Historical Materialism is a Marxist proposition that offers a “methodological approach to the study of human societies and their development over time”1. It holds, among other things, that historical change is driven by contradictions within the mode of production between the means of production and the relations of production, and that the overall nature of society itself is strongly influenced by (but not determined by) the mode of production.
It offers a comprehensive intellectual structure through which to examine the Rise of the Robots its impact on our society.
I can imagine that some may wince at its mention. Why drag out an old notion, nearly forgotten in the dustbin of history. And why Marx? Hasn’t history proven him wrong? Not exactly.
Marx’s ideas are still fruitful grounds for inquiry. Even his most ardent critics must admit the contribution Marx has made to modern socioeconomic theory. Furthermore, in considering the candidacy of any intellectual framework the concern is not whether the proposition is “true”, per se, but whether or not it is useful. Historical materialism has proved useful before.
American sociologist Daniel Bell (1919-2011) wrote, “If one reads the sociological theories on the future of capitalism which were enunciated in the first half of the twentieth century, one sees that almost all were, in effect, a dialogue with schema two of Marx.” [emphasis in original]
Elsewhere we will discuss Bell’s conception of Marx’s two schema, but here we note that Bell declared that, “It is this set of differences between two different schemes of Marx which is the true, starting point for the analysis of social developments in capitalist and advanced industrial societies of the West.” [emphasis in original]
“The true starting point for the analysis of social developments in capitalist societies,” that thought bears repeating.
Both these quotes are found in Bell’s prescient book, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting written in 1973. In a forward to the book written in 1999 Bell added, “The starting point for the conception of post-industrial society, as should be clear, arose from my effort to gain a greater conceptual clarity in the use of Marx’s scheme.”
So we see that Bell’s study of Marx’s theories led to a profound classic which “fundamentally changes our perception of how the world works” according to one reviewer. Bell’s thesis that modern economies were moving from an industrial base to a service base, and the social implications involved, is commonly accepted now.
And Bell is not alone in his appreciation of the contribution Marx has made to modern political economy. Joseph Schumpeter (1883-1950), Austrian-American economist and author of the economics classic Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy (1942) also praised Marx’s work.
Although he spends roughly the first third of the book pointing out where he believes Marx to be wrong he still finds time to write:
However, even though Marx’s facts and reasoning were still more at fault than they are, his result might nevertheless be true so far as it simply avers that capitalist evolution will destroy the foundations of capitalist society. I believe it is. And I do not think I am exaggerating if I call profound a vision in which that truth stood revealed beyond doubt in 1847.
Elsewhere Schumpeter describes Marx as “the first economist of top rank to see and to teach systematically how economic theory may be turned into historical analysis and how historical narrative may be turned into may be turned into histoire raisonnée“.
Schumpeter is referring to Marx’s proposition of historical materialism, which he considered “one truly great achievement to be set against Marx’s theoretical misdemeanors”. He adds:
Through all that is faulty or even unscientific in his analysis runs a fundamental idea that is neither — the idea of a theory… of the economic process as it goes on, under its own steam, in historic time, producing at every instant that state which will of itself determine the next one. Thus the author of so many misconceptions was also the first to visualize what even at the present time is still the economic theory of the future for which we are slowly and laboriously accumulating stone and mortar, statistical facts and functional equations.
And so the man who gave us the concept of creative destruction (an idea itself obviously resulting from his study of Marx) considered historical materialism to be a path to the development of the economic theory of the future.
If we suspend our prejudice and encounter historical materialism on its own terms who knows what light may be shed on our present circumstances.