A General Theory Of Society, Such As Marx’s Historic Materialism, Is Not Feasible.’ Discuss Essay, Research Paper
In this essay, I shall define what a general theory of society is. I will then look in depth at Historic Materialism, and consider how well it fills the criteria of such a theory. Alternative theories will then be explored and finally the essay will question whether any general theory of society could ever be feasible.
In order to determine whether a Theory of Society is feasible, it is necessary to decide what such a theory should be able to explain. Such a theory should be able to explain and predict human behaviour in the field that it deals with. An epistemological distinction must be made between scientific theories, which must always be correct and which seek causal explanations for phenomena and more general theories which are meant to guide and which allow exceptions.
Marx’s General Theory continually centres on how the relationships between men are shaped by their relative positions in regard to the means of production and by their differential access to scarce resources. He considered it axiomatic that the potential for class conflict is inherent in every differentiated society, since such a society systematically generates conflicts of interest between persons and groups differentially located within the social structure, and, more particularly, in relation to the means of production. Marx was concerned with the ways in which specific positions in the social structure tended to shape the social experiences of their incumbents and to predispose them to actions oriented to improve their collective fate.
Hence Marx concentrates on the production process as the most fundamental (the most irreducible) of all social relationships. Thus it is not the economy as such which interests Marx; it is the set of relationships within any society’s production process.
It is these relations of production which Marx defines as classes. So a class is a group of individuals who share the same type of relationship to the means of production. There are two essential types of relationship to the production process. An individual can either possess the means of production or not possess them. In short the discussion boils down to the question of whether an individual either owns or is in a relationship of non-ownership to the means of production. These relations of production are twinned with what Marx calls the ‘forces of production’ to complete production process. The forces of production may be understood as the (various) tools and technologies involved in the production. The theory of Historical Materialism thus says that all actions are motivated by classes trying to better their material situation. So Marx and Engels believed that all previous history had been shaped by this class struggle.
If a General Theory of Society is to fit into the first category of pure scientific thought, based on pure logic, then it must be able to explain all possible eventualities as any exceptions will negate the whole theory. A general theory must not contradict experimental or historical evidence. If such a narrow, positivist view of sociology is accepted, then Marx’s general theory cannot be feasible. This is because there are plenty of times in history when people do not seem to act in their material best interest. For example in Confucian China, technologies such as movable type were actually uninvented over time when this was clearly not in the material interests of the owners. Also the British government encouraged by Pitt and Wilberforce outlawed the slave trade when the British dominated this industry and it was clearly not in their best interests.
However, it could still be possible that Marx’s theory is correct if sociology is not so narrowly defined as a natural science. Marx could have meant for his general theory only to apply to Industrial Western nations at the time he was writing. If this is the case, then a more detailed analysis of the General Theory is necessary in order to determine its feasibility.
Marx was wrong when he wrote that the above modes of production of human life are the chief motors of human change. This is patently not true. As is argued below people will often act to maximise other things than material wealth. Giddens wrote that ‘Human history is not the history of class struggles and is not governed, even in the last instance by the level of development of the forces of production.’
Those who own the means of production use their ownership to exploit the labour of others through appropriation of surplus labour. In ancient society, this was obvious as it was done through slavery. However in capitalist societies, labour is brought and sold at its market value so this exploitation is less obvious. The exploitation does occur because the worker is economically dependent on the owner. This situation is often called asymmetrical reciprocity. Marx thought that it would inevitably lead to massive class conflict between the owners and the workers. The workers would act in their material best interest and confiscate the assets of the owners. Marx believed that the only way to resolve this position was to eliminate class conflict by the elimination of class itself. The theory assumes though that these classes are clearly definable; that the workers are distinct from the owners. But to what extent is this the case? Today there are owners at almost every level of society and class. Thatcher’s stake-holding democracy and the popularity of private pensions have blurred any distinction that can be made between the labourer and the Capitalist. This shows that Marx’s assertion that
‘Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — bourgeoisie and proletariat’
- is completely wrong and this further undermines the feasibility of Historic Materialism.
