The Limits and Deficiencies of Dialectical and Historical Materialism

(An Abstract of the Principles of Anarcho-Historical-Relativism)

With all its emphasis on materiality, physicality and corporeality as the prime origin of all conceptualities, dialectical-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, dialectical-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 premise. Namely, to quote Marx, that “the mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life [of society]. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”.1

In actuality, dialectical-historical-materialism is a theory of history that relies principally on a material and a dialectical conception of history, namely, that it is the material conditions of a society; i.e., the principal mode of production for this society, that shapes historical development and social relations, whether these developments and social relations are political, legal, religious, technological and/or philosophical etc. As Marx states, “intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed”.2 It is the manner by which a society produces and reproduces human existence that fundamentally determines its organization, its thoughts, its ideals and its historical development; i.e., its history and its ruling ideas. Subsequently, for dialectical-historical-materialism, it is the unity of the productive material forces and the social relations of production organized around these productive material forces that shape, initiate and guide social developments and ideational developments. As Joseph Stalin states in Dialectical and Historical Materialism, paraphrasing Marx and Engels:

The chief force in the…conditions of material life of society, which determines the physiognomy of society, the character of the social system, the development of society from one system to another…is the method of procuring the means of life necessary for human existence, the mode of production,…which [is] indispensable.3

According to the theory of dialectical-historical-materialism, everything begins and ends with modes of production as modes of production, specifically, the singular ruling mode of production of a society, determines all thinking, consciousness, social institutions and social relations across a society, namely, “whatever is the mode of production of a society, such…is society itself, its ideas and theories, its political views and institutions”.4  A mode of production is a synthesis of two elements, productive forces and relations of production. Productive forces are such things as raw material, man-power, machines, buildings and/or tools. While relations of production comprise the specific organizational structure of a society as a whole, whereupon, people belonging to this specific society relate to each other in certain specific manners, both hierarchically, economically and personally, based on the way this society organizes its productive and reproductive capacities. For instance, Marx states:

In production men not only act on nature but also on one another. They produce only by co-operating in a certain way and mutually exchanging their activities. In order to produce, they enter into definite connections and relations with one another and only within these social connections and relations…does production, take place.5

Relations of production are the by-product of the way a society chooses to produce its material existence. And each epoch is governed by a specific mode of production upon which a whole political-state-apparatus is erected and based upon. Marx identified roughly six epochs, each with their own singular ruling mode of production, the primitive-mode, the communal-mode, the slave-mode, the feudal-mode, the capitalist-mode and the socialism-mode of production. Moreover, every time a society altered its primary mode of production, a new set of productive social relations blossomed, which invariably also altered all social, political and economic institutions, which are based on the specific mode of production governing a society. As Marx states, “the ruling ideas [embodied in institutions] are nothing more than…the expression of the dominant material relationships”.6

Dialectical-historical-materialism puts forward the notion that the primary cause of all historical developments, all 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 a ruling mode of production. According to Marx, the initial author of dialectical-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]”.7 It is from the fundamental conflict between the productive forces and the social relations of production by which all social changes emanate, initiate and develop. As Stalin states in Dialectical and Historical Materialism:

The first feature of production is that it… is always in a state of change and development and that…changes in the mode of production inevitably call forth changes in the whole social system, social ideas, political views and political institutions, [namely], they call forth a reconstruction of the whole social and political order.8

In this regard, a mode of production is something continually changing and manifesting continual friction between the forces of production and relations of production, prompting continuous social adjustments by social institutions and society in general. 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 by which all societal, all ideational and all historical developments and/or breakdowns germinate. As Marx states, describing social change and historical development:

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… social [consciousness, not the other way around]. 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 economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.9

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 through a mode of production. For Marx, the superstructure; i.e., the state etc., is exclusively the product of the economic base of society, namely, the ruling mode of production and nothing else. Moreover, for Marx, 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”.10 Paraphrasing Marx and Engels, Stalin, following suit, readily states that all “ideas, theories, views etc. are [solely] the reflection [of material conditions]”,11 meaning that consciousness is merely a reflection of the material conditions found across society. 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.12

Consciousness, within the dialectical/historical materialist framework, is the product of material labor immersed in a specific ruling mode of production. That is, labor engaged in the production and reproduction of the social necessities of life, confined to specific social relations determined by the ruling mode of production, manufactures consciousness. Consciousness does not produce material life, material life produces consciousness. According to the theory of dialectical-historical-materialism, articulated by Marx and Engels, there are no pre-conceived ideas prior to material and social labor, that is, material and social production. 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., housed within the ruling mode of production of a society. As a result, the theory of dialectical-historical-materialism grounds all ideational developments, historical developments and history itself, by the manner in which a society produces the necessities of life through its given mode of production. Paraphrasing Marx and Engels, Stalin reduces history, historical developments and ideational developments to the history of various modes of production. That is, for him, “the history of the development of [any] society is above all the history of the development of production, the history of the modes of production which succeed each other in the course of centuries”.13

Consequently this reductionism perpetrated by the theory of dialectical-historical-materialism places undo emphasis on the primacy of material economic life while marginalizing the conceptual and cultural life of people.

