Philosophy against Misosophy



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

From The Journal of Philosophy, LXIII, No. 7, March 31, 1966, 169-178.  “The substance of a ‘comment’ in a symposium with Soviet philoso-phers, held at a meeting of the Society for the Philosophical Study of Dialectical Materialism, Boston, December, 1964.”  A neat refutation of any Marxism that has retained its distinctive theoretical claim.


Reflections on Economic Determinism

Brand Blanshard

Exchanges of view between Soviet and Amer-ican philosophers should be commoner than they are.  It is true that there is no international language in which the exchanges can take place, as there is in music and mathematics; and it is unhappily also true that, if the discus-sion even approaches politics, there is a wide range of value-charged terms such as “demo-cracy,” “imperialism,” “freedom,” that must either be avoided or else defined with elaborate care.  But such obstacles should not be insuper-able as between persons with a common aim.  And philosophers do have a common aim.  Put roughly, it is to discover the fundamental truth about the world.  Truth, if it is really truth, must be the same for all men, and the methods and standards of seeking it must also be the same.  An argument valid in Moscow cannot be invalid in Boston.  No one would say that there is an American or Soviet chemistry or physics: there is only chemistry or physics—period—whose facts and laws are the same everywhere.  And surely there ought to be no American or Soviet philosophy if that means philosophy whose con-clusions have been warped to suit local inter-ests or desires.  Philosophy no less than science must order itself by objective fact, not veer about with hopes or wishes or fears.

But here precisely comes the rub.  To many western thinkers Marxism seems to rule out the pursuit of philosophy as they have always con-ceived it.  The difficulty is not that all philo-sophies other than the official philosophy are discouraged in its homeland, though on that there would certainly be questions; the difficulty is philosophical.  It is that in Marxism, as offi-cially expounded, there seems to be a built-in denial that in speculative thought objectivity is possible.  in their economic interpretation of history, both Marx and Engels insisted that the culture of an age was determined by economic conditions, and ultimately by the mode in which the means of subsistence were produced.  Let me cite a few characteristic statements.  Marx says:

. . . the mode of production of the material means of existence conditions the whole process of social, political, and intellectual life.  It is not the conscious-ness of men that determines their exis-tence, but on the contrary it is their social existence that determines their con-sciousness (Critique of Political Economy, Preface).

Engels in his preface to the Manifesto says:

The prevailing mode of economic pro-duction and exchange, and the social or-ganization necessarily following from it, form the basis on which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of the epoch.

Writing jointly, Marx and Engels say:

Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence (The German Ideology, 14-15).

In the Textbook of Marxist Philosophy pre-pared by the Leningrad Institute of Philosophy we have a report of Lenin’s views on philoso-phy.  Regarding idealism, under which commun-ist writers seem to include most western philo-sophies, his attitude is reported in the words:

. . . that [idealism] is really superstition, that is really myth-making, and the only purpose of such thinking (i.e., what the theory means in practice) is to justify things as they are in the interests of the owning class and to betray reformers into paths of folly and futility (38-39).

Professor J. D. Bernal, Britain’s Marxist scien-tist, writes of priests and philosophers, whom he groups together:

. . . for the most part . . . their function was to cloak over the inequalities of wealth and power in society by mytho-logical or metaphysical theory (Aspects of Dialectical Materialism, by H. Levy et al.).

Such statements are scattered through com-munist literature, and we need hardly multiply them.  They are important because they supply from authoritative sources the Marxist con-ception of what philosophy has been in the past and what it is still conceived to be in non-Marx-ists communities.  Let me spell out a little fur-ther what I take these statements to mean.

They mean that the philosophy of a people belongs to its ideology, and that its ideology is what in these days would be called a ration-alization.  It may seem to its followers to be a theory logically worked out and freely accepted, but it is really a by-product of the class position of its authors.  Philosophy in the past has been a creation of the bourgeoisie, since they alone had the leisure and freedom to cultivate it, and their philosophy has justified and even glorified the bourgeois class and its activities.  In Plato and Aristotle and Spinoza, it made pure con-templation the highest work of man; in St. Augustine and St. Thomas it embodied and praised a religious retreat from social responsi-bilities; in the thought of Locke it turned social philosophy into a defense of private property; in Hegel it made history a march of God on earth, with his own nation leading the van.  The tre-mendous apparatus of St. Thomas sugar-coated an opiate for the people in the form of an assur-ance that God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.  The vast machinery of Hegel’s cate-gories was an attempt to show that the world is governed by the sort of thought and values to be found in his own bourgeois head.  The true nature of these undertakings was for the first time made plain by Marx.  They are all parts of some ideology whose character is in the end de-termined by economic pressures.  This, I take it, is the crucial point at which Marx’s explanation of philosophy differs from that of the west.

