Criticism and Self-Criticism as Historical Materialist Method

Elsewhere I have written on why I consider historical materialism to be a science due to its virtual replicability, predictive capabilities, and it making possible the objective study of social formations and their respective laws of motion governing them. Here I would like to expand on a few points, and tie in the discussion of historical materialism as science to day to day political practice, as often these things can seem abstract and inconsequential to communist organizing.

First, a brief recap of why historical materialism is scientific. Historical materialism makes possible the periodization of History according to certain laws and epochs based on their economic structure, in other words, their modes of production. This is basic classification, something familiar in the natural sciences. Classification also makes comparison and theorization possible within History, as it brings a level of coherence and conceptualization to seemingly random events, as without historical materialism History is merely a chronicle of events. Secondly, the ability of historical materialism to posit the interconnectedness of historical facts, i.e. to overcome the tendency to disconnect historical processes as is en vogue today with micro-histories and post-modern approaches that eschew totalization. Flowing from this is the recognition that these facts arise from knowable material causes and are not the results of supra-historical concepts, nor do they arise spontaneously as if from nowhere. Lastly, because historical materialism can understand and explain the causes of history, it can then offer predictive claims about the unfolding of History itself.

As a theoretical framework historical materialism must penetrate into the practical lives of ordinary people, thus enlightening and animating an entire historical period by providing people with a generalized understanding of the course of History and their role in making it, but also by giving form to rules of political conduct. The theory/practice of historical materialism should serve the the working-class, as well as their revolutionary intellectuals, and the ends of the class struggle. In fact the laboratory, so to speak, where historical materialism meets its burden of proof is the class struggle, or in other words, politics. The collective act of analyzing both past and present to form a coherent political line to change reality is the most important facet of historical materialism. If historical materialism can be distilled down into the formula of “theorizing how and why modes of production transform through class struggle” then participating in theorizing and making revolution is a historical materialist act itself.

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This is why communists speak of historical materialism as a “living science”. Scientific for the reasons outlined above and elsewhere, living because it is the culmination of a ceaseless process. Central to that process is criticism/self-criticism. Practically speaking it is always necessary to formally summarize individual and collective mistakes on a personal and organizational level, but this must be applied to the entire history of the communist movement itself, which is what a proper historical materialist analysis does. Self-criticism allows one to avoid the historicist error of seeing historical periods and events unfold linearly. A genuine historical materialist practice is a struggle and repudiation of that understanding in that it provides a framework to study historical change and its motor force (class struggle) outside of the scope of the present, and transforms shallow understandings into a self-critical science. Without self-criticism historical materialism is incapable of becoming scientific in any real sense precisely because it would remain incapable of seeing beyond its own immediate present. This narrow outlook is incapable of formulating a general theory or pervading the working-class with any kind of practical political conduct, and is why so many parties’ theoretical interventions into the realm of historical materialism end up no better than stale tautologies.

The source of all summations, criticisms, and historical materialism itself are the three foundations of knowledge outlined according to Marxist epistemology, namely, class struggle, scientific experiment, and the struggle for production. A unified historical materialism unites all three and thereby links the act of doing with the act of thinking in such a way that subjectivism can be overcome. As individuals, our subjective knowledge of the objective world is necessarily limited by various factors such as our class position, by technology etc. and is therefore a barrier to both a historical materialist analysis and criticism/self-criticism. How can one, for instance, sum up the failures of a particular action, or, on a wider scale, delineate certain general laws of a historical epoch, by drawing knowledge solely from one source? If, say, we try to understand the particular development of capitalism in the post-war period in the U.S. exclusively by way of the development and transformation of production technique and technology, i.e. classical economic reductionism, then that particular period quickly becomes inexplicable when trying to explain the political movement of that period and the balance of class forces. This one-sidedness locks us into a shallow view of our own failures, as well as limiting our understanding of our own conditions, hence making any kind of criticism/self-criticism or historical materialism hollow practices producing incorrect results.

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Normalizing various mediums of summarizing revolutionary experience, fostering atmospheres and cultures that allow criticism/self-criticism to flourish and arise organically create a historical materialist procedure and way of thinking that breaks with bourgeois ideology, especially its personalization of all criticism, its individualist understanding of History, and its disregard for the necessity of theory. Criticism/self-criticism should always center on the political and avoid petty personal squabbles, which is what many non-communist criticisms become in liberal groups. Criticism and historical materialism should deepen our knowledge of the world, allow us to see farther and wider, and enrich and strengthen our political action. It shouldn’t degrade individuals or organizations but build them up by communicating the necessity for it as a political act.

Practicing historical materialism and putting it to work can’t be rote memorization of formulae, nor can or should it be the exclusive purview of intellectuals. It is a deeply political and practical process, not just the analytical arm of Marxism. Historical materialism is the consciousness of necessity, that necessity being the explanatory power of it as theory and the animating power of it as practice. Consequently, and this is the most important point, it belongs to those who make History, the masses in their millions. The transformation of all revolutionary-minded people into conscious historical materialists can and should begin with criticism/self-criticism. Through that practice, both individual and collective, one can begin to see what was once thought of as abstract come alive in day to day political life.


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