George Novack’s Understanding History

Sociology And Historical Materialism


The Place Of Sociology Among The Sciences

The process of becoming and being in our world is a never-ending, materially unified whole. This evolutionary process can be divided into two sections according to their order of emergence and their level of development. The first period comprises the development of the physical universe from its observable beginnings up to the advent of the first humans. According to the latest hypothetical calculations, this cosmic evolution took at least twenty billion years.

The second period covers the origins and growth of our species from the point where our primate progenitors graduated from the animal state to the present. This process of humanisation has lasted almost two million years.

The natural sciences from astrophysics and geology to biology and zoology deal with one or another sector of the evolution of the material world apart from the social existence of mankind. The social sciences from archaeology and anthropology to political economy and history have as their objects of investigation one or another of the aspects of social life arising from the activities of human beings.

Sociology is one of the social sciences. What are its special features and its relations to other branches of social investigation?

Other social sciences, such as archaeology, economics, demography, law, linguistics, psychology, logic, study special aspects and restricted areas of human activity and achievement. Linguistics, for example, deals solely with the phenomena of human speech and its structural elements. These sciences that seek to discover the laws of a delimited domain of social life necessarily have a narrow, one-sided character.

But society is not actually partitioned into domains completely cut off from one another nor is its development split into absolutely disjointed stages. Human life has developed continuously from its origins to the present. Each stage of human history and its social organisation has had an integrated constitution depending upon its mode of production and its appropriate place in the sequence of the historical process.

Sociology is that branch of scientific knowledge which investigates the evolution of society in its entirety and the content of social life in its fullness. It endeavours to discover the laws governing the progress of social life from the most primitive and simple form of social organisation to its most complex and mature structures.

Both the laws of nature and the laws of society are historical in character since they are drawn from phenomena engaged in constant change. But social phenomena are qualitatively different from the purely natural events out of which they have grown and in which they remain rooted. Social facts are produced by our species, which obtains its means of existence in a unique manner through cooperative labour. Man’s activities of production and their results invest the laws of social development with characteristics distinctively different from those governing other living creatures.

The laws of social evolution have retained certain traits in common with the laws of organic evolution, since up to now these have operated without conscious collective direction or control. That is why Marx regarded “the evolution of the economic formation of society ÷as a process of natural history”, as he wrote in the preface to the first edition of Volume 1 of Capital . But the dominant features of the social-historical process are fundamentally different from those prevailing in the rest of reality.

The broad scope and aims of sociology make it the most general of the social sciences. It seeks to synthesise the findings of the rest of the social sciences into a comprehensive conception of the dynamics of the historical process.

Sociology plays a role in regard to the social sciences comparable to scientific cosmology, which comprehensively explains the evolution of the physical universe, or synthetic biology, which aims to provide a coherent picture of the whole realm of living matter.

To the degree that sociology succeeds in comprehending the laws of human development, it provides the other social sciences with a general method of investigation which can serve as a guide to their more specialised studies. There is an unbreakable interdependence and constant interaction between sociology and the more specialised departments of social science, each of which has its relative autonomy. The data provided by these in turn enrich and extend the ideas and method of sociology as it grows.

Sociology seeks to answer such questions as: What is society and in what respects does it differ from nature? How did social life originate? How and why does it change? What are the most powerful driving forces in its development? Through what stages has social evolution passed? What forms of organisation has society acquired? What are the standards of social progress? What relations do the various aspects of the social structure have to one another? What laws regulate the replacement of one grade of social development by the next and the transformation of one type of social organisation into another?

Sociology And The Philosophy Of History

The generality that distinguishes sociology as a science stands out most clearly in contrast with history. These two branches of knowledge are so intimately interlinked that at certain points on their boundaries they are barely separable.

History relates what men did at a certain time and place and under certain specific circumstances, however extensive the period and theatre of operations. Sociology takes up where history leaves off. Proceeding from the results of historical research, it seeks to find in them and through them the inner connections and causal laws of the actual historical process. Considerable historical data had to be amassed before sociology became possible.

Sociology and history have the broadest scope of all the social sciences. These two used to merge at that border line which has been designated as “the philosophy of history”. This term, invented by Voltaire, refers to the systematic theoretical interpretation of the historical process as a whole, what Hegel called Universal History.

This side of the study of history was energetically pursued by those West European thinkers of the 17th and 18th centuries who sought to extend to social phenomena the methods which were revolutionising research into the physical world. They proceeded on the premise that the world of man, no less than the world of nature, was a rational system whose principles of development could be found out and should be known. So they set out to ascertain the causal laws which determined human history.

Although some of their speculations went wide of the mark, these explorers of the logic of the historical process gathered materials and cleared the way for those eminent theorists in the 19th century from Saint-Simon to Marx who placed the study of society on solid scientific foundations.

These theoretical inquiries into the motive forces of history were prompted and promoted by practical aims. The philosophers of the Enlightenment who heralded the French revolution, and their successors of the Napoleonic and Restoration periods who came after the revolution, looked for the efficient agents of history in order to change society according to their lights. Just as the physical scientists had acquired control over nature through deeper insight into its modes of operation, so these thinkers aspired to control the reconstruction of society by understanding and managing the main factors that shaped the course of history.

The authors of the conjectures associated with the philosophy of history were ideological precursors and progenitors of sociology. Whatever was valid in their contributions and conclusions on the whole of human history became incorporated into the science of society.

