Driving Society Forward.
HISTORICAL MATERIALISM AND FUNCTIONAL EXPLANATION
Does historical materialism need to appeal to functional explanation? If not, how can historical materialism otherwise be made consistent? If so, is this a strength or a weakness?
An essay written as an undergraduate in the Department of Philosophy, King’s College London
London, June 2010
Historical materialism is supposed to be a Marxist scientific theory of history supported by empirical evidence (Acton, 1955, p. 112). The general idea behind historical materialism is that, it is material processes rather than ideas which drive the course of history. As Marx says himself in the 1859 Preface: “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life”. . The social, political and intellectual life is said to be determined by what Marx calls “…the material productive forces” , and I shall later on explain what these forces are supposed to be. Acton argues that historical materialism is both inconsistent and incoherent, and I shall be arguing alongside G. A. Cohen (1988) that historical materialism needs to appeal to functional explanation in order to be a consistent theory. The fact that it needs to appeal to functional explanation is a strength, as through trying to work out what Marx thought is the function of the relations of production, we can work out the central claim that historical materialism is making.
We first of all need to look at some terms used by Marx. Marx says that we enter into relations that are: “…relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production” . Productive forces include the tools used to produce products; the materials used in production; and the overall experience and knowledge of how to produce products (labour-power). However, relations of production are the actual relations between humans as the productive forces are operated on (Acton, 1955, p. 135). These relations are relationships of economic power over the productive forces (Cohen, 1988, p. 5). For example, under capitalism, everybody owns their labour power; capitalists own both tools and materials; and capitalists purchase the labour power of workers. Marx says: “The totality of these relations of productions constitutes the economic structure of society” . For Marx, legal and political institutions form part of the “superstructure” (Cohen, 1988, p. 7). Finally, the “ideology” of a society is made up of all the beliefs about topics such as philosophy, religion, morality and aesthetics (Wolff, 2008, p. 9). The claim Marx makes is that changes in the productive forces leads to changes in the superstructure. The superstructure being changed also leads to changes in ideology (Marx, 1859, pp. 425-426).
Acton poses a problem for the historical materialism theory. Acton says: “The theory is that the productive forces are the prime causal agency” . However, Acton (1972, p. 159) gives quotes of Marx where Marx says that, under capitalism, the bourgeois are constantly changing and revolutionizing the productive forces in order to increase profit. Owners of companies compete with one another by encouraging their own employees to come up with better products and/or better tools. Acton is saying that the relations of production cause the productive forces to develop and change. As he illustrates: “This, surely, is an influence of markets relationships, via men’s conception of them, on the productive forces” . Marx himself admits that this all happens. But if this is so, then it was nonsense for Marx to claim that the productive forces are the prime causal agency, says Acton. Acton thinks that historical materialism is both inconsistent and incoherent.
Cohen brings in functional explanation to render historical materialism consistent. Cohen says that a functional explanation for e is that: “…e occurred because the situation was such that an event like e would cause an event like f” . Cohen says that the current economic structure (relations of production) we have now, occurred because it causes the productive forces to develop—this is the function of the economic structure. However, the development of the productive forces only explains why we have the economic structure that we do have (Cohen, 1988, p. 8). The productive forces explain rather than cause. Similarly, the superstructure also has a function and is explained by the economic structure. Cohen states: “The content of the legal system is explained by its function, which is to help sustain an economy of a particular kind” . Although Cohen does not say much about the ideology, its nature is also explained by the economic structure. For Cohen, it is the function of the “superstructure” to sustain the “relations of production”, which themselves have a function to promote the development of the “productive forces”. Cohen states: “Forces select structures according to their capacity to promote development” . So, the productive forces are still primary, and they determine the overall structure of society. This all fits in well with what Marx says in the Preface.
Although Cohen has made historical materialism consistent, it may be queried whether functional explanation makes sense. Cohen’s thesis suggests that relations of productions have a purpose to promote the development of the productive forces. At first, it seems as though Cohen is saying that rational agents choose relations of productions. However, Torrance (1985, p. 386) rightly points out that Marx rejects the claim that relations of production have ever been rationally chosen. As Torrance states: “His theory of commodity fetishism stated that production relations were mysterious to their agents, who tend to think them immutable” . In Capital, Marx tells us that only under communism will humans be able to rationally choose relations of production.
