the Rathouse
Series of Very Abbreviated Versions of Classical Philosophical Works for Very Busy People.
Chapter 15:    Economic Historicism

Marx was not a Vulgar Marxist

The introduction to this chapter debunks the “Vulgar Marxist” idea that Marx is in competition with Freud and Adler in penetrating to the hidden springs of human motivation.

"Marx, [Vulgar Marxists] think, taught the all-pervading influence of the economic motive in the life of men; he succeeded in explaining its overpowering strength by showing that ‘man’s overmastering need was to get the means of living’, he thus demonstrated the fundamental importance of such categories as the profit motive or the motive of class interest for the actions not only of individuals but also of social groups; and he showed how to use these categories for explaining the course of history. Indeed, they think that the very essence of Marxism is the doctrine that economic motives and especially class interest are the driving forces of history…The average Vulgar Marxist believes that Marxism lays bare the sinister secrets of social life by revealing the hidden motives of greed and lust for material gain which actuate the powers behind the scenes of history; powers that cunningly and consciously create war, depression, unemployment, hunger in the midst of plenty, and all the other forms of social misery, in order to gratify their vile desires for profit."

Popper admits that Marx sometimes spoke of psychological phenomena like greed and the profit motive, but he did not use them as explanations, rather they are  symptoms of the corrupting influence of the social system, effects rather than causes.

Nor was he a vulgar materialist

As a poet in his youth, an educated member of the cultured bourgeoisie, he did not denigrate things of the mind, even when he depicted the products of mind as part of the superstructure rather than the base of things.

"There is a well-known passage in Capital, where Marx says that ‘in Hegel’s writing, dialectics stands on its head; one must turn it the right way up again ..’ Its tendency is clear. Marx wished to show that the ‘head’, i.e. human thought, is not itself the basis of human life but rather a kind of superstructure, on a physical basis...The passages quoted indicate that although our feet have to be kept, as it were, on the firm ground of the material world, our heads—and Marx thought highly of human heads—are concerned with thoughts or ideas. In my opinion, Marxism and its influence cannot be appreciated unless we recognize this dualism."

"The bearing of what I have called Marx’s dualism and his scientific determinism on his view of history is plain. Scientific history, which to him is identical with social science as a whole, must explore the laws according to which man’s exchange of matter with nature develops. Its central task must be the explanation of the development of the conditions of production. Social relationships have historical and scientific significance only in proportion to the degree in which they are bound up with the productive process—affecting it, or perhaps affected by it. ‘Just as the savage must wrestle with nature in order to satisfy his needs, to keep alive, and to reproduce, so must the civilized man; and he must continue to do so in all forms of society and under all possible forms of production. This kingdom of necessity expands with its development, and so does the range of human needs. Yet at the same time, there is an expansion of the productive forces which satisfy these needs.’ This, in brief, is Marx’s view of man’s history."

Critique – two aspects of historical materialism

Moving on to criticism, Popper distinguished two different aspects, first, historicism, the claim that the realm of social sciences coincides with that of the historical or evolutionary method, and especially with historical prophecy. The second aspect is economism or ‘materialism’, i.e. the claim that the economic organization of society, the organization of our exchange of matter with nature, is fundamental for all social institutions and especially for their historical development. Popper dismissed the first claim and agreed with the second provided that the term ‘fundamental’ is not taken too seriously.

"But, as I said before, we must not take the term ‘fundamental’ too seriously. Marx himself undoubtedly did so…For although the general importance of Marx’s economism can hardly be overrated, it is very easy to overrate the importance of the economic conditions in any particular case. Some knowledge of economic conditions may contribute considerably, for example, to a history of the problems of mathematics, but a knowledge of the problems of mathematics themselves is much more important for that purpose; and it is even possible to write a very good history of mathematical problems without referring at all to their ‘economic background’. (In my opinion, the ‘economic conditions’ or the ‘social relations’ of science are themes which can easily be overdone, and which are liable to degenerate into platitude.)"

Chapter 14 The Autonomy of Sociology     Chapter 16 The Classes

Start of the Shorter OSE       

The Open Society and its Enemies
Karl Popper