Notwithstanding, it is important to note that the theory of historical-materialism is an extension of the more expansive theory of dialectical materialism. In fact, historical materialism is an extension of dialectical materialism, specifically applied to social existence and societal development. As Stalin states, paraphrasing Marx and Engels, “historical Materialism is the extension of the principles of dialectical materialism to the study of social life, an application of the principles of dialectical materialism to the phenomena of the life of society, to the study of society and of its history”.14 Consequently, dialectical materialism concerns itself with the broad study and analysis of nature with an emphasis on materiality and science, while historical materialism concerns itself with the specific study and analysis of society and social development with a special emphasis on social materiality and science. The principles of dialectical materialism, inherent in historical materialism, first and foremost:

See nature… as a connected and integral whole, in which things, phenomena are organically connected with, dependent on, and determined by each other…Any phenomenon can be understood and explained if considered in its inseparable connection with surrounding phenomena [and] conditioned by surrounding phenomena.15

For dialectical materialism, the sum of existence, both human and otherwise, is an interconnected totality, whereupon to have any understanding and any knowledge about anything requires one to study and analyse elements of nature and elements of society as existing in a interrelated, unified network of relations. Secondly, the principles of dialectical materialism, inherent in historical materialism, see that:

Nature is not [in] a state of rest and immobility, stagnation and immutability, but [in] a state of continuous movement and change, of continuous renewal and development, where something is always arising and developing, and something [is] always disintegrating and dying away. [For dialectical materialism] the process of development should be understood not as movement in a circle, not as simple repetition of what has already occurred, but as an onward and upward movement, as a transition from an old qualitative state to a new qualitative state, as a development from the simple to the complex, from the lower to the higher.16

For dialectical materialism, the sum of existence is caught in perpetual motion and in perpetual development, continually advancing and receding, continually evolving and devolving etc. There is no absolute state of rest, but constant metamorphosis in nature. The same applies for historical materialism when analysing society and social development. There is no absolute state of rest, but constant metamorphosis and change in society. As Engels, states, in Anti-Duhring, concerning dialectical materialism:

Nature…is the test of dialectics and it must be said for modern natural science that it has furnished extremely rich and daily increasing materials for this test, and has thus proved that in the last analysis nature’s process is dialectical and not metaphysical,…proving that the organic world of today, plants and animals, and consequently man too, is all a product of a [dialectical] process of development that has been in progress for millions of years.17

For Engels and Marx, dialectical materialism is the fundamental law of motion found in nature, while historical materialism is the fundamental law of motion found in society. One explains the process of natural evolution and the other explains the process of social evolution. For Engels and Marx, the dialectics found in nature and society cause nature and society to move in fits and qualitative leaps, where slow quantitative progress eventually results in a qualitative crescendo, which transforms everything abruptly and completely. Thirdly, the principles of dialectical materialism, inherent in historical materialism, see that matter is primary and consciousness is secondary, essentially matter produces consciousness. As Engel states in Anti-Duhring:

The material, sensuously perceptible world to which we ourselves belong is the only reality…Our consciousness and thinking, however supra-sensuous they may seem, are the product of a material, bodily organ, the brain. Matter is not a product of mind, but mind itself is merely the highest product of matter.18

Meaning that it is matter pressing itself upon the sensuous human brain that induces the human brain to think certain concepts, certain ideas and to have a certain consciousness. As a result, according to Marx and Engels, the physical is always first, while, the mental is always second in the sense that when it comes to true objective knowledge, the dialectical materialist method and the historical materialist method favor materialism.  Materiality is paramount. Finally, the principles of dialectical materialism, inherent in historical materialism, see that:

Internal contradictions are inherent in all things and phenomena of nature, for they all have their negative and positive sides, a past and a future, something dying away and something developing; and that the struggle between these opposites, the struggle between the old and the new, between that which is dying away and that which is being born…constitute…the [overall] process of development. The dialectical method therefore holds that the process of development from the lower to the higher takes place not as a harmonious unfolding of phenomena, but as a disclosure of the contradictions inherent in things and phenomena, as a struggle of opposite tendencies which operate on the basis of these contradictions.19

Such, in short, are the principles of dialectical materialism inherent in historical materialism. Historical materialism is the dialectical material method applied specifically to society and to human social history. For the theory of dialectical materialism, and its counterpart historical materialism, contradiction is a fact of nature and a fact of social existence within any society. Things move and unfold according to dialectical-material laws found both in nature and society, things develop dialectically based on the parameters of material existence. Moreover, for historical materialism it is by focusing on social contradictions within material social existence, bringing them to light, and exasperating them that social revolutions come about in material production, human history and society in general. Via the theory of historical materialism, and the principles of dialectical materialism inherent in it:

Social life, the history of society, ceases to be an agglomeration of accidents, for the history of society becomes a development of society according to regular [material-dialectical] laws….[and] the origin of social ideas, social theories, political views and political institutions [is] not to be sought for in …ideas, theories, view and political institutions themselves, but in the conditions of the material life of society, in social being, of which these ideas, theories and views…are the reflection.20

Everything depends and revolves around the material conditions, both in nature and in society, according to the theory of dialectical and historical materialism, but, also, more importantly, any knowledge whatsoever, including consciousness, is deemed the by-product of material conditions, functioning according to perpetual, dialectical metamorphosis. As Marx states, “it is impossible to separate thought from matter that thinks. Matter is the subject of all changes”,18 due to the fact that matter, the brain, is the thing that thinks, not the “I” or the mind. It is the material brain which produces the mind not the other way around. What an idea Marx has just articulated conceptually!

Notwithstanding, in order to arrive at this idea, and more broadly, at the theory of  dialectical-historical-materialism, Marx has had to project his consciousness, that is, his conscious conceptual idea/philosophy of historical materialism and dialectical materialism, back onto material life as the initial cause for this conscious conceptual idea/philosophy despite the fact that it is beyond a doubt that it is Marx’s own rational thinking apparatus which has manufactured this conceptual idea/philosophy called dialectical-historical-materialism. This incongruity in historical materialism and in dialectical materialism points to an important contradictory paradox in all historical materialist thinking and in all dialectical materialist thinking in the sense that how can one know the material brain without having an initial concept of the brain or materiality beforehand? Moreover, how can someone labor without having an initial, pre-conceived idea of labor itself, beforehand, 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 any philosophy and the execution of any effective material labor. In fact, contradicting his own earlier dialectical-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.21

Consequently, contradicting his own earlier writings on dialectical-historical-materialism, thinking and consciousness is prior to the labor-process and all modes of production in Das Capital. In fact, according to what Marx states above, thinking and consciousness is 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 within the mode of production. In fact, according to Marx’s Das Capital, humans clearly have consciousness prior to material production. It is consciousness; i.e., imagination, which differentiates humans from bees. And, in fact, according to Marx, 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 dialectical-historical-materialism would have us believe, but a dialectical process that is brought forth initially via the rational thinking apparatus which raises structures in the imagination before erecting them in reality. That is, it is clearly both the interplay of mind over matter and matter over mind which manufactures consciousness and all modes of production, not just matter’s influence on the mind.

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 element of physicality”.22 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 reality and physical productivity, including all perceived divisions and contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production.

Any idea and/or concept of matter must be prior to any material interaction with matter.  Subsequently, this destroys the fundamental premise on which dialectical-historical-materialism is founded in the sense that the concept of materiality must be present in the mind before this mind, and/or brain, can interact with any materiality and/or matter. If the opposite were the case, no one would know what one was interacting with, when interacting with matter and materiality; and moreover, no one could ever know what one was interacting with because the concept of materiality and matter would be always absent in the mind. In this regard, conceptuality precedes materiality in the sense that concepts help us identify what we are interacting with, and in this case the initial concept of materiality enables us to know, identify and work upon matter and materiality as it is through concepts that we know what we are dealing with.

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 dialectical materialist manner of thinking. And Marx does this quite clearly. However, in an odd twist of logic, he does this only to absolve himself of its responsibility and its inherent subjectivity by arguing that this intricate abstract philosophy, called dialectical-historical materialism, is purely derived from a set of unthinking, chaotic, productive forces in conflict with an arbitrary set of productive social relations housed in a mode of production, which only he is privy to have discovered.

It is evident that Marx does this so as to give dialectical-historical-materialism a sense of scientific objectivity by annulling and denying dialectical-historical-materialism’s roots in subjective philosophical speculation; i.e., as a product of abstract thought attempting to understand its material and conceptual reality. Marx does this dialectical switcheroo so as to give extra credence, seeming scientific credence, to dialectical-historical-materialism by stating that everything he has philosophically concocted in his mind pertaining to dialectical-historical-materialism is objectively true, because it is not his mind that has concocted it, but, in fact, the material conditions themselves acting upon his mind. His mind has merely reflected and expressed the exterior objective truth of dialectical-historical-materialism.

For all his bravado, that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; [and that] the point…is to change it”,23 Marx readily puts forward a philosophical interpretation of his own via dialectical-historical-materialism that can only be fundamentally conceptual, a conceptual idea, devoid of material objective validity due to the fact that the principles of dialectical-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, dialectical and historical materialist ideas presuppose 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.