Yet, Cohen explains that, like evolutionary biologists, he uses functionalist explanations without speaking of rational agents choosing anything. Cohen says that evolutionary biologists make claims such as: “’Birds have hollow bones because hollow bones facilitate flight’” . The hollow bones have a function to facilitate flight, and the effect that is flight facilitation, explains why birds have hollow bones. However, evolutionary biologists can give us a plausible story to support their functional explanations. As Cohen acknowledges: “…the answer lies in the mechanism of chance variation and natural selection” . But, Cohen has not given the mechanism for his functional explanations (Torrance, 1985, p. 383). However, Cohen (1989, p. 99) points out that, even before Darwin came along and gave us the story of chance variation and natural selection, biologists still had plenty of evidence to conclude that features of creatures do indeed have functions. Cohen’s point is that functional explanations can be perfectly justifiable without there being a correctly identified mechanism to support them.
Cohen says that: “The productive forces tend to develop throughout history” . He thinks that the forces develop by there being an increase in the quantity of what can possibly be produced. For Cohen, it is human rationality that explains why the productive forces tend to develop. Cohen (1988, p. 23) says that human beings are both creative and rational creatures that have a need to overcome scarcity, and that they use their rationality in order to find new ways of doing this. Yet, Cohen (1988, p. 26) himself acknowledges that the ruling class may actually have reasons to stop the forces from developing. At certain times, religion and morals etc. may also stop the productive forces from developing (Wolff, 2008, p. 12). However, although there may be periods in history where the productive forces either stop developing or become less developed, Cohen’s development thesis only says that the forces have a tendency to develop over time. It could be said that it is essential for the continuation of our species, that overall, humans usually want to overcome scarcity.
However, it could be said that for Marx, class struggle is what leads to political revolutions and change, and that the development of what Cohen calls “the productive forces”, is not that important. Miller for example, gives a quote from Marx which says: “The history of all hither-to existing societies is the history of class struggle” . On page 108 (1981), Miller explains how Marx tells us that: an economic structure gets destroyed by a once subordinate class who gain the power and means to overthrow the old economic structure by breaking up the old superstructure that was once preserving it. Yet, Cohen says that for Marx, all of this can only happen when the productive forces are being fettered. Marx himself says that a subordinate class can only succeed in destroying an economic structure if the material conditions are right. Cohen gives the following quote by Marx to support what he is saying:
“If the proletariat overthrows the political rule of the bourgeoisie, its victory will only be temporary … as long as the material conditions have not yet been created which make necessary the abolition of the bourgeois mode of production” .
Marx (1859, pp. 425-426) in the Preface, speaks about the productive forces being fettered by the relations of production, and that such fettering is the beginning of a social revolution. Cohen says that absolute fettering happens when the relations of production “…prevent all further improvement in productivity” . A literal reading of the Preface suggests that Marx did have this absolute fettering in mind.
Yet, Miller (1981, p. 97) points out that, although Marx predicted communism would eventually replace capitalism, he also said that capitalist competition will always make it so that the forces can always be developed further under capitalism. So, Marx could not have thought that revolution only takes place when there is absolute fettering of the forces. Cohen (1988, p. 111) realises the problem and suggests that Marx instead had a relative conception of fettering. The relative conception says that, fettering occurs when the relations of production fetter the forces relative to some alternative and feasible relations of production (Cohen, 1988, p. 109). Yet, Cohen (1988, p. 111) acknowledges that it is unlikely the workers will form a revolution just because it is possible to bring about relations of production that better promote the development of the forces. After all, revolution is an extremely risky business, and the overall costs could be severe.
Cohen (1988, p. 114) suggests we assess “relative use fettering”. The forces developing would mean that their power is growing in the sense that there is an increase in the quantity of what can possibly be produced. But the forces could be said to be fettering if it is possible to bring about some alternative and feasible relations of production that would make better use of the forces. There is a lot of waste under capitalism, and communism may come about from workers realising that a communist economic structure would make better use of the forces, explains Cohen. However, this relative use fettering conception is not in unity with everything else that Cohen has said about historical materialism. Cohen points out that according to what he has said: “…forms of society rise and fall according as they enable and promote, or prevent and discourage, that growth [of the forces]” . Yet, now he is saying that it is not the growth of the forces which brings about social change, but how the forces are being used.
Cohen uses the conception of “relative net fettering” with the intention of bringing a unity to all that he has said. This conception combines “relative use fettering” with “relative growth fettering”. The idea is that, an economic structure fetters the productive forces if it fails to harness the productive power as well as a different but feasible structure would do (Cohen 1988, p. 117). What matters is whether the growth of used productive power is being relatively fettered. As Cohen says: “Instead of saying history is the growth of productive power, we say that it is the growth of used productive power” . Rather than saying that the forces have a tendency to develop over time, we thus need to say that there is a tendency for the use of the productive forces to be developed.
