Thorstein Veblen on Marx, Marxism, and Historical Materialism

The relationship between Karl Marx and Thorstein Veblen has created some controversy between various scholars and schools of economic thought. While some point out the Marxist influences in Veblen’s writings, the general consensus is that “Veblen is not an American Marxist”. One of Veblen’s first criticism of Marxism can be found in a book review of Max Lorenz’s Die Marxistische Socialdemokratie, where he claimed that the Marxist doctrine lacked an adequate theory of human agency:

While the materialistic interpretation of history points out how social development goes on—by a class struggle that proceeds from maladjustment between economic structure and economic function—it is nowhere pointed out what is the operative force at work in the process. It denies that human discretion and effort seeking a better adjustment can furnish such a force, since it makes man the creature of circumstances. This defect reduces itself…to a misconception of human nature and of man’s place in the social development. The materialistic theory conceives of man as exclusively a social being, who counts in the process solely as a medium for the transmission and expression of social laws and changes; whereas he is, in fact, also an individual, acting out his own life as such. Hereby is indicated not only the weakness of the materialistic theory, but also the means of remedying the defect pointed out. With the amendment so indicated, it becomes not only a theory of the method of social and economic change, but a theory of social process considered as a substantial unfolding of life as well.

Veblen rejected the idea that an individual’s actions can be explained entirely in terms of socioeconomic circumstance. While material conditions certainly had a role to play in shaping human behavior, Veblen looked at the human behavior though a Darwinian framework:

When the materialistic conception passes under the Darwinian norm, of cumulative causation, it happens, first, that this initial principle itself is reduced to the rank of a habit of thought induced in the speculator who depends on its light by the circumstances of his life, in the way of hereditary bent, occupation, tradition, education, climate, food supply, and the like. But under the Darwinian norm the question of whether and how far material exigencies control human conduct and cultural growth becomes a question of the share which these material exigencies have in shaping men’s habits of thought; i.e., their ideals and aspirations, their sense of the true, the beautiful, and the good. Whether and how far these traits of human culture and the institutional structure built out of them are the outgrowth of material (economic) exigencies becomes a question of what kind and degree of efficiency belongs to the economic exigencies among the complex of circumstances that conduce to the formation of habits. It is no longer a question of whether material exigencies rationally should guide men’s conduct, but whether, as a matter of brute causation, they do induce such habits of thought in men as the economic interpretation presumes, and whether in the last analysis economic exigencies alone are, directly or indirectly, effective in shaping human habits of thought. (Veblen 1907: 305-306)

This is in contrast to Marx, who assumed that workers, through rational thought, would comprehend the contradictory nature of capitalism and inevitably want to overthrow it.

A more fundamental issue Veblen had with the Marx and Marxism was the teleological nature of historical materialism. With Marx’s theory of history, we are left with a teleological account of capitalism, where it will ultimately meet its own end at the hands of the proletariat:

The continuity sought in the facts of observation and imputed to them by the earlier school of theory was a continuity of a personal kind,-a continuity of reason and consequently of logic. The facts were construed to take such a course as could be established by an appeal to reason between intelligent and fair-minded men. They were supposed to fall into a sequence of logical consistency. The romantic (Marxian) sequence of theory is essentially an intellectual sequence, and it is therefore of a teleological character. The logical trend of it can be argued out. That is to say, it tends to a goal. (Veblen 1907: 304).

For Veblen, there was no direct casual connection between the “material forces” and the choices of the working class. The materialist interpretation of history lacked an explanation of the forces at work and didn’t adequately explain how social forces impel individual agents to think. There was very little said about the efficient causes, channels, or methods by which economic conditions affected and changed institutions, i.e the habits and propensities, of the working class. Instead, Veblen turned to Darwinism and the process of cumulative social change. This sequence of causation, according to Veblen, was “opaque and unteleological” in character and could not involve a process of convergence or equilibrium; “in Darwinism there is no such final or perfect term, and no definitive equilibrium (Veblen 1906: 582) (2).


