Historicism justifiably culminates in universal history. Nowhere does the materialist writing of history distance itself from it more clearly than in terms of method. The former has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive: it offers a mass of facts, in order to fill up a homogenous and empty time.
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)
How do we posit historical events as evidence for the claims we make for our theories? What is the status of the evidentiary relationship between events in history, and our historical reasoning?
By “historical reasoning”, I mean not just reasoning about history (indeed, we could reason about history non-historically), but reasoning in a historical manner, such as discerning the (irrational) rationality of existing standards, norms or categories based on their historical development; or recognizing cause-effect relationships in the field of human affairs as the particular examples of abstract general laws. History predates historicist science. But the science of history makes history what it is – an essentially human unfolding. The dialectic between materialist or abstract (ideological) theorizing about history, which unfolds generally in historicist critical theory takes as a model, as it were, a rupture with world-historic possibility first introduced by Marxism, which is to say that Marxism is a progenitor to later kinds of historicist theory insofar as it opens up the field of possibility for a critique of history from its outside: a practice more commonly called the critique of ideology.
Thus, the models of reasoning I consider here, though they refer primarily to Marxist theory, are situated within the same poststructuralist milieu as other strains of historicist critique. Marxism also, for better or worse, has a history of striving to make itself “scientific”. Analysis of models of reasoning are part and parcel with this aim. A formal logical analysis of competing models of reasoning will not be my aim in this paper, but rather, an exploration of the theoretical ground conditions giving rise to two competing models. These competing models are called ‘historical induction’ and ‘historical abduction’.
A note: in this essay I look at a small part of the development of Marxist theory in the 20th-century which I take to be significant in view of the present analysis, and generalize in order to frame Marxist theory in the nebulous “today”. Had I a publisher, I would write a book. I have a blog, and you have an essay.
“The Soviet Union under Stalin was more progressive than the most progressive alternatives on offer at the time under liberal state capitalism, for example in the United States,” says Person A, who is engaged in a political argument with Person B. Person B retorts by asking whether A has ever read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, or George Orwell’s Animal Farm (and will have made a good point in doing so), pointing to the Soviet Union under Stalin’s abysmal record of human rights violations, its failure to keep its population clothed and fed, the cultural totalitarianism of late bureaucratic communism, etc., etc. Person A has in mind that “progressive” means “progressive with respect to ownership and control of the means of production,” which is closer, in their mind, to the post-capitalist constitution of the only alternative to barbarism (that is, capitalism in its death knell, past its sell-by date), which is to say that it is the most rational alternative; while B is committed to a principle of rationality more in keeping with the maximization of individual freedoms bootstrapped to a utilitarian side-principle, which today qualifies for what most of us think of as ‘neoliberalism’.
The particular example doesn’t matter. Person A might be claiming that the capitalist classes in Britain and France in the lead-up to the Second World War were decidedly pro-fascist, right up to the point that fascism threatened their national borders, the sovereign personification of Hitler; Person B could then steadfastly disagree, claiming that all those liberal states swiftly united in attempting to crush fascism with little compunction at some point during the war, thus demonstrating their ideological opposition to it. They might be arguing about whether the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo was a decisive factor in sparking the hostilities leading up to the First World War. It matters not. What matters here is the manner in which each frames the evidence given in support of their conclusions.
Each individual in this case is arguing from historical induction. The examples are historical because they treat events in actual history as their empirical field of explanation. Inductive reasoning leads from premises to conclusions by way of an inference to the best explanation. Premises in inductive inferences give probable support to their conclusions, which are further held true by the way the world (probably) is. Each Person experiences, interprets and interacts with this world (or field of empirical reasoning) in different ways, leading them to draw different conclusions about its processes, evolutions, objects and relations, etc. They are not arguing about the status of their epistemic access to the historical evidence, but rather, about what the significance of the evidence is in relation to their historical reality. Each provides some piece of historical evidence – namely, rationally planned industrial production versus the existence of the gulags – thought to stand in support of a generalized conclusion.
