Saturday, 14 March 2009

Marxism and `The End of History’

Francis Fukuyama’s famous tract `The End of History and the Last Man’ published shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union was a direct intellectual challenge to Marxism. It was designed to complement the West’s physical victory in the four-and-a-half decade long Cold War.

Surfing on a heady atmosphere of triumphalism, Fukuyama taunted Marxists by declaring liberal democratic capitalism to be the pinnacle of historical development. It was the only game in town and nothing could challenge it. Gone were the dreams of a transition through socialism to communism as promised by the scientific socialist Karl Marx. History, in the sense of a distinct social process had come to an end and liberal democratic capitalism was the victor. Who now would give Fukuyama’s thesis a second glance as the world economy disintegrates whilst Marx’s seminal works fly off the bookstore shelves?

Fukuyama’s was a challenge to one of Marx’s greatest achievements: his solution to `the riddle of history’. Dubbed historical materialism, this elegant solution eschewed the increasingly turgid dichotomised debate that came before it.

Marx started from the empirically verifiable real activity and conditions of human existence examining the way in which humankind produces its means of subsistence which is a thoroughly materialist approach. He did not start from a collection of dead, unconnected facts or from human consciousness as a driver of human history. `Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life,’ he argued. In producing their means of subsistence, human beings enter into social relations. History proper begins when those relations become class relations and unfolds by way of a reciprocal conflict between these social relations, or modes of production, and the ever more efficient means of production.

Previously history was believed to have no developmental logic at all, it merely proceeded randomly. For this school there was nothing going on apart from what appeared to be going on and all historians need do was reconstruct what had been lost in the mists of time and praise history’s `great men’. At best this school rose to the notion of history as some kind of metaphysical process endlessly and mechanically repeating itself over the eons. Alternatively, there was a far more sophisticated idealist approach. For this school, history was heading towards some sort of god-given destiny or pre-determined absolute ideal. At least these thinkers acknowledged the existence of a process or system out-with the intentions of the agents that comprised it.

But it was Marx who answered the call for a scientific theory of history. He rejected the mutually exclusive, dichotomised, contradictory approaches of crude materialism and sophisticated idealism and sought a theory that could encompass and reveal history’s true inner dynamic and logic. Men, agreed Marx, make history, and then qualified it by adding, but not under conditions of their own choosing. Marx rejected the contradictory approaches of randomness and predetermination in favour of an approach to contradictions. History for Marx was a dynamic and evolving structure containing the logic of its own end

At society’s base is the class struggle between two historically conditioned classes, a minority ruling class and a working class, corresponding to a particular mode of production and appropriate to the prevailing means of production. As we have seen, for Marx social being determines social consciousness. It is an individual’s relationship to the means of production that determines your outlook on life and, indeed, all of society’s institutions, ideas, discourses etc are super structural to the political-economic base.

Schematically speaking, primitive society gave way to the social relations of ancient slavery which facilitated a huge growth of the means of production at humanity’s disposal but these means eventually outgrew that mode. Great slave-based empires fell into ruin including the greatest of them all, Rome, to be replaced by feudal empires in Europe and Asia. These in turn were replaced by capitalist nation states with their own imperial abmtions which now too are facing the end. Capitalism is the last antagonistic form the economic conditions having entirely outgrown the possibility of continued private ownership and control of the productive capacity by a minority ruling class. It must give way to socialism and finally a classless society.

The study of the centuries of human existence prior to the process of class formation, or pre-history, whilst obviously of more than passing interest and relevance, is little more than a natural history of the species. History proper, as an emergent and discrete social process with its own logic and therefore a distinct subject for study, begins with the production of the first surplus and the ensuing efforts of an emerging ruling class to establish its dominion over that surplus and over society. History will end when classes have finally disappeared and there is nothing driving humanity’s development and progress outside of its own conscious activity. When there is no hidden social process to study.

Fukuyama makes liberal democracy and its achievement the purpose of history but any ruling class could and has picked out their time and rule and claimed it to be the aim and end of history. Fukuyama fails to point out in any serious way that democracy, the pinnacle of liberal capitalist rule, by definition, means that society is divided by conflicting interests. So much so the ruling class requires police forces and armies to keep these contradictory interests in check along with endless legislation. These partial interests are of course determined, in the final analysis, by whatever an individual’s relationship is to the means of production. History as a process is, then, ongoing. Despite the formal political equality of every individual in a democracy the economic divisions of society remain. The class struggle between the wage slaves and the capitalists goes on as the current economic catastrophe is proving.

There has always been a mode and a means of production since human society first emerged but they haven’t always been in contradiction. Only for perhaps the last six thousand years out of the two hundred thousand or so of human existence has that been the situation. In the future mode and means will be in harmony again. This new unity of opposites will be that of humanity with nature consciously re-established: communism. That will be the end of a social evolutionary process separate from our consciousness of it. That will be the end of history.

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