Saturday 12 May 2018

Unfrequently Asked Questions: Marx and Marxism (i)

Prof. Peter Dorman generously posted the slides of his lectures on Marx and Marxism: one on Historical Materialism, the other on Marxist Economics. After looking at them carefully,  I’ve noticed a few things.

Of the two lectures the one that caught my attention more profoundly was the second, where Prof. Dorman repeatedly asks questions about subjects which he evidently feels are unclear. Although I am not sure Prof. Dorman expects answers (let alone from me), as time permits, I’ll try to answer them to the best of my admittedly limited ability. Where I feel unable to answer (particularly the more technical ones), I’ll ask for more details.

Before proceeding: I am not a professor. As my profile says, I once started postgraduate education (not on economics or philosophy), but I never finished it (a long story) and it was a long time ago, at any event. I’ve been a low-paid worker for decades now and it shows.

Comparatively, historical materialism seems to trouble him less, although there, too, I think a little clarification is in order. Because it’s something that looks more localised, I think one could deal with it first.


During his exposition on historical materialism Prof. Dorman points to Hegelian logic. In slide number 10 he offers an example of dialectics which I think is excellent: the coevolution of pesticides and pests. Pests, the slide explains, evolve with pesticides. “This is an internally generated process”, it adds.

I hope Prof. Dorman wouldn’t object if I extended that to pesticides: as pests become resistant to available pesticides, newer pesticides, more effective, are developed and the cycle repeats itself.

Does that process continue forever or does it stop somewhere? It’s conceivable it could go on (insects often become resistant to insecticides, for example); it’s also conceivable it ended, either with the extinction of the pest (as it has happened), or with the impossibility to develop new pesticides (as seems to be happening with antibiotics).

Pests and pesticides, in other words, coevolve, adapt to each other, move in one direction, as it were, due to their own interaction. But I think no evolutionary biologist, to say nothing of Prof. Dorman himself, would ever claim that movement (or its end) involves any “inbuilt tendency toward progress”. There’s no teleology there.

Yet, after explaining Hegel’s influence on Marx’s thought, in the following slide (#11), that’s exactly what Prof. Dorman writes is the case with Marxism: “Marx absorbed this interpretation of history as the product of contradiction that has an inbuilt tendency toward progress”.

Personally, I haven’t found any reason to believe that. Moreover, although their attitudes changed over time, it wasn’t gratuitous that Marx and Engels were very excited about Charles Darwin’s evolution by natural selection (or that I found Prof. Dorman’s example excellent).

In fact, as I am sure Prof. Dorman would agree, historical materialism (just like evolution by natural selection), because it privileges material causes, is better illustrated by his pest-pesticide example than Hegel's idealistic dialectics.

Makes sense?


  1. Magpie
    Good post, but I don't understand why the pest-pesticide example works better for historical materialism than for Hegel. I think I am missing something.
    Nigel O

    1. Hi Nigel,

      Good question.

      Let's first think about the pesticide/pest example, because it's a good example of dialectics, yes?

      What are the things interacting in that example? Pests and pesticides, correct?

      Well, those things exist by themselves, regardless of what one thinks of them: cockcroaches, say, don't vanish just because one chooses to ignore them, right? They exist in the material, objective, world.

      Now let's think about Hegel. He was an idealist. For him, ideas (or the Spirit) were real, reality was only instances of those ideas. How do ideas interact? Seems hard to answer, no?

      In historical materialism the things that interact, like in the pesticide/pest example, have objective, material existence. They don't depend on one's ideas about them: people with common interests. Capitalists and workers.

      Makes sense?

  2. Yeah makes sense. Sort of. I'll think about it.