Marxism and Inevitability – The Critics Criticised
“There’s a destiny that shapes our ends, rough hew them as we may.”
Is Marxism the prose Rubaiyat of economic fatalism? Many pseudo-Marxists have half believed it. Quite a few critics of Marxism—Eastman, Berlin, Popper, etc., have wholly asserted it. A host of sentimental liberals and political do-gooders have also chosen to see Marxism as a secularised version of—”and the good must come to pass.” For such critics Marxism is either a synonym for Kismet or a variation of “The Lord will provide.”
It is true that the Communist Manifesto states, “Capitalism is its own grave-digger; its fall and the victory of the proletariat are alike inevitable.” This has been taken up by opponents of Marxism and echoed and re-echoed down the corridor of the years as evidence of the fact that Marxism spells out fatalism with a capital f. Yet anything less like religious or philosophical quietism than the Communist Manifesto it would be hard to imagine. Not only do its pages breathe political activism but it ends with a stirring call to action—”Workers of the world unit,” utterly at variance with any predestined assumptions. It is not difficult, however, to tear a sentence from its context and make the author appear to say the opposite of what he actually meant.
Now this particular type of criticism of Marxism pivots on the word “inevitability.” If we are to believe the critics of Marx the term inevitability, especially as related to human society, is synonymous with fatalism or predestination—”The moving finger writes and having writ moves on.” Thus in the Marxist scheme of things, vide the critics, inevitability means that human wills are writ so small as to be virtually non-existent.
The word “inevitability” as used by the critics in reproaching Marx carries a stigma; the stigma being that human beings are but puppets in some vast cosmic process. But is that the only significance which can be given to the word? One of course does not deny that in a given context the word “inevitability” can be synonymous with fatalism. What one does deny is that in the Marxist context they mean the same thing.
Let us, to paraphrase Marx, consider the word “inevitability” a little more closely and see how its meaning varies with the context. Thus we say night, inevitably follows day. Do we imply by such a statement that fatalism or predestination of some kind is involved in the rotation of the earth on its axis? It can, we think, be agreed that the regular sequence of events connected with the solar system has nothing to do with fatalism or any other kind of supernaturalism. Some one might, of course, say “but is it not true that men are nevertheless powerless to control solar events?” Here it would seem that inevitability implies the powerlessness of men. But surely the answer is that such events being non-human have nothing to do with the powers possessed by socially organised men. Therefore the question of powerlessness on the part of humans in non-human processes does not arise. The power of human beings lies in the fact of their ability to understand and utilise natural phenomena to their social advantage.
Again the inevitable sequences of events which occur in the solar system are of inestimable advantage to humans during the course of their lives. It enables one to go to bed supremely confident that after a night’s sleep one will wake up and it is morning. And to feel assured that in making an appointment a week hence the solar sequence of things will not have been reversed. If solar events were so arbitrary that in the words of the song “when it’s night time in Italy it’s Wednesday over here” then life on this planet would be a matter of conjecture. If inevitability, then, entails some aspect of a regularised and sequential eternity one can only add—long live inevitability.
One can further expand the advantage which inevitability has for us humans. Thus if we know that “A” will always bring about “B” then the certainty of this knowledge gives us an assured basis for utilising it. Such knowledge not only gives us power to understand the world but the power to change it.
On the other hand, if events were so capricious that water raised to a certain temperature did not always produce steam, or in switching on an electric kettle the water got colder instead of hotter, then the organisation of knowledge consequent upon an inevitable sequence of things would be impossible.
It does not follow then that inevitability pre-supposes the powerlessness of humans. It can, in fact, imply the contrary. Thus, for example, if the Moscow Dynamos were to meet a scratch village eleven we could say the result would be inevitable. This would not be because of the inability of the scratch side to kick a ball but of the highly trained athletic power of the Dynamos.
Now the working class in Capitalist society constitute not only the bulk of the population but are a highly trained productive class. Potentially they are the most powerful social group and the only section capable of basically transforming existing social conditions. When Marx spoke of social inevitability he was not as vulgar critics such as Eastman and Isaiah Berlin contend, postulating mysterious agencies beyond the control of humans, but had in mind the latent powers resident in the working class.
Marxists recognise, however, that inevitability has a twofold character; one of denial as well as one of affirmation. From one aspect it can be considered as a restraint on human power. From another, a source of possibilities and opportunities. Thus Capitalism through its social productive agencies constitutes a fetter on the free and fullest use of human skills and productive resources; just as the ownership of these productive resources by a class gives them power over the lives of others and inhibits their free development. Only in a classless society can human activity be equal, creative and shared.
If then extant society gives rise to certain social consequences inseparable from its existence, i.e. if “A” always affects “B” then, in order to eliminate “B” we must get rid of “A.” It is this recognition of the “must” which makes possible our decision to achieve the “ought.” Because the pressures and conflicts of Capitalism are permanent, powerful and pervasive, it becomes not a matter of preoccupation for the few but the concern of the many. If “A” is then a necessary condition for “B” this itself promotes the idea and need of getting rid of the cause. To say that in a system such as Capitalism which generates the consequences of its existence as a continuous and cumulative process men will never, never be able to correctly diagnose their social ills is to condemn them to a moronic level utterly out of keeping with their own history.
The Marxist concept of inevitability links the negative and positive aspect of the social situation and reveals the driving force of social change.
Socialists do not deny human will and choice. What they say is that if men are to raise themselves to a truly human stature this exploitative set-up where magic and myth, charlatanism and violence are agencies through which social problems are mediated, must go and the choice can only be a social arrangement of free and equal access to social wealth. Given the means the choice is inevitable.
Among the critics of Marx, and they are numerous, are those who fail to grasp the aspects of affirmation and denial in the concept of inevitability. For them social laws are another name for pre-determinism or an animistic notion of causality. They regard society, if they can commit themselves to such an organised notion, as a laissez-faire arrangement which can be altered and re-altered like a meccano set. Having no social charts or compass they remain as “free” as a cockle boat in mid-ocean.
There is also irony in the criticism of Marxism which asserts that not only is Marx’s inevitability, fatalism, but Socialism is utterly impossible. To the Marxist “aye” they can only counter with an everlasting “nay.” Their inevitability is shot through and through with fatalism, a sublime belief that inscrutable agencies control men and make it impossible for them to master a world.
Such critics can be shown on analysis to be supporters of the “eternal status quo.” For that reason their misunderstanding of Marxism is perhaps—inevitable.