Teleology, predictability and modes of production

Mike Macnair continues his review of Jairus Banaji's 'History as theory: essays on modes of production and exploitation' Historical Materialism books series, Vol 25, Leiden, 2010, pp406, £81

At the end of the first part of this review of Jairus Banaji's book I made a series of points critical of comrade Banaji's argument, and said I would elaborate on some of them further in the second part. In fact, there will be three parts in all. This part will discuss large-scale theoretical issues: 'teleology', and the grounds for historical materialism. A third part will apply the points made here to the problems of the 'direction' of history, historical periodisation, 'transitions' and 'transitional forms', and look at the concrete political implications of the differences between the 'formal subsumption of labour under capital' (merchant/ moneylender control of production on a household scale) and the 'real subsumption of labour under capital' (large-scale shipping, factory production and large-scale agriculture). Teleology is technically a branch of philosophy which deals with 'final ends' or, in more modern English, the ultimate purposes of life, of all sorts of entities, and so on. Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and - following Aristotle - medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas, drew moral conclusions from reasoning as to the purposes of animals, humans, etc.[1] In the 18th and 19th century teleology, in the form of the 'argument from design', was one of the major intellectual props supporting the idea of a creator-god. Marx and Engels employed 'teleology' in this sense - 'arguments from design' which justify the world as it is - among other uses as a criticism of Hegel on the state. They therefore welcomed Charles Darwin's Origin of species as a blow to teleology.[2]

Karl Popper (pictured) argued that the boot was on the other foot: Marx's and Engels' theory of history was a teleology whose 'final end' was general human emancipation. The idea was not original to Popper, since it was an element in Eduard Bernstein's attack on Marx's alleged residual Hegelianism in The preconditions of socialism (1898); but Popper became in the 1950s its main academic standard-bearer. Popper's arguments were hypothetically dependent on his general 'falsificationist' theory of knowledge. In practice they were made plausible by the apparent choice between Stalinism on the one hand, and on the other the post-war social democratic consensus, which appeared to show the 'piecemeal' social reforms Popper defended in The poverty of historicism at work.[3]

But the idea that the traditional sequence of modes of production was a teleology was picked up much more widely than just among strict Popperians. For the 'new left', as we saw in the first part of this review, it was an additional stick to beat reformists and 'official' communists. For Althusser and his supporters it was a stick to beat the Marxist-humanists. In the university history departments, the idea of teleology as a vice of historical writing became merged with the cult of Herbert Butterfield's The Whig interpretation of history (1931) as an elementary methodology text for undergraduate history students, to inoculate them against Marxist and other ideas of 'progress' in history.

In this sub-Popperian sense 'teleology' shifted from its original meaning and became an objection (1) to the claim that it is possible to predict the human future on the basis of the human past and (2) to any theory of history which claims to explain long-range causes for the origins of the present (on the basis that such a theory potentially implies prediction of the human future on the basis of the past).


The purposive core of Popper's argument is the claim that it is impossible to predict the human future from the human past. Popper claimed that the ideas of Poverty of historicism were the first element of his work, originating at the time of his early 1920s break with his student communism. He also claimed that he had in the 1940s proved the claim by pure logic.[4]

The problem posed is that the physical sciences also predict the future from the past. The logic of scientific discovery (1934) grows out of the project of proving the impossibility of prediction (or, as Popper called it, 'prophecy') by corralling off scientific predictions in two ways. In the first place, science proper makes claims not about the future but about the permanent: that is, matters not subject to time and change. Hence Popper never accepted that evolutionary biology was scientific. In his view study of objects which are themselves subject to change will involve change being indeterminate, and therefore a prohibition on unpredictability.

Second, for Popper science works by hypotheses which are not grounded on prior inductive inferences from regularities in the past. These emerge in other ways, but are tested for potential falsification by experiments. The arguments of this aspect of The logic of scientific discovery were reduced to absurdity by Feyerabend's Against method (1975) and have been criticised from various other directions; they are not now generally believed to offer a plausible account of scientific discovery.[5]

If Popper's rejection of inductive inferences from regularities in the past in science is itself rejected, there ceases to be a serious ground for rejecting attempts to predict the future from the human past more generally.[6] Of course, such predictions are subject to the same problems of complexity and sensitivity to initial conditions which affect attempts to predict climate and weather: short-term predictions can be a lot more detailed and categorical than long-term ones, and so on.

