The Affluent Society pt.3 – An Essay on Historical Materialism

A Reply to Professor Galbraith

To read Marx with no thought of criticising him, is bad. To criticise him with no thought of reading him is worse. In the last respect Professor Galbraith, author of The Affluent Society, follows a contemporary trend. His summing up of historical materialism is pointed, pithy, and piffling. It is a pity that in economising his phrases he has so gravely economised truth. According to him, Marx held that the economic motive was the prime mover of all individuals’ actions. Underneath the trappings of professed ideals lay the core of self-interest. Apparently Marx only repeated the cynical sophistication of the 18th century, of Chesterfield and Walpole.

Yet Professor Galbraith believes that the view he attributes to Marx, is, nevertheless, a great theory, which is a great pity, because if self-interest is the prime motive of an individual’s actions and the regulator of his conduct, then it is the businessmen, or at least the American variety who are Marxists. If historical materialism boils down to the assertion that all human activity is ultimately based on an economic motive, which, vide Professor Galbraith, is the American business man’s philosophy, then they might echo, with him, “We are all Marxists now.” Marxism becomes then a cynical worldly pragmatism. To the activity of humans whose claims are altruistic it asks the leading Marxist question, “What is their gimmick?” Marx, however, never held that self interest or the economic motive was the prime mover of all social situations. It is not Marx but Professor Galbraith who passes this excoriating judgment on a section of his countrymen—unconsciously, perhaps, the severest thing he says about them in the whole book.

So far from Marx holding that self-interest was the prime mover of history, he denied that personal motivation could account for historic development.

It is true that Adam Smith, who besides being an economist was a moral philosopher, also believed that the economic motive was the driving force of individual activity. But he at least believed that Providence had planned self-interest in such a way that each individual in seeking his own advantage was led by “an invisible hand” to promote an end which was no part of his intention. And so while his own efforts benefited himself,  they also benefited others—the community. This was an anticipation of Bentham’s utilitarianism summed up as “the greatest happiness of the greatest number,” via enlightened self-interest. It is also the nearest thing the Labour Party has in the way of an official philosophy.

It would also seem, according to Professor Galbraith, that if not all Marxists are business men all simply cannot explain history in terms of individual activity based on personal motives. The range of personal motives are too enormous and complex, even for the individual himself, to constitute reliable data for establishing valid and objective historical conclusions. That is why Karl Popper and the school of anti-historicists who interpret history in terms of personal motives, declare in effect that History and mystery are synonymous terms.

It is true generically speaking that man makes history. It is not true that the individual man makes his own history. In fact, Marx is not interested in what the individual man does or does not make. Marx was concerned with the behaviour of social groups or classes and of the individual in so far that he is a member of a particular class. And since the passing of primitive society, all history has been the history of class struggle. Marx asked the question: what are the conditions which bring about this? How and why do class struggles occur and what effect it does this have on the behaviour of individuals who form these classes? Marx offers an historical principle which is empirical and verifiable, and proceeds via the mode of economic production.

Men are constantly improving the tools and instruments of production, whereby they obtain their living. The emergence of new productive forces will bring advantages which will be attempted to be utilised by the existing ruling class for their own interests. A new class which is associated with and has title to these new productive forces will, in seeking to expand them along the lines of their own interests, find themselves hampered by the political and property relations which constitute the older form of economic production. The new class which has economic power must gain political power in order to effect a change in the social organisation which makes possible the control and development of economic power. An acute class opposition of interests results between the old ruling class and the new rising class. Unless the classes go down in a common ruin as the result of class conflict, victory comes to the new class with economic power, who fight for a form of social organisation which is in line with the changes in the mode of production and thereby permits the freeing and expansion of the productive forces. Sometimes these class struggles are rapid and violent, sometimes slow, and compromises take place between the contending factions. But all class struggles centre around the ownership of the means of production and the power which such ownership gives.

It does not follow, however, that individuals as such are necessarily motivated by purely economic considerations. What does matter is that their common interests and common activity do produce an overall effect, even though this overall effect differs from what each individual of a particular class had anticipated. It is the permanent and pervasive pressure of their needs arising from their class interests which makes itself felt in the final outcome of their total activity.

The outcome and consequences then of class activity are not then necessarily deducible from the individual motives of those who constitute a particular class. As Engels points out, whatever may be the different wills and motives of individuals composing a class, in the aggregate they offset each other, or are compensated for by other variations. Thus Marxism does not maintain that Capitalists, as individuals, move along a direct path of self interest, in which all others are merely the subject matter for their personal advantage and gain. Some may, but it does not necessarily follow that all or even the majority act in this way. The individual Capitalist may be a good father, a good husband, a regular church goer, and may want to do the best he can by those he employs. His actions are limited, however, by a set of objective conditions to which he must conform or cease to be a Capitalist, i.e. he must appropriate surplus value. In short, his own actions are regulated by the interests of the class to whom he belongs and it is upon and through this class that his own status and privilege is preserved. Without the power of this class he is, as an individual, helpless.

It is true that the ruling ideas of a social order can only become effective if they serve the interests of the ruling social group. These ideas, however, express themselves in a set of volitions and attitudes which develop into systematised or institutionalised ideas—an ideology. This ideology seeks to preserve the conditions upon which economic privilege rests. In every epoch, wrote Marx, “the ruling ideas have been the ideas of the ruling class.”

To understand the activities of men we must understand the society in which they live, the values, habits, traditions and the complex of institutions which make up their culture. It is true that the ideology arising from a particular set of class interests is refracted by the prism; needs and turned upside down and is expressed as “the Common Interest, “a Way of Life,” or “the General Will,” and it is accepted by all classes until such time as the exploited class grows to self conscious maturity of its own needs.

The Capitalists accept their system as the natural and eternal order of things powerfully reinforced as they are by the ideological assumptions which are an essential part of their culture. Just as the slave owner, no matter how kindly he may have felt towards his slaves, considered slavery as a natural order of things. He would have been horrified at the idea of abolition of slavery. No doubt the Capitalist today considers that slavery was a horrible thing, he, however, is horrified at the idea of abolishing Capitalism.

What then forms the complex of class behaviour and activity from the Marxist standpoint is a far cry from the assumption that Marx held that the dynamic of society was individual motivation whereby each individual pursued a line of self interest. Less than any man did Marx make the motive of the individual as such, the outcome of social evolution and nothing is falser than to attribute to him some sort of sordid psychology of selfish motivation.

Marx’s great insight was to show that humans could not only change conditions but change themselves in the process. He wanted to do away with a social system where neither buyer nor seller is free, and replace it by a set of human conditions, “In which the free development of all is the condition for the free development of each.” He remains one of the great humanists of history.

The pity about Professor Galbraith is not that he has so much to learn from Marx, but that he has so much to unlearn.

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