Historical Materialism Versus Historical Conceptualism

With all its emphasis on materiality, physicality and corporeality, as the prime origin of all conceptualities, historical materialism is, first and foremost, a concept, that is, a philosophy. No matter how much it claims otherwise and continuously stresses the importance and objectivity of materiality as:

A priori and prima causa for all ideas, perceptions and consciousness, historical materialism always resorts to language, philosophy and concepts in order to elucidate its principles, its conclusions, and in addition, in order to validate its fundamental premises etc. In actuality, historical materialism is a theory of history that relies principally on a material conception of history, namely that it is the material conditions of a society that shape historical development, whether these developments are political, legal, religious, technological and/or philosophical etc. As Marx states, “intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed”.1

It is the manner by which a society produces and reproduces human existence that fundamentally determines its organization and its historical development; i.e., its history and its ruling ideas. Subsequently, for historical materialism, it is the unity of the productive material forces and the social relations of production that are organized around these productive material forces that shape, initiate and guide historical developments and ideational developments.

Historical materialism puts forward the notion that the primary causes of all historical developments, ideas and all social changes within civil society are the products of the means by which humans, within this particular society, collectively produce and reproduce the necessities of life. According to Marx, the initial author of historical materialism, “all collisions in history have their origins… in the contradiction between the productive forces and the form of intercourse [i.e. the social relations of production]”.2 It is from the fundamental conflict of the productive forces and the social relations of production that all social changes emanate, initiate and develop from. In fact, Marx goes so far as to state that it is from the union of productive forces and relations of production and/or the disunion between the productive forces and relations of production that all societal, all ideational and all historical developments and/or breakdowns germinate. As Marx states, describing historical development itself:

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production …Then begins an era of social revolution…[whereupon] the changes in the changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.3

For Marx, everything is predicated upon material production, all ideas, all philosophies, all religions, consciousness etc., whatever, are all manifestations derived from the manner in which humans enter into specific social relations with each other so as to exploit the forces of production, that is, their productive capacity for producing the necessities of life. For Marx, the superstructure; i.e., the state etc., is exclusively the product of the economic base of society and nothing else, while, on the other hand, consciousness itself “must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production”.4 As a result, for Marx:

Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness…have no history, no development [except in that it is] men, developing their material production and their material intercourse [i.e. relations of production, that] alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. [Material] life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by [material] life.5

Consciousness, within the historical materialism framework, is the product of material labor, that is, labor engaged in the production and reproduction of the necessities of life, confined to specific social relations, based on this production, which as well produce consciousness. There are no pre-conceived ideas prior to material and/or social labor. It is through developing their material existence, that humans acquire consciousness. Consciousness is a by-product of the shifting contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production etc.

However, in order to arrive at historical materialism, Marx must project his consciousness, that is, his conscious conceptual idea/philosophy of historical materialism, back onto material life as the initial cause for this conscious conceptual idea/philosophy, even though it is beyond a doubt that it is Marx’s own rational thinking apparatus that has manufactured this conceptual idea/philosophy called historical materialism. This incongruity in historical materialism points to an important paradox in historical materialist thinking in the sense that how can one labor without having an initial pre-conceived idea of labor itself, or what constitutes productive material labor, or for that matter what constitutes materiality, namely without the initial thought/consciousness of labor, of materiality, of needs, of nature etc. there can be no material labor whatsoever. One must have a plan and a structure of concepts prior to the execution of any effective material labor. In fact, contradicting his own earlier historical materialist thinking, Marx readily admits in Das Capital (Volume One) that:

What distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees [in constructing things] is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labor-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.6

Consequently, contradicting his own earlier writings on historical materialism, thinking and consciousness is prior to the labor-process and not necessarily a product of the labor-process, or more importantly, a set of conflicting contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production. In this instance, humans clearly have consciousness prior to material production and, in fact, consciousness, ideas, concepts, planning etc. inform material production as much as material production informs consciousness, ideas, concepts, planning etc., it is not a one-sided process as historical materialism would have us believe, but a dialectical process that is brought forth via the rational thinking apparatus.