It is worth it to take the time for a brief aside to explain how the present framing of the debate is indebted to Hegel and Marx; that is, the historicist debate about the status of history in relation to theory, rather than a debate limited to our epistemic access to events in history and their ‘actual significance’. Certain categories of experience lay the ground conditions for the possibility of such claims being made. That is, one needs to be able to explain their status in relation to the evidence being provided for the claims they are making. Our knowledge of history is a cultural memory. Culture mediates our understanding of historical narratives, both local and global. Hegel first articulates the process by which this manner of simultaneously thinking and expressing the essence of history – in the dialectic that Marx is credited with having “flipped on its head” – involves a kind of ongoing discourse between individuals and their societies, the material bases of their cultures. Marx anchors the dialectic of Hegel in two mutually opposed material forces locked in a struggle that is itself history in its present expression, which, under capitalism, takes the form of the struggle between workers and capitalists, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.
Again, A and B are not arguing about the status of their perceptions in relation to the evidence; they are arguing about the best conclusions to draw from the evidence, based on the very structure of their experience. A basic condition of this, alongside other material conditions, is the existence of a mass of individuals brought together by their collective alienation under, or dispossession by the currently existing society and its norms. Such is the Marxist historiography of historicism, anyway. Materialist critique begins where society’s ideological superstructures slip away from its ever progressing base, accounted for by the constancy of revolutions in the sphere of production.
Now a brief interlude on the mode of historical induction and its critique. Culture produces the narratives by which all of our experiences of social, political and economic reality are mediated. The critical force that calls those norms into question is a mind altering substance. But it is mind altering precisely in that it opens on to a space that is beyond rationalisation, beyond the space of what is possible to conceive within the field of world-historic possibilities. What critical force orthodox Marxism renders through a capitalist eschatology, its death knell, and the historic overcoming in practice of its vast internal contradictions, Nietzsche set in motion with a hammer and the shrieking destructive laughter of the absolute ego. (And this destructive satisfaction produces such an amnesiac absolution of the individual that their face peels of in laughter, and they put on again new masks). I am trying to play out a conversation that Marxism comes to have with its own history here, specifically the post-scientific nihilism of Marxist critical theory under the Frankfurt School in a period characterised by the stark failure of the great Marxist experiment in the Soviet Union (Walter Benjamin referred to Moscow as a “laboratory” of human betterment in the 1920s, though his optimism would drop off sharply in the decades to follow), when the optimism of Marxist critique was deeply blunted by the defeat and corruption of an actual world-historic alternative to capitalism. Not that any of the Frankfurt School were Nietzscheans – though Horkheimer was a devotee of Schopenhauer, and Marcuse an early student of Heidegger. The theoretical conditions in which they worked, I argue, reflect a shift in the underlying dynamics of theoretical production, which is to say a tectonic shift in the relations and identities of objects in a given system. According to this shift, critique itself was flung far off the opposite end, reacting against the relative severance of theory from practice by reconciling itself to the negligent domain of pure theory. Which is not to say that the reaction was not grounded in some real historical event; or rather, in a rupture with the historicity of all events. There are historical conditions internal to the history of theory that make theory nihilistic. Hence the reference to Nietzsche. In later years, members of the Frankfurt School who, like Marcuse, remained in the United States after the war, regained some optimism, however, while Adorno and Horkheimer determinedly dispossessed themselves of both their involvement with praxis and the spear of their critique.
Several factors feed in to the Frankfurt School’s rejection of classical Marxism and scientific socialism – for example, for Adorno and Horkheimer, their loss of faith in the revolutionary potential of the working class following the failure of the Left to resist the rise of the fascists, which they, as did Fromm and Marcuse, go on to interpret as an unconscious desire in the masses for fascism. But much more than this, I suggest – and this point goes beyond exponents of the Frankfurt School itself, and extends into how Marxism is often viewed today, in areas where it still has the courage to dabble in scientificity and experiment in practice – is the understanding that eschatological politics quickly becomes eschatological morality, which can in turn serve to justify the most ignominious atrocities. When your world-historic alternative is couched in the image of the phoenix rising from the ashes of the currently existing society, there is the possibility one will take to starting fires everywhere.
