First and foremost, we have to be clear that when we use the terms “idealism” and “materialism”, we aren’t talking about metaphysics. In metaphysics, the term “materialist” refers to someone who believes that reality is composed primarily of matter, and mind (or consciousness) arises from the complex interactions, neurochemical events, and information processing, within the physical (i.e. material) brain. Idealists, on the other hand, think that reality is fundamentally comprised of immaterial mind; meaning the world of appearances is either directed by a mind that stands outside of it, or is actually taking place within a mind (usually that of God’s). When Marxist use the terms, however, they are talking about society and history and political analysis, not the fundamental structure of the cosmos. So it’s important to keep that distinction in mind.
“Idealism” in the Marxist context means to analyze a historical/political event (or series of events) in terms of what is ideal, or in terms of ideas about reality. “Materialism” in the Marxist context, however, means to analyze a historical/political event (or series of events) in terms of the actual conditions that were (or are) present during said event (or series of events). More specifically, it means to analyze events in terms of the historical, political, social, cultural, and most importantly, economic context in which they actually take place.
Idealism v. Materialism: Marxism and Cuba
In previous discussions on this topic, I have found that using Cuba as an example is a good way to illuminate the difference here. After all, it is often easier to understand an abstract concept when you embed it into a concrete example.
An idealist analysis of Cuba would involve comparing Castro and his government to the moral or philosophical ideals of what we think a government should be, outside of the actual material realities that Castro and his government had to operate in. So, idealists will critique Cuba on the grounds that his government wasn’t immediately democratic, or that he committed human rights violations (like every other country), or that Cuba’s difficult economic situation is a result of the ideas of socialism, etc. In other words, they will not analyze Castro and his government in terms of what he replaced, or what he was fighting against, or the obstacles he had to overcome, or the actual compromises he had to make given that he was faced with certain concrete dilemmas and limited options; rather they will compare Castro to ideals about what a government, in a vacuum, should be.
A materialist analysis of Cuba, on the other hand, would involve analyzing Castro and his government solely in terms of the actual conditions on the ground in which he had to operate in. You cannot understand Castro and the revolution, for example, without understanding what regime the revolutionaries overthrew, without understanding how Batista’s Cuba was run and how it operated, without understanding the US’s role in Cuba before, during, and after the revolution, or without understanding the economic situation in post-revolution Cuba (in which Batista and his regime ransacked the Cuban treasury before being ejected out of power, leaving Castro and his new government with literally nothing in terms of money). You cannot understand the authoritarian nature of Castro’s political system without understanding what he was up against, both internally and externally, what role U.S. sabotage attempts played on the nature of the system, and what Castro had to do, in real life, to protect the gains of the revolution from being loss, and to prevent Cuba from devolving back into a casino and whorehouse for the wealthy U.S. elite.
Additionally, you cannot understand Cuba’s economic situation by merely analyzing socialist ideas in a vacuum and assuming the ideas themselves caused the material outcomes in Cuba over the last half century or more. Instead, a materialist would argue, you have to understand the history of Cuba, how it’s productive powers and social relations evolved, under what conditions its modern economy sprang up, and how the U.S.’s embargo effected their economy, among other things.
To be clear, however, one can be an idealist and defend Cuba on idealist grounds. You could, for example, defend Castro and his revolution solely by referencing ideas about the immorality of capitalism, about the need for a socialist revolution in every country, or by pointing to abstract concepts like “equality” or “liberation”. But if those ideas are not connected to, and interpreted through, the material conditions in which Cuba’s revolution actually unfolded, then that analysis is going to be extremely limited, simplistic, and intellectually childish. And while two people may reach similar conclusions based on the use of totally different approaches (i.e. idealist and materialist), the idealist explanation will, by definition, be far more narrow-minded, ahistorical, and generally less tenable. Furthermore, one can have an overall analysis that employs both materialist analysis in some areas and idealist analysis in other areas; but the materialist analysis will always be deeper, more historically informed, and more nuanced.