Moreover, if dialectical and historical materialism were in reality derived from outside material conditions impressing themselves on the human brain, then dialectical-historical-materialism would be an objective fact grasped by all human beings naturally, simply because they are alive, interacting with matter and a part of a society. Dialectical-historical-materialism would not even have to be articulated in the sense that it would be a self-evident verity easily understood by children and as easily understandable as any child’s play.  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.24

The presumption made by Marx is that humans are more or less lumps of clay that are incapable of thought prior to 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 in overcoming the conflicts between the forces of production and the relations of production. And for Marx, the same goes for consciousness. Consciousness arises from the practical necessity to overcome the conflicts between the forces of production and the relations production found inside the specific, ruling mode of production of a given society. Humans do not interact with socio-economic conditions. Instead, these socio-economic conditions govern and determine them completely. There is no room for creativity, autonomy and freedom in the Marxist philosophy of dialectical-historical-materialism as everything is determined, whether in the last instance or not, by the ruling mode of production within a given material reality, which presses itself with dictatorial force upon the human brain, inherently determining all historical events and all historical unfolding(s).

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 and mode of production. While their consciousness is completely derived from the conflicts between the forces of production and the relations of production inside the production processes of society, inside the ruling mode of production of society, nothing more. Dialectical and historical materialism, presuppose 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 and thought, prior to any material productivity. This fact puts serious strain on Marx’s theory of dialectical-historical-materialism in the sense that, fundamentally, humans must have the consciousness of thinking and being alive prior to working. They must have developed within themselves the conceptual division between subject and object, self and other, prior to materially laboring in order to support their bodies and their consciousness, namely, their rational thinking apparatuses.

Despite claiming that all ideas stem from the material contradiction between productive forces and relations of production, Marx’s idea of dialectical-historical-materialism, 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 influences. Dialectical-historical-materialism is an interesting theory and concept, but a concept and theory nonetheless, produced and grasped by the mind, which must possess a whole host of conceptual and linguistic suppositions in order to understand this materialist philosophy. However, by over-extending himself, Marx seeks to validate the mental conception of dialectical-historical-materialism by projecting it outside onto 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 element of physicality. At best, materiality, including dialectical-historical-materialism, is a type of concept/theory that has the added characteristic of solidity, despite being completely conceptual. Meaning that, “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”.25

In effect, one must already have the idea of the human material brain before one can say that the mind is a manifestation of the human organ called the brain. It is not that certain concepts do not have material characteristics and should not be given supremacy over ephemeral, incorporeal concepts. Marx is correct to emphasize such material concepts; however, one must realize, contrary to Marx, that one is always fully immersed in conceptuality. We cannot step outside conceptuality and our conceptualism in order to validate, once and for all, any final/absolute objectivity. Dialectical-historical-materialism wants to do this and as a result inherently traps itself in logical contradictions, irrationalities and inconsistencies.

What this means is that dialectical-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, society and history itself, 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 in addition via concepts in the mind. As Ludwig Wittgenstein states in the Tractatus, “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”26 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”.27 Therefore, 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.

Pure materialism is an ideal. Materialism, dialectical-historical-materialism, 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”28 to all socio-economic phenomena. Despite professing that materiality, material production and the conflict between the forces of production and the relations of production are the driving force of history, dialectical-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.

Moreover, as a final coup-de-grace, dialectical-historical-materialism, if it is a factual verity would not have needed Marx and Engels to conceptually and linguistically articulate its make-up and principles. Due to the fact that its make-up and principles would be common knowledge as anyone and any human brain can reflect the contradictions between the forces of production and relations of production scattered across society and social existence, and thus, any human would grasp the make-up and principles of dialectical-historical-materialism, without having to be told anything by Marx and Engels. We would not have needed Marx and Engels to articulate and/or, more or less, waste copious amounts of ink and paper outlining the make-up and principles of dialectical-historical-materialism, due to the fact that if dialectical-historical-materialism was really a product of exterior material reality impressing its verity upon the human brain, dialectical-historical-materialism would be obvious and common knowledge inherent to everyone.

In the end, the critique of dialectical-historical-materialism leaves many open questions as to what is history or the logical process of history, if it is not absolutely materialistic? Does history have a logic to its unfolding? The answer to these questions is self-evident in the sense that history, the process of history is, more or less, the logical movement of conceptualism, without any set format to the unfolding of history. At times, history unfolds dialectically, depending on influences. At times, it does not. At times history unfolds progressively and at time it does not. At times, history unfolds from the complex to the simple and at times it does the contrary. History is always without lasting form and structure. At times, the unfolding of history integrates and at times the unfolding of history disintegrates etc., without stop or start, without end or beginning. It is human conceptual-perception that places parameters on the unfolding of history. History is simply unfolding movement without any governing and/or overarching logic to its movement.

