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Lamentation in the face of historical necessity

p. 367-375


Σύμφωνα με τον ιστορικό υλισμό, τη μαρξική θεωρία της ιστορίας, ο καπιταλισμός είναι ιστορικά αναγκαίος για μια εκτεταμένη ιστορική περίοδο. Συνεπάγεται οτι η εκμετάλλευση, συστατικό στοιχείο του καπιταλισμού, είναι ιστορικά αναγκαία. Αυτή η πεποίθηση βρίσκεται σε ένταση με τη μαρξική πεποίθηση ότι η εκμετάλλευση είναι άδικη και απεχθής. Αυτή η εργασία επιχειρεί μια ψηλάφηση της έντασης, σκιαγραφώντας το δίλημμα που ενδέχεται να αντιμετώπισαν δρώντα υποκείμενα που βρέθηκαν αντιμέτωπα με αυτή, δείχνοντας ταυτόχρονα ότι δεν μπορεί να αμβλυνθεί με τρόπονς πον έχουν προτείνει μαρξιστές φιλόσοφοι

Texte intégral

Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets! Industry furnishes the material which saving accumulates. Therefore, save, save, i.e., reconvert the greatest possible portion of surplus-value, or surplus-product into capital! Accumulation for accumulations sake, production for productions sake: by this formula classical economy expressed the historical mission of the bourgeoisie, and did not for a single instant deceive itself over the birth-throes of wealth. But what avails lamentation in the face of historical necessity?

Karl Marx1

Müntzer’s struggle

1Marxists believe that (1) capitalism is exploitative and that (2) capitalism is historically necessary2 It follows that (3) exploitation is historically necessary, at least for some historical time. These three claims are logically consistent. But since exploitation is demeaning, degrading, and unjust3 to the one who suffers it, and shameful and dishonourable for the one who afflicts it, there is a practical (roughly: pertaining to action) tension between (1) and (2). In other words, an opponent of exploitation cannot assert (2), or its entailments, without qualms ’sickening… to human feeling’4 The practical tension between (1) and (2) is not, moreover, a curiosum of mere scholastic interest, for that tension purports to characterise, in large part, the predicament of humanity prior to the advent of heavy industry, a predicament no doubt experienced as such by a multitude of historically situated agents.

2In The Peasant War in Germany, Friedrich Engels recounts the true story of the Reformation theologian Thomas Müntzer, whose ’preachings of Christian equality and evangelical community of possessions… compelled to make an attempt at their realization.’ Müntzer won over a large following among the lower-middle and peasant classes between 1524 and 1525 and set up a democratic town council, under universal suffrage, in the city of Mühlhausen, Thuringia, in what is today central Germany. In late 1525 he was captured and executed for treason. In a famous passage, Engels describes Müntzer’s struggle as follows:

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence… What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions… he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to... all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved… Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost5

3This short essay discusses Müntzer’s struggle, in an attempt to make sense of why he, and others like him, may be ’irrevocably lost’6 I shall argue that the practical tension implicated in this struggle, whose most general form can be found in some conjunction like (1) and (2), is stronger than some Marxists have thought. This form of tension is no longer present in human society, but it characterises long stretches of humanity’s past, from the early stages of capitalism, through feudalism, extending to tragic ancient figures such as Spartacus7 A deeper understanding of this tension can, I think, permit a clearer view of certain stark historical choices and even provide belated occasion for that lamentation which could not be availed to historical actors when the dramas of history were played out.

4Section II refines propositions (1) and (2) and refutes an argument, due to G. A. Cohen, intended to alleviate the tension between them. Section III contrasts the problem of ’empty hands’, elicited by Müntzer’s struggle, with the so-called problem of ’dirty hands’ and draws some tentative conclusions. I must now offer some tentative definitions of exploitation and necessity. A exploits B if and only if A takes advantage of B’s vulnerability to obtain some benefit at B’s expense. Although not all exploitation need be unjust, the dominant form of exploitation under capitalism plainly is, for it permits the rich to extract unpaid labour, i.e. benefit ’at the expense of the poor’8 in virtue of (unjustified) monopoly over the means of production.

