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New Left Review I/115, May-June 1979


Philippe Van Parijs

From Contradiction to Catastrophe

The constitutive claim of historical materialism, of the materialist conception of history, consists in giving an explanatory primacy to a social formation’s ‘material structure’—i.e. to its productive forces (over its relationships of production), to its economic base (over its superstructure). The central difficulties of historical materialism consist in reconciling this claim with (1) the idea that ‘non-material’ structures play a significant role, (2) the idea that history is an (objectively) ‘goal-directed’ process, and (3) the idea that political action may play a decisive role. These three difficulties I shall call (1) the ‘primacy puzzle’, (2) the ‘paradox of teleology’ and (3) the ‘riddle of historical determinism’.

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