It is not accepted either that ‘The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.’ If people do act in their perceived material best interest, they will not necessarily rise up against those who are much wealthier. This is because they hope that one day they might be able to rise up the material ladder and they want to feel secure in doing so. This is why, for example, Governor Bush’s proposed tax-breaks for the rich are so popular in the United States even though they will only benefit a very small number of people.
The title asks if any General Social Theory is feasible, not just Marx’s. In order to answer this question, it is necessary to look for other sociologists who may have proposed General Theories. In my research for this essay though, I have not been able to find such a theory. One of Hobbes’ justifications of the modern state was to protect people from the goal of others to stay alive. So Hobbes believed that all humanity was united by this common goal. In a way this is a General Theory of society but it is very simple and does not have much analytical value. A further problem with the theory is that it does not explain the behaviour of martyrs or suicidals who Hobbes simply dismisses as irrational or insane. There are many possible reasons for the dirth of general theories; possibly increased specialisation within the field of sociology has led to no one that can still see the wider picture. An alternative explanation is that most sociologists are not as positivist as Marx and so they do not believe that a General Theory would be feasible.
Therefore I shall briefly examine what Max Weber said in relation to Marx. Weber wrote that sociology would never be able to discover universal laws of human behaviour comparable with those of natural science. This appears to refute any suggestion that a general theory of society is possible. Weber also wrote that cultural factors especially religion are important determinants of social change and not just economic relationships. Marx predicted the immanent collapse of Capitalism and Weber was especially critical of this, as he believed that the planned economy would increase rationalisation not end it. So Weber did not believe that any general theory was possible.
In order to consider whether whole classes act to always better their material conditions, as Marx predicted, it could be useful to consider whether individuals do. Durkheim argued that this is not the case and that it is useless considering the individual thoughts and feelings of individuals because society exists in its own right over and above the mere members who themselves are formed by the social structure. However this is beyond the scope of this essay and reducing society to individuals is the only way that I think any kind of general theory can exist.
‘History is nothing but the activity of men in pursuit of their ends’
This is a much weaker statement than Historic Materialism. But it could still be a General Social Theory as it does not narrow itself to strictly materialist issues. So this theory could explain all action that I can think of. For example, people who do superficially altruistic acts such as helping an old woman across the road or donating to charity are really only doing these things because they believe it to be in their enlightened self-interest. However, as we shall see later, the problem with this theory is that people’s perception of the course of action, which will benefit them most, is often different from the actual best course of action. This error, as we shall see later, severely limits the usefulness of the theory even though it may be true.
This is because the mistakes people make in calculating whether or not to do a certain thing are huge, chaotic and unpredictable. One person may decide that they want to become an Academic in a university and forego the extra money or material wealth that they could have earned if they had worked in the commercial sector. These types of decisions are highly personal and it is doubtful whether any General Theory could be thought of which will cope with every possible eventuality.
This leads to the ongoing debate in sociology about whether the subject should look for causal explanations of phenomena and whether it is possible for humans to ever objectively analyse the behaviour of other humans. Weber and others have argued that sociologists should instead concentrate on recognising the meanings that people give to their actions. Verstehen is the name of the school of thought, which agrees with this form of sociology.
An additional problem with the social sciences in general and with psychology and sociology especially is that it is difficult for humans to study other humans at all. Just as it is impossible to have an objective view of the self in psychology, it may be impossible for anyone to accurately study society when they are members of that same society.
Finally, General Theories of Society in general and historic materialism in particular stress the evolutionary view of history too much. This is in part due to Marx’s love of Hegel who proposed this theory. Marx and Engels thought of how they believed History ought to evolve and then designed a theory which would bring that about. It has been argued that Engels especially was so scarred by the poverty around him in Manchester that he searched for any feasible alternative to capitalism.
Therefore, in conclusion, it is not possible to come up with any feasible General Theories of Society except for obvious truisms which are not of much analytical use. The only possible theory of human behaviour is complicated almost to the point of redundancy by the irrationality of humans themselves. Historic materialism can only be accepted as a theory if it is regarded as embodying the more abstract elements of a theory of human Praxis.