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[The following notes and comments originally were written by request for, and posted to, Louis Proyect's Marxism Mailing List, where the author had been "involved in a vigorous debate re Marxism and religion, materialism and idealism, triggered initially by Bhaskar's religious turn. Hence this issue is dealt with disproportionately." The message, which has been lightly edited (e.g., book titles and words set off with asterisks or underscores have been italicized, some prefatory matter has been snipped, etc.), is archived here with the permission of Mervyn Hartwig, who retains the copyright.]

Creaven, Marxism, and Realism


Sean Creaven, Marxism and Realism: A Materialistic Application of Realism in the Social Sciences, Studies in Social and Political Thought (London: Routledge, 2001).

What follows is less a review than notes (often fairly verbatim, predominantly from Creaven's own excellent summary in the book's Conclusion) together with some comments about its main theses.

The author is a member of the British SWP [Socialist Workers Party]. His main living mentors are Margaret Archer and Alex Callinicos, the leading (non-Marxist) critical realist social theorist and SWP theorist, respectively. The book basically 'reconstructs' both Marx's historical materialism and critical realist social theory (especially as articulated by Archer) to produce a comprehensive Marxist social theory ('a materialist account of the constitution and dynamics of social systems'), which Creaven aptly dubs 'emergentist Marxism'.

The book at every stage argues its positions against emergentist Marxism's main rivals in bourgeois social theory (broadly, biological reductionism on the one hand and social reductionism or sociological imperialism on the other). It draws on an impressive range of scholarship going to the beginnings of hominization and beyond, and frequently illustrates and argues theory substantively. While it shows many of the signs of having begun life as a higher degree thesis (repetition, proneness to verbosity and pleonasm, addiction to scare quote, etc.), it delivers impressively if you don't allow these to distract you.

Chapter 1 (Critical Realism and Marxism) argues that emergentist Marxism can both enrich critical realism and render [more] defensible the central tenets of Marxist philosophy and social theory. It advances three key claims.

  1.  The philosophical ontology of critical realism ('depth realism') is in fact a form of ontological materialism which is broadly consistent with Engels' dialectical materialism.

  2. Critical realism must be more explicitly dialectical if it is to realise its rich potential for apprehending socio-cultural dynamics.

  3. Emergentist materialism (Marxism), at the level of social theory, renders [more] defensible and plausible the central arguments of Marxism in anthropology and sociology: the explication of human beings, human consciousness and socio-cultural relations in terms of the historical interface between the 'structuralist' and 'activist' dimensions of the forces and relations of production.

The rest of the book is an elaboration and defense of these core propositions. Creaven conceives of social systems as comprising emergent 'micro', 'meso' and 'macro' structures. Chapters 2 (Organisms, Subjects and Society), 3 (Subjects, Actors and Agents), and 4 (Structure, Power and Conflict) discuss each of these in turn, and are followed by an overall Conclusion.

The 'micro' structures (Ch. 2) are agents' human nature and its emergent properties (objective species-needs and interests, and capacities). The fundamental argument here is that Marx's 'labour theory' of species- being (as distinct from social being) furnishes us with a simultaneously naturalistic and social account of individuals as subjects, and with the most basic explanation of social order and social change (societal organisation and transformation presuppose properties and powers of mind and self irreducible to the imprint of society; societal change presupposes objective species-needs and interests which 'found' the social struggles of agents). The 'meso' level (Ch. 2) is the 'interaction order' which is emergent from the 'micro' level, yet overdetermined by the 'macro' level of emergent socio-cultural relations (Ch. 4). Here the main argument is that the 'interaction order' is the mediating link between individuals and the structural properties of social systems.

Like Archer (and I think correctly), whose concepts of the 'pre-social self' and the naturalistic sources of self-identity he fully endorses, Creaven distinguishes sharply (ontologically) between our relatively enduring 'species-being' and our 'social being'. In virtue of the process of natural selection, human agents are the bearers of a determinate range of biologically based needs and capacities and of certain 'subjective emergents' (psychological needs and capacities, including altruism, sociability and egalitarianism), by virtue of which they have secured for themselves a relative autonomy from their physical and social environments, the capacity to remake these in accordance with their needs and interests. This means that an adequate understanding of social interaction is, above all, an interest-explanation, not an explanation in terms of the 'functional imperatives' of an abstract social system.

