Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Marx and Historicism

In the early twentieth century the discipline of history effectively became subordinate to sociology. This was not a wholly negative development, since it expanded the scope of the subject, and introduced tools and discipline. But it also introduced a narrowness of perspective via an overarching model - essentially a teleological one - which makes it very nearly impossible to discuss many aspects of history. The overarching model is the historicist perspective which places material and economic forces at the interpretative core of historical understanding.

Though few historians are Marxists now, the ultimate source of the current focus of historians remains the Marxist analytical perspective, even if the model is hardly ever referred to or discussed.

Marx used a model of the world which offered the possibility of a new interpretation of the of it and its workings. This model was not created in Marx’s mind out of nothing. He was heavily influenced by the writings of the philosopher Hegel, who created a vast, abstract and scarcely intelligible world system which, as a byproduct, gave a new way in which to understand the nature of history. For Hegel, history was about the realization of the absolute. The absolute would be achieved through dialectical opposition between powers, cultures and interests, resulting in a final resolution, which would effectively result in the end of history.

The system erected by Marx borrowed this structure, and turned it on its head (as he
acknowledged). No longer was the system focused on the realization of the absolute. The absolute was replaced with an ideological target - a world in which the conflict between classes and interests would inevitably result in the resolution of its internal contradictions. It became a political system, aimed at changing things. The Hegelian dialectical process now functioned as a principal aspect of Marx’s theory, and political and social classes formed the opposing forces within the system. The end point of the process was framed in terms of what was politically desirable – the means of production would pass out of the hands of the owners of capital and become the common property of labour. Class struggle would end forever, shortly after the dictatorship of the proletariat was established.

It is easy to see how the discipline of sociology came into being as a consequence of the enthusiasm for this doctrine in the late nineteenth century. The most damaging aspect of this development however is that the Marxist analytical framework was assumed to be appropriate as an analytic tool for all societies, over all time. It was treated as universally applicable. This was because the hidden mainsprings of human society had been laid bare by Marx – class, economics, and material forces.

Marx himself thought it was universally applicable – and as a result it has necessarily gifted to us the notion of ‘false consciousness’, which is what individuals and classes have when they do not understand the real forces at work in their lives. The real forces are as described by Marx's analysis. False consciousness is a necessary catch-all category for a doctrine which supersedes all other analytical approaches.

One of the positive aspects of the sociological approach in the early twentieth-century was
the deprecation of attempts to understand history in terms of great individuals, and it is true that many things are better understood in terms of the broader forces at work in society. Greek history in the 5th century BCE is better understood in terms of the threat from Persia than it is through, say, an attempt to understand the mind of Pericles. This should not however preclude the worth of attempting to understand Pericles point of view, or the point of view of any other individual who is part of the historical frame.

But the Marxist point of view does preclude this, or at least discourages attention to detail. In connection with the political activity of the Gracchi in Republican Rome, and their participation in social struggle, I expressed to a tutor that I could not understand what was in the mind of Tiberius Gracchus. The response from the tutor was “does it matter?” I was completely floored by this at the time, but I came to understand that this view follows naturally from the idea that decisions are made in response to material and economic forces, and that if you establish those, then you understand what is going on. Years later I found that the tutor was drawing on a remark by Friedrich Engels.

There are many aspects of antiquity which are difficult to understand using this
sociological-historicist approach. The importance of philosophy, sculpture, poetry, and religion for the ancient world is unquestioned, but these things are treated by historians as artefacts illustrating the ideology of civilizations, economies and powers, rather than as ways into understanding how these entities understood themselves. In other words, their main function for historians is to support the analysis determined by the interpretative model. The roles of religion and divine worship in particular are interpreted in either anthropological or sociological terms, and, given that the sociological model is an atheistic model, sometimes even as a form of pathology. In other words, there is very little about religion and ritual which needs to be understood in detail, since these things are irrational in nature, and not subject to rational analysis. Most ancient thought can be classed as false consciousness. As a consequence, philosophy and religion are sundered, even where they are known to have co-existed (Greece), even within individual figures (Plato). Scholars  prefer to interpret religion in terms of sacred space and demarcation, rather than in terms of what the ancients themselves said about it.

The telos is, in its own way, a key part of Marx's world view. Both Hegel and Marx's philosophy are teleological in nature. That is to say that everything within their systems is framed in terms of an end point. Teleology arrives in the work of Marx and Hegel mainly through study by Hegel of the writings of Proclus, who was the last head of the Academy in Athens, some nine hundred years after its foundation by Plato. Proclus has much to tell us about the relationship between philosophy and religion: he practised theurgy, and believed that was possible for man to achieve significant results through the power of the trained human will. Hegel’s system is built to a considerable extent on an interpretation of Proclus’ model of the world (minus the theurgy).

The telos in Proclus is a vital feature of his universe. In that universe, the telos has properties which are required for the proper functioning of that universe. It enables motion and change, which would be impossible without its properties. It also enabled the creation. The telos, in its original form, was the keystone of an intellectual and rational model of the universe, which existed until at least the closure of the philosophical schools in the early centuries of our common era, and the final passing of the pagan world. By contrast, by the time we get to Marx, the telos is merely a political desirable. It has no properties which enable anything else, and Marx is careless about its nature (we have no significant detail from Marx about the nature of the classless society). We have in Marx's work the vague shape of something which once existed, and had an important role in patterns of meaning;   and which was discussed with some intellectual rigour and clarity. The telos of Marx is an empty thing: a twisted parody of the original concept, existing only to justify a political agenda.

There is a fantastic irony here, in that the current sociological-historicist approach to understanding history is based on a Marxist inversion of the teleological model of Hegel, so that it recognises material and and social forces and not mind or thought, and that the Hegelian teleology has its roots in the thought of Proclus, who recognised mind and thought, but did not recognise the importance of the material world.

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