5What is the sense of ’historical necessity’ employed in (2) and (3)? Marx’s account of historical materialism views history as progress through a series of stages, each of which involves a dominant way of reproducing human life and its conditions. Each ’mode of production’ thus forms the ’basis’ for social life9 In this connection, some property or event p is historically necessary for q if and only if q can’t obtain a place in the historical agenda without the existence or contribution of p. Class division, for instance, may be historically necessary for social order (under feudalism), or for the development of productive power (under capitalism)10 Note, further, that this conception of historical necessity does not imply some form of ’economic determinism’. It is because of what historically situated agents (freely decide to) do, not despite what they do, that certain economic and social forms are historically necessary11

The Lasallean gambit

6I turn now to claims (1) and (2). In his Isaac Deutscher Memorial Lecture, G.A. Cohen writes:

There is a tension between the Marxist commitment to advancement of productive power and the Marxist commitment to those at whose expense that advancement occurs. I cannot fully relieve the tension here, but I shall state four logically independent propositions which, brought into proper relationship with one another, would, I think, do so: (i) All exploitation, including that which contributes to liberation, is unjust. (ii) Liberation requires productive progress, and productive progress requires exploitation. (iii) Whether or not productive progress was inevitable, exploitation was. That is, exploitation was not only unavoidable for productive progress, but unavoidable tout court. Justice without productive progress was not an historically feasible option because justice was not an historically feasible option. And finally, (iv) Ruling classes always exploit subordinate classes to a greater extent than productive progress would require12

7The rest of this section reconstructs, and refutes, Cohen’s tensionalleviating argument from propositions (iii) and (iv).

8Cohen’s proposition (i), in its starkest form, says that exploitation ought to be permanently abolished13 (whether at t, or at t-n, for any positive n). Proposition (iii) says that exploitation cannot be permanently abolished prior to t. ’Cannot’ here does not mean that one can’t attempt to permanently abolish exploitation, or that one can’t temporarily succeed. It merely expresses the standard Marxist view that such attempts are bound to fail in the medium run. Primitive communism, or Engelsian ’simple commodity production’ are non-exploitative modes of production, but are incompatible with modern industry and are, for this reason, excluded from the (post-feudal) historical agenda. The unasserted premise is that ought implies can: Cohen can then validly infer that it is false that exploitation ought to be permanently abolished prior to t.

9This conclusion is intended to alleviate the tension between the ’commitment to advancement of productive power and the commitment to those at whose expense that advancement occurs’. It is not, however, successful in its purpose, for that conclusion is consistent with: (4) exploitation ought always to be resisted (whether at t, or at any time t-n). (4) is not subject to ’ought-implies-can’, for it can be acted upon. Hence the tension in Müntzer’s predicament is not alleviated: his commitment to the wretched of the earth seems to ground an obligation that he stand against the tide of history.

10Of course it would be too strong to insist that everyone must always resist exploitation or oppression no matter how difficult, costly, or indeed hopeless. My contention is only that some people will resist it, even when hopeless, since, for them, resistance will be (experienced as) a matter of existential necessity. Indeed, I think we can better understand Müntzer’s struggle by framing his choice set in terms of a dilemma. Here is Müntzer, ’irrevocably lost’, talking to himself: ’The Landgrave of Hesse [the Prince who suppressed the Muhlhausen commune] is near. If we resist, we all likely die, or suffer massive losses. But, if we surrender, we won’t be able to look ourselves in the mirror. We either lose our lives, or we lose ourselves. So we’ll fight.’

11This internal dialogue shows that the injunction to resist exploitation, as it appears in Müntzer’s deliberations, may be even stronger than (4), for he might think not that he and his followers ought to resist, but rather that they have to14 In short, Müntzer is entangled in an irreconcilable struggle between two forms of necessity: practical and historical. He must resist, but he can never win. The practical tension between (4) and (3) may thus be even stronger than originally envisaged, at least for some historically situated agents. But there’s another strategy for alleviating the tension. That strategy seeks to grant (4) by way of achieving an immediate reduction in unnecessary exploitation and human misery. This is the work (iv) does in Cohen’s argument.

12Proposition (iv) can be schematically formalised as follows. We can define the average rate of exploitation at each stage of productive development as Ei, where i=1, 2, 3, 4.15 Historical materialism entails that, for i=2, 3, a certain amount of exploitation Eimin is socially necessary for productive progress.16 But since there is no a priori reason to think that Ei and Eimin will coincide, and strong reason to think that, for i=2, 3, Ei > Eimin, there seems to be immediate reason to resist. Cohen says, in effect, that socially unnecessary exploitation, the difference between Ei and Eimin, can be reduced to nought. And since unnecessary exploitation ought to be so reduced, Müntzer ought to resist. It follows that revolutionaries have some room for anti-oppression manoeuvre, so that their struggle is not devoid of emancipatory prospects.

