Was Karl Marx a Determinist?

The aim of this essay is to address to what extent Karl Marx could be considered a determinist. In doing so it will consider: (a) what constitutes determinism; (b) Marx’s theories on history; and (c) whether these theories are compatible with the notion of determinism. Precedence is given to section (b) due to the sheer volume of existing literature in this field. Analysis is limited to Marx’s personal theories on history as opposed to Marxist theory on history, as the latter is largely tangential to the issue in question.[1]

(a) Determinism

Determinism has many facets. In the broad sense it can be summarised as the philosophical proposition that every historical event is causally determined by an unbroken or predetermined chain of prior events. In rudimentary terms, therefore, determinism is the antithesis of free will – the notion that there is no predestined fate for mankind except that which it determines for itself. Determinism should not be confused with fatalism, which dictates that all future events are already predetermined and will definitely occur. Rather determinism is associated with and depends upon the concepts of materialism and causality.

More specifically, it is economic determinism with which, rightly or wrongly, Marx has become associated. Economic determinism can be defined as a form of determinism which explains social structure and culture as a product of the social and technical organisation of economic life.[2] It essentially lends primacy to economics over politics in the development of human history. It has been interpreted as the belief that economic laws determine the course of history, in much the same way as Auguste Comte considered that laws governed society.[3] On a more elementary level, Fleischer writes that as self-preservation is the supreme instinct in man, therefore the entire pattern of human conduct must always have been governed by the fundamental laws governing survival – a dialectical process between man and nature. This reasoning gives rise to the conclusion that all elements of historical consequence result from economic determinism, or man’s instinctive effort to survive.[4] In order for us to understand Marx’s association with economic determinism, an analysis of his theories on history is essential.

(b) Marx’s theories on history

Jon Elster writes that Marx had ‘both an empirical theory of history and a speculative philosophy of history.’[5] It is the former, better known as historical materialism, which concerns us. Historical materialism as an explanatory system has been expanded and refined by many academic studies since Marx’s death in 1883, despite no formal exposition of the concept ever having been published by Marx himself.[6] It looks for the causes of developments and changes in human societies in the way in which humans collectively make the means to life, thus giving an emphasis, through economic analysis, to everything that co-exists with the economic base of society, such as social classes, political structures and ideologies. While Marx claimed only to be proposing a guideline to historical research, by the twentieth century the concept of historical materialism had become a keystone of modern Communist doctrine.

An understanding of the origins of Marx’s attachment to materialism is essential in appreciating its concept. These origins can largely be attributed to his research on the philosophy of Epicurus and his reading of Adam Smith and other political economists. Historical materialism builds upon the idea that became current in philosophy from the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries that the development of human society has moved through a series of stages, from hunting and gathering, through pastoralism and cultivation, to commercial society. Marx argued that the history of Western society had progressed though the following stages or ‘modes of production.’ Each mode of production had its own economic system which gave rise to a system of class division based around ownership of the means of production:

(i) primitive communism

(ii) slave society



Marxists say that society moves from one stage to the next when the dominant class is displaced by a new emerging class. The final stage in the chain, communism (as we know it today), would eventually supplant capitalism on a global scale, and would therefore represent both the intended target and end result of social history.

The fundamental theory of historical materialism stems from the fact that people must procure or produce the necessities by which they can survive and reproduce themselves. Human beings are producers, and their production consists of two distinct aspects: the material and the social. The material refers to the physical necessities of life. In producing physical necessities, human beings create the social form, within which they produce. The social form of production is a social process by which people cooperate (through a division of labour in more complex social forms) to produce the things they need. This aspect always involves the social relations of those involved. These relations crucially concern the control of the process of production and the distribution of its products. The material aspect of production implies a certain organisation of production, possession of the appropriate tools, and knowledge. This material aspect of production is known as the ‘productive forces.’ The social form in which people produce is called the ‘relations of production.’ Together, the forces and relations of production make up the ‘mode of production.’

