De Ste Croix and Thesis Eleven

In accepting the 1983 Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize for his The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, Geoffrey de Ste Croix concluded his Lecture:

As early as 1845, in the eleventh of his Theses on Feuerbach, Marx wrote, ‘The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it’. Of course before the world can be changed, it must first be thoroughly understood; and we must begin this process by providing ourselves with a set of concepts that will enable us to understand and explain it – and thus to participate in the work to which Marx’s own life was single-mindedly devoted: changing the world indeed, by putting an end to class society, and thus (as Marx himself put it, in a splendidly optimistic phrase in the 1859 Preface) ‘bringing the prehistory of human society to a close’.

If de Ste Croix believes all that he says here, he could never have written his splendid book. His flourish suffers from the Utopianism and Idealism that Marx and Engels spent their lives combating in order to bring ‘the prehistory of human society to a close’.

de Ste Croix is right to challenge the mindless militants who counter interpreting and changing as if they were mutually exclusive. (see item on Thesis Eleven). What is wrong with his statement is laid bare in this extract, with the key words emboldened:

Of course before the world can be changed, it must first be thoroughly understood; and we must begin this process by providing ourselves with a set of concepts that will enable us to understand and explain it …

The flaw is the presumption that thinking can come before doing. This is the Idealist fallacy of being able to acquire a thorough understanding prior to engagement with the object of inquiry. On the contrary, materialist dialecticians learn that it is only through starting to change the world that we take the first steps towards understanding its laws. The ‘set of concepts’ will be reached later, after being constantly refined in exchanges between reflection and action, as our knowledge approaches - but never reaches - absolute truth.

de Ste Croix’s paragraph is one more instance of the misleading distinction that Marx made between the architect and bee in Volume One of Capital:

But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in his imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement.

That there is a gulf between the work procedures of bees and architects is true. But Marx went wrong in picturing how architects operate. They start with sketches and develop blueprints, which they revise. The result cannot ‘already’ exist in the imagination. No engineer could have roofed the Sydney Opera House by relying on the drawings that won the prize for Utzon. Marx’s distinction is false because it did not go far enough into the materialist precept of learning by doing.

The inclusion of ‘thoroughly’ is doubly wrong. Our knowledge of even social reality can ever be absolute. Through the dialectic of thought and action we can move towards truths, away from relative ignorance. It is not possible to clear everything up in our minds before we act. The notion that we must begin by providing ourselves with a ‘set of concepts’ is a retreat into Philosophical Idealism, whether the Ideal Forms of Plato or the mental Categories of Kant. Yes, we do need concepts. The way we can attain them is to emulate Marx and Engels who reached them by integrating action in the world with analytical investigations of the structured dynamics of capital expansion. It took them twenty years to grasp the significance of ‘surplus value’.

de Ste Croix’s final paragraph is an instance of how Idealism seeps into even the most materialist of us. Here, the slip comes as a rhetorical flourish at the end of a lecture that is otherwise modest. The point is not to ‘critically criticise’ de Ste. Croix but to use the fact that even he and Marx can nod to focus our ways of thinking about interpretation and change.

Before concluding, I half feel like apologising for picking on de Ste Croix since his lecture is otherwise faultless, and his book is a marvel. Above all, I rejoice in his stress on class as an objective category which we can make a subjective one. But my criticism is not nit-picking. On the contrary, it accords with the account that de Ste Croix’s lecture gives of his own process of gaining a thorough understanding of exploitation in the Ancient Greek world through some forty years of research and re-thinking.

G de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, Duckworth, 1983 corrected edition.
G de Ste. Croix, ‘Class in Marx’s Conception of History, Ancient and Modern’, New Left Review, 146, July-August 1984, pp. 94-111.
Karl Marx, Capital, volume one, Foreign Language Publishing House, Moscow , 1958, p. 178 (Chapter VII)