The purposiveness of human activities and the regularity of social development

The relationship between the purposiveness of human activities and the regularity of social development is an important part of historical materialism. However, many ambiguities or even mistakes may challenge the understanding of this issue. As a result, it is necessary to clear these ambiguities and mistakes through accurate interpretation.

The proposition of “unity between the regularity and the purposiveness of social development” is unscientific

In Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, Engels says,

In one point, however, the history of the development of society proves to be essentially different from that of nature. In nature - in so far as we ignore man’s reaction upon nature - there are only blind, unconscious agencies acting upon one another, out of whose interplay the general law comes into operation. Nothing of all that happens - whether in the innumerable apparent accidents observable upon the surface, or in the ultimate results which confirm the regularity inherent in these accidents - happens as a consciously desired aim. In the history of society, on the contrary, the actors are all endowed with consciousness, are men acting with deliberation or passion, working towards definite goals; nothing happens without a conscious purpose, without an intended aim. But this distinction, important as it is for historical investigation, particularly of single epochs and event, cannot alter the fact that the course of history is governed by inner general laws. For here, also, on the whole, in spite of the consciously desired aims of all individuals, accident apparently reigns on the surface. That which is willed happens but rarely; in the majority of instances the numerous desired ends cross and conflict with one another, or these ends themselves are from the outset incapable of realization, or the means of attaining them are insufficient, thus the conflicts of innumerable individual wills and individual actions in the domain of history produce a state of affairs entirely analogous to that prevailing in the realm of unconscious nature. The ends of the actions are intended, but the results which actually follow from these actions are not intended; or when they do seem to correspond to the end intended, they ultimately have consequences quite other than those intended. Historical events thus appear on the whole to be likewise governed by chance. But where on the surface accident holds sway, there actually it is always governed by inner, hidden laws, and it is only a matter of discovering these laws.1

As quoted above, Engels believes that human activities, though conscious and purposeful, may produce results independent of human will and purpose. Although the development of human history differs from that of the natural world, there still exists similarity between the two—both are ruled by objective laws that are independent of humans' will. The development of human history actually involves a natural historical course. Human activities are purposeful, whereas social development has its objective laws independent of human purpose. This may be a synopsis of the relationship between the purpose of human activities and the regularity of social development.

However, many Chinese theorists, for a long time, have not understood the relationship between human activities and social development as explained by Engels. The proposition of “the unity between the regularity and the purposiveness of social development” still prevails in current studies of historical materialism. This proposition is frequently used in the discussion of historical development. Both Marxists and non-Marxists use the proposition, which often appears in textbooks on historical materialism and Marxist principles. However, under scrutiny, the proposition proves to be historical idealism and is incompatible with historical materialism. Long prevalent in the history of philosophy, the proposition is often blindly used by scholars, including me, in their articles and textbooks on Marxist philosophy. For example, the title of Chapter 19 of A Course in Historical Materialism, for which I served as the chief editor, is no other than the “unity between the regularity and the purposiveness of social development." Therefore, for this misguided proposition and its negative impact, I’m not free of culpability. This unfortunate proposition in the study of historical materialism causes harmful effects and I should take certain responsibility. I am here to exonerate myself by deconstructing and de-problematizing the proposition.

I argued in A Course in Historical Materialism that “social forms are objective and material, and its development sees regularity; social laws are formed and enforced in human conscious and purposeful practices, therefore the development of social forms features purposiveness as well.” Concerning the relationship between the regularity and the purposiveness in the development of social forms, we need to guard against two biases. One is undue emphasis on the objectiveness and regularity of social development but oversight of the subjectivity and purposiveness of it. Consequently, the historical materialism of Marx and Engels is tainted with mechanical determinism and fatalism, none of which is intended in historical materialism. The other bias is to over-emphasize the subjectivity and purposiveness of social development, but consciously or unconsciously ignore or deny the objectivity and regularity of social development. Consequently, historical materialism is contaminated with voluntarism and historical idealism. In fact, the founders of historical materialism have discussed not only the objectivity and regularity of historical development, but also the subjectivity and purposiveness of it, and offered a proper combination of the two.2 The “development of social forms” is equivalent in meaning to “social development.” And the proposition of “the unity between the regularity and the purposiveness of social development” may not represent my true intentions.