To be a materialist does not necessarily mean agreeing with Marxists on everything, but consistent, coherent Marxists will usually apply materialist analysis; whereas liberals, generally, are idealists. They often analyze things in terms of ideas and not in terms of material realities. The reasons for this difference between Marxists and Liberals goes back to the roots of their respective philosophical traditions, but to attempt to address that here would go beyond the scope of this essay. So perhaps I will write more on that at a later time.
Why Historians are Disproportionately Materialists (in the Marxist sense)
In my opinion, professional historians, and scholars of history, often take a more materialist approach naturally, because to study history in a serious way is to inevitably understand how material realities throughout history gave rise to other material realities. A historian understands context in a deep way, and so will naturally include that in his/her analysis. This isn’t always true, of course, and there are idealist historians, to be sure, but compared to the general population historians are more likely to organically employ materialist analysis. Marxism, after all, is deeply history-based. To be a Marxist is to be fundamentally interested in history, and to interpret the present through the lens of historical materialism. This explains why many historians are Marxists, and why many Marxists care about, and study, history. And in fact, in my personal life, I have found that the more I studied history, the more I gravitated towards Marxism; the two are deeply connected, and to study one is to bump up against the other.
In Marxist terms, to be a materialist means to analyze events in terms of the historical, political, social, cultural, and most importantly, economic context in which they actually take place.
Historical Materialism is principally a theory of history according to which the material conditions of a society’s mode of production (its way of producing and reproducing the means of human existence) fundamentally determine its organization and development.
Materialism, then, is a certain approach to history, and Historical Materialism is the theory that blossoms out of the materialist approach to history. Marx was the first person to identify, articulate, and defend this position, and therefore those who employ this methodology today are called Marxists.
The goal of this short essay is to help people understand what is an otherwise vague, often under-defined distinction; the confusion around which often leads to the derailing of many otherwise worthwhile discussions. I hope, to some extent at least, I’ve succeeded in doing that.
A primary criticism of Marxism (often employed by people with a poor understanding of Marxism, incidentally) is that Marxism, and Marxists, are rigid determinists. The critique goes something like this:
“Marxism is a determinist philosophy. Marx thought that communism was inevitable, and that individual people are just automatons; mere pawns of historical forces. This strips people of their free will and individuality, and reduces them to cogs in a deterministic machine. Marx’s theory of history is basically just a secular version of Divine Providence or Destiny, and therefore should be discarded.”
Needless to say, this is untrue; and the point of this short essay will be to correct this common misconception.
First and foremost, while Marx did believe that history unfolded based on certain historical laws over which individuals have no control, he did not think that this meant human beings were merely plankton swept up in the oceanic wave of history, being tossed to and fro, with no ability to influence what happened to them. Marx argued, as I do, that although history unfolds via a process that human beings can’t dictate, it unfolds via human beings as it’s agents. Therefore, once human beings become conscious of the fact that history unfolds in certain ways, they can then be free to pick what role they want to play in that process. We are the agents of historical change; we are the vehicles through which history unfurls. To be conscious of that fact, and to choose action in the face of it, is to be as free as a human being can be.
Some Marxists, it is true, have been such strict determinists that they effectively gave up on political action; opting instead to either work within the capitalist system, or abandon politics all together, while waiting for the glorious revolution, and the subsequent ushering in of Communism which they viewed as inevitable and imminent. But this is a perversion of Marxism, if not an outright subversion of it. Marx was the person, after all, who famously declared that “philosophers hitherto have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it”. Marx himself was doggedly engaged in European politics during his life, and his theory and methodology was explicitly a call to action! It was meant to give the working class an understanding of their material and historical condition so that they could weaponize that understanding in pursuit of their own liberation. It’s our job as Marxists to organize, participate in direct action, form resistance movements, fight back against fascists, and do all the other difficult political work that there is to do in order to realize, in so far as we can, the system we want. To sit back and wait for history to play itself out as a convinced determinist is to effectively abandon Marxism altogether.
