An abstract view of the past

Issue: 115

Matt Perry

David Laibman, Deep History: A Study in Social Evolution and Human Potential (SUNY, 2006), £42

A strange title and ugly cover design would probably put off most casual readers interested in the Marxist view of history, so there is probably little point in me warning all but the most determined about this book. It is a complex text addressing some of most intricate debates within academic Marxism. Judged in its own terms, it is an interesting but ultimately flawed contribution to the debates.

It does address some very important issues and is (over-) ambitious in its scope. This, by the way, makes reviewing the book necessarily selective. Fundamentally, Deep History seeks to outline the laws governing different categories of society (what Laibman calls “abstract social totalities”) over the entire scope of human development. He goes through slave, feudal, capitalist and “socialist” societies identifying what he believes to be the essential moving parts of these societies, and thereby allowing an understanding of how these societies developed and how one form of society is superseded by the next.

In the face of the pervasive influence of postmodernism, he makes a defence of a scientific approach to an understanding of history. In some respects, this is very useful. He makes the very telling point that those who reject this scientific understanding on the grounds that the diversity of cultures defies the quest for universal characteristics in human history overlook the universality of systems of symbolic representation (like the use of language, signs, etc). This culture of symbolic systems defines our humanity, our distinctiveness from other animals. Other species may have instincts, or may be able to learn by trial and error, but they are incapable of abstract conceptual thought. This is what makes the architect different from the bee. This is, of course, crucially what makes human labour and production possible. The aspiration to write a history of the whole of human history, or at least to put the different parts of history in the context of the rest of history, is necessary and unfashionable.

The book is in three parts. In the first Laibman outlines his method. He seeks to explain history rather than simply assemble facts and describe it. In order to do this, he defends Marx’s use of the concepts of the productive forces and the productive relations, and this ties into the debate about the transition from feudalism to capitalism as well as the standard mainstream criticism that Marx was a “productive force -determinist”.

In the second part he seeks to define the logic and stages of development of capitalism. He makes a strong case for viewing capitalism as going through a series of stages. He argues that markets cannot be simply equated with capitalism, and points out that inequality seems to be fair under capitalism because of widespread private property, which is presented as natural and eternal (as well as the “lottery effect”—the slender possibility that exists for the poor to become rich). He makes a worthwhile critique of so-called analytical Marxism, which shares the assumptions of free market economics.

His focus on the question of the extensive development or diffusion of capitalism is also interesting. But one of the problems with the stages that he offers is that they are abstract, highly disputable and, given that they are stripped of the necessity of empirical verification, arbitrary. He also attempts to establish a complex model of capitalist crisis. This encompasses different elements of the process of capitalist accumulation, demonstrating the crisis riddled nature of the system.

In the third part, Laibman looks at a world beyond capitalism, that of socialism and communism. Having established the crisis prone character of capitalism, he considers the possibilities of a socialist society based on democratic and non-bureaucratic planning operating through coordination at both the central and local level. He puts a strong case that central economic coordination, a term he prefers to as planning, is not inimical to democracy. Such processes could be conducted through forms of direct democratic control.

He addresses key issues such as the combination of moral and material, individual and collective, incentives in a situation where inequalities are being reduced; the planned core of economy and an informal sector of small producers; the transformation of the price mechanism beyond competitive markets; the potentiality that the internet offers for economic democracy. The discussion of the experience of the Soviet Union and the other “socialist” states is evasive and problematic. The contribution of great revolts from below against regimes to their collapse are denied (p183). This is not the place to rehearse the analysis of Tony Cliff and the theory of state capitalism here. However, given that understanding capitalism as a series of phases of development is fundamental to Laibman’s approach, this might have pushed him in the direction of conceiving of these states as conforming to wider trends within the development of world capitalism from the First World War onwards—trends which gave the state a much greater role. Instead he looks to Soviet scholars of the 1960s for inspiration on the question of planning and their reforms, which were never implemented, as a model for what can be achieved.

The major problem with this text is that in attempting to explain history, to establish the underlying patterns or structures of development, his answer at every turn is to escalate the level of abstraction. Marx, by contrast, deployed abstraction in order to return to historical realities and events with greater clarity of thought and explanatory force. Laibman’s method diminishes his ability to revitalise Marxism and to make it robust in the face of contemporary onslaughts.

An ideal version of historical epochs functions like clockwork, represented with flow diagrams and “conceptual geometry”. There is a strong tendency in work of this kind for Marxists to end up talking to themselves. For example, the question of the role of the military in the transition from feudalism to capitalism (the military revolution debate), which has become influential in academia, is entirely overlooked. Also his defence of a scientific approach overlooks the insights of chaos and complexity theories and their points of similarity with Marxism. Marx always sought to engage critically with trends within bourgeois thought and science.

The defence of Marxism does depend on the defence of a scientific explanatory account of human history, but it cannot deal exclusively in abstractions and it must find the proper place for human action to bring about the goal of social change. As graffiti on a blackboard in France during the student rebellion and general strike of 1968 put it, “Structures do not protest in streets.”