Individuals have basic needs (both physical and psychological) by virtue of their membership of a particular biological species. They therefore have interests in ensuring these needs are met by whatever social means are to hand. Yet needs and interests are not reducible to a 'biological substratum', definable in terms of access to those material necessaries (food etc) for survival; on the contrary, human needs and interests are those which ensure the physical and psychological well being of the subject, and this well being is always defined by cultural standards, which are themselves determined objectively by the level of development of material production and social labour, and the degree of welfare and self-autonomy this allows individuals to reasonably expect from the societies to which they belong. The objective needs and interests of agents are thus to be defined in terms of the historical interface between biology, social labour and physical nature.

Agents also possess the species-capacities of mind, self, intentionality, rationality, etc, whereby they articulate these needs and interests and act consciously in accordance with them. So where they find themselves situated in social relations rooted in economic exploitation and political domination, by virtue of which they are denied the freedom and life-chances of others better placed, or the consumption which the output of their own labour merits, they will feel these social relations to be unjust and oppressive, and will seek to resist or reform or even overturn them. They will then encounter resistance from those elite groupings with vested interests in the status quo by virtue of their control of allocative and authoritative resources. It is this 'dialectic of control', between those agential collectivities who have vested interests in societal replication and those who have vested interests in societal change, which provides history with much of its dynamic, as Marx rightly suggested (all history is the history of class struggle).

Now, elite groupings will tend to have life-chances and degrees of autonomy much above the cultural average--so much so that the privileges they enjoy constitute a 'surplus' over and above their objective human needs (as they are defined by productive force development and the average standards of living this can support). This means that the vested social interests of elite groupings are constituted by those institutional means (appropriate to their structural positioning) by which they meet their objective human needs and by which they defend or enhance their sectoral advantages (which are also a function of their positioning in emergent social relations, and which are invariably won at the expense of the life-chances of subordinate groupings). By contrast, the vested social interests of subordinate groupings are comprised of those institutional means by which they pursue or further their objective socially developed needs and capacities without remainder (i.e. they enjoy no 'surplus'), their 'vested' interest in emancipation from the tyranny of 'artificial scarcity' being determined by their specific propertyless status in society. In the former case, vested social interests correspond to privileged life-chances, to the beneficiaries of mechanisms of class exploitation by which the life-chances of the many are subordinated to service those of the few. In the latter case, they correspond to universal needs, and are comprised of those social practices necessary to ensure these needs are met.

This provides an ethical basis for siding with the oppressed and exploited against their oppressors and exploiters (a naturalistic principle of justice). Social relations which are capable of sustaining a certain reasonable standard of living for all (given a relatively egalitarian distribution of allocative resources), and which objectively allow the possibility of a more even distribution of authoritative resources (in the sense of not endangering the stable reproduction of society within its material means), but which fail to do so because an elite stratum has monopolised effective political power plus a share of the social product above the cultural median, are morally reprehensible - because they contradict the maximum realisation of human needs and capacities which is here possible to achieve.

The positioning of agents in emergent structures (and in specific contexts or environments within emergent structures) ensures that their social conduct is subject to a range of constraints, impulses and enablements. The significance of structure is that it comprises a social and material integument, historically predating the interaction of human agents, which shapes their subsequent activity by immersing them in stratified social relations which determine their respective access to material and cultural resources and which define their objective social interests relative to other agents. This doesn't mean that the psycho- organic powers and properties which pertain to uniquely human agents and their social interaction are negated or subsumed under social practices or processes of enculturation. The social agency of individuals is still the mechanism of structural elaboration and/or reproduction, and agents are still sovereign artificers, who act relatively voluntaristically (within a range of socio-cultural possibilities) on the basis of needs and interests which are irreducible to the imprint of society. Instead, structural conditioning--here defined as the interplay between involuntary placement, vested interests and attendant opportunity costs - impinges upon agents by virtue of the fact that they are situated in 'positions' in social relations which furnish them with rational motives (the defense or pursuit of improved life-chances) for acting in accordance with their structurally defined interests.

Yet it is the 'situational logics' and attached agential interests determined by the positioning of interactants in class relations which have explanatory primacy in shaping their socio-political consciousness and agency. This is because class positions within emergent relations of production are decisive in determining the access of agents to authoritative and allocative resources. This renders meaningful the Marxist thesis that the economic structure not only provides 'conditions of existence' for non-economic structures and practices, but also 'determines' its politico-ideological superstructure and decisively shapes the social conflicts which give rise to epochal societal change.

