Determinism is a theory much maligned among Marxists. Some claim that it means:


"...history charts a predetermined course according to historical laws, irrespective of the actions of individuals or groups..."; or


"...(that it) leaves no room for human agency and struggle..."; or


"...(that it is) independent of our will and actions..."


According to others, it means that history operates behind our backs", with "historical inevitability", or that it likens us to 11billiard balls, windup toys, playthings of external forces, puppets..."


Some criticize determinism in the name of other issues. They legitimately lambaste socio-biology, genetic psychology, post-modernism, and specific forms of determinism (e.g. economic, technological, historical). But the arguments for determinism, itself, are rarely addressed. More often straw men are constructed  and demolished in its name. So what exactly is determinism?


And what is it that so troubles these writers?  Is whether it is true or not the problem; or is it, rather, fear that belief in it, in the words of one, will be "a recipe for political quietism".1  Let us investigate.


We all know what it is to deliberate: to weigh the factors involved in a decision to act. In the process of deliberation there are two things that we believe intuitively: (1) that we are, in fact, deliberating; and (2) that it is up to us what we do. Consider these our data. Interpreting these data has traditionally been the object of three theories: (1) free will; (2) compatibilism; and (3) determinism. Let us begin with a sketch of these



Free Will is the theory that our actions are free as long as there are neither obstacles that prevent them nor constraints that enforce them. Compatibilism is the theory that (I) determinism is true; (2) but voluntary acts are nevertheless free as long as they are neither impeded nor constrained; and (3) that the causes of our acts are certain inner states (i.e. wants and beliefs). Determinism is the theory that all our acts are the result of the conjunction of antecedent conditions and laws of nature.


Whether  determinism is true is an empirical question, a contingent fact about the world. It does not claim that our acts can be predicted, nor is it the thesis of reductionism in science. Determinism  does not require that all laws of nature and society are deterministic (e.g. it may be the case that there are deterministic laws for human behavior, but only statistical ones for sub-atomic particles).  Let us add one more component to our analysis--  a commonsense model of human action.3


"Our most basic and familiar way of understanding the activities of persons- either our own, or those of others -is by interpreting them as actions resulting from motives, including beliefs and desires. In everyday life we do this naturally  and continuously. Thus we see someone moving toward a tap, grasping a glass, and so on, and interpret this in terms of his wanting a drink, and so moving because he takes this to be the way to get one..."


"This is a fundamental kind of psychological is at once interpretive and explanatory. It is interpretive because, as such examples illustrate, assigning motives enable us to make sense of what


people say and do. It is explanatory because we take the motives we thus assign to be causes within persons which prompt their actions, and which, therefore, serve to explain them..."4


This commonsense model of human action is described in Alvin I. Goldman's A Theory of Human Action, where he says:...although we can formulate very rough generalizations  about wants, beliefs, and acts, we cannot state precise universal laws, using concepts for which we have precise measurement techniques..."5


Let us employ this commonsense model in the examination  of our data concerning deliberation in light of our three theories.


According to compatibilism, our acts are caused by inner states (i.e. want and beliefs). But where do these come from; are they not, themselves, caused? And, if so, are these antecedent causes within our control? According to the commonsense model, these wants and beliefs are themselves links in a causal chain that preceded them: so that we are only the proximate cause of our acts. Our deliberations lead to actions which cause changes in the world. This causal chain operates through our system of wants and beliefs (i.e. not behind, outside, or independently of it). So our acts do make a difference. Nevertheless, these wants and beliefs are, themselves, caused by prior events beyond our control. They are the product  of our heredity  and environment, the forces that shape our character. If this is the case, then whatever we do is the only thing we could do, given the conditions that preceded it. Consequently, although we deliberate­ weigh factors that lead to decisions which cause us to act, and our acts can change the world --our acts, themselves, are determined.


According to free will, our wants and beliefs are not themselves caused. It is often coupled with a theory of agency: that we are agents who are somehow independent of antecedent  conditions; so that some causal chains begin with the agent himself. But the idea of an agent who is a cause of an act involves a concept of

causation that applies nowhere else in nature.6  According to it, an agent initiates the causal chain of his acts: is the uncaused cause of an act.


Let us begin our investigation of Marxism and Determinism with  Marx's two most famous statements on the subject:


"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 transmuted from the past."7 ; and


"History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth, it wages no battles. It is man, real living man, who does all that, who possesses and fights; 'history' is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to

achieve its own aims, history  is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims."8


The first passage recognizes an objective world beyond  our control; but, within this world, men make their  own history. If one reads "make history" as act freely, then it is consistent  with  both compatibilism and free will. But if one reads "make history" as deliberate, decide, act and thereby make changes in the world, then it is consistent with determinism (i.e. with our not being able to "make history"  otherwise).


In the second passage Marx denies the "behind-the­ scenes" notion  of history as a Hegelian Puppet-Master pulling our strings; but "man pursuing his aims" still leaves the question of whether  those aims are under our control. In his masterpiece, Capital I, Marx speaks of the: "...drives for self-preservation and propagation..." 9 So he recognized biological/psychological drives as causes of human action (i.e. as antecedent causes of human wants, desires or needs). Consequently, It is not clear how this passage should be interpreted. Let us next examine the views of several contemporary Marxists who have been uniformly critical of determinism.