As Louis Althusser states in The Philosophy of the Encounter, “nothing guarantees…[the current] reality…[and] its durability…Simply, one day new hands will have to be dealt out, and the dice thrown again on the empty table”.29 Such is the unfolding of history as there is, according to Althusser, “no meaning to history”.30 For him, there is no set form or structure to historical unfolding, for with true history there are only unconscious tendencies, that is, real “history…is made of, and as well made up [by], aleatory tendencies and the unconscious.… [It] is a history whose forms have nothing to do with the determinism of physical laws”,31 laws such as those described by Marx’s theory of dialectical-historical-materialism. Consequently, the unfolding of history, for Althusser, is an aleatory event and “in this world [of aleatory materialism] there exists nothing but cases, situations, things that befall us without warning”.32  In essence, for Althusser, the unfolding of history is forever aleatory where:

Every [historical] encounter is aleatory, not only in its origin…but also in its effects in that nothing in the elements of the [historical] encounter prefigures, before the actual [historical] encounter, the contours and determinations of the being [and situation] that will emerge from it. [It is an] encounter of [random] contingencies… [that come to] gel.33 ]

As a result, according to Althusser, the aleatory guides historical development, not dialectics. For Althusser, any dialectical-historical-materialism functioning in history and social life is arbitrary and present, if it should arise, after the passing of an aleatory historical event in the sense that dialectics “is a pure effect of contingency…[and] the aleatory encounter”.34 Dialectical and historical materialist explanations of phenomena arise after the fact, after aleatory historical events have transpired and gone. For Althusser, the random clashing of material elements is the driving force of history, all “laws can change…[and do] change at the drop of a hat, revealing the aleatory basis that sustains them”.35

History and the logical unfolding process of history is aleatory. It is mental and physical activity combined and in conflict, yet never deterministic; it is materialism and conceptualism combined and in conflict, yet never deterministic; it is thinking and doing combined and in conflict, yet never deterministic. All of which, more or less, 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 subject to the random unfolding of history. 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”.36 As a result, the concept of materiality is something which is socially constructed. As Althusser states, “there can be no human practice without a system of ideas”,30  which is a critique of dialectical-historical-materialism in the sense that dialectical-historical-materialism argues that there is no system of ideas without initial human practice.

It is in this regard that Althusser ascribes to aleatory materialism, rather than Marxist dialectical-historical-materialism, in the sense that aleatory materialism favors the random clash of material elements, whatever they may be, as the essential catalyst and spark which produces historical events. For Althusser, historical events and the unfolding of history is a “conjuncture,… [that is] an aleatory encounter of [material] elements”34 colliding and taking hold, arbitrarily, “without reason…[and] without… intelligible end”,37 which, in turn, ultimately manifests a historical event of certain magnitude. It is only after the fact; i.e., after an historical event and the unfolding of history happens, that reasons, like dialectical-historical-materialist reasons, are developed and applied to the unfolding of history and historical events. In the actual historical moment, according to Althusser, historical events always arise by surprise and not by design, hence, “the primacy of…aleatory materialism over all formalism”,30 that is, any law-like unfolding to history grounded in production.

Therefore, Althusser rejects dialectical-historical-materialism in the sense that he believes the unfolding of history to be ultimately unpredictable, while for dialectical-historical-materialism, the unfolding of history is always, in the last instance, determined by production, changes in the modes of production. For Althusser, aleatory materialism enables an “open…future that is uncertain, unforeseeable, not yet accomplished, and therefore aleatory”,38 not subject to the confines of a dialectical process that reduces the unfolding of history to deterministic historical laws grounded in economic production. For Althusser, the only constant in the unfolding of history is the unpredictable nature of class struggle. This is a stark contrast to Engels, who readily reduced the unfolding of history and society to changes and/or revolutions in the ruling mode of production in the sense that, in the last instance, “the ultimate determining element in history is… production,…[as] the economic situation is the basis [of any historical event]”.39 As a result, the fundamental difference between aleatory materialism and dialectical-historical-materialism is a difference in the primacy of economic production as determinant of history because both ascribe to class struggle. For example, in a very telling statement, Engels comes very close to Althusser’s aleatory materialism when he states:

History is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular condition of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to…the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For…each individual will is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed.39

This is what Althusser means by aleatory materialism, when economic production has been removed as the fundamental catalyst of history. However, Engels, true to his dialectical-historical-materialism, finally returns this aleatory conception of history back onto the shaky ground of economic production, when he ultimately states that “history…is essentially subject to…laws of motion…[founded] in the last resort [on] economic circumstances”.40 Despite understanding that the unfolding of history has something unpredictable to its nature, Engels, nevertheless, believes that, in the last resort, economic circumstances prevail in giving scope and dialectical understanding to the unfolding of history. On the other hand, Althusser’s aleatory materialism does not have this economic crutch, the unfolding of history always remains random, unintended and anarchic. And, in actuality, Althusser is correct, although he places too much emphasis on materialism over conceptualism.

Notwithstanding, returning to Marx, an essential principle of dialectical and historical materialism is the notion that “consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the…forces of production and the relations of production [inside the ruling mode of production]”.25 As a result, for Marx, consciousness is a passive effect of the friction/conflict transpiring between the forces of production and the relations of production within the ruling mode of production in the sense that consciousness does not have an influence on the forces and relations of production embodied in the ruling mode of production. Consciousness passively reflects the conflict/friction between the forces of production and the relations of production as a system of ideas embodied within itself. However, contrary to Marx and dialectical-historical-materialism, it is clear that the concept of materiality precedes materiality itself.

