Book notice - Creaven, Marxism and Realism

Mervyn Hartwig mh at
Wed Jan 3 13:22:37 MST 2001

Yoshie has asked me to post a review of:
Sean Creaven, Marxism and Realism: a materialistic application of
realism in the social sciences. Routledge Studies in Critical Realism,
Routledge 2000. London and New York. November. hbk. 325pp, 0 425 23622 3
65 pounds sterling.

What follows is less a review than notes (often fairly verbatim,
predominantly from Creaven's own excellent summary in the book's
Conclusion), together with some comments about its main theses.

The author is a member of the British SWP. His main living mentors are
Margaret Archer and Alex Callinicos, the leading (non-Marxist) critical
realist social theorist and SWP theorist, respectively. The book
basically 'reconstructs' both Marx's historical materialism and
critical realist social theory (especially as articulated by Archer) to
produce a comprehensive Marxist social theory ('a materialist account of
the constitution and dynamics of social systems'), which Creaven aptly
dubs 'emergentist Marxism'.

The book at every stage argues its positions against emergentist
Marxism's main rivals in bourgeois social theory (broadly, biological
reductionism on the one hand and social reductionism or sociological
imperialism on the other). It draws on an impressive range of
scholarship going to the beginnings of hominization and beyond, and
frequently illustrates and argues theory substantively. While it shows
many of the signs of having begun life as a higher degree thesis
(repetition, proneness to verbosity and pleonasm, addiction to scare
quote, etc.), it delivers impressively if you don't allow these to
distract you.

Chapter 1 (Critical Realism and Marxism) argues that emergentist Marxism
can both enrich critical realism and render [more] defensible the
central tenets of Marxist philosophy and social theory. It advances
three key claims. 1) The philosophical ontology of critical realism
('depth realism') is in fact a form of ontological materialism which is
broadly consistent with Engels' dialectical materialism. 2). Critical
realism must be more explicitly dialectical if it is to realise its rich
potential for apprehending socio-cultural dynamics. 3). Emergentist
materialism (Marxism), at the level of social theory, renders [more]
defensible and plausible the central arguments of Marxism in
anthropology and sociology: the explication of human beings, human
consciousness and socio-cultural relations in terms of the historical
interface between the 'structuralist' and 'activist' dimensions of the
forces and relations of production.

The rest of the book is an elaboration and defense of these core
propositions. Creaven conceives of social systems as comprising emergent
'micro', 'meso' and 'macro' structures. Chapters 2 (Organisms, Subjects
and Society), 3 (Subjects, Actors and Agents), and 4 (Structure, Power
and Conflict) discuss each of these in turn, and are followed by an
overall Conclusion.

The 'micro' structures (Ch. 2) are agents' human nature and its emergent
properties (objective species-needs and interests, and capacities). The
fundamental argument here is that Marx's 'labour theory' of species-
being (as distinct from social being) furnishes us with a simultaneously
naturalistic and social account of individuals as subjects, and with the
most basic explanation of social order and social change (societal
organisation and transformation presuppose properties and powers of mind
and self irreducible to the imprint of society; societal change
presupposes objective species-needs and interests which 'found' the
social struggles of agents). The 'meso' level (Ch. 2) is the
'interaction order' which is emergent from the 'micro' level, yet
overdetermined by the 'macro' level of emergent socio-cultural relations
(Ch. 4). Here the main argument is that the 'interaction order' is the
mediating link between individuals and the structural properties of
social systems.

Like Archer (and I think correctly), whose concepts of the 'pre-social
self' and the naturalistic sources of self-identity he fully endorses,
Creaven distinguishes sharply (ontologically) between our relatively
enduring 'species-being' and our 'social being'. In virtue of the
process of natural selection, human agents are the bearers of a
determinate range of biologically based needs and capacities and of
certain 'subjective emergents' (psychological needs and capacities,
including altruism, sociability and egalitarianism), by virtue of which
they have secured for themselves a relative autonomy from their physical
and social environments, the capacity to remake these in accordance with
their needs and interests. This means that an adequate understanding of
social interaction is, above all, an interest-explanation, not an
explanation in terms of  the 'functional imperatives' of an abstract
social system.