In Terry Eagleton's, Why Marx Was Right, the author speaks of "historical determinism", implying  a specific form of determinism. Isolating "historical determinism" enables him to claim that events such as an ecological catastrophe, nuclear holocaust or the impact of an asteroid hitting the earth are "contingent" events (i.e. not determinism as we have defined it). Next he suggests that "historical determinism" implies "historical laws" and an evolutionary pattern of stages. This applies to Karl Kautsky, the Second International and Stalinism, but is not determinism simpliciter (which need not commit itself to any particular "historical laws" or "inevitable stages").


Another contemporary Marxist, John Molyneux, in his "Is Marxism Deterministic?", begins by defining determinism as "independent  of our will and actions" (i.e. contrary to our definition). Next he claims that

determinism implies the thesis of theoretical reduction in science (which is contrary to dialectical materialism). But determinism does not commit one to theoretical reduction, nor is it incompatible with dialectical materialism. The author rightly criticizes Kautsky's view for being 'fatalistic' and 'mechanistic'. Once again (as with Terry Eagleton), his fears that a Kausky's views will lead to our being 'passive', failing to appreciate the working class as the agent of historical change, and our "...underestimation of the role of the revolutionary party." All of these are legitimate fears, but not the consequences of determinism as here defined.


Finally, in "Is Marxism Deterministic?", Phil Gasper speaks of "...deterministic laws that would (either) leave no room for human agency and struggle..."(contrary to our definition, which requires human agency). He next distinguishes between deterministic laws and the tendencies and counteracting influences that Marx describes as characterizing the laws of motion of capitalism. But that these correctly account for the development of capitalism does not imply that they also apply to our behavior as individuals or members of a class. The author rightly likens Marxism to Darwin's Theory of Evolution (in that the two are weak in predictive but strong in explanatory power). He correctly denies the view that Marxism is a theory of "historical inevitability" (in that it does not guarantee the victory of socialism). But determinism does not claim otherwise. It only claims that-- although the outcome is determined-­ we do not know whether it will lead to socialism or to "barbarism" (e.g. counter-revolution, environmental catastrophe, nuclear war).


Finally, his remarks about how "human choice and intervention" and "the role of human agency" are essential to Marxism are certainly correct; but to suggest that determinism claims otherwise is to create a straw man in which history works "outside, behind or independently" of the acts of individuals  and classes. Determinism is consistent with the views that we do make history and that the working class is the primary agent of historical change. But it adds that such history could not have been made otherwise.


The most important consequence of our discussion of determinism concerns the question of moral responsibility. For if determinism is true- and we are not the ultimate cause of our acts-- then we are not morally responsible for them. We do in fact deliberate: we weigh factors, decide, and our actions have consequences in changing the world. Nevertheless, we are not the originators  of our acts, have no ultimate control  over them. But what does this mean for our moral image of our self and others, for our common practices of praise and blame? In, "Meaning in Life Without Free Will", Derk Pereboom responds to these questions.10


He distinguishes between two senses of moral responsibility: (1) that in which we have control over and are the ultimate source of our acts; and (2) that which expresses who we are or what we stand for. Although determinism denies the stronger claim (1), it is compatible with (2). The praise and blame that we attribute to our own and others acts may still be used to encourage and admonish. But will this not lead to passivity?


Firstly, we do not know the outcome of history. If our hopes and passionate convictions are what lead us to act, it is hard to believe a metaphysical theory  will dissuade us. It reminds one of the objections raised to atheism in Dostoevsky's The Brothers' Karamazov: that without a belief in god --without the fear of hell and punishment-­ we will not act morally. But we all know atheists that act morally  without the threat of hellfire. We should have no more trouble organizing on behalf of the working-class movement without the illusion of freedom. The alternative is that of Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor: that we must take it upon itself to fear or conceal the truth, and foster illusions in the working class. Another example is that of Lezek Kolakowski in,..., who advocated not telling the working class the whole truth about how difficult it would be to make a socialist revolution for fear of their being discouraged. I hope we, as Marxists, will avoid such elitism and lack of faith in the working class movement. If some nevertheless require the illusion of freedom or a belief in god, we will certainly not deny them. As for the rest of us, I am reminded of a quotation from Freud:


"Humanity has in the course of time to endure from the hands of science two great outrages upon its na"ive self-love. The first was when it realized that our earth was not the center of the universe...The second was when biological research robbed man of his peculiar privilege of having been specially created, and relegated to a descent from the animal world...But man's craving for grandiosity is now suffering the third and most bitter blow from present-day psychological research which is endeavoring to prove to the ego of each of us that he is not even master in his own house..."11


All that  we as human  beings are capable of, all that  we have created  and accomplished -from the most modest of our labors to the art of Shakespeare, Michelangelo and Beethoven, the science of Newton, Darwin and Marx


-all of this is not diminished one iota by having been determined. It requires  no change in our political engagement, no lessening our commitment to socialism, only, perhaps, a more modest  view of our place in the universe, a more  tolerant attitude to ourselves and others. We may simply come to the "...the realization that, no matter where  we begin, the world is mysterious and that  we who try to understand it are even more so..."12



1 P. 46, Why Marx Was Right, by Terry Eagleton

2 P. 33  Metaphysics, by Richard Taylor

3 A Theory of Human Action, by Alvin I. Goldman

4 P. 88, "The Interpretation of Dreams", by James Hopkins,The Cambridge Companion to Freud.

5 P. 73  A Theory of Human Action, by Alvin I. Goldman

6 P 48, 49 Metaphysics,Richard Taylor.

7 P.l, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napolean, by Karl Marx.

8 P.101, The Holy Family, by Karl Marx

9 P 718, capital I by Karl Marx

10 "Meaning in Life without Free Will by Derk Pereboom


12 p. 50, Metaphysics,Richard Taylor.

© 2015 By Mark Dickman