There are two basic reasons for this. The mode of production can now be seen as fixing the fundamental axis of social inequality, and hence as constituting the primary source of social (and system) malintegration in most historical societies. Further, because class interests are crucial in explaining the socio-political agency of interactants, if follows that there is a long-run tendency in any social system for superstructural emergents (and especially legal and political relations ) to 'correspond' to the contradictions internal to relations of production, and especially to structures of class domination.

Creaven concludes that emergentist Marxism offers an account of societal development and/or transformation which is logically and conceptually defensible. This is rooted in the dialectical interface between particular kinds of structural and interactional mechanisms--namely forces and relations of production, base and superstructure, social labour and class conflict. The task that remains is to deploy it empirically.

Some Comments on the Book's Core Theses

1. 'The philosophical ontology of critical realism ('depth realism') is in fact a form of ontological materialism which is broadly consistent with Engels' dialectical materialism.'

As Listers will know from my other posts, I do not think that philosophical or ontological realism is equatable with philosophical or ontological materialism, which is rather a species of realism. Like it or not, one can be a realist about God as well as a realist about ultimate materiality, or a realist idealist rather than a realist materialist.

Bhaskar defines ontological materialism as the doctrine which 'asserts the unilateral dependence of social upon biological (and thence physical) being and the emergence of the former from the latter' (Plato Etc., p. 101). (This is broadly similar to a definition given by Creaven at pp. 19, 29). Here 'physical' carries the connotation of exclusive materiality--at bottom reality is 'matter'; such materialism is therefore atheist. Ontological idealism (of the emergentist or stratified kind advocated by the later Bhaskar) in my view goes along with the same definition but holds that the 'physical' is ultimately 'ideal' (or 'consciousness' or 'information', as in the position of Bohm on quantum phenomena in the paper posted by Sid). Thus we have materialist realism and idealist realism. Epistemological or transcendental realism does not and cannot in my view adjudicate between the two. It can specify that social life necessarily possesses a material substrate, etc, but not that Being as such is ultimately 'material'. Nor do I think, as Listers will know, that science can adjudicate; either would seem to be heuristically acceptable from a scientific point of view. Even if it could 'reach' ultimate reality and determine whether it is 'material' or 'ideal', science could never know that it had 'arrived'. (Here the paper on Bohm is again instructive. Both Bohm and Einstein were realists. Einstein was a Marxist and so presumably a materialist realist. But, by a nice irony, in defending Einstein's position, Bohm ended up in the camp of idealist realism or objective idealism.) She who takes her stand with science will therefore keep an open mind and be agnostic concerning the ultimate nature of reality.

Creaven is by contrast a militant atheist. He seems to think that science is somehow intrinsically materialist, and that its results 'prove' atheism, and 'disprove' theism:

'For it is the practical refutation of idealism during the history of scientific advance and investigation (in the sense that God has been shown to be superfluous to a rational and empirically testable knowledge of all [sic] processes or laws) which has forced its allegiants to make their appeal to a 'final instance' of undetermined creation beyond current knowledge and therefore outside the reach of rational criticism. Now, one should always be suspicious of 'final instances' which base their authority not on firm scientific knowledge (albeit provisional and incomplete) but on its uncertainty or even absence. The possibility that physical scientists may never develop a satisfactory theory of the 'origins' of the universe should not be allowed to give comfort to those idealists whose own belief in a spiritualist 'first cause' of nature is entirely speculative and intuitive.' (p. 17)

This is sheer scientism and dogmatism. On Creaven's own admission (scientific knowledge is incomplete...) a thoroughgoing materialism is just as 'speculative and intuitive' as idealism; one could equally well say that the limits of science should not be allowed to give comfort to dogmatic materialists. To argue that God has been 'shown' to be superfluous to scientific knowledge thus far is of no avail, because the idealist can always respond that the processes revealed by science just are God (that nature itself is at bottom God) and that in any case there can be no guarantee that scientific knowledge will dispense with God tomorrow (the problem of induction). It is to be doubted whether Creaven has pondered the relation between science and philosophy at all deeply. He seems to think that the correct philosophical position (including the critical realist ontology (p. 29)) can simply be read off from science and its results in a grand induction. All scientific paradigms secrete philosophical ontologies, whether consciously or not--general conceptual schemas or 'ontological grammars' which tell them what the basic contours of Being are, what sort of entities to look for, etc. Science can no more justify this ontology out of its own resources than someone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. There is arguably an internal logic to philosophy and to science, as well as a dialectic between them, and dialectics between them and the non- discursive world, which makes Creaven's approach look extremely simplistic. It therefore remains entirely 'mysterious' (p. 32) to him why most leading critical realists don't describe their ontology as materialist.

