Is there a positive relationship between the following three themes in Marx’s writing (in The Marx-Engels Reader): 1) his analysis of material world and superstructure (with the former determining the latter), 2) his forecast of the ultimate inevitability of proletariat revolution and communism, and 3) his underdevelopment of a theory of subjective political strategy? Before examining the question of a relationship between the themes, it is necessary to first briefly clarify each theme on its own.
Material world and superstructure: With a thousand different phrases, Marx expounds a cornerstone of his thesis that the world of thought, ideology and consciousness takes its lead from the tangible material world and the processes of material production. History is not determined by ideas; ideas, rather, arise on top of economic reality and essentially serve as post-facto narration, typically idealistic toward the political and economic interests of the dominant class.
Inevitability: Proletariat revolution and communism are, for Marx, a foregone conclusion. Future events, namely “the overthrow of society by the communist revolution” are “just as empirically established (p.163)” as observable world-historical activities that have led to present material conditions. He posits that the observable revolutionary transition within industrializing societies from feudalism to capitalism—observable in his time—as analogous to a predicted revolutionary transition from capitalism to communism.
Subjective political strategy: What is most striking about Marx’s attention to subjective political strategy is his lack thereof. What insights does he provide concerning specific strategic and tactical options for a historically situated subjective political actor’s—presumably a revolutionary communist party—navigation of terrain and constraints? While Marx provides an abundance of theoretical concepts and critique concerning political economy and its relation to culture and society, he provides surprisingly little “how-to” advice for partisans of his theory. This theme is the most difficult (of the three I have posited) to substantiate, as it can be supported only by its absence in the text.
Having summarized these three themes, I return to the question of whether there is a positive relationship between them. Is there a common thread that makes their grouping together make sense? I think the answer is yes. In a nutshell, Marx supposes communism’s inevitability because of his reading of then-unfolding material production processes combined with his elevation of material processes, generally, to the determinant of historical development. Logically following from these foundational assumptions is Marx’s lack of attention to the details of subjective strategic and tactical maneuvering. If arrival to one’s desired destination is conceptualized as inevitable, then what incentive is there to map the terrain that the traveler (i.e., the subjective historical actor) has to cross to get there?
Perhaps in contradiction to this last theme, there are moments when Marx does espouse human agency. As much can be inferred from his critique of philosophers who “have only interpreted the world,” because the point “is to change it. (p.146)” But he does not take the next step and elucidate how we might change it. We have only the naming of the revolutionary party and the foretelling of an eventual dictatorship of the proletariat.
It is also worth examining how Marx’s times and context affected his theoretical frameworks. With a century and a half to look back on since he contributed his materialist conception of history, we can see reasons to doubt the inevitability of humanity’s revolutionary transition to global communism. Marx lived in revolutionary times, though, in which he was not a neutral observer. The question arises then regarding Marx’s argument for communism’s inevitability: was this Marx as social scientist or Marx as propagandist? Was his prediction based on his best assessment of reality, or did he see a mobilization utility in projecting an aura of inevitability? And regarding his materialist conception of history itself, might he have expounded the framework in its most ideal form in order to introduce its rationale as clearly as possible? In a time when philosophers saw ideas as the driver of history, might Marx have swung the pendulum too far and posed too rigid a dichotomy in asserting material production as the driver? Might he have otherwise conceded ways that ideas sometimes do attain autonomous power; ways that phantoms learn to behave like poltergeists, i.e., entities with the faculty to intervene in the material world?