What are we to say to our Russian colleagues about this view?  The things that suggest them-selves are so obvious that I confess to some hesitation in giving voice to them.  But I will try to put a few of them frankly.

The first comment is that this view seems to make objective philosophizing impossible.  By objective philosophy I mean the sort of reflec-tion that starts with facts, either empirical or self-evident, and proceeds by logical inference from these facts.  That is what all great philo-sophers have attempted.  They have assumed that it is possible to follow the line of implication and to arrive at a conclusion warranted by the evidence, and accepted solely because the evi-dence requires it.  They have been tempted like the rest of us to believe what would fulfill their hopes or appease their fears or justify their class prejudices, but they assumed that with honest and self-critical effort they could hew to an objective line.  None of them would have claimed that they had wholly succeeded.  But unless such thinking is possible and can be achieved at least in some measure, philo-sophizing is surely futile.  If, when we try to think straight, we are still puppets pulled by class interests, if our conclusions are not func-tions of the evidence but of our modes of get-ting a living, then the attempt to see things as they are is hopeless, and philosophy is defeated before it begins.  In short, if philosophy is ideo-logy governed by economic facts, as Marx and Engels said it was, then it is a conscious or unconscious fraud.

That suggests a second point.  Is not econo-mic determinism itself a philosophy?  Surely it is.  It is the philosophy of culture elaborated by the Marx of the 1840’s.  And thereby hangs a paradox.  Marx was not one of the proletariat; he was a journalist and scholar with a university education, married to a member of the minor nobility, inept with his hands, and, from time to time, in a small way, an employer of labor him-self.  He was a bourgeois.  Now his theory tells us that, when bourgeois people theorize, their theories are the by-products of their bourgeois class interest.  That raises an inevitable ques-tion: was Marx’s theory itself the product of such interest or not? Neither way of answering this question leaves economic determinism standing.  Suppose you say that his theory, like other such theories, is a product of class pres-sures; there is then no reason to believe it true, since a theory resting on subjective pressures rather than objective fact and reason could be true only by accident.  On the other hand, sup-pose, as Marx clearly did suppose, that his own theorizing was the product of fact and reason, and therefore true.  In that case it is admitted that theory may play free from economic deter-mination and follow the evidence.  But then eco-nomic determinism has again been abandoned.  If thought can in Marx’s own case free itself from irrational leading-strings, it may do so in other cases.  Philosophy is rehabilitated, but at the cost of Marxist theory.

Engels seems to have been troubled by the ir-rationalism of this theory, and attempted to ob-viate it by a distinction. He suggested that sci-ence could be objective, that physics, chem-istry, and biology, for example, could be made answerable to fact, but that philosophy, to-gether with law, morals, politics, art, and reli-gion, was a form of ideology controlled by class biases.  Straight thinking was possible in the first group; it was impracticable in the second.  Now it must be admitted that philosophers have achieved less objectivity than scientists; they have never succeeded in gaining a like measure of agreement.  And if Marxists based their de-preciation of  philosophy of the positivist line of argument, which says in essence that only scie-nce is meaningful, they would have a case which, though not I think valid, would at least be plausible.  But Marxists have shown small inter-est in positivism or any other school of anal-ysis.  They deprecate philosophy in its tradi-tional forms not because it is meaningless but because it is inevitably twisted, biased, and, as Lenin said, implicitly dishonest.  I see no good ground for this charge, nor can I hold it con-sistent with their admission that we can think objectively in science.  Thought does not ab-ruptly change its character in passing from sci-ence to philosophy; incorruption does not sud-denly transform itself and put on corruption.  Bacon and Hobbes and Descartes and Leibniz and Locke and Newton and Einstein were both philosophers and scientists; they were not aware of any break in their thinking as they passed from one province to the other, nor was there in fact any such break; the laws of thought, the standards of relevance, the mean-ing of rigor and demonstration, are the same in both.  Surely when Aquinas tried to prove the existence of God or Locke the existence of mat-ter, their arguments were as objectively valid or invalid as the reasonings of Darwin about the origin of species.  If it is possible to think ob-jectively about stars and atoms, it is incredible that the same though should be helpless to fol-low the evidence about free will or them mean-ing of causality.

