A Theory of History

Clio appears in The Allegory of Painting -or- The Art of Painting by Jan Vermeer van Delft

Clio poses in The Allegory of Painting by Jan Vermeer van Delft

Recently, I’ve been looking at theories of history.  My interest in a theory of history derives from my interest in finding a political project which is at once progressive in content and direction, but also not doomed.

It might help to understand that I came from an anarchist background, and was involved with the Workers Solidarity Movement, a platformist group in Ireland.  Whilst involved in the project I began casting about for some strategic approaches we might take that had more than a chance in hell of working.

I’m an empiricist at heart.  I like to have demonstrable examples that some theory is true, since otherwise pretty much any plausible story ends up on essentially the same footing.   Unfortunately for the empiricist in me, in sociology and politics we cannot perform controlled experiments and therefore history has to supply us with our data.  Our job begins to look rather more forensic than empirical.  However it can still at least be systematic and scientific.  That is, we can provide a hypothesis based on some set of data-points and see how it copes on an expanded set.

Anarchists theoretically have remained rather less well developed in terms of their understanding of historical forces (or economics) than Marxists.  For this reason I began reading quite a lot of Marxist theory and began my drift towards historical materialism.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that the Marxists have developed the main useful body of work towards a theory of history.

Historical materialism, while not without problems, does contain a very important kernel of truth.  The orientation is, I think, essentially correct though some parts which have been considered traditionally to be a part of the theory may have to be weakened or contingent.  Recently I read a quite good article by Erik Olin Wright which deals with some of these ideas of how historical materialism might be weakened and why.

I have also been interested in the works of the folks doing Cliodynamics.  Again we have a scientific and often quite mathematical approach to history, which is quite in the spirit of Bogdanov‘s tectology and has echos of cybernetics.  Some of the models are quite interesting but what particularly struck me was that the theory is none too kind to the elites.  It seems to me that any successful theory of history (one that can be given substantial footing in the facts) has the useful attribute of dissolving the mystifications provided by the elites to justify their position.

It has often been the case that Marxists have attempted to make alterations to Marx’s theory in order to cope with real data only to be denounced as drifting from “the project”.  At first this might appear quite irrational as any good scientific theory will have to deal with reality, and our theory of history is only as good as what it can tell us about what our possible futures will be.  However, when one pulls up anchor it is very difficult to know where one will go.  It has certainly been the case that many who have pulled up anchor from the Marxian project have drifted to every corner of the political spectrum.

I would contend that the fear of drift is, despite this, wholly misguided.  The project of progressive politics can not be saved by being anchored to sacred texts.  Instead we need to treat these texts as we do the seminal works of scientific authors such as Newton, rejecting the alchemical, while nurturing the study of the dynamical.

The strength of such a project will not come from clinging to particular models.  Instead we need to keep a fuzzy view of the goal: an egalitarian, democratic and bountiful society where resource contention is systematically avoided, while building a truly wide and scientific body of work on how we might get there.

About Gavin Mendel-Gleason

An ex-patriate American living in Ireland. Former anarchist, present mass partyist, but always committed socialist.
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