But in reality, all human perception and action involves inductive inferences from past to future; and this is just as much true of human actions as of the physical world. We infer that people living in England will speak English; we take it that there will be a general election by May 2015. Both predictions may turn out to be false, but they are good enough to act on. The same may be true of much longer-term predictions which imply action in the present (like human-induced climate change, which involves not only predictions about natural processes, but also predictions about human behaviour). This last point - that predictions may be less certain than those of physics, but yet still be good enough to act on - is critical.

The poverty of historicism and the rest of Popper's theoretical construction was a body of highly elaborate abstract argument against revolution and in favour of political gradualism and - to some extent - in favour of political inaction. The short answer to this line of reasoning is Martin Niemöller's famous post-1945 judgment: "First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no-one left to speak out for me." In other words, inaction as much as action has moral and practical consequences.

Popper had some difficulty getting published between leaving Austria in 1937 and the outbreak of the cold war, and had particular difficulty with The poverty of historicism. The most plausible explanation is that he was - rightly - seen from his submitted manuscripts as an adherent of the Austrian school of marginalist economics. And the Austrian school's 'do nothing' approach to economic crises was - equally rightly - given a significant moral responsibility for the mass unemployment of 1931-33 and, hence, the victory of the Nazis in Germany. Popper played down his Austrian-school connections in the published version of The poverty of historicism, and emphasised the consistency of his method with social democratic reformism. The real Austrian-school leaders - Mises and Hayek - remained intellectually marginal and disreputable until the generation who lived through the 1930s as adults began to die or retire.

While gradualism and partial reforms may have real advantages if they are actually available, and it is wrong to fetishise the moment of revolution, under some circumstances the overthrow and radical reconstruction of the state is plainly inevitable and necessary. Popper objects to Marx's talk of 'shortening the birth pangs' of the new society as involving 'prophecy'. But it is hard to avoid the conclusion that well-organised, forcible resistance to the Nazis in 1933, leading to a civil war in which the cities carried fire and the sword through the small towns and countryside, would at minimum have 'shortened the birthpangs' of what emerged after the Red Army and Allies carried fire and the sword through Germany in 1944-45 after a devastating global war. Under these circumstances promoting gradualism actually costs many more lives than it saves.


If the Popperian objection to predicting the human future from the human past is rejected on epistemological and moral grounds, as it is here, it follows that Popper's and his followers' more general objections to the ideas of long-term causality and directionality in human history can also be rejected, since this objection is merely ancillary to the objections to predicting the future. This does not, of course, establish positively that there is long-term causality and directionality in human history: it merely means that 'teleological' is not a knock-down objection without a lot of further specification.

The question of directionality in history will have to wait until I have addressed that of the foundations of historical materialism. 'Teleology' in the minimal sense of long-term causality leading up to the present is actually indispensable to the historical enterprise. In the first place, all claims to have discovered transhistorical truths in reality depend on historical evidence. To say, for example, as Popper did, that the Austrian school of marginalist economics has the same sort of status as Newtonian physics would imply showing that marginalist laws did function in Roman antiquity, the European middle ages, pre-modern China and so on. Of course, when we make this sort of investigation, we discover that the role of subjective marginal utility in the theory actually has the effect of rendering marginalism ... unfalsifiable.[7]

Secondly, it is simply and blindingly obvious that there is some long-term historical causation. To return to an earlier and simple example, most people in England today speak English, not French, a P-Celtic language (Welsh/ Cornish/ Breton), or a Romance language independently derived from late vulgar Latin. Any explanation of the fact is necessarily historical, and historical over the long term. To refuse long-term, causative explanations in history is therefore to refuse any explanation of - taking this single example - language diversity in the present.

Thirdly, indeterminacy objections to long-term causality in history are, in reality, also objections to short-term causality in history. The result, if they are taken seriously, is to reduce history increasingly to its medieval form, the chronicle - a narrative of effectively unexplained events. An egregious example is Anthony Fletcher's The outbreak of the English civil war (1981).

Alternatively, historians may - as in the case of the 'revisionist' school of early modern history of which Fletcher's book was part - argue that the actual outcome was highly unlikely. The deeper this sort of argument is carried, the closer it comes to the 'alternate history' science fiction of Harry Turtledove and similar writers. Or we may have a pinpoint description of a moment in the past which floats free of anything else, so that it might be travel writing for time-travellers - or hobbyists' antiquarianism.

Banaji's essays belong with the variety of historical work which tests and attempts to falsify by empirical evidence an interpretation of the origins of the present. He ends by making some quite limited criticisms of the traditional Marxist scheme. In this context his episodic use of 'teleological' as a 'boo word' is close to meaningless.

