Over at the NYRB, John Gray ably reviews Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013). Gray lauds Sperber for shedding light on the apparent conflict between Marx’s commitment to Hegel on the one hand and Comte on the other. The former is grounded in the metaphysical-idealist notion that “history has a built-in logic of development.” The latter is grounded in the (allegedly) empirical notion that society is “positively” progressing through stages as a result of scientific advance. After correctly observing that the intellectual history of positivism has been sadly neglected, Gray continues:
Originating with the French socialist Henri de Saint-Simon (1760–1825) but most fully developed by Auguste Comte (1798–1857), one of the founders of sociology, positivism promoted a vision of the future that remains pervasive and powerful today. Asserting that science was the model for any kind of genuine knowledge, Comte looked forward to a time when traditional religions had disappeared, the social classes of the past had been superseded, and industrialism (a term coined by Saint-Simon) reorganized on a rational and harmonious basis—a transformation that would occur in a series of evolutionary stages similar to those that scientists found in the natural world.
Sperber tells us that Marx described Comte’s philosophical system as “positivist shit”; but there were many parallels between Marx’s view of society and history and those of the positivists:
For all the distance Marx kept from these [positivist] doctrines, his own image of progress through distinct stages of historical development and a twofold division of human history into an earlier, irrational era and a later, industrial and scientific one, contained distinctly positivist elements.
Astutely, Sperber perceives fundamental similarities between Marx’s account of human development and that of Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), who (rather than Darwin) invented the expression “survival of the fittest” and used it to defend laissez-faire capitalism. Influenced by Comte, Spencer divided human societies into two types, “the ‘militant’ and the ‘industrial,’ with the former designating the entire pre-industrial, pre-scientific past, and the latter marking a new epoch in the history of the world.”
Gray is hitting on something important here: historical-materialism (ala Marx and Hegel) and developmental-positivism (ala Marx and Comte) are ultimately rooted in metaphysical or idealist notions of progress and advance. These ideas spilled over and seeped into evolutionary thinking, affecting even Darwin who could fall occasional prey to triumphal fits of progressivism. In his more sober (and properly scientific) moments, Darwin well understood that evolution was neither subserved by — nor synonymous with — progress.
Part of the problem here is the assumption that progress is a tidal wave, advancing on all fronts simultaneously, uniformly, or equally. Thus, as science advances (which it surely does) and as economies develop (as they surely do), all social-cultural things associated with science, economy, and technology are also assumed to advance or progress. This is a dubious assumption that requires interrogation and proof.
If (as Gray suggests) we had better critical histories of positivism, more people would probably realize that such proof is lacking. The metaphysical-idealist notion of progress is deeply embedded in modern historical narratives and tends to dominate our thinking today. These narratives, in turn, support the (false) idea that the past was “primitive” and that some societies stalled and remained “primitive.”