Marxist economist Michael Roberts reviews A Promethean Vision

A Promethean Vision – The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview

Reviewed by noted Marxist economist Michael Roberts


Eric Rahim has written a clear and cohesive account of how Karl Marx formed his unique materialist conception of history.  At Marx’s funeral in 1883, his long-time friend and close collaborator, Friedrich Engels commented that Marx had developed two ground-breaking discoveries that were the basis of ‘scientific socialism’: the materialist conception of history and the law of surplus value.  These two discoveries provide the searchlights for understanding the development of human society and social organisation in the 21st century.

Rahim takes us carefully and historically on the journey that led Marx to conceive of the first of these.  Starting with Hegel as the teacher of the contradictions of history between state and individual; between the relative and eternal; between free will and determination, Marx turned Hegel upside down to reject Hegel’s idealism that all is the product of the contradictions of thought and mean’s ideas and instead offer a Promethean vision of history, namely that material conditions shape history and that man shapes those material conditions.

Rahim shows that Marx moved from a purely philosophical rejection of Hegel’s idealism as towards the material contradictions, as expressed by the Young Hegelians and Feuerbach.  He was encouraged by Engels (who had already done so) to read the works of the great classical political economists, especially after visiting Manchester with Engels and seeing the heart of the industrial revolution that was shaping modern capitalism.  History was changing through material conditions, not through the ideas of the 18th century enlightenment or the French revolution. 

This led Marx in his Theses on Feuerbach in 1845 to break finally with the dualist materialism. There is no dualism between ideas and material things because reality is created by human beings.  Nature is shaped by man just as much as nature restricts man – (the coronavirus pandemic is a star confirmation of this).

Rahim argues that Marx was mainly influenced by Adam Smith, calling him the Martin Luther of economics, because he showed that it was human labour that created wealth. Wealth was not a given, put before man, but was the product of man’s labour. 

History is not predetermined by forces beyond the control of man in aggregate or as an individual.  But man can only change things in the given circumstances.  Marx’s materialist conception is a dialectical one that denies a one-sided view that all is determined by objective conditions or that all is decided by free will or chance.  It is a brilliant conception, as Engels remarked.

The essence of Marx’s materialist conception of history – his Promethean vision to use Rahim’s aphorism – is summed up in Marx’s fully developed formulation put into practice in his 1852 pamphlet, The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.” In this masterpiece of history and literature, Marx’s conception explains all.

In his interpretation of Marx’s historical materialism, Rahim rejects the dualist idea of an economic base and socio-political superstructure.  This rigid formula promoted by ‘analytical Marxists' like Gerard Cohen is a distortion of Marx’s vision, according to Rahim.  Material things are not independent of man’s knowledge – a machine can do nothing without man.  On the other hand, a man cannot create anything out of nothing. 

This is not a fudge, Rahim argues.  On the contrary, such a conception is essential for understanding history.  Also it means that there is no inevitable ‘progress’ from feudalism to capitalism and then to communism, just as Darwin’s evolutionary theory of life has no teleological assumption of fish to mammal to ape to primate to human.  Each stage provides the basis for choice and to take a different direction.

Rahim emphasises that Marx’s main critique of political economy was the assumption by the likes of Smith and Ricardo that the economic laws that operated under capitalism were eternal and universal to all societies.  The classical economists lacked a materialist conception of history, and for good reason, because that conception suggested that capitalism was not going to be here forever, just as slave and feudal societies expired.  Such an idea was inconceivable to the economists of capitalism. 

Marx’s conception argued that there are no eternal laws of economics; namely that only market economies can exist and are necessary for human progress.  Marx’s law of value applied only to commodity production for sale on the market for profit; as opposed to individual production for individual consumption under feudalism; or social production for social need under communism. 

Marx’s second great discovery was that the capitalist mode of production was yet another  method for the ruling class to gain control of the surplus labour of the rest.  The classical economists denied or ignored any idea that ‘exploitation’ was involved in production for the market.  For them exchange was equal between buyer and seller; and between employer and employee.

Both Smith and Ricardo did see that the Promethean power of capitalist accumulation could falter.  Smith reckoned that capitalist production would eventually slow to a stationary state of harmony and leisure because too much capital had been accumulated, driving down profitability.  This future for capitalism was echoed by John Maynard Keynes in the 20th century. Ricardo also saw that capitalism could be restricted but only because of monopoly of the landowners.  All rejected Marx’s conception of all history as the history of class struggle, which took the form under capitalism of the struggle between capital and proletariat.  Man can change history and the proletariat is the agent of that change.  That was Marx’s Promethean vision.

A Promethean Vision can be bought online here

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