In fact, to push this glaring contradiction in Marx’s writings to its limit, “there is no such thing as materialism in the sense that materialism is first and foremost a type of conceptualism; i.e., a type of conceptualism that has an added degree and [conceptual] element of physicality”.7 Meaning that, humans must have a whole set of concepts and linguistic structures systematically organized in their minds, before any productive material labor can transpire, before any determinations on what constitutes labor, productive labor and/or unproductive labor, can transpire. As a result, it is clear that consciousness precedes material and physical productivity, and more importantly, all perceived divisions and contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production.

Despite Marx’s overwhelming emphasis on materiality, specifically material production as the end all and be all of historical development and consciousness itself, Marx invariably relies on conceptualism to make his point. He resorts to an abundance of concepts, ideas and pre-conceived suppositions in order to outline the historical materialist manner of thinking. And he does this, only to absolve himself of its responsibility and its inherent subjectivity by arguing that this intricate abstract philosophy, called historical materialism, is purely derived from a set of unthinking chaotic productive forces in conflict with an arbitrary set of productive social relations, which only he is privy to have discovered. It is evident that Marx does this so as to give historical materialism a sense of scientific objectivity by nullifying and denying historical materialism’s roots in subjective philosophical speculation.

For all his bravado, that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; [and that] the point…is to change it”,8 Marx readily puts forward a philosophical interpretation of his own via historical materialism that can only be fundamentally conceptual, a conceptual idea, devoid of material objective validity. Due to the fact that the tenets of historical materialism are clearly derived from the rational thinking apparatus of Marx rather than any generalized conflict between the forces of production and the relations of production. Whether it is as product of the material contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production, or a product of material production itself, the historical materialist idea presupposes many philosophical assumptions, which ultimately rely first and foremost on the verity and existence of materiality itself, a materiality which is ultimately unsullied, completely detached from language and human beings, and yet is objective, external and scientifically knowable, devoid of all doubts. Indeed, for Marx:

Language is practical consciousness that exists also for other men, and for that reason alone it really exists for me personally as well; language like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity of  intercourse [or social relationships] with other men. Consciousness [like language] is from the very beginning a social product.9

The presumption made by Marx is that humans are more or less lumps of clay that are incapable of thought prior social productivity and whose thoughts, if these lumps of clay should have any, are merely the product of their social relations in conflict with the forces of production.  From the Marxian perspective, language develops from the practical necessity for overcoming the conflict between the forces of production and the relations of production and so does consciousness. In essence, for Marx,  humans are social products, they are completely determined by and at the mercy of their social environments, their thinking is completely confined to their social relations of production in conflict with the forces of production and nothing more. Historical materialism, presupposes that material labor precedes consciousness/language, when, in fact, humans cannot labor, materially and/or conceptually, without a certain level of consciousness and conceptual awareness; i.e., a certain set of preconceived, predetermined ideas and capacities, such as the capacity of linguistic expression, prior to any material productivity. Fundamentally, humans must have the consciousness of thinking and being alive, prior to materially laboring to support and magnify consciousness and their rational thinking apparatuses.

Despite claiming that all ideas stem from the material contradiction between productive forces and relations of production, Marx’s idea, which denies its origin by placing its origin outside the mind so as to project the illusion of scientific objectivity, is nonetheless ideational and conceptual, first and foremost a product of the mind, regardless of outside influence. Historical materialism is an interesting concept, but a concept nonetheless, produced and grasped by the mind, which must possess a whole host of conceptual and linguistic suppositions in order to understand this materialist theory. However, by over-extending himself, Marx seeks to validate the mental conception of historical materialism by projecting it onto outside socio-economic phenomena, phenomena which is conceptualized, comprehended and perceived initially by the rational thinking apparatus.