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 ultimately result in the disintegration of materiality/reality 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, any new thoughts and/or any new consciousness in a rational thinking apparatus, including one afflicted with advance Alzheimer’s. Therefore, materiality; i.e., material reality, is the product of consciousness, namely, the rational thinking apparatus, prior to any and all material productivity. As Kant would state, it is an intrinsic category/concept of human thinking and human perception, that is, prior to social existence, materiality is a priori and thus devoid of a posteriori elements.

If the opposite was the case, then any rational thinking apparatus afflicted with Alzheimer’s 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 structures and conflicts between the forces of production and the relations of production within the ruling mode of production. The rational thinking apparatus afflicted with Alzheimer’s would retain such a sense and such ideas because, according to dialectical-historical-materialism 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 would be contained in an outside material reality-governed by the conflict between the forces of production and the relations of production.

If this was truly the case, an outside material reality would always be exerting its dictatorial influence on the sick mind, pressing the concept of materiality upon it and into it, ad infinitum, invariably holding the concept of materiality in place, regardless whether the mind was being ravaged by Alzheimer’s disease or not. If dialectical-historical-materialism was correct, there would always be an inkling of the material world in a mind afflicted with Alzheimer’s, due to the fact that the reflective capacities of the broken mind, like a broken mirror, would still reflect, in fragments, the idea of a material world residing outside the diseased mind.

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, points of views, ideologies etc., are not solely based on material production, material labor and the material conflict between the forces of production and the relations of production within the mode of production, as Marx stipulates, but instead, reside in the mind and not in an outside materiality. If the tenets of dialectical and historical materialism were true, as long as material labor persisted and the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production remained and continued their conflict, then, any rational thinking apparatus afflicted with any degenerative mental disease would still have ideas and an inkling of materiality, no matter how sick or conceptually fragmented the rational thinking apparatus became. Due to the fact that material reality would forever be pressing its inherent concepts, ideas and consciousness upon the diseased mind, which, according to Marx, is initially without ideas and consciousness until the contradictions of material life generated by the conflict between the forces of production and the relations of production, imprint ideas and consciousness unto the mind.

Subsequently, contrary to Marx and dialectical-historical-materialism, but similar to Althusser’s notion of the unfolding of history as aleatory, minus his emphasis on materialism, anarcho-historical-relativism is the manner by which history truly unfolds, that is, moves onward, both randomly and without goal. Like aleatory materialism, anarcho-historical-relativism ascribes to the unpredictable nature of history, but unlike aleatory materialism, anarcho-historical-relativism, does not give precedence to materialism over conceptualism and/or to class struggle. In fact, anarcho-historical-relativism places social antagonism rather than class struggle as the driving force of history, due to the fact that antagonism can derive from anywhere in existence, not solely from class; and secondly, anarcho-historical-relativism does not give priority to class over other types of antagonisms, due to the fact that antagonism can be both conceptual and/or material, and can be comprised of anything, not just class relations. For anarcho-historical-relativism, antagonism can emanate from anywhere and derive from many types of formations and affinities, both conceptual and material, which can fuel social antagonism and the unfolding of history.

Moreover, contrary to Althusser’s aleatory materialism, for anarcho-historical-relativism, materialism is first and foremost a type of conceptualism, a conceptualism that, despite being important, is nonetheless derived from conceptuality; i.e., the conceptual thinking apparatus generating its own concepts. Anarcho-historical-relativism gives priority to conceptualism in the sense that everything is conceptual, first and foremost, including material reality itself and all materialist conceptions of history, whatever they may be, as these are concepts and theories with an added emphasis on physicality. Historical events emanate from social antagonism, both singular and plural, the singular mind and/or the collective social mind, which identify historical events, categorize historical events and initiate, involuntarily, historical events, both conceptual and material, depending on the elements and factors involved and taking part. Above all, the principles of anarcho-historical-relativism, concerning history and the unfolding of history, are:

  1. History has no goal because it lacks any end point, that is, any final culmination and/or crescendo. History only moves onwards, it unfolds, that is it. History goes on and on, ad infinitum.
  2. There is no progression to history because history is without any definitive, homogenous plan. History is heterogeneous. And its progress is something that humans project and apply to the movement of history. Progress is an artificial/arbitrary construct applied by humans to random historical movement; i.e., the unfolding of history.
  3. History is anarchy because history lacks direction, rules, laws and any set verity. These are artificial/arbitrary constructs, humans subjectively apply to random historical movement; i.e., the unfolding of history, because these generate meaning and power for certain formations.
  4. History unfolds according to certain tendencies and antagonisms, which are not timeless and eternal, but are subject to constant change, depending on the conceptual and material structures, technology and processes in existence etc.