First, the claim of “the regularity of social development” is untenable. I initially made this claim to explain that "there are laws in the process of social development.” However, it does not mean that social development itself has a regular pattern, but that there are laws governing human development in its different stages, laws that await in need of our discovery. Therefore, social development and development laws are two separate entities. Likewise, the claim of "the purposiveness of social development” is also untenable. My original intention behind this claim was that “there are purposes in human activities,” not to mean that people’s activities may render purposeful results, but that there are purposes outside the society and its development, waiting or needing us to discover and comply with them. The above claim conveys certain teleology of idealism. The proposition of “the unity between the regularity and the purposiveness of social development” should be revised as “there are purposes in human activities and there are laws in social development,” to truly capture my intention.

Second, the aforesaid proposition not only fails to express my original meaning, but unconsciously conveys a wrong historical view. Semantically, the proposition of “the unity between the regularity and the purposiveness of social development” argues that the regularity of social development is consistent with the purpose of human activities. However, we know that in historical development, individuals’ activities are indeed purposeful, but the social results produced by interactions of purposeful activities of countless individuals are not completely consistent with and are even antithetical to an individual’s own purpose. This is necessarily so because social development has its objective laws independent of human will and purpose. Therefore, it is a perspective of historical idealism to claim that the regularity of social development is consistent with the purposiveness of human activities.

In my book A Course in Marxist Philosophy co-authored with Nie Jinfang and Zhang Libo, the proposition of “the unity between the regularity and the purposiveness of social development” is revised into “the purposiveness and regularity of human activities.” I made the following explanations on this revision:

Idealists’ regularity and purposiveness for historical development differs completely from historical materialists’ regularity and purposiveness for human activities. The former attempts to address the relationship among historical regularity, progressiveness, and free will, based on historicism and the whole of history. Such is seen, for instance, in Vico, Kant, and Hegel. To these philosophers, an individual’s unique activities often appear purposeless. Their activities with their own unique purposes are often the instrumentality used by God, Nature, and Rationality for the latter’s infinite purpose.

Therefore, to these philosophers, there exists unity between the regularity and the purposiveness of historical development. The historical materialists’ contention, on the other hand, concerns the “fulfilled person” and “material production.” To Marx and Engels, “society” and “history” are not abstract, but specific human activities in a specific society of a specific production mode. Regularity and purposiveness mean that human activities are conscious and purposeful, unlike animalistic instinct. This regularity and purposiveness, however, are nonexistent in social and historical development.3

Although my book has pointed out that the proposition of the “unity between the regularity and the purposiveness of the social historical process” is historical idealism, “regularity and purposiveness are nonexistent in social development” from the perspective of historical materialism. This historical materialism perspective helps correct inadequacies in my book. However, the proposition of “the purposiveness and the regularity of human activities” remains uncorrected. The claim of “the purposiveness of human activities” implies an idealistic teleology for historical development and is thus fallacious. Human activities may either follow or violate the laws of social development. The “regularity of human activities” may lead to the illusion that human activities and the laws of social development are separate from each other, that the latter are independently before and above human activities, waiting to be followed, abided by, and achieved in human activities. In reality, however, social laws are exactly also laws of human social activities, and stand inseparable from the latter.

A Course in Historical Materialism is rated as a key national-level college textbook in social sciences for the “Ninth Five-Year Plan.” A Course in Marxist Philosophy is rated as a key textbook for the “Tenth Five-Year Plan” by the Ministry of Education, and as quality college textbook by the City of Beijing. Both books have seen over ten prints from the press. With wide readership and extensive influence, the negative effects from errors and inaccuracies therein are serious. After becoming aware of this, I have attempted every correction to confine the negative effects. I have also sincerely apologized to my readers, including teachers, students, and the general public.

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