This is not necessarily a common trait of adherents of Marxist theory today. But I suspect it is more common than we realize, if only due to the ostensible similarity between inductive reasoning and abductive reasoning. It would be a danger if those engaged in Marxism as political practice lapsed into such lazy epistemic attitudes: namely, the undialectical adoption of post-capitalist utopianism, engaging in scientific discourse without scrupulous and continual foregoing analysis of biases and acquired preconceptions, etc. In more recent history this would involve a romantic return to Marxism’s early scientific credentials, safely mocking poststructuralist or other strains of critique as coming up empty in political practice. Poststructuralists might rightly reply that this simply means that their praxis is non-identical with Marxist praxis, and hence outside of Marxist theory. At the same time, we must be critical of any critical theory not adequate to the task of the praxis it recommends (maybe it was always to be that even in the revolutionary climate of 1968, the best theorists of the Left were already predisposed to scurrying up high into the safety of the Ivory Tower). This is not a foreclosure of political collaboration, but rather an endorsement of radical theoretical pluralism. Theory defines a field of possibilities, including possibilities for political practice and possibilities for conclusions drawn from evidence, mediated by history as an empirical field and a material reality. The auto-critique of Marxist theory, as it were – I say “auto-critique” because it represents the potential resolution of an internal contradiction contained in part within Marxism as historic process – which opens it up to poststructuralist thinking, results from its self-consciousness as a rupture from within the field of possibilities prefigured by capitalist ideology, capitalist histories and capitalist categories. There is no cogent way to reason about this exterior – at least not scientifically – as long as it is infinitely situated within the point of a rupture from a system of representations, which reveals the system as such, but is a void.
Orthodox Marxism wants to step outside of capitalism while keeping one foot in the door. That’s not a viable option when the plan is to have the building collapse. This collapse implies an absolute rupture with current ways of reasoning; you can’t alter or blow away the foundation while holding up some of the structure and scaffolding.
So, historical induction is fundamentally flawed because it can’t take us past the system of representations that would be required to cogently reason about post-capitalist structural formations. The absolute future does not provide a valid perspective from which to reason about the past. This manner of historicizing in theory lends itself to a form of political practice which can justify the greatest atrocities. A coda attempting to link the rejection of historical induction with Marxism’s auto-critique under the metaphysics of technology and the will to mastery in the 20th-century (of central concern to den Frankfurter Marxisten) will be drawn following the remainder of this essay. Now, I want to move on to a different model of historical reasoning, one which, I think, takes these critiques in stride and compiles them into a way of theorizing better able to face the task of fusing theory and practice today, in this nihilistic wake, where we are all quite skeptical of those know-it-alls who contain all of the answers in their grand master narratives. This model is called historical abduction.
Abductive reasoning is another mode of inference to the best explanation; however, there is a key difference between abductive and inductive inferences. Inductively, I argue X entails that Z; abductively, I infer that Z explains X. Inductive reasoning takes place within the field of theory. Abductive reasoning takes place in a field of activity: a field in which theories are constructed. But abductive reasoning involves inferring that Z explains X out of a list of multiple possible competing explanations. This makes abductive reasoning the characteristic style of inference of a kind of post-theory theory.
Persons A and B, now conscious of the situation in which they are having a political argument, concede, sticking to a model of abductive reasoning, not only that they each respectively have equally limited access to the historical event(s) being presented as evidence, but also that the inferences to explanations that they draw from the bits of evidence each joins together in examining could differ. Each is conscious that there are necessary gaps in their own theories, which can be filled in practice only through discourse with exponents of different, competing theories. Theories aren’t true or false, strictly speaking, but rather, draw together competing sets of facts relevant to their explanations, and explain those different facts in more or less robust ways. We can’t get outside of our own systems of representations. But in political practice, these necessary outsides will shine forth in their absence by their presence among different systems of representation; naturally this calls for pluralistic mass political action. Hence I reason that historical abduction is the natural method of reasoning for broadly intersectional mass movements (that don’t neglect their class politics and political economy).
In fact, Adorno held just such a view of dialectical reasoning. He called it negative dialectics (in a book by the same name). The idea of dialectical reasoning is to construct a total system of explanations isomorphic to reality by the process of the resolution or sublation (Hegel uses the notoriously difficult Aufhebung) of contradictions. But, for Adorno, the system can never be total. It will always consist of certain gaps. These gaps correspond to the multiplicity of alternative explanations. In the traditional, Hegelian view, the system of explanations fits like a glove over the world of objects. In the orthodox Marxist view, which crucially opens up the possible field of critique, the system of explanations is split into materialist (Marxist) and ideological (capitalist/bourgeois, feudal/religious; lagging behind the stage of actual historical reality) ones; how the glove fits the hand is a function of the hand’s growth and whether the glove was produced precisely for it. In Adorno’s view, there is a glove to every hand, and each pairing will result in a quality of fit determined by the wearer’s immanent criteria. In this way the latter tends closer towards Hegelianism. The practical task is to unite these hands in the upwards-thrust, closed fist of revolution.