No responsible historian would now deny that the wealth or poverty, the privilege or underpri-vilege into which one is born, may profoundly affect one’s outlook on the world, and it is very largely to Marx that we owe a  proper appre-ciation of this fact.  But it is surprising that nei-ther Marx nor Engels nor, so far as I know, any other communist writer has ever worked out in detail how these factors operate in molding thought, and it is notorious that Engels, at the end of his life, confessed that he and Marx had misled their followers into overrating the impor-tance of these factors.

Surely in that he was right.  Of course the like-lihood that a  person born in poverty will have the chance to turn his attention seriously to philosophy is far too small, though in the United States it has frequently occurred; he will be preoccupied with more pressing business.  But assuming that he does turn his attention to it, is it plausible to say that the way his through de-velops will be controlled by his economic sta-tus?  I cannot see that this is either antece-dently probable or in accordance with known fact.  Granted that Leibniz and Newton might have accomplished little if their bourgeois back-ground had not permitted them access to books, still, once presented with certain prob-lems of pure theory, they went on to develop a new branch of mathematics, the calculus, by way of solving them.  Why did their thought take this line?  Because the problems logically re-quired it and because they had first-rate heads.  Their economic status had nothing to do with it.  Besides, their economic status was different, while the theory they developed was the same.  One would have supposed it obvious that, in any branch of thought, the better one’s head—that is, the more able one is to follow the logic of the case—the less likely one is to be the puppet of any kind of strings.  Hence, so far as economic materialism is true at all, it applies to the second- and third-rate thinkers rather than to the first.

What is suggested by reflection is here borne out by fact.  There seems to be no fixed relation at all between the class status of the major phi-losophers and the conclusions they have arrived at. The great philosophers have come from all classes.  Bacon, Descartes, Shaftesbury, Rus-sell, were members of the nobility; but Kant was the son of a leather worker; Spinoza was a lens grinder who lived in an attic; Rousseau was an engraver’s apprentice.  It is easy to show that philosophers of very different social classes have developed the same philosophy, and phi-losophers of the same class have developed very different philosophies. Marcus Aurelius was an emperor and Epictetus a slave, but their phi-losophies were almost identical.  On the other hand, Bacon and Descartes were both aris-tocrats, living in the same period; one of them was the founder of modern rationalism, the other an anti-rationalist who was the father of modern empiricism.

Philosophers have a way of confounding their Marxist interpreters by developing in the most wayward fashion systems that will not fit into Marxist pigeonholes.  Russell inherited an earl-dom, and ought therefore to have been an ideo-logical apologist for capitalism and its class sys-tem; instead he has been a socialist critic of both nearly all his life; indeed he says: “I went to Russia a Communist; but contact with those who have no doubts has intensified a thou-sandfold my own doubts.”  (The Practice and Theory of Bolshevism, 42).  John Dewey was the son of a grocer, and was therefore presumably a bourgeois; and sure enough, we find that the Soviet specialist on American pragmatism, Yuri Melvil, represents Dewey as the philosopher of American imperialism.  Those of us who knew Dewey find it a little difficult to recognizer him in this guise, since he lives in our memory as the defender of the individual against every form of exploitation and repression; indeed his defense of Trotsky against the hounding of Stalin seems to be the strange ground on which he is now called an imperialist.  Among American intel-lectuals who have been friendly to Marxism, there has been no one kind of background: if one reflects on the cases of Max Eastman, Granville Hicks, Sidney Hook, John Dos Passos, Norman Thomas, Harry Laidler, Benjamin Gitlow, Whit-taker Chambers, James Burnham, John Cham-berlain, Malcolm Cowley, the one thing that leaps to mind as common to all is that through a succession of steps, of which the Stalin purges of ’36, the Hitler-Stalin pact of ’39, and the in-cidents in Hungary in ’56 were the most im-portant, their communist sympathies gradually dropped away.  Perhaps no American phi-losopher has striven harder to be fair to Mar-xism than Corliss Lamont, who is a scion, not of the proletariat, but of Wall Street.

One can anticipate the reply to all this.  “You misunderstand Marx completely.  You assume that his economic determinism was an account of how individuals come to think as they do in-stead of how classes come to think as they do.  An ideology is a theory held by a class or people as a whole, and it was this only that Marx was attempting to explain.”