In this regard, anarcho-historical-relativism, is not aleatory materialism, although there are points of similarities; and anarcho-historical-relativism is not dialectical-historical-materialism, which it finds limited and deficient in various ways and manners already mentioned above. Anarcho-historical-relativism is a theory of history, which does not ascribe to deterministic material processes to the unfolding of history; instead, according to the principles of anarcho-historical-relativism, history is a subterranean anarchy webbed via measured tendencies along certain flexible trajectories, which lightly guide its unfolding.

Notwithstanding, anarcho-historical-relativism acknowledges certain aspects of dialectical-historical-materialism like the productive reciprocal relationship between material physical labor and conceptual mental labor as important processes by which history and consciousness move onwards. However, for anarcho-historical-relativism, this is only a tendency of history, not a law of history. Furthermore, for anarcho-historical-relativism, it is as Marx suggests, that “revolution, [that is, social antagonism] is the driving force of history…of religion, of philosophy and all other types of theory”,41 but revolution, contrary to Marx, can be both corporeal and incorporeal, mental and physical, material and conceptual, both meant to establish a new set of governing concepts and ideas over another set and/or establish a new mode of production, which ultimately reorganize productive forces and relations of production, both mental and physical, into a new set of socio-economic formations and new ways of thinking. It is not, as Marx dictates, all about revolution in production. For anarcho-historical-relativism, revolutions are multi-varied, a composite of antagonistic and mutual-aid forces and logics vying for contextual supremacy. They are not as Marx and Engels theorized purely technical and scientific.

In this regard, anarcho-historical-relativism encompasses both the tension between all material relations and all conceptual relations combined and in conflict, yet never deterministic, and the tension between all material forces and all conceptual forces combined and in conflict, yet never deterministic. All of which, interacting with each other, move history/consciousness onward, whether positively and/or negatively. The movement of history 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”.42 According to the principles of anarcho-historical-relativism, “real history is the unfolding of the will to power, a convergence of mental and physical forces and/or logics, pitted against one another in a multiplicity of fluctuating, antagonistic and/or mutual-aid relationships vying for contextual supremacy. Real history is a fiery molten crucible, anarchy, buried deep beneath manufactured pseudo-history and superficiality, ever-ready to blow [and] unfold”.43 As Kuhn suggests, history is “a process that [moves] steadily…but toward no goal”.44

Consequently, according to the principles of anarcho-historical-relativism, history, consciousness etc., are not guided, like Marx and Althusser argue, by material conditions, per se, although material conditions can be a factor. Instead, according to the principles of anarcho-historical-relativism, history, consciousness etc., are guided by a multiplicity of material and immaterial factors combined and in conflict, yet never deterministic, which are both predictable and unpredictable, foreseeable and unforeseeable etc., and have a tendency over a long-enough time period to reach crescendos, whereupon everything is torn asunder in order to make way for new socio-economic formations and new historical unfolding(s), both conceptual and material. However, nothing is ever guaranteed, due to the fact that the way history moves and unfolds is not conclusively deterministic. The unfolding of history is grounded in tendencies based on the stage of technological, structural and procedural maturity of a given socio-economic formation.

As a result, nothing indicates that the way history has unfolded to date could not have happened any other way. In the last instance, it was the random coupling and unfolding of conceptual and material elements that brought about history as we know it today. In agreement with Marx, anarcho-historical-relativism concurs that a ruling mental and physical socio-economic formation, like capitalism, “produces, above all, is its own grave-diggers”45 in the sense that all socio-economic formations prepare the ground for their own disintegration, due to the fact that any specific unfolding of social history is based on social antagonism. Meaning, all socio-economic formations, whatever they may be, are an attempt to curtail the unfolding of history according to certain specific tendencies, and because history moves via social antagonism and is grounded in the flux of social antagonisms, means also that all socio-economic formations, as important historical events in-themselves as well, move via social antagonisms and are grounded in the flux of social antagonisms. They are inherently unstable.

The result is that all socio-economic formations produce their own gravediggers, like capitalism, although these gravediggers may not be the same as those produced by capitalism. As Marx states, “this is the abolition of [a] mode of production within…[a] mode of production,… a self-abolishing contradiction, which presents itself prima facie as a mere point of transition to a new form of production”.46 Expanding on Marx, anarcho-historical-relativism develops this transitory logic, outside the bounds of the ruling mode of production, modes of production being only one area among many, by which the abolition of socio-economic formations within a ruling set of socio-economic formations, can ultimately lead to a new set of socio-economic formations, such as anarcho-socialist socio-economic formations.

In sum, the unfolding of history is not like Marx theorized, a matter of shifts and conflicts within the contradiction between the forces of production and the relations of production. According to anacho-historical-relativism, the unfolding of history 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., unified in specific social antagonisms. The point is that material conditions are informed by conceptual conditions and vice versa, universality is informed by particularities and vice versa. Ultimately, contrary to Marx and Engels, there is not a singular factor or cause that stimulates revolution and the unfolding of history, whether this factor is 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, both foreseeable and unforeseeable, which finally result in revolution and in the unfolding of history.

