"For understandable, if philosophically frivolous, reasons the collapse of the Soviet Union has been taken - especially in the media - as signaling the defeat of Marxism qua philosophy", so writes Leiter in Hermeneutics of Suspicion. The irony is that this frivolity is particularly fitting considering Marx's own stance:“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it", and the Soviet Union failed to change it (for the better). This however is too clever by half, Leiter also points out another irony:"the Soviet Union arguably collapsed for Marxian reasons: bureaucratic central planning clearly fettered the development of the forces of production, and thus was eventually supplanted by nascent market forms of production and distribution".

A staple of Marxism is the "historical materialism", the claim that on a grand scale the course of history is ultimately determined by material resources and means of production, and economic constraints they impose on societies. Interestingly, Marx is not a determinist, his other staple "dialectical materialism" explicitly condemns mechanical determinism, his is more of a big picture fatalism. Material causes do not predetermine history in every detail, but they do its "essential" features in the fullness of time. The rest, individuals, ideas, cultures, ideologies are superficial decorations shaped and dragged along by economic undercurrents.

Leaving aside political activism and utopian millenarianism what of the philosophical content? As materialisms go, Marx's is arguably more nuanced than plain physicalism. And it is hard to miss affinities with the recent "geography is destiny" school of thought, e.g. Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, or the earlier incarnation in Adams's Energy and Structure:"Diamond's central conception is that the course of history, broadly speaking, is not determined by individual actions, cultural factors, or racial differences, but by the environmental circumstances into which different groups of people accidentally wandered".

I know the usual maneuver is to place the burden of proof on a Marxist, and claim (rightly) that a case for material determination of history has not been made. But are there good arguments that it can not be made, that historical materialism (and not just Marx's social prescriptions) is philosophically indefensible and/or empirically discredited?

  • we covered this in phil pol. 101 in as much as our lecturer (a no bullshit marxist) said that you can't postpone the proof of the inevitability (however you want to read that) of communism forever; i don't think we even need to revise his time frame by much - but am a very paranoid person
    – user6917
    Aug 29, 2015 at 13:10
  • I am a layman outside philosophy, but as far as I've been taught and I've read (I am a Chinese), Marx didn't form the term dialectical materialism, and the historical materialism isn't something absolutely deterministic, but that practicing, as materials (as opposed to forms), creates the history and determines the relations. He applied dialectics to analyze these, including the concept of alienation. Dialectics per se is difficult for me, and I was told that one wasn't supposed to understand Marx before he understood Kant and Hegel.
    – Yai0Phah
    Aug 20, 2016 at 13:45
  • @Frank You are right, the term "dialectical materialism" was coined by Karl Kautsky and popularized by the Second International in early 1900s. But what it refers to is more or less described in Engels's Dialectics of Nature, and it is indeed not fully deterministic philosophy.stackexchange.com/questions/37306/… Engels is easier to understand than Kant or Hegel, I think, and one needs to have some idea about Hegel to appreciate Marx's dialectic fully, but I recommend secondary sources first.
    – Conifold
    Aug 22, 2016 at 23:31

3 Answers 3


Marxism has many aspects to it; the main difference appears to be as a political movement, and as a school of thought.

As a political movement, it is as political and legal theorist Roberto Unger put it: no longer a live option; as a school of thought its influence is still apparent.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ... signalled the defeat of Marxism qua philosophy.

This rather ignores the fact the other main Marxist constellation - China did not collapse; and equally importantly geo-politics, that is the fact of the 'Cold War' ie a war of attrition.

The Soviet Union collapsed for Marxist reasons: bureaucratic central planning

This, I would suggest depends on the efficacy of central planning; and it's meaning: Japan's economy for example, so far as I understand was managed through MITI - and this succeeded superbly well.

Secondly, large corporations in themselves are they themselves in terms of their administration and governance not centrally planned bureaucracies - for example Wal-Mart?

A staple of Marxism is 'historical materialism'; the claim on the grand scale the course of history is determined by material resources and the means of production.

I think this rather misconceives Marxs own position; as a theorist on the economy his focus was on determining the laws of motion of an economy; he explicitly pointed out, (that unlike physical theories which are true everywhere and for all times ie the 'grand scale') that they are historically contingent; and he claimed to discover the basic laws for the current historical epoch - this thought is what is generally now understood and theorised as globalisation.

Diamonds central conception is that the broad course of history is not determined by individual actions

I would suggest that this misconceives Diamond; it's rather like saying that the bulk properties of matter are not determined by all the individual atoms that go to make up that material - it most obviously does; but it's not the best way and/or indeed the only way of thinking about it.