The reply is inadequate.  Classes do not phi-losophize; only persons do.  when Marx says that metaphysics “no longer retains a sem-blance of independence,” since it is the by-pro-duct of economic factors, whose metaphysics does he mean?  I know whose metaphysics I mean when I talk about it historically; I mean the metaphysics of the great metaphysicians.  And unless in explaining metaphysics one is ex-plaining why they thought as they did, one is explaining nothing worth bothering about.  No doubt the average man, proletarian or bour-geois, has some implicit speculative ideas; every does; but it is surely not vague ideas in the popular mind that the student of meta-physics is talking about.  He is talking about ex-plicit metaphysics, the thought of the great spe-culative thinkers whose systems stand out like mountain peaks on the horizon of history, of Aristotle and St. Thomas and Spinoza and Hegel and Whitehead.  Of course these were all indi-viduals.  If Marxism does not explain why they thought as they did, it does not explain meta-physics at all.  I have paid it the respect of as-suming that in this case it is trying to do just that, which is the only thing worth doing.   And it is easy to show—I think I have done it—that in this attempt it fails.

The attempt to explain the philosophy of the past as the by-product of the class system is so clearly at odds with facts as to make one won-der what is amiss with the Marxist machinery.  I venture to suggest that something ahs gone wrong in the transmission.  The economic pres-sure attendant on class membership is sup-posed to be the great powerhouse supplying the drive for men’s action and speculation.  But what of the belt by which this power is com-municated?  The fact that a man is a worker in a Ford plant does not affect his thought or politics directly: it acts on him through his desires.  And Marx seemed to think that the dominant desire of a class was always for what would better it economically.  The dominant desire of the bour-geoisie was to secure its own status and extort more from the proletariat; the great hope of the proletariat was to slither out of the chains fas-tened on it by the bourgeoisie.  But human na-ture is not so simple as that.  The belt that car-ries the driving force frays out into a thousand strands of desire, turning a thousand different wheels.  Some of these desires, it is true, are for economic status and security, but many of them are not.  Indeed many of them have nothing at all to do with economic interest; they may act, and often have acted, in flat contravention of it.

Consider nationalism, for example. In eastern Europe after World War I, the economic interest of the people was to unite in a way that would promote trade and joint prosperity.  But in fact fanatical nationalism, confined to no one class, took command, Balkanized and impoverished the people, and scattered economic interests to the winds.  This tragic tale of patriotic Balkani-zation in scorn of economic consequence seems to be enacting itself again in Africa.  Or consider religion.  Was it economics or was it religion that was behind the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Reformation?  Is it economics or is it religion that is behind the division of Ireland?  One may argue that religion itself is an economic by-pro-duct merely.  But it is easy to show, as Tawney and Weber have shown, that this argument works both ways, that economic developments are often determined by religion as well as the other way about.  Dean Inge has remarked of the American business man, with his thrift, aus-terity, and hard work, that if he is not a son of the ghetto, he is probably a grandson of John Calvin.  Or take the pride and animosity of race after what has happened recently in Mississippi, and then in reverse in the Congo, can anyone say that the motives connected with race are weak among mankind?  Again, if we concede to Marx, as we plainly should, that economic mo-tives are powerful, must we not concede to Freud that motives rooted in sex are also pow-erful, and have often put to rout the desires for wealth and security?  “Love treats locksmiths with derision.” Think, finally, of the force in human affairs of heroes and hero worship.  Engels thought that heroes were inconsequen-tial and that, if Napoleon had never lived, the di-alectic process would have achieved the same end without him.  If personalities count for no more than this, one wonders why Marxists have found it so hard and so important to repress the cult of personality.  To sum up: if economic pressure and class membership are to produce the effects alleged, they must do so through hu-man desires, and human desires may as easily flout economic interests as support them.

