Marx’s theory of history is quite often read as the “inversion” of Hegel. That is to say, people read in Marx a history that moves dialectically through stages towards a perceived end. We can say, in this sense, that Marx’s conception of history is end-driven, that the end “pulls” all of history forward. This teleology in Marx is commonly attributed to his Hegelian roots which is the source of some controversy and debate. In his critique of Marx, Thorstein Veblen went as far to call the German revolutionary a neo-Hegelian who carried forth Hegel’s method with only minor adjustments. It was Marx’s “Materialistic Hegelianism” that primarily disturbed Veblen. Veblen viewed the teleology of Hegelianism as completely at odds with Darwinian “cumulative causation,” which he himself subscribed to. Though some of Veblen’s criticisms missed the mark, the issue of causal mechanisms struck a vital chord.
It is in the question of determination and causal structures where Veblen’s critique holds the most weight. (Veblen also argued that Marx’s second biggest influence was the English system of “Natural Rights,” which he supported with embarrassingly scant textual evidence). The basis of the critique rests on Veblen’s reading of Marx as a “neo-Hegelian.” Veblen suggests that the movement of progress towards an established goal is essentially the same in Marx as it is Hegel. It is a “self-conditioned and self-acting” movement that unfolds by “inner necessity” (1919, 414–15). Whereas in Hegel this is a self-realization of the spirit, in Marx it is the dialectical movement of class struggle. Veblen correctly positions this system of thought as diametrically opposed to the “unteleological” causality found in Darwin’s work. Veblen incisively points out that “a consistently materialistic conception” of the “process of development” would have “led to a scheme of social process in which a class struggle would be included as an incidental though perhaps highly efficient factor.” A consistent materialism has no place for “conscious class struggle” as the primary motor of history — such a motor is far too similar in form and function to Hegel’s self-realizing Spirit. Rather, the materialist, Darwinian framework of causality is defined by a “cumulative sequence of causation, opaque and unteleological,” which “could not without an infusion of pious fancy by the speculator, be asserted to involve progress as distinct from retrogression or to tend to a ‘realisation’ or ‘self-realisation’ of the human spirit or of anything else.” What Veblen means by this is that a conscious driver of history, grounded in some kind of realization of human destiny, ultimately implies a history defined by the Idea. Contained within this argument is a significant challenge to the Marxist understanding of social change and revolutionary transformation. Without a telos (i.e. an end to history) there is no guarantee of historical progress except in a strictly empirical sense (meaning, historical progress only as we’ve seen it unfold and not as it is supposedly meant to unfold in a determined future). This is the point in which Veblen is also able to insert one of his most powerful concepts: the notion of the socialization of oppressed classes (Hunt and Lautzenheiser 2011, 343). Not only is the revolutionary potential of the proletariat not a given, but the pacification of a large segment of the population is highly probable. Veblen believes that it is Marx’s reliance on the necessity of historical “progress” which blinds Marx from acknowledging the likely complacency of the proletariat in the face of oppression. In other words, socialism — and subsequently communism — do not constitute an inevitable end. History does not move by necessity of realizing some kind of Idea. As a result, the proletarian revolution cannot be a given. On the contrary, the working class is just as likely to become convinced of the permanence of capitalism and the impossibility of something beyond the status quo.
One of the most striking problems in this reading of Marx is the apparent lack of direct reference to the thinker himself. As with the assertion about the “English system of Natural Rights,” the claim that Marx is, in the final instance, a Hegelian, rests on an incomplete survey of Marx’s works. Economic historian E.K. Hunt (1979) traces the roots of the dialectic as the basis of Marxist “ontology,” demonstrating that it was Engels and later contributors who gave “dialectical materialism” a type of primacy that it had not received with Marx:
For Marx, the dialectic was epistemological not ontological; it was a method of thinking and not existentially inherent in matter. Matter did not constitute all reality; there was only one reality, and it was made up of two irreducible, but interrelated and interacting, components: matter and thought (including all mental phenomena, such as perceptions, emotions, and so forth, as thought) (115).
It is telling that Veblen heavily cites Engels on the issue of Marx’s philosophy. Is it true then, that Marx and Darwin really stand at odds with one another? Though a number of Marxists have struggled with the teleology apparent in the theory, it is not until Althusser’s aleatory materialism that we get a rereading of Marx that resonates with Darwinian causation. Vittorio Morfino takes up precisely this investigation in his discussion on Althusser’s thesis of the “primacy of the encounter over form.” According to Morfino, “Althusser holds that in the theory of history and political economy developed in Capital we find a concept of causality that, though Marx never theorised it on a strictly philosophical level, addresses the questions of the determination of the elements of a structure and the structural relations between these elements through the efficacy of this structure itself” (91). Indeed, several philosophers posited an ontological system of relationality, which one could trace from Epicurus to Marx (94). Though Hegel introduces a “radical relationality” that does away with Leibniz’s substantiality, Hegel’s ontology is dominated by an “all-pervading time that orders relations rather than being constituted by them” (93). This is in direct contrast to what Althusser finds in his interpretation of Marx, where “[…] the time of totality is neither eternal, nor contemporaneous, nor synchronic […], but is the complex articulation of differential times not harmonised in a simple essence” (94). Each element of Hegel’s system is structured in terms of, and for, the Idea. Conversely, the elements in Marx’s system are not structured by an overarching logic; the elements themselves define the structure and this element-defined structure then acts back on each element. You can thus picture a reality that is not neatly ordered, where the parts do not move rhythmically towards some system-defining end. Already, this formulation resembles what Veblen characterized as the Darwinian cumulative sequence of (unteleological) causation. The four features of the thesis of the primacy of the encounter over form are laid by Morfino in the following manner:
- Every being is the product of an encounter.
