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I have been reading bits and pieces on historicism, mostly from Wikipedia and other online publications. In my understanding, it is an ideological evaluation model which emphasizes the context in which an idea exists and how it relates to other stakeholders of that constellation rather than on the intrinsic values and projections of that idea.

I have noted in several places, notably the Wikipedia page on historicism, that Karl Popper criticizes Marxism as historicist in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies. However, I am not finding any sources that explain, lucidly and not in a way obscurantly postmodernist, what it is that makes Marxism historicist.

Please note that I am asking this without having read the actual book, which may contain an answer. I am asking to get a digested explanation of what makes it so in a language understandable to a non-academic commoner.

  • Related to this question is cultural materialism (what people later made the supposed core of his philosophy), but I think a good place to start is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - as always. Another point to keep in mind: There is a difference betwenn Marx and Marx/Engels. Most people tend to forget or be ignorant of the immense theoretical and ideological impetus coming from Engels in Marx' later years – Philip Klöcking Jan 23 '17 at 17:55
  • can you be a little more specific ? – amphibient Jan 23 '17 at 17:57
  • First, read the article I linked. There, you can also find that while original core ideas (religion as opium for the masses, alienation of work, etc) are already developed before or in '45 ("early writings"), the ideological, more systematic-theoretical works (including the idea of historical materialism) are written and/or published together with Engels. Just wanted to throw in the link and that cultural materialsm can be a term helpful regarding why the theory is historical (has to be seen in context of becoming) as different from historicist (science of historical facts). But I digress. – Philip Klöcking Jan 23 '17 at 18:13
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Like every -ism, also Historicism can be used as an over-simplifying label.

Having said that, the starting point must be Hegel's Philosophy of History; Hegel's philosophy is complex and his Philosophy of History is a relevant part of his system.

A key point is the:

attempt to discover meaning or direction in history. Hegel regards history as an intelligible process moving towards a specific condition — the realization of human freedom. “The question at issue is therefore the ultimate end of mankind, the end which the spirit sets itself in the world”.

Marx and Engels, into The German Ideology as well as in the notes Theses on Feuerbach, contrast their new materialist method with Hegel's idealism:

The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated. Hence this doctrine is bound to divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society.

But, common to Marx-Engels and Hegel is the assumption that history has laws: we can "find reason in history".

Be it idealist or materialist, the science of history can discover the rational "drivers" of historical changes and uses them to explain/understand and predict future developments.

Karl Popper (with an excessive simplification) in his books The Poverty of Historicism and The Open Society and Its Enemies uses historicism referring to:

an approach to the social sciences which assumes that historical prediction is their primary aim, and which assumes that this aim is attainable by discovering the 'rhythms' or the 'patterns', the 'laws' or the 'trends' that underlie the evolution of history". Karl Popper wrote with reference to Hegel's theory of history, which he criticized extensively.

Popper attacks "historicism" and its proponents, among whom (as well as Hegel) he identifies and singles out Plato and Marx. The objection he makes is that historicist positions, by claiming that there is an inevitable and deterministic pattern to history, abrogate the democratic responsibility of each one of us to make our own free contributions to the evolution of society, and hence lead to totalitarianism.


We have to consider also Historical materialism as well as Dialectical materialism; these doctrines fit well with Popper's critique but we can hardly found textual support for them into Marx's original works; see e.g. Amedeo Bordiga, Plechanov, Lenin ans Stalin.

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    In Notebook M of the Grundrisse (which I call out because it's one of the few places where he talks about method in the latter half of his life), one does not see anywhere a sign of an inevitabilist presentation of historical law. You are presented directly with what is commonly done with economic thought in terms of its desire to abstract and you are then presented with "the method of political economy" which consists in grounding a law (as a tendency enacted by subjective action) within the material conditions of a given society. Popper's criticism may apply to an early Marx however. – ClearMountainWay Jan 23 '17 at 22:23
  • +1: I can see why Popper criticises Marx for historicism (whether the critique is valid or not), but I'm suprised that he places Plato in the same camp; does he explain why; perhaps I should ask a question... – Mozibur Ullah Jan 24 '17 at 13:16
  • @MoziburUllah - for Paklto's "utopian" Republic, i.e. a state governed by philosophers that knows for is "good" for humans and act accordingly, irrespective of what people want. This "model" for Popper is what account for Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc. – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Jan 24 '17 at 13:20
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Before I begin I should note that you have been given some bad advice, e.g. - read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Any second hand source in philosophy should be treated with deep suspicion. Misunderstandings are extremely common even in everyday life, and in an abstract subject such as philosophy the problem is even worse. Philosophers in general have not understood Popper at all and many accounts of his work bear almost no resemblance to the original.

Historicism is the idea that it is possible and desirable and scientific to predict the course of history.

Popper pointed out that this is flatly impossible in several places, e.g. - 'The Open Society and Its Enemies', 'The Poverty of Historicism' and 'The Open Universe'. What you will do at some future time is a result of the knowledge you have at that time. What knowledge you will have in the future is necessarily unpredictable because if you could predict the content of that knowledge you would already have it. So historical prediction is impossible. Institutions should be not designed to make prophecies. Rather, they should be set up to make it easy to remove bad or incompetent policies and leaders. Since Marx makes historical prophecies and has no interest in error correcting institutions as a result, he advocates bad ideas.

Popper lets Marx off far too easily. I recommend 'Karl Marx and the close of his system' by Bohm-Bawerk and 'Time will run back' by Hazlitt.

  • Marx predicted that Capitalism would go global (and isn't this in one sense is what is referred to as globalisation?); personally I think it should be credited to Hegel since he noted that 'trade had world-historical character'; there are plenty of philosophers that have taken Popper seriously - the SEP for one. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 24 '17 at 13:12
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    @MoziburUllah You seem to be labouring under the misconception that bad methodology is somehow redeemed by getting something right at some point. Since most astrologers will eventually make a correct prediction at some point, your argument would say we should credit astrologers. We shouldn't credit Marx or astrologers. Also, if you take a criticism seriously and can't answer it, then you ditch your bad ideas, but philosophers are almost all still justificationists, so they haven't taken Popper seriously. – alanf Jan 24 '17 at 13:38
  • Well, maybe you're the only person in the world to take Popper seriously; good luck with that. Astrology has a very long history, and it wouldn't surprise me that astronomy came out of astrology, in the same way that philosophy came out of poetry. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 24 '17 at 13:41
  • Newton couldn't answer the the critique that his gravitational theory used 'action at a distance'; he admitted the difficulty; lucky for us he didn't ditch the theory. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 24 '17 at 13:44
  • I'm not, by the way, crediting Marx; I'm crediting in Hegel; he made the remark pretty much in passing; its just one paragraph in his Phenomenology; Marx, I suppose pursued the idea, and attempted to gather evidence for it. – Mozibur Ullah Jan 24 '17 at 13:50

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