Here again one may anticipate the line of reply: “Marxism never made economic interest the sole determinant of an ideology.  It would not deny any of these competing interest its rightful place in the government of thought and action.”  But (1) the preface to the Manifesto says: “the prevailing mode of economic pro-duction and exchange, and the social organ-ization necessarily following from it, form the basis on which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of the epoch.” (my italics)  Is that “alone” to be taken seriously or not?  (2) Sup-pose, as is now urged upon us, and as Engels himself seems finally to have supposed, that it is not to be taken seriously.  What does “eco-nomic determinism” then amount to?  It says that economic factors are important, but that others are important too.  Now is there anyone who would deny that?  One had imagined that economic determinism was a distinctive theory, which sharply separated Marxist from other phi-losophies of history.  The separation seems now to disappear.  Western philosophers are quite ready to allow the importance of economic interests, and if Marxist philosophy allows that religious, patriotic, and other interests can play free of the economic, does it any longer have a position of its own?  If, in view of this multi-plicity of motives, Marx was justified in working out an economic view of history, was not Hegel justified in working out a rationalist view, and Toynbee and religious view?  A mere difference in degree with which the various motives are stressed is hardly a basis for setting the Marxist view in radical opposition to all others.  In criti-cizing Marxism, I have again assumed that it meant to say something distinctive, something different from what western philosophers are saying.  Is this assumption justified?

Marx oversimplified human nature.  He has therefore given us an unbalanced picture of the philosopher and what moves him.  Just as he failed to credit the independence of other mo-tives from economic factors, so he failed to give due credit to the distinctness and independence of thought.  thought, for Marx, was a tool of action.  You will remember the famous state-ment of the Theses on Feuerbach:

The question whether objective truth be-longs to human thinking is not a question of theory, but a practical one. The truth, i.e., the reality and power of thought must be demonstrated in practice.

Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, but the real task is to alter it (quoted from Russell, Freedom and Organization, 191-192).

Here the search for truth seems to be iden-tified with the quest for power, and truth with effectiveness in transforming the world.  This pragmatic notion of truth is of course familiar in the west; it has been repeatedly offered, res-pectfully examined, and by most philosophers rejected.  They do not recognize in such a description the end they are trying to achieve.

The attempt to transform the world is one kind of activity; the attempt to understand it is ano-ther.  Theory and practice, thinking and acting, are not identical.  The man who tries to under-stand is seeking theoretical or intellectual satis-faction—the kind one gets from solving a prob-lem and not from driving a nail.  Marx is in es-sence trying to reduce the former to the latter, and it cannot be done.  There is such a thing as the love of truth, as distinct from the love of getting things done, an interest in knowing for knowing’s sake, the ancient elemental longing to understand one’s world. This love of truth may, as Housman said, be the faintest of human passions, but it does exist, it has standards of its own, and in the great philosophers it has risen to passionate dedication.

Marx questioned the possibility of such disin-terestedness and, in so doing, introduced the profoundest cleavage that exists between Soviet and western thinkers.  Not only did he re-present philosophers as driven from behind by economic pressures; he thought that for the most part they were deceived as to their own aim in thinking, for under the appearance of dis-interested inquiry they were in truth grinding a practical axe.  I suppose that is why Marxist philosophers can manage to believe of their col-leagues in the west, however honest, liberal, and distinterested they may seem to be, that at base they are really stooges of capitalism and imperialism.  This, if I may say so, is poisonous nonsense.  Such servitude did not hold even of Marx, who, for all his unattractive hatreds, had a powerful intelligence and at times a very clear eye for the truth.

Nor do I believe it holds of our Soviet col-leagues.  When we come to discussing things in private they certainly do not sound like puppets, though the tendency of all of them to take the same line on every major problem is indeed dis-quieting.  If Marx is right about them, if their thought draws its aim and standard from prac-tical success, there is little hope of our under-standing each other.  To take a frivolous exam-ple, we shall be like the fish-wives whom Sidney Smith head abusing each other from opposite sides of an alley: “They will never agree;” said Sidney, “they are arguing from different pre-mises.”  But I find it hard to believe that, as we present our case to each other, we are go-verned by totally different ends.  Truth, as was said in the beginning, is one, and the business of thought is quite simply to conform to it always.  When thought abandons its own ends to be-come the tool of alien purposes, as it did under the Fascists, whom we equally detest, it may become a power for evil as readily as for good.  Its business is to yield to no pressures of any kind, economic, religious, or political, but by un-derstanding them to circumvent them, and stick to its line.  Would our Soviet colleagues dissent? We can talk together in hope so long as our dia-lectical materialisms or dialectical idealisms or even dialectical theologies accept the lead of that dialectical philosophy from which all of them alike have grown.  The imperative of Soc-rates, who started it all, is as valid today as it ever was: Follow the argument where it leads.

Posted December 1, 2005

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