Concerning Engels' dialectical materialism: with Callinicos, Creaven interprets Engels' dialectical 'laws' as 'a broad philosophical conception of nature rather than a set of general laws' (p. 40). Such an outlook is of course no more incompatible with philosophical idealism than Hegel's dialectical outlook was. One can hold, with Creaven (p. 13), that 'reality itself is dialectical' without holding that it is ultimately 'material'.

Abandoning a dogmatic commitment to ontological materialism does not entail that Marxists abandon materialism as such, nor should they. One can be an epistemological materialist (asserting 'the existential intransitivity and transfactual efficacy ... of the objects of scientific thought'); a practical materialist (asserting 'the constitutive role of human transformative agency in the production, reproduction and transformation of social forms'); and a historical materialist (engaged in 'a research programme nucleated by the core idea of the causal primacy of men's and women's mode of production and reproduction of their natural (physical) being' in the development of their social being--one can consistently be all these and yet agnostic about the ultimate nature of reality or, as in the case of religious Marxists, be an objective idealist (a position which Creaven sees fit to denounce, with Engels, as 'shamefaced materialism' (p. 17)). (The above definitions are taken from Bhaskar, Plato Etc., p. 101).

Why are so many Marxists so confident that the ultimate nature of Being is 'matter'? Why do they want to say that it is impossible to be religious and a good Marxist? Not because this view possesses any real scientific warrant, I suggest, but because, as Creaven correctly points out (p. 20), objective idealism historically has tended to go hand in hand with socio-historical idealism (espousing, as the later Bhaskar now seems to do, the primacy of ideas in shaping history and society), which is hegemonic in bourgeois philosophy and social sciences. Speculative pronouncements about the ultimately 'material' nature of reality will hardly do anything to alter this affinity, however; if anything, they are likely to strengthen it. A far more productive way to counter 'idealism' is to deploy the rich research programme of historical materialism to win the battle with idealism in terms of scientific results.

2. 'Critical realism must be more explicitly dialectical if it is to realise its rich potential for apprehending socio-cultural dynamics.'

I could not agree more, and to this end have been trying to encourage critical realists, especially Marxist critical realists, to read Bhaskar's mighty Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom (1993) (DPF). Imagine my astonishment then to discover that Creaven fails to discuss DPF; it is not even mentioned, so that one gets the feeling that it does not--nor ever did--exist, like Trotsky in Stalinist Russia. In this, his magnum opus, Bhaskar essays precisely the dialectical radicalisation of critical realism, the upshot of which is 'dialectical critical realism'. Along comes Creaven seven years later with the message that critical realism needs dialectically radicalising! To give him his due, he has made a reasonable fist of this without the benefit of DPF. Nobody who is familiar with DPF could doubt, however, that Bhaskar's dialecticisation, though not without its problems, is far richer and more comprehensive, and that both critical realism and Marxism are the poorer for Creaven's failure to engage with it. Let us hope he makes good this omission in the future.

3. Emergentist materialism (Marxism) renders [more] defensible and plausible the central arguments of Marxism in anthropology and sociology.

I fully agree. Creaven views emergentist Marxism, correctly I think, as a particular form of (dialectical) critical realist social theory, and as enriching both Marxism and critical realism. His is a book whose time had come, demonstrating why Marxists need critical realism (for the formal philosophical specification of its ontology--and, I would add, its dialectics) and vice versa. While by no means all critical realists are Marxists, Marxists can be confident that, if their research program in the Lakatosian sense is indeed progressive and the best available, emergentist Marxism will more than hold its own with the other strands within critical realism.

Copyright © 2001 Mervyn Hartwig

To read the responses to Mervyn's notes and comments that were posted to Proyect's Marxism list, please click here.

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