The next stage in the argument is more controversial. Initially, the interacting factors in the productive system of a class-based economy, including the forces and relations of production, are in a state of relative equilibrium. The forces of production determine and limit or at least correspond to the relations of production. Let us consider an example to help make this relationship more transparent. The earliest humans reproduced themselves by hunting animals and producing simple crops. Such a society could not produce cars, computers or engage in the mass production we have today. They lacked the tools and knowledge to do so. Knowledge and tools are part of the productive forces, which constrain the nature of the relations of production. This material limitation on what earlier societies could produce also constrained the types of relationships that existed between people. However, at some point the expanding forces of production clash with the contracting relations of production. In mankind’s harnessing of technology, the forces develop more rapidly, and in a direction incompatible with the relations of production. As the capacity to produce expands, the ownership of the means of production contracts. Consequently, the forces of production can no longer freely develop within the confines of the class structure. This conflict between the forces and relations of production intensifies until, by means of revolution, the social relations are reorganised so as to harmonise with the productive forces. It is anticipated that mankind will ultimately establish control over the material powers of the economy.[7]

Historians such as Jon Elster and David McLellan have scoured Marx’s writings for evidence of his rationale on historical materialism. Elster points to Das Kapital, Marx’s preface in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and what he refers to as ‘rambling, disconnected passages’ in The German Ideology as key sources.[8] He explains:

Historical materialism is not simply a theory that accords a privileged place to economic factors. It is, more specifically, a form of technological determinism. The rise and fall of successive property regimes are explained by their tendency to promote or fetter technical change.[9]

On Marx’s writings on the historical modes of production, Elster argues that Marx ‘does not provide applications and clarifications of the general theory.’[10] According to Elster, there is no suggestion that each of the three precapitalist modes of production (primitive communism, slave society and feudalism) divides into a progressive stage (in which the relations of production correspond to the forces of production) and a regressive stage (in which the correspondence becomes a contradiction). On the contrary, Marx consistently claims that technology was essentially unchanging from antiquity to the early modern period (with the exception of the invention of gunpowder, the printing press and the compass), and that the destabilising element in the ancient world was not the development of the forces of production but population growth. Elster is also critical of Marx’s account of the (then) impending transition from capitalism to communism. He argues that as Marx insisted that technical change in capitalism was accelerating rather than slowing down, he could not claim that capitalism was moribund in its stagnation. Rather, Elster insists, Marx would have to argue that the proletariat would be motivated by the prospect of a communist society which would benefit from technical change at an even more accelerated pace. This in itself is an unlikely motivation as people revolt when conditions deteriorate or when their expectations of improvement are not fulfilled, rather than when there is an abstract possibility of a society in which conditions could be even better than they are already.

McLellan is less critical, appearing to methodically signpost the scholar through the confused abstracts. While he does not specifically mention determinism, he points to it by highlighting the inevitability of worldwide communist revolution above all else. He draws the reader’s attention to the following Marx quotations:

Things have come to the point where individuals must appropriate the existing totality of productive forces not merely to achieve self-activity but to secure their very existence.

In all appropriations up to now a mass of individuals remained subservient to a single instrument of production. In the appropriation by the proletarians, a mass of instruments of production must be subservient to each individual and the property of all. The only way for individuals to control modern universal interaction is to make it subject to the control of all.

Communism is not […] a state of affairs still to be established, not an ideal to which reality will have to adjust. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs. [11]

The salient point here is that McLellan draws on these passages to illustrate that socialism for Marx was an economic reality rather than an ethical ideal. This represents a paradigm of determinism in Marx’s writing.

The fundamental assumptions of historical materialism as viewed by Marx, irrespective of any period of history, can therefore be summarised as follows:

  • humans are social animals who live in a complex society;
  • human society consists of humans collectively working on nature to make the means to life;
  • human society develops a complex division of labour;
  • over time humans advance their harnessing of nature through the development of science and technology;
  • human beings have the ability to reflect on their society and interaction with nature, but their thinking and organisation are always preconditioned by and dependent on the state of development of their society and of the power structures in their society.

Let us now consider whether these assumptions are compatible with the concept of economic determinism.

(c) Marxist theory and economic determinism

As discussed in section (b), according to Marx, each social mode of production produces the material conditions of its reproduction, that is ideology (which encompasses all the political, law and cultural spheres). Thus ideology permits the mode of production to reproduce itself. Marx also believed that in the event of a revolutionary force changing the mode of production, the dominant class would immediately set out to create a new society to protect this new economic order. In the nineteenth century, Marx felt as if the bourgeoisie had essentially accomplished the establishment of a new societal and economic order, instinctively creating a society protective of their capitalist interests. This prompted Marx (and Engels) to direct this statement from the Communist Manifesto at the bourgeoisie:

Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class, made into law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economic conditions of the existence of your class.[12]

From this, it is argued that Marx and Engels did not believe men could arbitrarily choose any one of several forms of society, but only that one which promotes the prevailing mode of production. The very nature of man’s materialistic constitution requires that he do this. Marx hence criticised man’s alienation, a concept which he latter replaced by the critique of commodity fetishism. ‘Vulgar Marxism’ has considered that the relation between the economical infrastructure and the ideological superstructure was an unicausal one, and thus believed in economic determinism. This has been criticised by Marxist theorists such as Helmut Fleischer, who dismissed it as a form of economism or economic reductionism. He claimed the relationship is much more reciprocal and complex than unilateral determinism would have it.