Notes:

1. It should be noted that Marx didn’t hold a strong position of historical materialism. In fact, he specifically said that materialism must be interpreted weakly.

2. When you consider such a prolific and controversial writer like Marx, there is bound to be some confusion over what he actually meant. I myself have read very little of Marx and to conclude that Veblen was correct in his critique of Marx would be premature. However, even if we consider the more nuanced thought of Marx (and other Marxists), I still think Veblen would reject the romantic and deterministic nature of Marx’s system .

Relevant Links:

  1. Marx’s Theory of History
  2. Dialectical Materialism
  3. Marx and Rationality

References:

1. Hodgson, Geoffrey M. “On the Evolution of Thorstein Veblen’s Evolutionary Economics.” Cambridge Journal of Economics 22 (1998): 415-31. Print.

2. Edgell, Stephen, and Jules Townshend. “Marx and Veblen on Human Nature, History, and Capitalism: Vive La Difference!” Journal of Economic Issues 27.3 (1993): 721-39. Print.

3. Veblen, Thorstein. “Industrial and Pecuniary Employments.” Publications of the American Economic Association 3rd ser. 2.1 (1901): 190-235. Print.

4. Veblen, Thorstein, “The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers.” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 20, No. 4 (Aug., 1906), pp. 575-595

5. Veblen, Thorstein, “The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and His Followers.”
The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Feb., 1907), pp. 299-322

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Thorstein Veblen on Marx, Marxism, and Historical Materialism

  1. Blue Aurora

    Although this is somewhat off-topic, I recently bought the most recent biography of Karl Marx by a historian named Jonathan Sperber. I’m liking what I’ve read so far, which is so far only the beginning.

    http://www.amazon.com/Karl-Marx-A-Nineteenth-Century-Life/dp/0871404672

  2. “Veblen rejected the idea that an individual’s actions can be explained entirely in terms of socioeconomic circumstance.” Marx and Engels rejected that, too: “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that younger writers sometimes lay more stress on he economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasize this main principle in opposition to our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights.” — Engels, Letter to Joseph Bloch (1890)

    A wide range of factors — cultural, geographical, historical and all else — impact and influence the economic, and vice versa.

    “However a more fundamental issue that Veblen had with the Marx and Marxism was the teleological nature of historical materialism.” It is not at all teleological. It is not the fault of Marx if many of his future followers did not adequately understand him. Capitalism will be transcended because nothing of human creation is permanent — every previous system has reached its final contradictions and been supplanted by a new system. Capitalism is not the end of history. That does not mean we can predict what the next system will be; that is in our hands.

    “Veblen looked at the question within a different framework, a Darwinian framework.” Actually, Marx and Engels did just that and considered themselves part of the intellectual ferment represented by Darwin. Darwin was a strong influence on Marx.

    Marxism posits that the proletariat would be the agent of capitalism’s destruction because the implementation of a classless society would eliminate the bourgeoisie (the capitalist class). While a few individual bourgeois might accept a revolution, it is unrealistic to think the entire class would commit to a revolution that would eliminate their privileges and ownership of the means of production. Thus the overwhelming majority of citizens would for the first time be able to participate in social decision-making. Again, that does mean that this an inevitability — if the 99% (to use the current jargon) stay atomized, a fascistic dictatorship is a possibility. The only possible route to a socialist society (that is, a society with full economic and political democracy in which there is no class that dominates) is through organized actions by the world’s working people.

    I would strongly recommend “Reader in Marxist Philosophy,” edited by Howard Selsam and Harry Martel. It presents a range of short selections with concise and clearly written introductions to the various topics. Trust me, it’ll be far easier than attempting to read Capital.

    • Thanks for the constructive comment and book suggestion! Although my book stack is rather big right now, I do plan on reading some introductions to Marx in the near future. The two I have in mind right now are Peter Singer’s Marx: A Very Short Introduction and Sowell’s Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, but I will be sure to add the “Reader in Marxist Philosophy” to the list.