In a sense, like Popper, it belongs with the past of bourgeois ideology. Official discourse no longer counterposes reformist gradualism to revolution. 'Reform' in official discourse now means reaction - taking away the working class gains of the 20th century in the hope of returning to a (falsely) imagined 19th. And tipping points, phase transitions and so on are intellectually respectable, and even revolutions that overthrow states are entirely desirable as long as they are 'colour' revolutions to bring in neoliberal regimes. Fitting in with this shift, the study of early modern English history is crawling painfully out of the slough of 'revisionism', marginalists write (commonly wildly speculative) long-term histories of the origin of capitalism, and so on.

In spite of this I have discussed the point at length for two reasons. First, sub-Popperian hostility to 'teleology' is methodologically poisonous in 'left' as well as in conventional academic forms. Second, in Banaji's essays in History as theory the use of 'teleological' as a 'boo word' licenses his failure to construct an alternative general narrative of the origins of the present in which his specific studies could be integrated.

Materialist foundations

I said in the first part that there are solid non-historical grounds in human biological nature and our material needs for the core of historical materialism - that the ways in which historical societies produce their material subsistence constrain the sort of general social orders possible. And similar grounds support the rejection of methodological individualism (humans are a social species) and of marginalism (there are physical minimum subsistence levels, maximum working hours and maximum quantities of land). These grounds require the analysis of societies and their dynamics in terms of the social division of labour. What follows will travel some distance from Banaji's arguments but will begin to return to them later.

To defend historical materialism it is necessary to get out of the way what it is not. I begin, therefore, by repeating something I have previously written[8] against the sort of materialism which bases itself on Lenin's Materialism and empirio-criticism (MEC) and therefore argues that ideas are merely 'reflections' of the material world and (in strong forms) for a fully determinist account of human history. This approach is opposed to the Marx who wrote in the first and 11th 'Theses on Feuerbach': "The main defect of all hitherto-existing materialism - that of Feuerbach included - is that the Object [Gegenstand], actuality, sensuousness, are conceived only in the form of the object [Objekt], or of contemplation [Anschauung], but not as human sensuous activity, practice [Praxis], not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in opposition to materialism, was developed by idealism - but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such." And: "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." Or more snappily in the 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that "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."[9]

'Materialism', in the sense of Marxist materialism, has more than one level. The most basic level is that it is unnecessary to suppose the existence of god or gods, a 'world-spirit', the Hegelian self-moving Idea, spirits, the existence of the soul, the élan vital, or an immaterial homunculus 'consciousness' which sits in the human body and drives it as a motorist drives a car. The phenomena can be adequately explained by the methods of the sciences without any such suppositions. The ideas in my head are electro-chemical phenomena in my brain which are part of an embodied consciousness, which has developed through the physical (Darwinian) and social evolution of the human species. The words I am writing are - as I write them - electrical patterns in the computer; when they are printed they will be patterns of ink on the printed page. They are just as material as trees, etc.

At a second level, within this framework, material forces in the real world vary in power. The power of the ideas in my head, or the words I write, is very limited. Using the methods of the sciences requires us to presuppose the real existence, or more exactly the recalcitrance, of the material world outside our heads.[10] If I had the idea that I could walk on water, it would not prevent me getting wet. If I do not have the idea of a tree in front of me (because I am not looking where I am going) I will walk into the tree and injure myself. It is this fundamental point which Bogdanov and his co-thinkers denied, and which Lenin defended in a muddled way in MEC.

Hence, within the framework of praxis - of 'the active side' and "the point is to change it" - materialism implies that ideas are commonly more powerful to the extent that they are adapted to the external forces in the material world and applied to manipulate these forces. The idea of a stone hand-axe is a means to various human actions to change the world. From this small starting point begins what develops into the massive physical powers of modern technology (the forces of production ...). The idea of a hand-axe and of how to make one - together with the materials to do so - is more powerful than a dream of eating meat or spells cast by a shaman.

This leads in turn to the third level of materialism. This is that social orders and dynamics are in the last analysis governed by technology (the forces of production) and the material division of labour (the relations of production) as means to satisfy very basic human needs (food, shelter, etc). In the last analysis, because, for example, though 13th century England and Japan were both characterised by (in Marxist terms) feudal social orders, these were markedly different from one another, and even now, under globalisation, both Japanese capitalism and Japanese language and culture are profoundly different from their British equivalents.[11]

In a passage which used to be commonly prescribed to students as an antidote to Marxism, John Plamenatz argued in 1963 that recognition of material basic necessities is a truism without practical consequences for social ordering. This argument is manifestly apologetic-ideological.[12] Clear biological necessities for the continuation of the human species are food, protection from predators which may attack humans, and (in cold and temperate climates) clothing, shelter and heat; and the availability of these not only for the adult population, but also for the nurture of sufficient children for population replacement. Recognition of our biological character means that satisfaction of these basic needs have to be seen as preconditions for other activities. Further, both techniques and modes of organisation themselves create derivative necessities, which may become quite elaborate, but are necessary if there is not to be a regression to a less efficient technique and mode of organisation and a consequent reduction in the sustainable population: for a rather basic example, cities need systems for getting clean water and for disposing of human waste products. For the purposes of the present point it is not necessary to go too far beyond the basic biological necessities. In today's world large numbers of people lack access to some or all of the basic necessities, or feel their access to them to be insecure - including in such 'advanced' countries as the USA and Britain.