13The problem with this unnecessary exploitation argument is that its conclusion does not support (4), but rather a morally weaker form of (4), namely that one ought only to resist socially unnecessary exploitation. But then there’s no tension between two distinct programmatic Marxist commitments to be alleviated! For the weaker injunction raises no practical clash with (3): in order to forestall a potentially irreconcilable dilemma, Cohen has weakened its first horn to the point of dissolving that dilemma. Cohen’s gambit is Lasallean.

14Let me explain. In the 1870s Marx was engaged in a polemic over the doctrines of Ferdinand Lasalle and his followers, a dominant stream within the working class movement of Germany at the time. In this polemic Marx ridicules the Lasalleans, among other things, for their allegiance to the socalled ’iron law of wages’. He writes:

It is as if, among slaves who have at last got behind the secret of slavery and broken out in rebellion, a slave still in thrall to obsolete notions were to inscribe on the program of the rebellion: Slavery must be abolished because the feeding of slaves in the system of slavery cannot exceed a certain low maximum!17

15Cohen’s argument is Lasallean, for it implicitly makes opposition to slavery a function of the most productively affordable minimization of slave exploitation (Eimin), which is –under innocuous assumptions– mathematically equivalent to the most productively affordable maximization of slave nourishment (Marx’s ’low maximum’). Just as this cannot be the (main) reason to resist slavery, it cannot, mutatis mutandis, be the (main) reason to resist wage labour. Marxists are not opposed only to unnecessary exploitation, as that argument says, but to exploitation tout court, as (4) says. Moreover, Cohen’s gambit does not do justice to the motivational nuances of Müntzer-like struggles, to the point of rendering them incomprehensible (Serf: ’We’re fighting against exploitation, but we’ll stop where Ei = Eimin’ Landlord: ’Oh OK, you can borrow my abacus’). The unnecessary exploitation move therefore fails to alleviate the tension between (4) and (3), for it fails to correctly understand that tension. The twin Marxian commitments to emancipation and material progress are in irreconcilable, indeed tragic, conflict.

The problem of empty hands

16Müntzer’s moral predicament can be profitably contrasted with the socalled ’problem of dirty hands’18 The latter arises in response to the question: given evil is inevitable, who is to commit it? An army leader having to choose between allowing the enemy to kill thousands of his troops and losing the war is faced with a dilemma that is part of his job description; or, rather, this job (and its description) exists precisely in order to have him make decisions of the sort. Müntzer’s struggle has similar problem-structure but inverted content: given evil is inevitable, who is to resist it? Whereas the possibility of ’dirty hands’ redeems evil in the face of human necessity, the possibility of ’empty hands’19 redeems humanity in the face of necessary evil. Due to space limitations I can only sketch this contrast here.

17Dirty hands claims are excuses20for permissible, because morally expedient, wrong- or ill-doing. The general or politician can either do what’s morally expedient and lose his soul, or keep his soul and fail to do what’s morally expedient. Empty hands claims, by contrast, are a subset of those permissible and non-obligatory acts that involve well-doing and form candidate justifications for praise, or grounds for pride, on the part of the agent. Now, what distinguishes supererogation from mere benevolence is that the former implies substantial cost to the agent. Clearly Müntzer’s actions come at high cost. But are they supererogatory, rather than merely foolish?

18In dirty hands cases, φ-ing –the dirty act– is not obligatory in the sense that, for any individual P with the capacity to φ, it is false that P ought to φ in order to bring about state of affairs S. It does not follow, and it is false, that S ought not to occur, for in both dirty and empty hands cases S is a morally expedient goal (defeat of the Nazis, abolition of exploitation). But, as a matter of fact, S is not on the historical agenda for Müntzer. As Engels points out, Müntzers (felt) commitment to S heightens the tension between what he ought to do and what he can accomplish. His hands are clean, or cleaner than everyone elses, but empty. Müntzer is like a man locked in a dark cell, longing for freedom. He struggles to escape into the heavily lit room next door and succeeds, only to find himself caged therein. The prisoners act is not, I think, foolish, even if done with foresight. It is, rather, an expressive act of autonomous defiance in the face of unjustified oppression. It fails in its object –freedom– but is, presumably, praiseworthy as such. And since empty hands acts are permissible, non-obligatory, self-sacrificing and praiseworthy, they are also supererogatory.