In theory, Marxism as critical science views itself as making abductive inferences, developing a view of history as such that is in every sense of the word, progressive. Inductive reasoning can be difficult to distinguish from abductive reasoning, and their difference will have much to do in the last instance with the epistemic culture of the groups of knowers/actors making historical inferences. What characterizes a tendency towards making abductive inferences in an epistemic culture would be an openness to the frailty of one’s explanations. Modesty in epistemology comes at a tax that can only be filled by dedication to praxis. This is precisely the disturbing problem in differentiating between inductive and abductive inferences in historicity theory; historicist theory can be said in general to be in the mode of making abductive inferences, while in practice its aim is to make inductive inferences.
To make the move to historical abduction is not to collapse into theoretical relativism. We can still talk about structures of reasoning, the logic that leads from evidence to explanation through the categories of experience. The benefit is that it gets us closer to creative collaboration in mass movements. The danger is that it becomes a farce of itself, turning the gap between theory and material reality, the field of practice, into an absolute principle, that severs theory’s concern for practice. Such was the great failure of the Frankfurt School, whose members – save perhaps for Marcuse, and Georg Lukacs and Karl Korch, each at some point associates – were never adequate to the task of revolutionary practice, for all of their theoretical developments.
Orthodox Marxist traditions heavily influenced by the “scientific socialism” of the Second International will find themselves especially en garde against any appearance of relativism, openly hostile, as Lenin was, to any separation of theory and practice. This informed his lengthy polemic in Materialism and Empirio-Criticism. Lenin was not aware that the gap between theory and practice was a necessary one, as evidenced by the very physicists whom he critiqued in that work over the decades to follow. His aim at the time Empirio-Criticism was written was a definite political one: to defeat the speculative metaphysics being cranked out by reformists antithetical to the revolution. Lenin’s superb flexibility in theory meant that he rarely deviated from what was required in political practice. Today, the best way for Marxism to move forward is to step outside of its own space of representations into the field of possibilities that it itself opened up; the new field of materialist critique is theoretically pluralist; the new insurrection against the establishment of facts and counter-facts, multiple, massively dispersed and organic. The only way to consciously and consistently maintain this line is to remain concretely committed to praxis (theory has no outside); to throw oneself into the mud of that slippery surface between theory and practice that maintains their distance as at a critical threshold.
How better to take our first steps towards doing this than by reclaiming that great gulf that was opened by the separation of theory and practice in Marxism, resulting in the slippages of the Frankfurt School, of so much post-1968 academic Marxism, with all of its malaise and contempt for revolution? The law of combined and uneven development also applies to the relation between theory and practice; in the pluralistic field of material struggle, one could add ‘exclusive and complementary’ to the list.
Coda: On historical induction and the will to mastery.
There is one further element, which Marcuse, Horkheimer, Adorno and the rest were reacting against in their philosophies. In a Heideggerian vein – Marcuse was a student of Heidegger’s in the 1920s, and continued to work using much of the one-time mentor’s conceptual frameworks, despite thoroughly denouncing his politics – the Frankfurt Marxist intelligentsia mourned the end of metaphysics in the humanistic ideals represented by the Enlightenment, and saw instead the rising of a metaphysics of technology, installing itself into humanity’s historical essence. This metaphysics undergirds the way we approach, observe and order human and non-human natures. It is incipient in the one-dimensionality of society, politics and philosophy, in the culture industry and the apparent desire of the masses for fascism. It is precisely these tendencies that Adorno and Horkheimer present as latent in the repressive rational human experiment carried out in Europe on a grand scale, the “Enlightenment”.
In Heidegger’s language, it means that the essence of technology has displaced the essence of humanity or Being from its center, which repositions Being’s relation to beings, how the latter manifest themselves to the human. Everything appears as through the lens of a technological ordering; the term “human-resources” as a kind of corporate man-management is especially indicative of this. ‘Technology’ in this sense is not confined to any particular gadget or device. “The essence of technology is nothing technological,” says Heidegger. What he has in mind is the way humanity exists in the mode of Enframing (Gestellen – Heidegger’s word) objects in nature, as resources that are exploitable, and how this further manifests the human as a technological object, a quantum of exploitation, in relation to itself. Marx drew similar insights from the commodification of labour power and the alienation of labour under capitalism.