      One thing to keep in mind is that I clearly stated that, I’m not going to claim that Veblen was correct in his critique of Marx. I myself have read very little of Marx and to make an authoritative conclusion would be quite foolish. All I’m doing here is echoing Veblen. But you don’t seem to criticize me directly, so that might not be an issue.

      Anyway, most of your points are taken which is why I linked to Unlearningecon’s article on Marx seen here: http://www.pieria.co.uk/articles/the_many_straw_men_surrounding_marx

      I’m generally aware that Marx’s thought was much more nuanced than most Marxists. Unfortunately it can be difficult to decipher when Veblen is criticizing Marxists or Marx (or even both at the same time). Most of Veblen’s criticisms are well founded when we consider how many Marxists during the late 19th and early 20th century interpreted historical materialism. However, you are correct to point out that if we apply these criticism to Marx himself, they generally miss the mark.

      But I don’t think this touches on one of the key point of Veblen’s critique, i.e what is the central mechanism of historical materialism? What are the casual connections that caused the “material forces” to act on the individual? As far as I can tell, there was very little said about the efficient causes, channels, or methods by which economic conditions affected and changed institutions i.e the habits and propensities of the working class. That is Veblen’s primary issue and I think it’s his strongest point against Marxist and Marx:

      It is no longer a question of whether material exigencies rationally should guide men’s conduct, but whether, as a matter of brute causation, they do induce such habits of thought in men as the economic interpretation presumes, and whether in the last analysis economic exigencies alone are, directly or indirectly, effective in shaping human habits of thought. -Veblen

      Also, I would appreciate a citation for your claim that, Actually, Marx and Engels did just that and considered themselves part of the intellectual ferment represented by Darwin. Darwin was a strong influence on Marx. I’m genuinely curious here.

      • Indeed, my critique was aimed at Veblen.

        As to Marx and Darwin, I am of the belief that it is fairly common knowledge. But I decided to leaf through “Reader in Marxist Philosophy,” and found numerous references. Engels brings up Darwin in various polemics, including in his books “Anti-Dúhring”, “Dialetics of Nature” and “Ludwig Feuerbach.”

        Here is a quote by Engels from “Speech at the Graveside of Karl Marx”: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history.”

        Appended to that quotation by the editors of the Marxist Reader is an 1859 quote by Marx: “Darwin’s book is very important and serves me as the basis in natural science for the class struggle in history.”

        My own short-hand description of historical materialism (from a book of mine yet unpublished) is this:

        “To give a simplification similar to the triad shorthand that frequently is used to describe Hegelian dialectics, Marxist materialism posits that anything of human creation contains its opposite, that a contradiction inevitably arises from the tensions between the opposites, and in the process of resolving the contradiction a new, higher form develops. But the new form, although it contains elements of its precursors, is not permanently stable, either, and contradictions will arise here, too, continuing the process.”

        In other words, development is a constant flow, and what once was a solution to earlier problems evolves into a problem or a fetter that must be transcended by a newer, higher solution. That, too, will one day become a fetter. And this is the basis on which economic systems, as all else of human creation, eventually reaches a point where the mounting contradictions can only be solved through something newer.

        Capitalism will reach its conclusion in part because the mass of people become poorer (as we are now seeing happening) but also due to other factors. That doesn’t mean that socialism or any other system will inevitably follow; it will be if working people organize to make it so. Marxism provides the tools, through its critique of capitalism.

      • Interesting, I will definitely check those books out to get a better perspective.

        However, it’s important to keep in mind that just because Marx talked good of Darwin doesn’t mean he applied his ideas correctly in all cases. From what I can see about Marx’s view on human nature (which is what Veblen primarily took issue with), his use of Darwin seemed a bit selective. Before I comment any further, I should probably read some more books 🙂

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