19I have argued that the tension between Marxist opposition to exploitation and Marxist assertion of its historical necessity cannot be straightforwardly alleviated. Revolutionists prior to the culmination of heavy industry are condemned to being ’irrevocably lost’, even when they can reduce or eradicate ’socially unnecessary’ exploitation. But for their heroism there would be no consolation. I have not, moreover, defended the idea that historical materialism entails a pantragic view of history,21 although that idea follows from my argument. A better understanding of the stark moral choices faced by revolutionaries of the distant past can, I think, help deepen our appreciation of politics conducted in a milieu of historical (near)inevitability22

20A final word: the practical tension this essay discusses very probably no longer exists. Müntzer’s struggle, however accurate a representation of the revolutionist’s predicament three hundred years ago, does not describe his present state. In Marx’s time, lamentation (Jammer) was in order, but could not be availed (nützt) because its object –exploitation, oppression and suffering– was deemed necessary for its own eradication. In our time, the proper attitude is, I believe, no longer that of lamentation. It is, rather, focused and organised resentment against that old object, no longer historically necessary but still disastrously ubiquitous.


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Notes de bas de page

1 Marx-Engels Collected Works (vol. 35: 591).

2 (2) does not imply that every collective social entity, e.g. country, must, as a matter of nomic necessity, go through capitalism, but only that some country or class of countries must.

3 Marxists have debated the question whether exploitation entails injustice or unfairness for some 40 years now. See for instance Wood (1972) and Geras (1986). Given that most of the parties to the debate seem to agree on the wrong- or bad-making features of capitalist exploitation, however, it remains unclear why the debate is not merely a disagreement over words.

4 Marx-Engels Collected Works (12: 126). Marx is here referring to other values that capitalism destroys, such as community or fraternity.

5 Marx-Engels Collected Works (10 : 469).

6 Müntzers struggle, it bears noting, need not describe the predicament of Müntzer of Mühlhausen, about whom not much is known. It is simply a label for hopeful revolutionists living at hopeless times.

7 Since the adjective tragic figures prominently in some parts of this essay, I must offer some sort of definition. A state of affairs, as I understand it, is tragic if and only if it involves unavoidable alienation. Alienation obtains when two or more things (values, feelings, ways of life) that belong together are separate. Tragedy is the unavoidable form of such separation.

8 Marx quotes approvingly this expression of J.B. Says in Marx-Engels Collected Works (35: 591).

9 For an excellent introduction to Marxs thought in English, see Wood (2004).

10 See, for example, Marx-Engels Collected Works (29: 210), the allusions to the necessary transitional stage of worker alienation through wage labour in Marx-Engels Collected Works (28: 439) and the more general discussion of the progressive nature of capital in Marx-Engels Collected Works (6: 477-519). See also Engels discussion of the indispensability of slavery for ancient Athenian achievement in Marx-Engels Collected Works (25: 168).

11 See Wood (2004: 63ff) for discussion.

12 Cohen (1988: 303-304)

13 An important excerpt from Marxs famous Preface (Marx-Engels Collected Works 29: 263) is relevant: No social formation is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Call t the time by which both all the productive forces for which capitalism is sufficient have developed and new superior relations have matured within the framework of capitalism to allow for abolition of exploitation.

14 It is an impressive fact that use [of expressions like have to] in the past tense indeed implies that the agent did the act in question. (Williams 1985: 128).

15 These stages correspond roughly to primitive communism, feudalism, capitalism and communism. By assumption, E1 and E4 are equal to nought.

16 See footnote 10 for references and Roemer (1982) for a defence of this claim.

17 Marx-Engels Collected Works (24: 92).

18 Walzer (1973).

19 I thank Axel Gosseries for suggesting this name.

20 As opposed to justifications (see Austin 1956).

21 See Jean Hyppolite (1948: 79ff).

22 Apart from the ancient anti-slavery movement and early Christianity, the most recent example is perhaps Russia after 1920, i.e. after it became clear to the Bolsheviks that revolution in the West was not forthcoming.

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