However, in the end, this is always a random occurrence, foreseeable only as a sequence of various tendencies congealing together at the right time and in the right spaces. A revolution, whether mental and/or physical, is usually an amalgamation of predictable and unpredictable factors, atop of serious, antagonistic socio-economic conflicts of various types and kinds, spread-out across the stratums of a socio-economic formation coupled with the unfolding of history.

All the same, anarcho-historical-relativism is a theory of sudden, random historical movement, where fluctuating, antagonistic and mutual-aid relationships, both mental and/or physical, positive and/or negative, suddenly move history onwards, both as an expression of total nothingness and as an expression of new socio-economic formations, socio-economic formations pregnant with new sets of material and conceptual relations and forces. To paraphrase Kuhn, anarcho-historical-relativism is the logical yet anarchic process by which a socio-economic formation/paradigm becomes a universal, all-encompassing socio-economic formation/paradigm, embodying a litany of socio-economic formations/paradigms within itself, while the outdated, outmoded, socio-economic formations/paradigms are 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 a conversion experience that cannot be forced. Conversion will occur a few at a time until, after the last holdouts have died, [and then] the whole [society]…will again be…under a single, but now a different, paradigm [and/or socio-economic formation].47

Such is the historical unfolding and process of anarcho-historical-relativism, randomness, subterranean anarchy webbed via measured tendencies along certain flexible trajectories, which lightly guide the sum of historical unfolding(s). And now, I say, who among you, rabble-rousers, is ready and willing to throw the dice against the Gods, against Minerva? Who among you is ready and willing to let the chips fall where they may, via the aleatory unfolding of history?

AMENDED 19 September 2017

  1. Karl Marx, A Contribution To The Critique of Political Economy, ed. Maurice Dobb (Moscow, Russia: Progress Publishers, 1970) 20-21. []
  2. 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. []
  3. Joseph Stalin, (1938), “Dialectical and Historical Materialism”,18. []
  4. Ibid, p. 20. []
  5. Ibid, p. 19. []
  6. Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 172. []
  7. Ibid, 196. []
  8. Joseph Stalin, (1938), “Dialectical and Historical Materialism”, 19. []
  9. Karl Marx, A Contribution To The Critique of Political Economy, ed. Maurice Dobb (Moscow, Russia: Progress Publishers, 1970) 20-21. []
  10. Ibid, 21 []
  11. Joseph Stalin, (1938), “Dialectical and Historical Materialism”, 13. []
  12. 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. []
  13. Joseph Stalin, (1938), “Dialectical and Historical Materialism”, 20. []
  14. Ibid, 1. []
  15. Ibid, 1-3. []
  16. Ibid, 3-4. []
  17. Ibid, 4. []
  18. Ibid, 10. [] []
  19. Ibid, 6. []
  20. Ibid, 12-13. []
  21. Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital, (New York, New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998) 31. []
  22. Michel Luc Bellemare, The Structural-Anarchism Manifesto: (The Logic of Structural-Anarchism Versus The Logic of Capitalism), (Montréal: Blacksatin Publications Inc., 2016) 61.c). []
  23. Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 196. []
  24. Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 158. []
  25. Michel Luc Bellemare, The Structural-Anarchism Manifesto: (The Logic of Structural-Anarchism Versus The Logic of Capitalism), (Montréal: Blacksatin Publications Inc., 2016) 61.d). [] []
  26. Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, (New York: Routledge, 1974) 68. []
  27. Ibid, 22. []
  28. Louis Althusser, The Philosophy of the Encounter, (New York: Verso, 2006) 174. []
  29. Ibid, 194. []
  30. Ibid, 264. [] [] []
  31. Ibid, 265. []
  32. Ibid, 193-194. []
  33. Ibid, 169. []
  34. Ibid, 195. [] []
  35. Michel Luc Bellemare, The Structural-Anarchism Manifesto: (The Logic of Structural-Anarchism Versus The Logic of Capitalism), (Montréal: Blacksatin Publications Inc., 2016) 15.a). []
  36. Louis Althusser, The Philosophy of the Encounter, (New York: Verso, 2006) 281. []
  37. Ibid, 192. []
  38. Friedrich Engels, “Engels to Bloch”, Selected Writings, Ed. W.O. Henderson, (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1967) 333. []
  39. Ibid, 334. [] []
  40. Karl Marx, A Contribution To The Critique of Political Economy, ed. Maurice Dobb (Moscow, Russia: Progress Publishers, 1970) 21. []
  41. Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1978) 164. []
  42. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) 170-171. []
  43. Michel Luc Bellemare, The Structural-Anarchism Manifesto: (The Logic of Structural-Anarchism Versus The Logic of Capitalism), (Montréal: Blacksatin Publications Inc., 2016) 70.d). []
  44. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) 172. []
  45. 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. []
  46. Karl Marx, Capital (Volume Three), Trans. David Fernbach (London: Penguin Books, 1991) 569. []
  47. Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962) 150-152. []

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.