Chapter 10 Socialism 233
The problem of determinism and free will
Bauman has argued that utopianism is compatible with everything but determinism (1976:
37), and in his hostility to utopianism, Marx sometimes gives the impression that he does not
believe in free will. When he speaks of his theory of history as one in which people enter into
relations ‘independent of their will’, does this mean that people have no will? What it means,
it seems to us, is that what people intend (i.e. humans are beings with purpose and thus will)
is never quite the same as what actually happens.
Take the following assertion of Marx’s. The capitalist and landlord are ‘the personifications
of economic categories, embodiments of particular class interests and class relations’ so that
his or her standpoint can ‘less than any other’ make the individual ‘responsible for relations
whose creature he socially remains, however much he may subjectively raise himself above
them’ (1970: 10). This comment seems to suggest that our will cannot transform circumstances,
and therefore we cannot create new relations. Yet Marx’s third thesis on Feuerbach had already
stated (against mechanical materialism which saw people as passive and lacking in agency)
that the changing of circumstances and human activity coincide as ‘revolutionary practice’
(again – an identification of revolution with ongoing change, not a dramatic one-off event!).
This, it seems to us, is the answer to the problem of determinism and inevitability. If we assume
that determinism negates free will and that we need to make a choice between them, then
clearly determinism is a problem for socialism. For how can we change society if we do not
have the will to do so? What if we go beyond such a ‘dualism’ and argue merely that
determinism means that free will always occurs in the context of relations? Why is this concept
of determinism a problem?
Circumstances determine our capacities. Our capacity to change circumstances involves
recognising these circumstances and making sure that we correctly appraise their reality. To
successfully strengthen the struggle for socialism, we need to attend to movements within our
existing society which demonstrate that we can regulate our lives in ways which increase our
capacity to get the results we want – whether it is in terms of transport policy, cleaning up
the environment, giving people greater security and control in the workplace.
Whether these reforms or ‘revolutionising activities’ are effective depends upon how carefully
we have assessed the circumstances that determine the context and the event. This kind of
determinism does not undermine free will: on the contrary, it makes it possible to harness free
will in a sensible and rational manner. If Marx is suggesting that there was a ‘dualism’ between
free will and determinism, he would simply be turning classical liberalism inside out and not
going beyond it. Classical liberalism argues for a notion of freedom independent of
circumstances and relationships, and socialists might find it tempting (since they are critical of
liberalism) to take the view that since circumstances determine the way people are, therefore
people have no freedom or willpower. But if this was the position of socialists like Robert
Owen (Hoffman, 1975: 139), arguably it was not the position of Marx’s ‘new’ materialism,
even though he and Engels sometimes gave the impression that it was.