Marxists are not anti-technology. Their entire theoretical apparatus is constructed on the notion of absolute progress. This was precisely the danger, as identified by the Frankfurt School. The notion of ‘progress at all costs’, in their day, ran a terrifying balance, between the Soviet Union and its degeneration into the Stalinist bureaucracy, Nazi Germany, and the always ‘bigger ‘n’ better’ American-style capitalism. Marxists are also of the view that capitalism, and not technology, oppresses people, and so we should put technology in the hands of the workers and not of capitalists. Fair point. The Frankfurt School was most fecund in a time of capitalist crisis on a world scale, the likes of which had never before been seen. All was danger in the system as they saw it, both at the poles of power and their resistance; this much is symbolically represented by stability at the precipice of the policy of “mutually-assured destruction” during the Cold War.
Heidegger, however, wrote not only of the ‘danger’, but also of the ‘saving power’ in the essence of technology. This seems a notion that the Frankfurt School, like Marcuse, reject out of hand along with his politics or searing anti-Semitism – probably they are right to. It is of some interest here to point out that Marcuse rarely if ever owed up to his debt to Heidegger in terms of his theoretical framework, seeming instead to externalize his unconscious guilt and conscious distaste for Heidegger in the figure of Hannah Arendt, whom he admonished for continuing to be a self-conscious Heideggerian in the postwar period. I shall only indicate here that, perhaps, had Marcuse approached his own ideas self-consciously through Heideggerian thought, some greater optimism may have manifested in his works on humanity’s relation to technology in the era of mass production. Or perhaps the time was always past for that manner of thinking. I continue to write only to account for a possible blind spot in Marcuse’s own position, which I believe is reflected in the one I take up presently.
Heidegger was a romantic, who fell for the false poetry of Nazism, becoming one of its most significant intellectual supporters. But revolutionaries are also romantics, stomaching an unhappy consciousness following on the law of the heart (which Hegel thought doomed to be crushed in the world). Aesthetics are a paramount concern where one ventures into poetics. I do not know whether it is possible for aesthetics to contain a moral quality, but Heidegger’s aesthetics were purely disgusting if so. But I digress.
The one-dimensionality of philosophy in the technological society speaks to a metaphysical oneness, the complete subsumption by ideology of all of the internal contradictions of society. It is worth mentioning here that the philosophical villain in Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment is Parmenides. The rational principle of technology in this sense is a pure logos, an ordered and ordering logocentrism, a complete system of quantification and ubiquitous qualification. The total rationality of the system is one that is free always to defer to the preconception of theory when making inductive historical inferences; the essence of technology gathers together history and encodes it with its own essence, reifies its own immanent history of absolute progress, so to speak. Nothing in nature, which includes history on a materialist conception, escapes the totalizing gaze of the essence of technology.
Except abduction. Heidegger thought that poetry, or poietic revealing (letting ‘things’ ‘bring themselves forth into appearance’, a natural tongue heavily inflected by German romanticism) was key to the ‘saving power’ in technology, which could introduce a rupture into its totalizing essence. Poiesis lets things bring themselves forth while their essence recedes from view, the nothingness or emptiness of beings outside of my Being, present only in its absence, as Heidegger would say. This, I want to suggest, corresponds to the necessary gaps in a historicist theory using the method of abduction. Things bring themselves forth into appearance in a lattice of explanations, but the aura of systematicity setting forth, or setting upon nature from the human, recedes from view, or is destroyed. Things empty themselves of the ordering systematicity imposed on them by technology and mastery, by bringing themselves forth in nature. Such is not to reintroduce metaphysics in our reasoning about nature after the epoch of its death, but rather, to learn to reason humanistically precisely in the wake of metaphysics.
What this opens up, for the first time, in turn, is an historic reasoning resolutely fixed to the past and the now, whose futurity opens up not from the empty promises of a future to come, but rather, as Benjamin wrote in his Theses on the Philosophy of History, from the absolute redemption of the past.
Admittedly, this poses the question of a messianic, rather than an eschatological return to the essence of human history. History is what returns to itself precisely from having never pressed beyond itself into the nothing, into an impossible and preconsciously calculated speculative metaphysics.
Here I have no further arguments or insights; just the view that we have not yet learned to reason as human gods after nihilism, that the eternal is located precisely in the emptiness of a future-bounded history rather than in silent hope for the specter of the return.