Marx portrays history as a progressive development from feudalism to capitalism, to communism. He is often criticized for treating history, in a Hegelian fashion, as a teleological process that aims from the start toward a final culmination, a classless society. What truth is there in these criticisms?

Marx is surprisingly ambiguous on the topic of teleology. On the one hand, he explicitly rejected Hegel’s philosophy of history for its teleological approach in a number of places. On the other hand, at times he used Hegelian forms of expression that are undoubtedly teleological. If the occasional uses of teleological language were the only evidence to convict Marx of teleological thinking, one could perhaps set them aside as mere rhetorical flourishes. However, we need to go deeper than this.

The concept of the subject

In recent decades the most influential accusations that Marx’s thought is infected with Hegelian teleological ideas have been made by Althusser. He focuses particularly on Marx’s “humanism” – the idea that human history has involved a progressive development of human powers, the growth of the human “subject.” This is most evident in Marx’s early writings where Hegel’s influence on him is strongest.

Marx portrayed history as the story of human “self-creation.” This is an example of what Althusser calls the philosophy of “origin and end.” It presumes that there is an originating “subject” (the person), present from outset, that embodies the end. The process of development is then the realization of a goal or end that has guided the process from the beginning.

What, then, is the “subject” that develops and realizes itself in the course of history? Various candidates have been proposed by supporters of Marxist humanism, e.g. the person, the “human race,” “society.” But none of these has operated as a unified subject in the course of history.

For most of history, different societies and communities have existed in relative isolation from each other. Productive powers have developed in them separately and unevenly. They are brought into relation through trade and commerce; but until the modern era this occurred on only a limited scale, and played only a small role in determining the development of production. It is not clear therefore what sense can be made of the idea of a single “human” or “historical” subject of the process prior to that.

However, we must beware of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. To reject the very idea of a subject, and conclude with Althusser that history is a process “without a subject” and nothing more than a series of separate events, leads to even greater problems. It has the effect of dissolving history into a series of discrete particular states in which there is no unity at all – only change and difference. This excludes any ideas of historical development or progress – indeed, it rules out any overall philosophy of history, which is what Marxism seeks to provide.

F. H. Bradley puts the point very clearly:

“Evolution,” “development,” “progress,” all imply something identical throughout, a subject of the evolution, which is one and the same. If what is there at the beginning is not there at the end … then evolution is a word with no meaning… And further, unless what is at the end is different from that which was at the beginning, there is no evolution. That which develops, or evolves itself, both is and is not.

Human self-creation

Marx’s idea of human self-creation is similarly paradoxical. If the human subject “makes itself,” was it already present at the outset as a creative agent? For Marx the answer must be: both yes and no.

The human historical subject as such is not present from the beginning of historical development, it comes into being only in the course of the process. Nor is there any intentional or subjective activity of creation at work at the outset.

And yet it would be a mistake to reject the very idea of a subject. There is not simply a process without a subject; rather, it is a process in which the subject emerges. There are real patterns of change and emergence to which a mere denial of the idea of the subject is blind.

According to this picture, the progressive development of human capabilities, and hence the creation of the human subject, is not a process governed by an intended goal from the outset. It arises through the coming together of numerous separate and independent activities. But that is not to say that it is a merely arbitrary or accidental result. On the contrary, a progressive pattern of development emerges from the interactions of different agents each separately and independently pursuing their own ends.

Similar issues also arise in the study of natural evolution where the validity of teleological concepts has also been much discussed. Marxism can learn a lot from these discussions. Darwin’s great achievement was to explain the patterns of evolutionary change through the naturalistic and causal mechanisms of mutation and natural selection.

Similarly, Marxism comprehends the progressive patterns of historical development as the outcome of class struggle and the conflict between the forces and relations of production. Marx – like Darwin – is best understood, not as repudiating teleological notions, but rather as using a naturalistic version of them that is consistent with modern science.

Sean Sayers is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Kent and an Editor of Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.

To read more, see Sean Sayers, ‘Marx and Teleology’, Science & Society 2019.

Image: Naum Gabo, Linear Construction No. 1