Individuals have basic needs (both physical and psychological) by virtue
of their membership of a particular biological species. They therefore
have interests in ensuring these needs are met by whatever social means
are to hand. Yet needs and interests are not reducible to a 'biological
substratum', definable in terms of access to those material necessaries
(food etc) for survival; on the contrary, human needs and interests are
those which ensure the physical and psychological well being of the
subject, and this well being is always defined by cultural standards,
which are themselves determined objectively by the level of development
of material production and social labour, and the degree of welfare and
self-autonomy this allows individuals to reasonably expect from the
societies to which they belong. The objective needs and interests of
agents are thus to be defined in terms of the historical interface
between biology, social labour and physical nature.

Agents also possess the species-capacities of mind, self,
intentionality, rationality, etc, whereby they articulate these needs
and interests and act consciously in accordance with them. So where they
find themselves situated in social relations rooted in economic
exploitation and political domination, by virtue of which they are
denied the freedom and life-chances of others better placed, or the
consumption which the output of their own labour merits, they will feel
these social relations to be unjust and oppressive, and will seek to
resist or reform or even overturn them. They will then encounter
resistance from those elite groupings with vested interests in the
status quo by virtue of their control of allocative and authoritative
resources. It is this 'dialectic of control', between those agential
collectivities who have vested interests in societal replication and
those who have vested interests in societal change, which provides
history with much of its dynamic, as Marx rightly suggested (all history
is the history of class struggle).

Now, elite groupings will tend to have life-chances and degrees of
autonomy much above the cultural average - so much so that the
privileges they enjoy constitute a 'surplus' over and above their
objective human needs (as they are defined by productive force
development and the average standards of living this can support). This
means that the vested social interests of elite groupings are
constituted by those institutional means (appropriate to their
structural positioning) by which they meet their objective human needs
and by which they defend or enhance their sectoral advantages (which are
also a function of their positioning in emergent social relations, and
which are invariably won at the expense of the life-chances of
subordinate groupings). By contrast, the vested social interests of
subordinate groupings are comprised of those institutional means by
which they pursue or further their objective socially developed needs
and capacities without remainder (i.e. they enjoy no 'surplus'), their
'vested' interest in emancipation from the tyranny of 'artificial
scarcity' being determined by their specific propertyless status in
society. In the former case, vested social interests correspond to
privileged life-chances, to the beneficiaries of mechanisms of class
exploitation by which the life-chances of the many are subordinated to
service those of the few. In the latter case, they correspond to
universal needs, and are comprised of those social practices necessary
to ensure these needs are met.

This provides an ethical basis for siding with the oppressed and
exploited against their oppressors and exploiters (a naturalistic
principle of justice). Social relations which are capable of sustaining
a certain reasonable standard of living for all (given a relatively
egalitarian distribution of allocative resources), and which objectively
allow the possibility of a more even distribution of authoritative
resources (in the sense of not endangering the stable reproduction of
society within its material means), but which fail to do so because an
elite stratum has monopolised effective political power plus a share of
the social product above the cultural median, are morally reprehensible
- because they contradict the maximum realisation of human needs and
capacities which is here possible to achieve.

The positioning of agents in emergent structures (and in specific
contexts or environments within emergent structures) ensures that their
social conduct is subject to a range of constraints, impulses and
enablements. The significance of structure is that it comprises a social
and material integument, historically predating the interaction of human
agents, which shapes their subsequent activity by immersing them in
stratified social relations which determine their respective access to
material and cultural resources and which define their objective social
interests relative to other agents. This doesn't mean that the psycho-
organic powers and properties which pertain to uniquely human agents and
their social interaction are negated or subsumed under social practices
or processes of enculturation. The social agency of individuals is still
the mechanism of structural elaboration and/or reproduction, and agents
are still sovereign artificers, who act relatively voluntaristically
(within a range of socio-cultural possibilities) on the basis of needs
and interests which are irreducible to the imprint of society.  Instead,
structural conditioning - here defined as the interplay between
involuntary placement, vested interests and attendant opportunity costs
- impinges upon agents by virtue of the fact that they are situated in
'positions' in social relations which furnish them with rational motives
(the defense or pursuit of improved life-chances) for acting in
accordance with their structurally defined interests.

Yet it is the 'situational logics' and attached agential interests
determined by the positioning of interactants in class relations which
have explanatory primacy in shaping their socio-political consciousness
and agency. This is because class positions within emergent relations of
production are decisive in determining the access of agents to
authoritative and allocative resources. This renders meaningful the
Marxist thesis that the economic structure not only provides 'conditions
of existence' for non-economic structures and practices, but also
'determines' its politico-ideological superstructure and decisively
shapes the social conflicts which give rise to epochal societal change.

