Of all the slogans raised against Marxism, I’ve always found determinism to be one of the flimsiest. In most contexts, it seems to mean little more than ‘an account of causality I do not like.’ In the case of Marxism, it is most often coupled with the term ‘economic,’ alleging that Marxists see the economy as the only aspect of society with any causal efficacy. That a brief perusal of Marx and Engels’ published writings would be more than enough to disabuse anyone of this notion has not stopped generations of commentators from repeating it. Reading The Eighteenth Brumaire, for example, one is struck by how insufficient a term ‘the economic’ is to describe what Marx and Engels undoubtedly do see as the most important determining factor in history. The alliance between the Bourbons and the Orleanists, for example, doesn’t stem from some shared economic interest in any simple sense of the word. Indeed, the two wings of the French monarchy were each based on different types of property, the former representing industrial capital and the latter landed property. What drove them together was their shared opposition to both the revolutionary proletariat and the French liberals whose reforms, the believed, gave too much ground to the former. Here action and ideology are not determined by anything captured in the word ‘economic,’ but by their interaction with the class struggle and the process of exploitation upon which it is based. The shorthand of economic here reduces this struggle over relations of domination to the bloodless image of ‘truck, barter, and trade’ proffered to us by bourgeois economics.
One might point out that here I’ve given up the game, and essentially conceded that Marxism is a determinism, if not an ‘economic’ one. But to me, this still misses the point. The assertion that relationships of exploitation (and their concomitant struggles) determine the political action, ideology, and indeed way of life of various classes is certainly a strong account of social causality (though importantly, not one without space for contingency or other kinds of determination). Yet those who lob the epithet of determinism at Marxism often offer in its stead accounts of causality which are hardly any weaker. When Foucault, for example, argues that “To imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system,” he is arguing a strong account of ideological determinism, wherein utopian thought of any variety only locks us in more securely to our current system of domination. Implicit in this comment is the theory that any system, no matter what its form or content, is inherently generative of normativity, exclusion, and oppression. This is hardly a vision of society lacking in determining forces.
What bothers people about Marxism, it seems, is not that it offers a strong account of social causality, but that it plainly asserts that not all arenas of society have equal determining power. To me, this does not appear to be a very outlandish argument. It is not one, however, which can be decided by methodological quarrels, but through detailed empirical examination, of exactly the sort Marxists have been doing for a very long time.