Consequently, Marx fails to realize that materialism and/or materiality itself is inescapably a concept, produced by the rational thinking apparatus, which can never grasp materiality itself as an objective finalized fact, but can only conceives the existence of materiality as a type of concept that has a certain physicality. At best, materiality, including historical materialism itself, is a type of concept/theory that has the added characteristic of solidity, despite being completely conceptual, meaning “everything is abstract, conceptual to the end; reality, materiality, is but variations in degrees of conceptual-abstraction, meaning that materialism is a form of conceptualism, grasped in the mind as a concept that has corporeality”.10

What this means is that historical materialism, despite favoring and placing emphasis on the concept of materiality and the conflict between productive forces and relations of production as the catalysts for the creation of consciousness, the intellectual productions of consciousness and history itself, historical materialism is nonetheless fundamentally a concept/theory based on concepts and a whole series of conceptualism, which includes its reliance on the imagined conflict between the forces of  production and the relations of production, a perceptual conflict structured as well via concepts in the mind. As Ludwig Wittgenstein states in the Tractatus, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”11 in the sense that we cannot step outside of language and consciousness, “language disguises thought, so much so, that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of thought beneath it”.12

Thus all materialist conceptions, no matter how much they are deemed to be based on physicality, objectivity, hard science etc., are nothing but systematic conceptual structures, ideational comprehensive frameworks, through and through, right down to their fundamental armature. Materialism, historical materialism etc., is a conceptual apparatus; i.e., an ideational comprehensive framework, with a set of in-built assumptions, concepts and ideas that “manifests an artificial ideational reality, a framework of ready-made automatic ideas, [perceptions], opinions and answers”13 to all socio-economic phenomena. Despite professing materiality, material production and the conflict between the forces of production and the relations of production as the driving force of history, historical materialism cannot escape its own conceptual apparatus; i.e., the fact that it is in the end always an ideational comprehensive framework, a framework that can only manifest a universal sense of scientific validity when all its underlying assumptions/suppositions are presupposed on faith alone, without rigorous critical analysis.

In the end, the critique and collapse of historical materialism leaves many open questions as to what is history or the logical process of history, if it is not materialistic? The answer to these questions is self-evident in the sense that history, the process of history, is more or less the logical progression of conceptualism. History and logical process of history is mental and physical activity combined and in conflict, materialism and immaterialism combined and in conflict, thinking and doing combined and in conflict, all informing one another, underpinned only with the fundamental realization that materiality, like immateriality, is first and foremost a concept, a concept with the added conceptual characteristic of physicality. Notably, “materiality is a conceptual idea that humans increasingly define and refine with exactitude the more humans experience the pluralities of sensations that comprise this conceptual idea that has a material quality”.14

Ultimately, it is clear that the concept of materiality precedes materiality itself, materiality with the added characteristic of physicality. For example, someone afflicted with a mental disease such as Alzheimer’s, slowly loses consciousness over time, the rational thinking apparatus loses its conceptual linguistic structures, and simultaneously begins to lose all grasps on reality, that is materiality. The disintegration of the conceptual linguistic structures results in the disintegration of materiality itself, not the other way around. As a result, the fundamental importance and hard fact that consciousness and conceptualism precedes materialism. Without any conceptual apparatus; i.e., a complex structure of concepts, prior to materiality, all radical fluctuations and conflicts between the forces of production and the relations of production, that Marx presupposes, will not ignite any new ideas, new thoughts and/or a new consciousness in a rational thinking apparatus afflicted with advance Alzheimer.

