws’ is an ideological statement (since to some it gives faith that they are on the side of History and discourages others by impressing upon them that History is not on theirs); that it is a true and valid scientific statement; and that whatever objections are raised against it, the refusal to accept the assertion is determined by ideological considerations in the pejorative sense of this expression[1028].

The second distinguishing characteristic of the laws of social development is their lesser degree of permanence as compared with that of the laws of Nature. It should be remembered that according to Marxism-Leninism, which refers to Engels as its authority, natural laws are also historical, that is, they are valid with respect to a definite spatio-temporal region. Permanent is only matter in motion. At each stage in the history of the Universe different laws predominate, and none of them remains absolute and universally valid. It is not quite clear whether Engels and Marxist-Leninists wish to deny the validity of the so-called principle of the uniformity of Nature and maintain that regularities undergo some kind of transformation in the course of the evolution of the Universe, or whether they have something else in mind.

The postulate of the invariance of laws does not apply to the social sciences either. “To us,” wrote Engels, “so-called ‘economic laws’ are not eternal laws of Nature but historical laws which arise and disappear.” Consequently, economic laws older than modern bourgeois society express only those relations which are common to the conditions of all society based on class exploitation, and others are characteristic of modern bourgeois society alone[1029]. More generally, economic categories are always the abstract expression of the existing relations of production and ‘remain true’ as long as these relations exist. Since the latter are transitory, economic categories cannot be more permanent than the relations which they express. Marx frequently ridiculed the ‘eternal verity’ of the doctrine of natural law, the postulated permanence of human nature, which always seeks satisfaction of the same needs and attainment of the same ends. He laughed at those supporting it for they recognise that ‘there has been history, but there is no longer any’ [1030].

Stalin spoke with the self-assurance of the man who witnessed the realisation of Marx’s prognosis of the bourgeois form of production being historical and transitory. He maintained that the majority of the laws of political economy sooner or later ‘lose their validity owing to the new economic conditions and depart from the scene in order to give place to new laws . . . which arise from the new economic conditions’ [1031]. Stalin’s pronouncement was, of course, universally acclaimed by his followers at the time it was made. But its main idea, which states that the generalisations and laws of economics are essentially historical, relative to certain historical conditions, as well as that outside these they lose relevance to the analysis of social reality, continues to be accepted[1032].

There seems to be no reason to disagree with what Engels and Stalin said, if the permanence or invariance of laws is distinguished from their applicability. It is quite possible that some or most or all natural laws are applicable only in a cosmological period or in a particular region of the Universe in which definite physical conditions prevail. It is obvious and trivial to say that the laws of hydrostatics and hydrodynamics would not be applicable in an environment where there are no liquids. Changes in the physical environment might make a law no longer applicable, but they do not invalidate it. The difference is of vital importance.

To admit that laws are not invariant would make nonsense of science. We search for laws to explain change. Therefore, we might spare ourselves the trouble of searching for laws if the change of laws were admitted as an explanation of what we could not account for otherwise. Laws are or are not applicable relatitive to some definite conditions. Therefore, if the conditions change, laws might become no longer relevant to the analysis of phenomena. But this implies also that our breaks down and becomes redundant, unless there is a law which explains how the change of conditions came about by a law-governed process. This law would have to explain both the course of events by which the new conditions are brought about and the phenomena which previously were accounted for by the laws no longer applicable in the new conditions[1033].