Other Forms Society Can Take As Capitalism Collapses
Marx was well aware of the fact that when capitalism began to break down, it would not necessarily lead to communism, it could just as well devolve into fascism, devolve into a sort of neo-feudalism, devolve into barbarism, or even result in “the common ruination” of the contending classes altogether.
The most likely of these outcomes, based on what has happened in the recent past, is the rise of fascism. As is commonly said “fascism is what capitalism does when its under threat”; and history proves this again and again. Most notably, Nazi Germany arose out of the Weimar Republic after the Great Depression and the national humiliation of WWI. In contemporary America we have just elected a white nationalist with fascistic dispositions and a segment of his base which is explicitly and unapologetically fascist. This is largely a reaction to the excesses, depravities, and the impotence of neoliberalism (i.e. globalized capitalism). The narratives on offer from the far right are always simplistic, visceral, bigoted, and broadly appealing to people who have been beaten down by the capitalist system but who lack a comprehensive understanding of how they ended up where they are. Capitalism creates problems, then brings out the teeth and claws in the form of fascism as the solution to the very issues that it has created.
It’s essential to understand this point, so I will restate it in a slightly different way: fascism is just a form of capitalism cleverly disguised as not only a totally different system, but also as a solution to the failures of the system which it still essentially represents. This provides a unique challenge to revolutionary leftists. The right wing narratives are simpler than ours; whereas we try to describe reality as it actually is, the far right appeals to gut prejudices and creates convenient and easy scapegoats to distract people from the failures of the system itself. “It’s not capitalism that is to blame”, they say, “it is that Muslim, or that Mexican, or that Jew. THEY are the problem.” In this way the system protects itself.
Therefore it is by no means an inevitability that communism will arise out of the ashes of capitalism. To the contrary, we could get capitalism recapitulated as fascism, or we could merely descend into chaos and barbarism as institutions fracture and collapse. The left needs to understand this and organize in order to be a force and viable option when that time comes, so that we can push the system in the correct direction and not merely hand it over to the worst elements of our species by virtue of our impotence, disorganized state, and general inability to act. Communism isn’t inevitable, its merely an option among many, and it’s our responsibility to implement it. This requires action.
A Word On Social Democracy
One thing that Marx did fail to anticipate is capitalism’s ability to use it’s economic surplus to pacify the working class and the poor.
If fascism is capitalism with it’s fangs out, social democracy is capitalism with a smile.
In times of relative prosperity, capitalism maintains its hierarchy of wealth and power by handing out concessions to the lower classes. Northern Europe is a place where this aspect of capitalism has been fully developed. But it’s important to realize that social democracy is one way the capitalist system, when it is in good health, holds off revolutions and maintains it’s stranglehold. It essentially “buys off the revolution” by pacifying the working class with goods and services as part of the social safety net (healthcare, education, and maybe even a basic income), while ensuring the basic social relations, power inequalities, and authoritarian hierarchies of capitalism stay firmly in place. This strategy, while certainly the best that capitalism has to offer, suffers from the same flaws of capitalism generally, and, as I said above, only takes hold in times of relative prosperity. The moment economic times get rough, social democracy and it’s bedazzled social safety net is the first thing to be sacrificed on the alter of “austerity”. So social democrats should be wary of hitching their wagon to capitalism: it’s failures will be your failures. Additionally, anti-capitalists should be wary of social democrats. For us, social democracy can only be a means to a further end, something to support while working for more radical changes. But it can never be the end itself.
Marxism is not a fundamentally deterministic philosophy. It does not preach a narrow-minded inevitability, and Marxists can only truly be Marxists, in my opinion, if they act on their Marxism. To sit back, endlessly theorizing and waiting for the magical revolution, is to abandon a fundamental aspect of Marxist philosophy: political action. That is not to say that theory has no place in Marxism, of course it does! But theory only becomes relevant when it is backed by concerted, organized political action. Marx and Engels knew that as well as anybody, and it’s worth noting that the Communist Manifesto, which they wrote together, was a call to arms, not armchairs.