But are there good arguments that historical materialism is philosophically indefensible, and empirically discredited

As a pure form of thought, it is indefensible; but this, I would suggest goes for any pure form of thought: for example, consider Platos social philosophy in The Republic where he determines (ie argues for) that there are certain social classes; it would be a mistake to then seek out and think on these pure forms, in the same sense of looking at a painting and looking solely at the pure colour classes of Red, Blue and Green.

Empirically, given the 'capitalist mode of production' or 'globalisation' is evident everywhere; and that this is one of his empirical predictions; I would suggest that on the whole, and on this, his prediction has empirically speaking, borne out.

  • I am most skeptical of Marx's thesis that the influence of material base on cultural superstructure is far stronger than the backreaction, or the autonomous self-influence of the superstructure. Without it his way of analyzing and predicting history, by looking at development of the base only and then making corrections, is suspect. Perhaps he was right about capitalism, but he also made a number of predictions about it failing and about socialism, so his model was flawed, or at least he did not have a way of reliably extracting predictions from it.
    – Conifold
    Aug 31, 2015 at 18:06
  • @conifold: Guy Debord put its dynamics better; it's the prediction that I care about - and that has been, on the whole generally borne out; it's not its failure as such but how it will be transformed; how long that will take is a contingent matter; after all, the Roman Empire looked as though it would last forever before being etherealised into the Catholic Church. Aug 31, 2015 at 19:39

As long as someone believes in it, then no. This also displays that knowledge always has a social relativistic "dimension", which comes from the fact that ideologies are by definition "schools of thought", although ideologies may be more complicated and broader than "schools of thought" in the academic sense (e.g. economics, physics).

Marxist theories are true for those that believe in Marxism. They may not be true to those that don't believe in them.

Marxism or any other ideology (e.g. a religion) stops existing, only if the group believing in it socializes into another ideology and the one they come from does not have any followers.

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    It is not clear how this answer does not apply equally well to utilitarianism a la Bentham. Aug 29, 2015 at 11:22
  • @NieldeBeaudrap This is a general answer to any ideology and the question of whether it exists. Everything exists to us only through socialization. As long as someone believes in something, there's a group that holds a certain view. Different ideologies may have different outcomes, but it's very difficult to display the advancement of another over another, since it depends on social relativistic things (i.e. whether I decide to adapt to your ideology or not).
    – mavavilj
    Aug 29, 2015 at 11:27
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    This is a high (low?) bar for the 'defeat' of a philosophy. Compare this with answers on the problems with Popper's falsificationalism. By your criterion, the original tenets of the Jehovah's Witnesses haven't been 'defeated' because there are still JWs, despite the fact that the original tenets included a date in the 19th century for the end of the world. Aug 29, 2015 at 11:41
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    I think the whole terminology of 'defeat' is possibly part of the problem, and likely just borrowed from the recent-ish historical context of the OP, of the 'defeat' of the Soviet Union. For me, its a red herring (no pun intended). I do not care about extant believers or whether one can find interesting refinements (as with original JWs vs. modern JWs). The question is whether the materialist aspects of Marxism are systematically flawed, a question you don't even address. Aug 29, 2015 at 12:13
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    Inasmuch as people's organisation is tied to their practise, and ability to achieve their goals, a philosophy has traction on empirical reality, and can be seen to be misguided, defective, etc. The question is less clear than in science, but if there were no question of being in some sense 'not quite right', no one would disagree on philosophy. My critique stands. Aug 29, 2015 at 14:09

Marx has been refuted root and branch. You mention Marx's historical materialism, which was refuted by von Mises in "Theory and History":


Diamond's ideas have also been refuted. In "The Beginning of Infinity", Chapter 17, starting around page 424, David Deutsch explains that geography can't explain human behaviour and development. For example, there was a geographical barrier, the Andes, that stopped the spread of domesticated llamas according to Diamond. Since such animals are useful for the development of an advanced technological civilisation, this was an obstacle to the development of such a civilisation in South America. But it's not necessary for an item to be useful at every point between two places for people to take it from one place to another. Somebody just has to guess that if llamas are useful on one side of the Andes they may be useful on the other side, and devise a means to get llamas to the other side. Perhaps they couldn't get llamas over the Andes directly and would have to resort to sailing or something like that. But there is no reason to think this was impossible if people had developed the appropriate knowledge. People in South America didn't develop the right knowledge for some unknown reason.

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