Therefore, materiality; i.e., material reality, is the product of consciousness; i.e., the rational thinking apparatus, prior to any and all material productivity. If the opposite was the case, then any rational thinking apparatus afflicted with Alzheimer would still retain a physical sense and the idea of an outside material reality, including the importance of material production, due to the fact that the very concept of materiality and material production would not reside inside the mind but outside the mind in the contradictory material structure between the forces of production and the relations of production. The rational thinking apparatus afflicted with Alzheimer would retain such a sense and such ideas because, according to historical materialist thinking, this sense and these ideas like materiality, including the importance of material production, would not be contained in the mind and/or be the product of the rational thinking apparatus, but, in fact, would be contained in an outside material reality. An outside material reality would be always exerting its dictatorial influence on the sick mind, pressing the concept of materiality upon it and into it, holding the concept of materiality in place, regardless whether the mind was sick or not.

The fact that humans can gradually lose consciousness, lose their linguistic capacities, lose their iron grip on reality is testament to the verity that ideas, concepts, consciousness is not solely based on material production, material labor and the material conflict between the forces of production and the relations of production as Marx stipulates. If the tenets of historical materialism were true, as long as material labor persisted and the contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production remained and continued their conflict, then, any rational thinking apparatus afflicted degenerative mental diseases would still have ideas and an inkling of materiality, no matter how sick or conceptually fragmented the rational thinking apparatus became.

Subsequently, contrary to Marx, historical conceptualism, and not historical materialism, is the manner by which history evolves, involves and revolves, that is, moves onward. As historical conceptualism acknowledges the productive reciprocal relationship between material physical labor and immaterial mental labor as essential processes by which change, history and consciousness move and develop onwards. It is as Marx suggests, that, for historical conceptualism, “revolution is [as well] the driving force of history…of religion, of philosophy and all other types of theory”,15 but revolution, contrary to Marx, can be both corporeal and incorporeal, mental and physical, material and immaterial, meant to establish a new set of governing concepts and ideas over another set, which ultimately organize productive forces and relations of production, both mental and physical, into new social formations and new ways of thinking.

In this regard, historical conceptualism encompasses both the tension between all material relations and all conceptual relations combined and in conflict, in addition to the tension between all material forces and all conceptual forces, all of which, interacting with each other, move history/consciousness onward, whether positively and/or negatively. This historical movement may not necessarily be progressive; it can be regressive, but this all depends on the ideational comprehensive framework which initiates, develops and analyses the specific historical movement. As Thomas Kuhn states in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, “nothing makes it a process of evolution toward anything”.16 For historical conceptualism, “history is the artificial narrative of [the] will to power, a convergence of mental and physical forces pitted against one another in a multiplicity of fluctuating antagonistic and/or mutual-aid relationships vying for supremacy. History is the aftermath [of] this fiery molten crucible”.17 As Kuhn suggests, it is “a process that [moves] steadily from primitive beginnings but toward no goal”.18 Hence, for historical conceptualism, history, consciousness etc., is not guided, like Marx argues, by material conditions, per se, although material conditions can be a factor.  Instead, for historical conceptualism, history is guided by a multiplicity of material and immaterial factors combined and divided that are both predictable and unpredictable, foreseeable and unforeseeable, which finally achieve a crescendo, whereupon everything is torn asunder in order to make way for new formations out of the old. Historical conceptualism agrees with Marx that a ruling mental and physical formation, like capitalism, “produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers”19 in the sense that the same formation prepares the ground for its own disintegration, itself. As Marx states, in reference to capitalism, “this is the abolition of the capitalist mode of production within the capitalist mode of production itself, a self-abolishing contradiction, which presents itself prima facie as a mere point of transition to a new form of production”.20

Nevertheless, history and consciousness is not like Marx theorized, a matter of a shifts and conflicts within the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. For historical conceptualism, history and consciousness is the product of the tensions between material relations, conceptual relations, forces of production, forces of consumption, forces of distribution etc., including the tensions between relations of production, relations of consumption and relations of distribution and other unnamed material and immaterial factors as well etc. The point is that material conditions are informed by conceptual conditions and vice versa, universality is informed by particularities and vice versa. And ultimately there is not a singular factor or cause that stimulates radical social change; i.e., revolution, whether mental or physical. Instead, it is a multiplicity of factors, material and/or immaterial, colliding and/or synergizing, held in tension and/or in disintegration, which finally result in radical change, a revolution. A revolution, whether mental and/or physical, is usually an amalgamation of predictable and unpredictable factors, atop of serious antagonistic socio-economic conflict of various types and kinds, spread-out across the stratums of everyday life, the social superstructure, the economic base and in consciousness itself.