- Every encounter is the effect of other encounters ad infinitum.
- Every encounter might not have taken place.
- The elements that have given rise to the encounter do not already contain the being that will emerge from the encounter.
As Morfino contends, Althusser discovers in his reading of Marx an explicitly Darwinian, aleatory model:
The complex weave of relations that constitutes the stable face of nature in a given period is not an order and guarantee of stability, but a complex weave of encounters, where the very fact that one of them takes place or does not can reconfigure the entire ensemble of encounters, as Darwin write, ‘in circles of increasing complexity (110).
Looking at this kind of conception of reality, we may be concerned about the futility of any type of social analysis. If there are so many moving relations and parts shifting with little-to-no predictability, should we give up on analyzing the world around us? Certainly not. Such a reality is not totally random. It does move by necessity — the necessity of precedent. That is to say, the current and past configurations of the social structure define the scope of possibilities for future configurations. After all, Marx’s materialism is historical.
There is ample evidence throughout Marx’s work of the “complex weave of relations” that challenges any presentation of class struggle as the primary mover of historical progress.
In the third volume of Capital (1894), Marx discusses the transformative role of money rent, stating that money rent “must lead […] either to the transformation of the land into free peasant property or to the form of the capitalist mode of production, rent paid by the capitalist farmer” (934). Here it is evident that the development of various relations and social phenomena, such as money rent, has an (semi-)autonomous determining role vis a vis adjacent forces. More importantly, this determining role does not have a single or necessary outcome. In this example, the structure of social relations in agriculture is, at least in part, transformed by money rent. Marx considers the possibility of the emergence of either a free peasantry or a capitalist agriculture — two very distinct systems of economic organization. More examples of the multiplicity of “abolishing” factors can be found in Marx’s premonitions regarding the transition past capitalism. Interestingly enough, Marx identifies the credit system as one element that would carry with it a transformative property:
The credit system hence accelerates the material development of the productive forces and the creation of the world market, which it is the historical task of the capitalist mode of production to bring to a certain level of development, as material foundations for the new form of production. At the same time, credit accelerates the violent outbreaks of this contradiction, crises, and with these the elements of dissolution of the old mode of production (572).
Marx was clearly fascinated with the credit system’s potential to transform the conditions of capitalism: “[…] there can be no doubt that the credit system will serve as a powerful level in the course of transition from the capitalist mode of production to the mode of production of associated labour; however, only as one element in connection with other large-scale organic revolutions in the mode of production itself (743).”
We are all familiar with Engels’ oft-cited letter to J. Bloch which criticizes economism and determinist readings of Marxist theory:
According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form (Engels 1890).
Though Engels continues by assuring the “ultimately decisive” role of economic factors, he adds that “there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event.” This infinite array of forces, including “the reflexes of [class struggle] in the brains of the participants,” demonstrates not only a clear commitment to complex causality but to heterogeneity within the social structure as well.
Absent from these passages is a notion of teleology, historical necessity, or self-realization of an essence. On the contrary, there is a clear multiplicity of factors that play roles of varying significance in the transformation of connected, but distinct, realms of the social totality.
Only through this deeper exploration can it be revealed that the materialism of Marx and Darwin are not fundamentally opposed. To connect historical materialism to evolutionism is not to remove Marx from Marxism, but remove Hegel from Marx. This is not the existential threat to Marxism that Veblen proposed it to be. In the boldest formulation, one may say that it is precisely the implicit introduction of a cumulative sequence of unteleological causation that separates Marx from his Hegelian roots. Though Marx himself did not take such a leap in his lifetime, it is one that we can feasibly make for him.
The implications for praxis are profound. Once we remove the end from history, once we remove the necessity of historical progression, we can no longer rely on a guaranteed future. This is frightening but essential. It suggests that the only guarantee of a post-capitalist future is through our own action. We cannot wait for the mystical winds of history to push us forward. The only path forward is the one that we forge ourselves.
- The term “aleatory” is synonymous with the term “random,” though in our case we are not talking about randomness in a strictly mathematical sense.
- What is an “ontological system of relationality?” An ontology is a view of how the real world is structured. For thinkers who built a view of the real world on the basis of “relationality,” relations between objects (physical or not) are the defining elements of the world. The world essentially boils down to a complex system of relations.
- Leibniz includes a spiritual substance that exists outside the structure of relations. He also insists on a divine intellect. “Leibniz therefore reduces relation to the combinatory game of a God presented as both architect and sovereign, a game always-already decided in advance by the divine will’s tendency toward the good. In the same way, Hegel’s theory of the ruse of reason is said to weave the great tapestry of universal history, a tapestry whose warp and woof is the Idea and whose passions are the individual woven threads” (Morfino 2015, 94). In effect, both systems are strict teleologies. Leibniz’s world of relations is designed and predetermined by God (hence the “substantiality”), whereas Hegel’s is derived from and by the Idea.
- At least in an ontological sense. It is clear that Marx’s method of analysis and exposition was strongly influenced by Hegel’s dialectics.
Hunt, E. K. 1979. “The Importance of Thorstein Veblen for Contemporary Marxism.” Journal of Economic Issues 13, no. 1 (March): 113–140.
Hunt, E. K., and Mark Lautzenheiser. 2011. History of Economic Thought: A Critical Perspective. 3rd ed. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.
Marx, Karl.  1991. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Translated by David Fernbach. Vol. 3. 3 vols. London, England: Penguin Books.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels.  1932. The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/.
Morfino, Vittorio. 2015. Plural Temporalities: Transindividuality and the Aleatory Between Spinoza and Althusser. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Book.
Veblen, Thorstein.  1919. The Place of Science in Modern Civilisation and Other Essays. New York: B.W. Huebsch.