Division of labour

Elementary and obvious features of human biology equally imply, as I have said above, outright rejection of methodological individualism, of marginal-utility economics, and of Say's Law as interpreted by the marginalists (that there is an equilibrium price at which every product or service would find a buyer).

In the first place, a species simply cannot exist without the existence of a breeding population: otherwise all that we have is a mutant or 'sport' who cannot pass on his or her peculiar characteristics. Secondly, if the human lifestyle under low-technology and low-population conditions found in the archaeological and anthropological evidence was analogous to that of the European wildcat (asocial except for mating and the early youth of offspring) methodological individualism might still be defensible. In fact it is not: humans characteristically live and breed in social groups (and this is predictable both from chimpanzee lifestyles and from the needs imposed by humans' rather limited teeth and claws).

If marginalism was right, the organisation of social groups could in spite of these observations fall to be explained largely by individuals' choices with a view to their own marginal utility. (Intra-family relations would still remain very problematic, because children are irretrievably 'downstream' of their parents: ie receive benefits for no obligatory return). Anything which didn't fit the paradigm could either be explained as really utility-maximising (as, for example, early 'Chicago school' economist Frank Knight argued that the armed robber's profit properly and legitimately reflected his investment in weapons and the risks he took on). Or it could be identified as a defect in the social order (insufficiently free-market).

The problem is quite simply that there are biological maximum working hours and minimum subsistence costs, given by biological human needs. In addition, the quantity of land is subject to absolute limits (we have only one planet). And the quantity of money is subject to necessary relative limits: if the quantity of money was not limited, it could not serve as a store of value and, given the time element in exchange, if it could not serve as a store of value it could not serve as a means of exchange (witness the Zimbabwe dollar). These limits mean that markets do not invariably or even generally clear. A common form is the so-called 'downward stickiness of wages'; but it is also the case that goods may remain unsold because the producer cannot afford to accept the price on offer, and eventually be dumped in landfill.

The result is that pure private-choice regimes simply do not work in the way the 'hidden hand' suggests. The larger the private-choice element of the economic order, the stronger the tendency towards polarisation (extremes of rich and poor) and in capitalism towards crises (periodic radical dislocations of production); in pre-modern society, towards famine vulnerability and hence periodic famines.

Now this may appear to be merely a point about capitalist markets, but it is not (which is why I expressed it as 'private-choice regimes') though it is most transparent in capitalism. It can apply equally if less intensely to the private choices of pastoralists, peasants or artisans, of slave-takers or feudal lords.

It is from these points that it follows that we have to analyse social orders in terms of the total material social division of labour in the society. Precisely because marginalism and pure private-choice regimes do not work, it is necessary to every society that this social division of labour contain both a familial/gender element (how the reproduction of the species takes place) and a public, state and/or religious element, involving two dimensions.

One of these dimensions is common and public infrastructure (public ways, etc), defence and emergency management, and measurements, which only have any productive utility as collective practices of the social group, including money issuance. Another dimension is that every society which is not merely 'tribal' or 'segmentary' (and some that are) necessarily contains redistributive institutions (commonly religious) which mitigate the inherent tendency of private-choice regimes to produce violent social inequality and episodic general breakdown.

From this angle Banaji is perfectly right to insist that we cannot characterise social orders and their dynamics simply in terms of relations of exploitation at the point of production, as they appear directly as master-slave, landlord-tenant or employer-worker relations. He slightly suggests that we may be able to characterise them in terms of the incentives and aspirations of the elite or ruling classes. This is helpful - for example, in pointing to the land-hunger which landlord classes shared with peasants[13] - but still deficient, because it does not analyse the material division of labour as a whole-society practice.

Base and superstructure

What I have just said is as 'revisionist' of Marx and Engels as Banaji's argument is, so I should be explicit about it. It is conventional Marxism to divide the economic 'base' from the political, religious, cultural, etc, 'superstructure'. The point I am making is that the 'base' is the total material division of labour in the society, not those forms which are immediately analogous to the capitalist 'economy'. In this context, the family form and - more strikingly - the state and the institutions of redistribution (whether or not religious) are both elements of the material division of labour, hence part of the 'base', not part of the 'superstructure'.

