Marx and Engels as anti-historicists

Jurriaan Bendien J.Bendien at wolmail.nl
Fri Dec 13 07:51:26 MST 2002


Historicism is the doctrine that human history in general has a "plot", a
"purpose" or a "significant structure" or an "objective meaning" of its own,
that there is such a thing as "historical destiny" and that there are "laws
of history" in general. Examples would be Hegel's interpretation that
history represents the unfolding and self-realisation of the world spirit,
or Stalin's idea that history moves through a succession of inevitable
stages towards the realisation of communism (a view often falsely imputed to
Marx).

I mention the quote to show that Marx and Engels rejected that idea already
in 1844; as they say, "history does nothing", it is not an active subject in
its own right, it is "real, living people" who are the actors, who make
things happen.

To be sure, Marx does claim to have revealed the "law of motion" of
capitalism, in the sense of discovering its necessary developmental
tendencies, within the European context. But this is not a claim about
history in general, it is a claim about the developmental trajectory of a
specific mode of production. It is merely implying that history is
determinate, i.e. not just anything can happen at any given time, the
options or possibilities for human action are limited, some are more likely
than others, and some options are ruled out, by what happened before. If
that was not the case, no scientific investigation or rational understanding
of history would be possible. But that is a very different view from
historicism, principally because it recognises that history is open-ended
and does not evolve inexorably towards some goal, or according to some
higher purpose or destiny.

Admittedly, in his pamphlet Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of Classical German
Philosophy, Engels claims that "the course of history is governed by inner
general laws" which can be discovered through systematic scientific
investigation. But it is unclear what he means by "laws" here, and whether
he is saying anything more than that history is determinate in the above
sense.

J.


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