All the same, historical conceptualism is a theory of sudden movement, where fluctuating antagonistic and mutual-aid relationships, both mental and/or physical, positive and/or negative, suddenly move history and consciousness onwards, up and down, side to side, in and out, both as an expression of total nothingness and as an expression of a new concept/theory, filled with a new set of material and immaterial facts and fictions. To paraphrase Kuhn, historical conceptualism is the logical yet anarchic process by which a logical paradigm becomes a universal all-encompassing paradigm while another is forced into dead obsolescence because:

Competing paradigms…[manifest]… different worlds. [Each is] looking at the world, and what they look at has not changed. But …they see different things, and they see them in different relations one to the other. Before they can hope to communicate fully, one…or the other…must experience a paradigm shift. It is a transition between incommensurables [and] the transition between competing paradigms cannot be made a step at a time, forced by logic. Like the gestalt switch, it must occur all at once (though not necessarily in an instant) or not at all…The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is conversion experience that cannot be forced. Conversion will occur a few at a time until, after the last holdouts have died, the whole [society]…will again be…under a single, but now a different, [mental and/or physical] paradigm. [Such is the process of historical conceptualism].21

Bibliography:22

  1. Karl Marx, “Manifesto of The Communist Party,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 196. []
  2. Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 196. []
  3. Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 196. []
  4. Ibid, 21. []
  5. Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 154-155. []
  6. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, (New York, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998) 31. []
  7. Michel Luc Bellemare, The Structural-Anarchism Manifesto: (The Logic of Structural-Anarchism Versus The Logic of Capitalism), (Montréal: Blacksatin Publications Inc., 2016) 61.c). []
  8. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 196. []
  9. Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 158. []
  10. Michel Luc Bellemare, The Structural-Anarchism Manifesto: (The Logic of Structural-Anarchism Versus The Logic of Capitalism), (Montréal: Blacksatin Publications Inc., 2016) 61.d). []
  11. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (New York: Routledge, 1974) 68. []
  12. Ibid, 22. []
  13. Michel Luc Bellemare, The Structural-Anarchism Manifesto: (The Logic of Structural-Anarchism Versus The Logic of Capitalism), (Montréal: Blacksatin Publications Inc., 2016) 15.a). []
  14. Capitalism), (Montréal: Blacksatin Publications Inc., 2016) 15.a).). []
  15. Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 164. []
  16. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) 170-171. []
  17. Michel Luc Bellemare, The Structural-Anarchism Manifesto: (The Logic of Structural-Anarchism Versus The Logic of Capitalism), (Montréal: Blacksatin Publications Inc., 2016) 70.d). []
  18. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) 172. []
  19. Karl Marx, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 483. []
  20. Karl Marx, Capital (Volume Three), Trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin Books, 1991) 569. []
  21. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) 150-152. []
  22. Bellemare, Michel Luc. The Structural-Anarchism Manifesto: (The Logic of Structural-Anarchism Versus The Logic of Capitalism). Montréal, Canada: Blacksatin Publications Inc., 2016.

    Braverman, Harry. Labor and Monopoly Capital. New York, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998.

    Kuhn Thomas. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

    Marx, Karl. Capital Volume Three. Trans. Ben Fowkes. London Eng.: Penguin, 1990.

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    Marx, Karl. “The German Ideology”. The Marx-Engels Reader. ed. Robert C. Tucker. New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1978.

    Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. []

Michel Luc Bellemare is the author of The Structural-Anarchism Manifesto: (The Logic of Structural-Anarchism Versus The Logic of Capitalism) Read other articles by Michel Luc.