There are also scholars who reject this view. Fleischer highlights those who objected that economic determinism is a meaningless generality, and that any serious historical explanation of economic realities must also refer to non-economic realities. This becomes a more conspicuous problem when it is unclear which branch of determinism is implied. In this respect, when Marx writes of the ‘economic base’ and the ‘ideological superstructure’ of society, he was making a generalisation about the broad sweep of history, to the effect that people ultimately will follow their material self-interests, whatever else they may imagine about their motivations. However, according to Marx, the dynamics of history were shaped precisely by the clash of those interests (class struggle), and that clash could not be understood simply in terms of economic self-interest, because it also involved human traditions and values. The end result of economic determinism in this view is both economism (a narrow focus on how people earn their livelihood) and economic reductionism (the attempt to reduce a complex social reality to one factor – i.e. the economic – such that this one factor causes all other aspects of society). This plays directly into the hands of the business class, and ultimately ended in an anti-working class position, whereby the allegiance of the working class is merely a ‘tool’ to be used by the political class to modernise an economy, with the aid of forced labour if need be.[13]

Taking the above points into account, it could be argued that Marx considered economic determinism as the creative force in human evolution. He clearly advocated a change in economic structure as the only feasible means by which to effect social change and to refine the intellectual make-up of humanity. His advocacy of the inevitability of worldwide socialist revolution and communist society could certainly be described as deterministic in outlook. At the same time it should be remembered that Marx was fully aware that the economic aspects of life did not constitute the sum total of mankind’s preoccupation and social make-up. On this basis, therefore, it would appear that Marx’s historical materialism is compatible with the specific notion of economic determinism, rather than falling under the broader category of determinism as a whole.


Berlin, Isaiah, ‘Historical Materialism’ in Tom Bottomore (ed.), Karl Marx (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973)

Easton, Loyd D. & Guddat, Kurt H. (trans. & ed.), Writings of the young Marx on philosophy and society (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967)

Elster, Jon, An Introduction to Karl Marx (Cambridge: CUP, 1986)

Fleischer, Helmut, Marxism and History (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1973)

McLellan, David, The Thought of Karl Marx: An Introduction (London: Macmillan, 1971)

Rader, Melvin, Marx’s Interpretation of History (New York: OUP, 1979)

Web references

Economic determinism, Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences, maintained by Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada (http://bitbucket.icaap.org)

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, Australian National University (www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/classics/manifesto.html)



[1] It is almost impossible to discuss Marx’s theories on history without referring to Friedrich Engels, Marx’s lifelong friend, fellow philosopher and co-author of many works. The influence of Engels has been intentionally minimalised for the purposes of this essay as the issue in question refers to Marx alone.

[2] Economic determinism, Online Dictionary of the Social Sciences, maintained by Athabasca University, Alberta, Canada (http://bitbucket.icaap.org, accessed July 28, 2006).

[3] Helmut Fleischer, Marxism and History (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1973), passim.

[4] ibid.

[5] Jon Elster, An Introduction to Karl Marx (Cambridge: CUP, 1986), p. 103.

[6] Isaiah Berlin, ‘Historical Materialism’ in Tom Bottomore (ed.), Karl Marx (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1973), p. 56.

[7] Isaiah Berlin, ‘Historical Materialism’ in Tom Bottomore, op. cit., pp. 58-60; Melvin Rader, Marx’s Interpretation of History (New York: OUP, 1979), pp. 12-14.

[8] Jon Elster, op. cit., p. 104. Marx published A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy in London in 1859. Marx and Engles co-wrote The German Ideology during the spring of 1845. It was published posthumously by the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow in 1932.

[9] Jon Elster, op. cit., pp. 104-105.

[10] ibid, pp. 106-108.

[11] Loyd D. Easton & Kurt H. Guddat (trans. & ed.), Writings of the young Marx on philosophy and society (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), pp. 426, 467 et seq, reproduced in David McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx: An Introduction (London: Macmillan, 1971), p. 36.

[12] Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (first published 1848), accessed online at the Australian National University website (http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/ marx/classics/manifesto.html, July 30, 2006).

[13] Helmut Fleischer, op. cit., pp. 45 et seq.

Bill Carlson

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