Stalin, social being and consciousness

Howie Chodos howie at
Mon Mar 13 21:40:23 MST 1995

>On Fri, 10 Mar 1995, Justin Schwartz wrote:

>But I think the following traditional Marxist formulation is pretty well
>incontrovertible (though its interprettaion is contested), and rules out
>the simple argument that Marxism implies Stalinism. The formulation is
>that social being determines consciousness rather than vice versa.
>Stalinism was the resulkt of social forces. not social theories.

Justin was replying to my post on his interchange with Philip Goldstein on
Laclau, Mouffe, etc. Justin mentioned in his post that he was taking off for
a couple of weeks, but I think the way he formulates the problem here is
worth exploring, so I hope he won't mind my using his post as a jumping off
point, despite his absence.

A simplistic reading of his last sentence here could be taken to absolve
Marxism from any connection to Stalinism, which I don't think was his
intention, but it does point to the ambiguities involved in invoking the
idea that "social being determines consciousness". I, for one, have a lot of
trouble getting my head around this aphorism. It is fair to say that ideas,
consciousnesss, whatever, are integral to social processes and play a role
in people's struggles to defend their interests, from whichever side of the
barricades they are on. Ideas are "classed" (as they are "gendered", and
"raced"). Moreover, what we do or say acquires a meaning given by the social
context, a process which is beyond our control, and which often results in
the consequences of our actions being different from what we intended.

But what does "determine" mean for an individual? Did class origin
"determine" Marx's outlook, or Lenin's? Is there some way of distinguishing
the class background of an intellectual who chooses to side with the
oppressed, from that of those who choose otherwise? Is there something in
the social being of workers who support socialist parties that is different
from the social being of those who voted for the Reagans and the Thatchers
of this world?

I can understand that what we can know is limited by the general level of
knowledge that characterises our epoch. I can also understand that it is
unlikely that the capitalist class will ever surrender power simply because
we are capable of a superior level of reasoning, or that very many members
of the elite will ever choose to side with those struggling to unseat them
from their positions of wealth and influence. I can also understand that how
people define their politics depends in great degree on the alternatives
thast are available to them. But all this seems to me to be less strong than
saying that social being *determines* consciousness. I wonder whether it is
possible to interpret "social being determines consciousness" so as to avoid
severely curtailing our individual free will?

Am I asking the wrong questions?

And when it comes to helping explain the phenomenon of Stalinism, I am even
less sure that "social being determines consciousness" is helpful. Of course
Stalinism as it arose in the Soviet Union was the product of a particular
set of social circumstances. But it also had a world wide impact. Let us not
forget that Stalinism dominated large and influential working class parties
in most of the capitalist world. Was it despite their Stalinism or because
of it that these parties did manage to distinguish themselves in some of the
crucial battles of the day, such as the fight for trade union rights,
unemployment insurance, the anti-fascist and civil rights struggles, etc?
Was their Stalinism responsible for their many defects (including failures
in the just-mentioned struggles), while their Marxism was responsible for
the good things they did? And once we have figured this out, can we sort out
which social conditions led to which aspects of the practice of these
Stalinist parties?

If the practice was contradictory, then the consciousness which engendered
this practice must have been contradictory, and then the social being that
"determined" the consciousness must have been permeated by contradictory
elements as well. This in fact seems about right to me, but again, I am not
sure that it leaves us in a position to affirm that social being determines
consciousness. I don't think social being and consciousness are cut off from
one another but determines seems too strong. We need to examine each term,
social being and consciousness, as well as the nature of the link between them.

It is here that I tend to rely on some of Bhaskar's contributions. I think
that his "Transformational Model of Social Action" offers a way to think
about the relationship between social conditions and individual existence
that avoids both "determinism" and "voluntarism" (both of which, it is
interesting to note, were simultaneously part of Stalinism: a crude
theoretical determinism allied with the worst excesses of voluntarism in

For now, I offer a few quotes from Reclaiming Reality, chapter 5, which I
have found helpful (and relatively free of Bhaskarian jargon):

(p. 76)
... people do not create society. For it always pre-exists them. Rather it
is an ensemble of structures, practices and conventions that individuals
reproduce or transform. But which would not exist unless they did so.
Society does not exist independently of conscious human activity (the error
of reification). But it is not the product of the latter (the error of

(p. 79)
Society, then, is an articulated ensemble of tendencies and powers which,
unlike natural ones, exist only as long as they (or at least some of them)
are being exercised; are exercised in the last instance via the intentional
activity of human beings; and are not necessarily space-time invariant.
        To turn now to people. Human action is characterized by the striking
phenomenon of intentionality. This seems to stem from the fact that persons
are material things with a degree of neurophysiological complexity which
enables them not just, like the higher animals, to initiate changes in a
purposeful way, to monitor and control their performances, but to monitor
the monitoring of these performances and to be capable of a commentary upon
them. This capacity for second-order monitoring also makes possible a
restrospective commentary upon actions, which gives a person's own account
of his or her behaviour a special status, which is acknowledged in the best
practice of all the psychological sciences.
        The importance of distinguishing, in the most categorical way,
between human action and the social structure will now be apparent. For the
properties possessed by social forms may be very different from those
possessed by the individuals upon whose activity they depend. For instance
we can suppose without paradox or tension that purposefulness,
intentionality and sometimes self-consciousness characterize human action,
but not changes in the social structure.

(p. 80)
        To return once again to the relationship between society and people.
The conception I am proposing is that people, in their conscious human
activity, for the most part unconsciously reproduce (or occasionally,
transform) the structures that govern their substantive activities of
production. Thus people do not marry to reproduce the nuclear family, or
work to reproduce the capitalist economy. But it is nevertheless the
unintended consequence (and inexorable result) of, as it is also the
necessary condition for, their activity.

Howie Chodos

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