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Untitled Document
Moment and Method in History
Dr. Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: The Daily Times
Dated: Thursday, November 20, 2003

During the course of the discussion on the Grundnorm, some of the participants it can be argued have drawn a false dichotomy between ‘material forces’ and ‘consciousness’ in historical explanation. Further more they have regarded the former as ‘objective’ and the latter as ‘metaphysical’. This false dichotomy leads to the problem of locating the actions of individuals in the making of history. It therefore becomes necessary to draw the distinction between a moment in history created by human action and the method of historicizing it.

The moment in history is created by individuals pursuing conscious ends. It is charged by the vision, passion and rationality of individuals, classes and nations as they consort or contend in the struggle to overcome their condition. Human beings act under the constraint of circumstances, to construct a future that is uncertain but perhaps not pre determined. As Marx put it “Men make their own history, though not in circumstances determined by themselves” (The German Ideology). On the other hand history is a representation of the past from the perspective of the present. As Eric Hobsbawm in his memorable passage on the historical method suggests, “We certainly start with the assumption of our own time, place and situation, including the propensity to shape the past in our terms, to see… what our perspective allows us to recognize”. Thus both the making of history and the recounting of history are inseparable from human consciousness.

The idea that “material forces are the key determinants of political outcomes” (as one of the participants in our discussion has proposed) is logically flawed because it is a reification of the material. i.e. it imputes to inanimate entities a subjectivity, thereby making them into a motor force (deux ex machina) of history. Equally the idea of an ‘empirical’ history independent of the actions of people, as Althusser and Balibar argue is flawed because concepts of history in themselves cannot be empirical. In this context we must remember Spinoza’s telling remark that while the dog may bark, the concept of a dog cannot bark. This logical flaw can be traced to the dogmatic version of what some Marxists (but not Marx) called ‘Historical Materialism’. In this dogmatic version of the historical method, it is argued that the growth of ‘productive forces’ is the basis of historical development and so the conflict between forces and relations of production within the existing mode of production induce a historical change by taking society to a more advanced mode of production. The historical process or the sequence of modes of production (feudal, capitalist, communist) is thus regarded as both ‘logical’ and inevitable. This is a case of making the concept of ‘material forces’ into a metaphysical theory of historical determinism.

A more sophisticated version of this misconceived historical determinism acknowledges the role of human action but proposes that material factors still have ‘primacy’, and that consciousness, culture and politics are of ‘secondary’ importance. This version takes refuge in the standard mantra that human action and material forces have a ‘dialectical’ relationship, without clarifying the content of the dialectic in this context. Consequently it is unable to explain how the primary and secondary factors are related, much less how the relative importance of these factors is reversed during periods of “radical or dramatic change”.

The essential problem in this approach is that the precise relationship between material forces and conscious human action is obfuscated. As Gregor McLennan points out, “…for a materialist, dialectical relations need only be construed as causal interaction. This is compatible with saying, for example that some sets of interactions (material ones) are of fundamental importance whereas others however important, are not.” By contrast McLennan proposes that a dialectician can maintain that “essentially, all things are logically inter-related and so equivalent.” (Italics mine). The debate between Josef Dietzgen and G.V. Plekhanov was of this kind, with Plekhanov taking the materialist approach and ending up like Fauerbach with a form of technological determinism in history. Dietzgen on the other hand argued that “thought and things, nature and history being internally connected were part of the same universal substance”.

The dialectic between the individual and historical circumstances is the site at which the historical moment is created. It is the site at which consciousness is constructed, politics is conducted, and the destiny of a nation changed through the actions of people. As Marc Bloch argued “history has to do with beings who are, by nature, capable of pursuing conscious ends”. It is at such a moment when conscious human action overcomes the adversity of circumstance, that both the continuities and discontinuities of history are defined.

The post Marx dogma of the perpetual ‘primacy’ of ‘material forces’ and the relegation of consciousness, culture and institutions to a ‘secondary’ status is drawn from the economic determinism of the base and super structure formulation. Here the idea is that the mode of production (forces and relations of production) constitutes the base, while consciousness, institutions and politics are part of the super structure that presumably stands precariously atop the base. Some theoreticians think that it is only when the mode of production changes (following the conflict between the productive forces and relations of production), that changes in the realm of the super structure become possible. In other words it is economic forces that determine consciousness and politics. Apart from this mechanistic view, which is now defunct, the relationship between base and super structure in the process of history has been a matter of considerable debate in the post war European intellectual tradition, as indeed in the political polemics in the third world.

The separation of base from super structure and positing a one way causal relationship where the operation of ‘material forces’ within the base determine consciousness, once again results in denying the autonomy of human action and the specificity of the moment in history. In a famous contribution to the debate, Henri Lefebvre, argued the integration between the imaginative and the material, between thought and things, between consciousness and history: “This complex content of life and consciousness is the true reality which we must attain and elucidate. Dialectical materialism is not an economicism. It analyses relations and then reintegrates them into the total movement…(of history)”.

The challenge for the historical method therefore is to explore this “complex content of life and consciousness”; it is to trace the trajectory of human action and consciousness in the changing of circumstances. History cannot simply be a recounting of the vicissitudes of state power or of the “power dynamics” amongst various groups (as one participant has proposed). In this context it is pertinent to refer to the recent work of Ranajit Guha. In his seminal book published last year, he has critiqued western historicizing of India as a “representation of the colonial past held in thrall by a narrowly defined politics of statism”. He argues that such historicizing was part of the Raj project, which “required the appropriation of the Indian past and its use for the construction of a colonial state”.

I have argued in this article that the dichotomy between ‘material forces’ and consciousness as mutually exclusive elements in historical explanation is misconceived. An associated though more sophisticated conception that ‘material forces’ have primacy while consciousness is of secondary importance, is also flawed. This is because it reifies and gives a perpetual causal role to material forces in history, while making human intervention always of secondary importance. Such a formulation deprives the historical moment of its uniqueness and indeterminacy. If a dialectical relationship between conscious human action and historical circumstances is to be posited, then these two elements must be inter-related and hence equivalent, as McLennan and Lefebvre propose. Only then is it possible to allow for the simple fact of history that at some moments we can overcome adverse circumstances and at other moments we may not succeed. Accordingly the relative importance of historical circumstance and conscious human action at any moment in history can only be known when that moment is born. Thus in the ebb and flow of history, consciousness is essential to both the making of history and recounting it.

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