Historical materialism makes the claim that material processes are the driving force of history. One can interpret Marx as him is saying that, the material productive forces being changed leads to changes in the relations of productive, which in turn leads to changes in both the superstructure and the ideology. Acton thought Marx is saying that the forces are the “prime causal agency”. Acton says that historical materialism is inconsistent, as Marx admitted that the relations of production cause the forces to develop and change. Yet, Cohen used functional explanation to render historical materialism consistent. Cohen initially said that relations of production occurred because they would cause the productive forces to develop. He said that relations of production have a function to cause the forces to develop, and that the development of the forces explains why relations of production occurred.
Yet, through thinking about Marx’s position, Cohen came to realise that according to Marx, although the relations of production cause the productive forces to develop, their actual function is to cause the use of the productive forces to grow as much as is possible. The use of the forces explains why we have the relations of production that we do have. Through recognizing that historical materialism needs to appeal to functional explanation, we learnt what the theory essentially says. Historical materialism needs to appeal to functional explanation, as that is the only way for it to be a genuine scientific theory that makes a coherent and consistent claim which can be empirically tested.
The fact that historical materialism needs to appeal to functional explanation is a strength, as from realising that the theory needs to do this, we discovered the central claim that the theory is making. The theory claims that there is a tendency for the use of the productive forces to be developed, and that relations of production occurred because in doing so, they would cause the use of the forces to grow more so than any other possible relations of production at that time. The use of the forces is supposed to explain why we have the social, political and intellectual life that we do have. Now that we know exactly what historical materialism is saying, we can look at how well historical evidence supports the theory.
 Marx, K. (1859) “Preface”, published in Benton, G. and R. Livingstone (1992) Karl Marx: Early Writings, p. 425.
 Marx, K. (1859) ibid, p. 425.
 Marx, K. (1859), ibid, p. 425.
 Marx, K. (1859) ibid, p. 425.
 Acton, H. (1972) The Illusion of the Epoch, p. 166.
 Acton, H. (1972) ibid, p. 166.
 Cohen, G. (1988) History, Labour, and Freedom, p. 8.
 Cohen, G. (1988) ibid, p. 9.
 Cohen, G. (1978) Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, p. 135.
 Torrance, J. (1985) “Reproduction and Development”, published in Political Studies, (1985), XXXIII, pp. 386.
 Cohen, G. (1988), ibid, p. 8.
 Cohen, G, “Reply to Elster on ‘Marxism, Functionalism, and Game Theory”, published in Marxist Theory, (1989), edited by A. Callinicos, p. 99.
 Cohen, G. (1988) ibid, pg. 20.
 Marx, K. quoted in Miller, R. “Productive Forces and the Forces of Change”, published in The Philosophical Review, (1981), Vol. 90, No. 1, p. 110.
 Marx, K. and Engels, F. (1846) “The German Ideology”, published in Cohen, G. (1988) ibid, p. 15.
 Cohen, G. (1988), ibid, p. 109.
 Cohen, G. (1988), ibid, p. 118.
 Cohen, G. (1988), ibid, p. 118.
Acton, H. The Illusion of the Epoch: Marxism-Leninism as a Philosophical Creed, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd (1972).
Cohen, G. Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence, Princeton, N. J: Princeton University Press (1978).
Cohen, G. History, Labour, and Freedom: Themes from Marx, Oxford: Clarendon Press, (1988).
Cohen, G. (1989) “Reply to Elster on ‘Marxism, Functionalism, and Game Theory”, published in Marxist Theory, edited by A. Callinicos, Oxford University Press (1989).
Marx, K. and Engels, F. “The German Ideology”, (1846), published in The Collected Works of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, London: Lawrence and Wishart (1975).
Marx, K. (1859) “Preface (to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy)”, published in Karl Marx: Early Writings, introduced by Colletti, L. and translated by Benton, G. and R. Livingstone, London: Penguin Classics (1992).
Marx, K. Capital, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1999/1867).
Miller, W. “Productive Forces and the Forces of Change: A Review of Gerald A. Cohen, Karl Marx’s Theory of History: A Defence”, published in The Philosophical Review, Vol. 90, No. 1, (Jan., 1981), pp. 91-117.
Torrance, J. “Reproduction and Development: a case for a ‘Darwinian’ Mechanism in Marx’s Theory of History”, published in Political Studies (1985) XXXIII, pp. 382-398.
Wolff, J. Karl Marx (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), Website: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/marx/, (2008).
This paper was originally a Pre-Submission for the 2009/10 BA ‘Marxist Philosophy’ Paper, King’s College London, for the BA in Philosophy
Copyright © Alexander Rikowski, December 2010
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