There are two basic reasons for this. The mode of production can now be
seen as fixing the fundamental axis of social inequality, and hence as
constituting the primary source of social (and system) malintegration in
most historical societies.  Further, because class interests are crucial
in explaining the socio-political agency of interactants, if follows
that there is a long-run tendency in any social system for
superstructural emergents (and especially legal and political relations
) to 'correspond' to the contradictions internal to relations of
production, and especially to structures of class domination.

Creaven concludes that emergentist Marxism offers an account of societal
development and/or transformation which is logically and conceptually
defensible. This is rooted in the dialectical interface between
particular kinds of structural and interactional mechanisms - namely
forces and relations  of production, base and superstructure, social
labour and class conflict. The task that remains is to deploy it

Some Comments on the Book's Core Theses

1) 'The philosophical ontology of critical realism ('depth realism') is
in fact a form of ontological materialism which is broadly consistent
with Engels' dialectical materialism.'

As Listers will know from my other posts, I do not think that
philosophical or ontological realism is equatable with philosophical or
ontological materialism, which is rather a species of realism. Like it
or not, one can be a realist about God as well as a realist about
ultimate materiality, or a realist idealist rather than a realist

Bhaskar defines ontological materialism as the doctrine which 'asserts
the unilateral dependence of social upon biological (and thence
physical) being and the emergence of the former from the latter' (*Plato
Etc.* , p. 101). (This is broadly similar to a definition given by
Creaven at pp. 19, 29). Here 'physical' carries the connotation of
exclusive materiality - at bottom reality is 'matter'; such materialism
is therefore atheist. Ontological idealism (of the emergentist or
stratified kind advocated by the later Bhaskar) in my view goes along
with the same definition but holds that the 'physical' is ultimately
'ideal' (or 'consciousness' or 'information', as in the position of Bohm
on quantum phenomena in the paper posted by Sid). Thus we have
materialist realism and idealist realism. Epistemological or
transcendental realism does not and cannot in my view adjudicate between
the two. It can specify that social life necessarily possesses a
material substrate, etc, but not that Being as such is ultimately
'material'. Nor do I think, as Listers will know, that science can
adjudicate; either would seem to be heuristically acceptable from a
scientific point of view. Even if it could 'reach' ultimate reality and
determine whether it is 'material' or 'ideal', science could never -know
that it had 'arrived'. (Here the paper on Bohm is again instructive.
Both Bohm and Einstein were realists. Einstein was a Marxist and so
presumably a materialist realist. But, by a nice irony, in defending
Einstein's position, Bohm ended up in the camp of idealist realism or
objective idealism.) She who takes her stand with science will therefore
keep an open mind and be agnostic concerning the ultimate nature of

Creaven is by contrast a militant atheist. He seems to think that
science is somehow intrinsically materialist, and that its results
'prove' atheism, and 'disprove' theism:

'For it is the practical refutation of idealism during the history of
scientific advance and investigation (in the sense that God has been
shown to be superfluous to a rational and empirically testable knowledge
of all [sic] processes or laws) which has forced its allegiants to make
their appeal to a 'final instance' of undetermined creation beyond
current knowledge and therefore outside the reach of rational criticism.
Now, one should always be suspicious of 'final instances' which base
their authority not on firm scientific knowledge (albeit provisional and
incomplete) but on its uncertainty or even absence. The possibility that
physical scientists may never develop a satisfactory theory of the
'origins' of the universe should not be allowed to give comfort to those
idealists whose own belief in a spiritualist 'first cause' of nature is
entirely speculative and intuitive.' (p. 17)

This is sheer scientism and dogmatism. On Creaven's own admission
(scientific knowledge is incomplete...) a thoroughgoing materialism is
just as 'speculative and intuitive' as idealism; one could equally well
say that the limits of science should not be allowed to give comfort to
dogmatic materialists. To argue that God has been 'shown' to be
superfluous to scientific knowledge thus far is of no avail, because the
idealist can always respond that the processes revealed by science just
are God (that nature itself is at bottom God) and that in any case there
can be no guarantee that scientific knowledge will dispense with God
tomorrow (the problem of induction). It is to be doubted whether Creaven
has pondered the relation between science and philosophy at all deeply.
He seems to think that the correct philosophical position (including the
critical realist ontology (p. 29)) can simply be read off from science
and its results in a grand induction. All scientific paradigms secrete
philosophical ontologies, whether consciously or not - general
conceptual schemas or 'ontological grammars' which tell them what the
basic contours of Being are, what sort of entities to look for, etc.
Science can no more justify this ontology out of its own resources than
someone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. There is
arguably an internal logic to philosophy and to science, as well as a
dialectic between them, and dialectics between them and the non-
discursive world, which makes Creaven's approach look extremely
simplistic. It therefore remains entirely 'mysterious' (p. 32) to him
why most leading critical realists don't describe their ontology as

