Philosophy and Ideology. Z. A. Jordan 1963


Lange’s interpretation of historical materialism is an improvement upon the official Marxist-Leninist doctrine. He makes some of its concepts less vague and some of its premisses more articulate. But he follows in many respects the traditional speculative and ideological line. In particular, he is as careless as other Marxist-Leninists in his use of language. A modern philosopher would say that Lange does not use language for the purpose of formulating empirically significant possibilities, but with a pictorial intention. He is thus misled into assuming the existence of all kinds of abstract entities, which he regards as ‘causes’ or ‘forces’ responsible for social change.

An alternative, non-ideological and empirical approach to historical materialism has been worked out by Andrzej Malewski, a social scientist of the young generation, who studied logic and methodology under the teachers of the Warsaw school. Malewski is interested in historical materialism only as a complex of sociological statements. From this point of view the question whether they are empirically testable becomes the most important.

This problem is not capable of solution before an extensive preliminary analytical examination is undertaken. It is clear that some sociological statements of historical materialism can neither be proved nor disproved. When Engels writes that ‘the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all important historic events (should be sought) in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange’ [1043], we have not the slightest idea what ‘the ultimate causes’ or ‘all important historic events’ are. We do not know, either, what kind of relation is supposed to hold between the explicans and the explicandum. For sometimes the explicans is called ‘cause’ or ‘primum agens’ and sometimes ‘the basis’; sometimes it is said to ‘determine’ and sometimes to ‘be in rebellion’ against this or that. To refer to a statement like that just quoted as a ‘law’ suggests that it can be confirmed by available evidence. We are, however, unable to say how or even where to look for this evidence as long as the vagueness and ambiguity of expressions are not removed. Such a statement, honoured with the name ‘law’, has clearly no empirical meaning.

Historical materialism includes a cluster of various statements of a similar kind. We are told that ‘the sum total of (definite) relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society – the real foundation on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness’; that ‘the history of all hitherto-existing society is the history of class struggle’; that the ‘economic structure of society always forms the real basis from which, in the last analysis, is to be explained the whole superstructure of legal and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical, and other conceptions of each historical period’. All these pronouncements cannot be regarded as either true or false until they are reformulated in such a manner that their empirical validity can either be confirmed or disconfirmed. Malewski suggested that historical materialism involves three sets of hypotheses, or to be more precise, three theories[1044]. The first concerns the regularities obtaining between the situation in which people live and their behaviour and beliefs. For instance, we could formulate the following hypotheses:

‘If the acceptance of some definite ideology by a group would require giving up some of its privileges, the majority of its members would reject this ideology’.

‘If there is a conflict between the interests and the ideology accepted by a group, its members will behave in conformity with their interests rather than with their ideology’.

‘If there is a conflict between the interests and the ideology accepted by a group, the ideology will be modified and adjusted to what the interests require’.

Taking various formulations of historical materialism as a guide, a great number of hypotheses of this kind could be framed. Some of them would be statistical, others causal in character. Empirical research would probably require their further modification and particularisation. The tentatively formulated hypotheses indicate only the direction and procedure to be followed in the research that would decide whether, and if so, which empirical meaning could be attached to the celebrated dictum that ‘social existence determines social consciousness’.

The second theory deals with society as a system of social and economic classes with conflicting interests. The hypotheses of this theory are more difficult to formulate in empirical terms. There is, for instance, Marx’s assertion that in every class society there is the oppressor and the oppressed engaged in an uninterrupted hidden or open fight. Expressed in neutral terms this assertion states that there is always a conflict of interests between the owners of the means of production and those who do not own them with respect to the question as to how national income should be distributed. It is clear that the conflict concerns the relative share in the distribution. It should be assumed, therefore, that both groups are interested in increasing the absolute value of national income. There is further Marx’s assertion that the economically exploiting class is also the politically dominant class or that the separation of society into an exploiting and exploited class coincides with that into a ruling and an oppressed class. The consequence of this assumption states that the government of a modern State is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the exploiters. The empirical sense of this assertion might be explicated in the following manner. ‘If a group in society is ‘stronger’ than all the others taken together, and the existing legislation is not favourable to its interests, the legislation is either revised or not complied with’. This hypothesis could be supplemented by an inquiry whether a government actually acting contrary to the interests of the strongest group is forced either to resign or to become subservient to the wishes of the economically dominant group.

The third set of hypotheses, which can be disentangled from historical materialism is a theory of social change. It should be noted that this is not a general but a particular theory concerned with changes in the class structure of society. Its basic assumption is the close correlation between technological development and transformations in social stratification. Its two further assumptions state that if the prevailing legal and political system does not favour the interests of the class increasing in number and rising in power, this class will propagate an ideology justifying the revision of the existing legal and political system. In the struggle for power between different social classes, the victorious class is the one whose interests happen to coincide with the trend of economic progress.

The three theories and their various hypotheses may not give a full and satisfactory explication of the content of the Marxian historical and sociological doctrines. The important point in this approach is the recognition of the fact that historical materialism is a miscellany of deep insight, ideological oratory, devoid of empirical meaning, and clearly false conjectures. Into the two latter categories fall, for instance, such pronouncements as that the relations of production must conform with the character of the productive forces; that no social order ever disappears before all the productive forces, for which there is room in it, have been developed; that there will come the period of social revolution; that mankind always takes up only such problems as it can solve. The list of such pronouncements, perhaps important from the ideological viewpoint but not capable of empirical interpretation, could be continued[1045].

The elusiveness of the precise content of the Marxian historical materialism has resulted in a variety of interpretations each of which claims to provide its ‘only correct’ understanding. Unlike a political scientist or a politician, a social scientist is interested in their empirical relevance and truth, and not in their conformity with some extra-logical requirements. Among the interpretations claiming validity on account of their agreement with Marx’s genuine doctrine that of Marxism-Leninism deserves special attention because of its tangible relevance in the life of many people at the present time.

Marxism-Leninism goes in some respects beyond what Marx’s statements warrant or what can be maintained without offending logic and truth. Thus, it maintains that in every State, where means of production are privately owned, the State is only a device for the protection of the interests of the propertied class; that every work of art serves the interests of only one class; that every class can be represented only by one political party; that with the abolition of private ownership of the means of production there disappears the exploitation of man by man of every sort, and the working classes gain an actual controlling influence on the way in which they are governed. These are clearly false assertions. Although they have some remote connection with what Marx and Engels said, they cannot be regarded as an interpretation or as implications of the Marxian historical materialism.

On the other hand, Marxism-Leninism fails to adopt some important component parts of the Marxian doctrine. These concern, above all, Marx’s assertion that society is a system of social and economic classes with conflicting interests. It was maintained that this assertion no longer applies to post-capitalist socioeconomic formations. The Marxist-Leninist point of view was criticised on the ground that when national economy is nationalised the social stratification changes but does not disappear. Nor does it stop creating tensions and conflicts of interests of various groups.

In this respect Lange supports Malewski. According to Lange, the idea that in the socialist socio-economic formation tensions and conflicts of interests are entirely absent has no place in the sociology of historical materialism. It should be regarded as a hiliastic and eschatological survival of utopian socialism. In every formation the relations of production and the superstructure are conservative factors and the development of the relations of production always lags behind the development of the productive forces. Consequently, in the socialist formation also there appear social strata whose privileges are associated with a certain developmental stage of the relations of production or of superstructure. This gives rise to conflicts, which, however, in the absence of antagonistic social classes can be solved peacefully; though not without struggles, yet without revolutions[1046].