Applying this approach involves real complexities. It is certainly the case that a large part of both law, and other forms of state self-image, and of religious doctrine is genuinely superstructural. To take an instance from law, in the medieval period both Christendom and Islam adopted fixed-share rules affecting inheritance. These rules tended to produce fragmentation of estates, and in both social orders landlord classes found ways to evade them. But the legal doctrines adopted for this purpose are wildly different: the Muslim waqf purports to be a perpetual charity for 'poor' relations; the continental fideicommissum imposes a personal obligation on one 'absolute' owner to hand over to the next in succession; the English entail/settlement divides ownership into time-slices. The problem posed is to disentangle the aspect of law which is expressive of underlying social relations of production, from the aspect of law which is expressive merely of the intellectual creativity of lawyers.

The same problem applies with equal or more force to religious doctrine and institutions (to the extent that legal and religious institutions can be themselves disentangled from one another, which is quite variable at different periods and in different countries).

It is, nonetheless, both possible and necessary that this work should be done. The reason is that neither states nor religious institutions are simple parasites on an imagined private-choice economy. They do real material jobs, and to understand the social division of labour, and hence the 'social relations of production', we need to distinguish the real jobs from the parasitic aspects.

One last point should be made in this context. Whatever their particular forms, private property, the family and class division set up competition between families and reasons to aspire to you or your family climbing rather than sliding down the greasy pole. This set-up is prima facie competitive and therefore a dynamic element in social order. The state, and religious redistribution, are in contrast prima facie conservative institutions. Only prima facie: states may exploit by conquest; temples or monasteries may compete among themselves. But this point provides a limited reason for supposing that we should characterise societies, or historical periods, primarily by their class forms - even if 'their class forms' does not mean counting the frequency of the relations of master and slave, lord and man, or employer and employee. We will return to this point in the third part of this review.


1. Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd ed, sv, http://oed.com:80/Entry/198710; C Dubray, sv in The Catholic encyclopedia, New York 1912, from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14474a.htm.

2. Eg, on Hegel, Marx, 'Passage from The Kreuznach Notebooks of 1843' http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/07/kreu.htm; Anti-Dühring ch 7, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch05.htm, Dialectics of Nature, pp. 202-210, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1883/don/ch07b.htm; on Darwin, Engels to Marx, 11/12 December 1859, MECW Vol 40 p550, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/letters/59_12_11.htm; Marx to Lassalle, January 16 1861, MECW Vol 41 p245, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1861/letters/61_01_16.htm.

3. There is a useful short sharp critique of Popper with references by Mike Burgess at http://www.tkpw.net/cafe/etc/burgess95.txt.

4. Poverty of historicism (Routledge classics edition, Abingdon 2002) historical note and preface. MH Hacohen, Karl Popper: the formative years 1902-1945 (Cambridge 2002) ch 2 dates both the break and the argument rather later than Popper did himself.

5. Eg, (among many) Roy Bhaskar, A realist theory of science (2nd ed London 1978); L Jonathan Cohen, The probable and the provable (Oxford 1977); David Stove, Popper and after: Four modern irrationalists (Oxford 1982).

6. Eg, one rather obscure version of the point: R Bhaskar, The possibility of naturalism (London 1979).

7. G Hodgson, How economics forgot history (London 2001); Cf also (eg) CD Mackie, Canonizing economic theory (Armonk, NY, 1998); Alan Freeman, 'The godless religion' (2001) http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/14777/1/MPRA_paper_14777.pdf.

8. The next five paragraphs are slightly adapted from 'Against philosopher kings' Weekly Worker 11 December 2008.

9. Theses on Feuerbach, Cyril Smith's 2002 translation: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/index.htm. 18th Brumaire, chapter 1: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1852/18th-brumaire/ch01.htm.

10. R Bhaskar A realist theory of science (Leeds 1975) presents powerful though difficult arguments for this proposition.

11. Kanichi Kuroda in Praxiology (Kobushi Shobo 1998) makes this point in the preface as an explanation of the difficulties of translation.

12. J Plamenatz Man and Society (2 vols, London 1963) ii pp277-79; for trenchant comment on other ideologues of this type, I Meszaros, The Power of Ideology (Hemel Hempstead 1990) .

13. Most clearly in an essay not printed in History as theory, 'The peasantry in the feudal mode of production' (1976) 3 Journal of peasant studies 299.