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Economic determinism is the theory which attributes primacy to the economic structure over politics in the development of human history. It is usually associated with the theories of Karl Marx, although many Marxist thinkers have dismissed plain and unilateral economic determinism as a form of "vulgar Marxism", or "economism", nowhere included in Marx's works.
Economic determinism as understood by Marxism is the belief that economic laws determine the course of history. The law of economic determinism attributed to Marx's historical materialism is simple: self-preservation or the pursuit of food, clothing, and shelter is the supreme instinct in man. Therefore, the argument in favor of economic determinism says, it is natural to expect that the overwhelming amount of the decisions made by people will involve their pursuit of food, clothing, and shelter. Furthermore, it is predictable that these decisions will be made in such a way that they will favor acquisition of food, clothing, or shelter. A decision made by an individual against food, clothing, or shelter would clearly be against that person's interest and would clearly be uncommon if not rare. In as much as food, clothing, and shelter are commodities which are bought, sold and/or traded in society, the pursuit of these commodities is an economic activity.
According to Marx, each social mode of production produces the material conditions of its reproduction, that is, ideology (which gathers all the political, law and cultural spheres). Thus, ideology permits the mode of production to reproduce itself. Furthermore, Marx and Engels are said to have believed, should a revolutionary force change the mode of production, the dominant class will immediately set out to create a new society to protect this new economic order. In the modernity of their era, Marx and Engels felt the propertied class had essentially accomplished the establishment of a new societal and economic order, instinctively creating a society protective of their capitalist interests. They made this statement to the Bourgeoisie in the Communist Manifesto: "Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class, made into law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economic conditions of the existence of your class." From this, it is argued that Marx and Engels did not believe men could arbitrarily choose any one of several forms of society, but only that one which promotes the prevailing mode of production. The very nature of man's materialistic make-up requires him to do this. The young Marx hence criticized man's alienation, a concept which he later replaced by the critique of commodity fetishism. "Vulgar Marxism" has considered that the relation between the economical infrastructure and the ideological superstructure was a unicausal one, and thus believed in economic determinism. This has been criticized by various Marxist theorists, who dismissed it as a form of economism or economic reductionism. They claimed the relationship is much more reciprocal and complex than unilateral determinism would have it.
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Marx and Engels are claimed to have possessed a very mechanistic view of the way the human mind works. After the brain receives impressions from the outside world, they are claimed to have said, it automatically moves the individual to take action (see Activist Theory). They asked this: "Are men free to choose this or that form of society? By no means." According to this view, the thing which we call 'free will' is nothing other than an awareness of the impelling forces which move an individual to action; in taking action, he is not free to change the course his very nature dictates."
Many Marxists[who?] claim that Marx and Engels viewed this law of 'economic determinism' as the creative force in human progress. Engels stated: "The final causes of all social changes and political revolution are to be sought, not in men's brains, not in man's insight into internal truth and justice... but in the economies of each epoch." Therefore, Engels advocated a change in economic structure as the only valid way of improving society and refining the intellectual make-up of humanity.
Other Marxists and Marx-scholars - including György Lukács, Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Maurice Godelier, Franz Jakubowski, Edward P. Thompson and Michael Lowy - completely reject the interpretation of Marx and Engels as "economic determinists". They claim this idea is based on a poor and selective reading of Marx and Engels' work.
They argue that this interpretation originated in the early years of the Second International and was popularised by Karl Kautsky and Nikolai Bukharin, among many others. They refer to the disclaimers by Friedrich Engels (see historical materialism) to the effect that while Marx and himself had focused a lot on the economic aspects, they were very aware that this did not in fact constitute the totality of society or of social life. However, some have viewed such comments as Engels's attempt to extricate himself from an untenable position: Max Weber and other influential sociological and economic thinker agreed that Marx's views were really unidimensional in regard to economic determinism. They did not agree that economic determinism was a vulgar interpretation of Marx. They regarded this to be the explicitly stated and true interpretation of Marx (See own admission in Friedrich Engels, Socialism—Utopian and Scientific, pg 54). They criticized the simplicity in Marx's arguments and held that ideas and cultural beliefs and values to determine societal progress and the evolution of society. (See The Protestant Work Ethic (1905).
Non-Marxist scholars have also objected that economic determinism is overly generalized, insofar as any serious historical explanation of economic realities must always refer to non-economic realities. This became obvious when one had to specify exactly what the economic determinism precisely consisted of. In addition, a lot of confusion about "economic determinism" is due to the conflation of the "commercial" with the "economic". For Marx at least, these were very different concepts.
The dynamic of history according to Marx was shaped precisely by the clash of those interests (class struggle), and that clash could not be understood simply in terms of economic self-interest, because it also involved human needs, customs, traditions, morals and values encompassing a whole way of life. On the other hand, Lenin wrote that "an idea that captures the minds of the masses becomes a material force," meaning that the said needs, customs, traditions, morals and values can be equated to economic forces.
The end result of economic determinism in this view is both economism (a narrow focus on how people earn their livelihood) and economic reductionism (the attempt to reduce a complex social reality to one factor [the economic] such that this one factor causes all other aspects of society). This, according to some[who?] plays directly into the hands of the business class, and ultimately ends in an anti-working class position, whereby the allegiance of the working class is just a "tool" to be used by the political class to modernise an economy, with the aid of forced labour, if need be.
American geostrategist Thomas P.M. Barnett admits to being an economic determinist in his book The Pentagon's New Map.