Concerning Engels' dialectical materialism: with Callinicos, Creaven
interprets Engels' dialectical 'laws' as 'a broad philosophical
conception of nature rather than a set of general laws' (p. 40). Such an
outlook is of course no more incompatible with philosophical idealism
than Hegel's dialectical outlook was.  One can hold, with Creaven (p.
13), that 'reality itself is dialectical' without holding that it is
ultimately 'material'.

Abandoning a dogmatic commitment to ontological materialism does not
entail that Marxists abandon materialism as such, nor should they. One
can be an epistemological materialist (asserting 'the existential
intransitivity and transfactual efficacy ... of the objects of
scientific thought'); a practical materialist (asserting 'the
constitutive role of human transformative agency in the production,
reproduction and transformation of social forms'); and a historical
materialist (engaged in 'a research programme nucleated by the core idea
of the causal primacy of men's and women's mode of production and
reproduction of their natural (physical) being' in the development of
their social being - one can consistently be all these and yet agnostic
about the ultimate nature of reality or, as in the case of religious
Marxists, be an objective idealist (a position which Creaven sees fit to
denounce, with Engels, as 'shamefaced materialism' (p. 17)). (The above
definitions are taken from Bhaskar, Plato Etc., p. 101).

Why are so many Marxists so confident that the ultimate nature of Being
is 'matter'? Why do they want to say that it is impossible to be
religious and a good Marxist? Not because this view possesses any real
scientific warrant, I suggest, but because, as Creaven correctly points
out (p. 20), objective idealism historically has tended to go hand in
hand with socio-historical idealism (espousing, as the later Bhaskar now
seems to do, the primacy of ideas in shaping history and society), which
is hegemonic in bourgeois philosophy and social sciences. Speculative
pronouncements about the ultimately 'material' nature of reality will
hardly do anything to alter this affinity, however; if anything, they
are likely to strengthen it. A far more productive way to counter
'idealism' is to deploy the rich research programme of historical
materialism to win the battle with idealism in terms of scientific

2). 'Critical realism must be more explicitly dialectical if it is to
realise its rich potential for apprehending socio-cultural dynamics.'

I could not agree more, and to this end have been trying to encourage
critical realists, especially Marxist critical realists, to read
Bhaskar's mighty Dialectic: the Pulse of Freedom (1993) (DPF). Imagine
my astonishment then to discover that Creaven fails to discuss DPF; it
is not even mentioned, so that one gets the feeling that it does not -
nor ever did - exist, like Trotsky in Stalinist Russia. In this, his
magnum opus, Bhaskar essays precisely the dialectical radicalisation of
critical realism, the upshot of which is 'dialectical critical realism'.
Along comes Creaven seven years later with the message that critical
realism needs dialectically radicalising! To give him his due, he has
made a reasonable fist of this without the benefit of DPF. Nobody who is
familiar with DPF could doubt, however, that Bhaskar's dialecticisation,
though not without its problems, is far richer and more comprehensive,
and that both critical realism and Marxism are the poorer for Creaven's
failure to engage with it. Let us hope he makes good this omission in
the future.

3). 'Emergentist materialism (Marxism) renders [more] defensible and
plausible the central arguments of Marxism in anthropology and

I fully agree. Creaven views emergentist Marxism, correctly I think, as
a particular form of (dialectical) critical realist social theory, and
as enriching both Marxism and critical realism. His is a book whose time
had come, demonstrating why Marxists need critical realism (for the
formal philosophical specification of its ontology - and, I would add,
its dialectics) and vice versa. While by no means all critical realists
are Marxists, Marxists can be confident that, if their research program
in the Lakatosian sense is indeed progressive and the best available,
emergentist Marxism will more than hold its own with the other strands
within critical realism.

Mervyn Hartwig
Editor, Journal of Critical Realism (incorporating 'Alethia'),
International Association for Critical Realism
13 Spenser Road
Herne Hill
London SE24 ONS
United Kingdom
Tel: 020 7 737 2892
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