The philosophy of history as such, however, belongs to the prescientific stage of sociological knowledge. It bears the same relation to scientific sociology as alchemy to chemistry and astrology to astronomy. Its hypotheses were stimulating and indispensable so long as the prime motive forces of social development were unknown and being sought for. But once historical materialism uncovered the true laws of social evolution and progressive research guided by scientific principles could replace guesswork, the old purely speculative philosophical approach to sociology was rendered obsolete and retrogressive.

Types Of Sociological Theory

Sociology has a long prehistory going back to the Greeks. Ibn Khaldun, the eminent Berber scholar and statesman of the 14th century, was very likely the first thinker to formulate a clear conception of sociology. He did so under the name of the study of culture.

He wrote: “History is the record of human society, or world civilisation; of the changes that take place in the nature of that society, such as savagery, sociability, and group solidarity; of revolutions and uprisings by one set of people against another with the resulting kingdoms and states, with their various ranks; of the different activities and occupations of men, whether for gaining their livelihood or in the various sciences and crafts; and, in general, of all the transformations that society undergoes by its very nature.” (An Arab Philosophy of History by Charles Issawi, London, 1950.)

But sociology is a comparatively recent department of social science. Such sciences as economics and history developed on an independent basis much earlier and faster. Sociology was constituted as a distinct branch of learning only after the French revolution. It was given its own name over 150 years ago by August Comte.

Since then sociology has developed in different directions and given rise to a motley host of theoretical approaches. The diverse schools can be roughly classified into three major categories: the materialist, the idealist, and the eclectic or dualistic tendencies.

Idealists rely upon mental, superstructural or purely subjective factors for the prime explanation of social-historical phenomena. Thus the Swiss writer, Bachofen, who first called attention to the system of kinship through the mothers, said in the introduction to his book Das Mutterrecht : “ Religion is the only efficient lever of all civilisation. Each elevation and depression of human life has its origin in a movement which begins in this supreme department.”

The American anthropologist, Alexander Goldenweiser, stated in his work on Early Civilisation : “Thus the whole of civilisation, if followed backward step by step, would ultimately be found resolvable, without residue, into bits of ideas in the minds of individuals.”

The British biologist Julian Huxley encompasses the whole span of social development with a similar explanation: “Human evolution occurs primarily in the realm of ideas and their results—in what anthropologists call culture ÷” (Issues in Evolution , p. 45.)

Historical idealism is prevalent not only in the sciences but in all areas of culture. Thus the literary critic, Alfred Kazin, reviewing The Life of the Mind in America: From the Revolution to the Civil War by Perry Miller, asserts: “In the end, the national mind is the national force.” This is diluted Hegelianism.

The materialists, on the other hand, teach that everything in social life comes from objective and observable material causes of a physical or man-made character. Thus, in The Nature of Things , the Roman poet-philosopher Lucretius attributed the discovery of the uses of metals to men’s thoughtful notice of their melting by forest fires and moulding in the bed from which the lump of silver and gold, copper or lead, was lifted. He was reaching toward a materialist explanation for the metallic revolution which had given immense impetus to human progress several thousands of years before him.

In the 14th century Ibn Khaldun sought to explain the emergence of the civilised state from the primitive tribal community along the following essentially materialist lines: To satisfy the physical needs for food, procreation and protection which they shared with plants and animals, men were impelled to cooperate, learn to make tools and weapons and establish small and simple communities. The development of cooperation and the division of labour led to producing more than was required for sheer survival. The subsequent fierce conflicts over possession of this surplus of wealth threatened the existence of men. To curb their animal appetites and create civil order, they set up a powerful and able ruler who forced the aggregate to obey his directives. Thus kingship and the state came into existence as the necessary outcome of economic opulence.

The interplay of natural and man-made factors in shaping the course of history was emphasised by the 18th century French thinker Montesquieu, who picked out geography and government as the main determinants of social phenomena. The influence of the first factor prevailed in the earlier stages of human development; the second came forward as civilisation progressed. But both continue to work together upon the mental life of man and generate his predominant characteristics. Thus heat and despotism made certain Asiatic peoples placid and docile while cold and democracy made some Europeans active in mind and body.

Besides such efforts to apply either idealist or materialist procedures in a more or less consistent and clear-cut manner, we find an array of thinkers who shuttle between these opposing modes of reasoning and arrive at the most incongruous conclusions in their works. The literature of the social sciences is saturated with such eclecticism in theory and method; it is the habitual, normative viewpoint of contemporary Western scholarship.

A characteristic expression of this dualism was provided by Charles Beard, the American liberal historian. His last word on historical philosophy was that ideas and interests were the twin motive forces of civilisation. If it be asked which is predominant as a rule and in the long run, he answered that this cannot be ascertained in advance. All depends upon the concrete circumstances of the given case. The door was thus flung open for ideological considerations to prevail over material conditions both in particular and in general.

Although the idealist approach to history is false in principle, it is not all wrong. It takes into account certain features of the development of society. Ideas, opinions, religions, individual action, are all parts of history and contribute to its making. The point is that they are not the decisive factors in social life and therefore cannot serve to explain the rest They are secondary and derivative elements which themselves stand in need of explanation. The idealistic conception is misleading because it is shallow; it does not get to the inner core, the essential causes, of social phenomena.

Every materialist school of historical explanation has had erroneous and inadequate notions. But their procedure was valid in essence because it oriented social investigation in the right direction. The materialists looked for the motive forces and root causes of social evolution in the influence and changes of the material conditions of human existence and kept digging deeper and deeper into these. With Marx and Engels they succeeded in reaching bedrock: They located the basis of society in the mode of production which arises out of the given state of man’s struggle with nature for the means of life and further development.

Historical Materialism

Historical materialism is a particular type of sociological theory. It is the sociological method of Marxism. It investigates the same phenomena as rival schools of sociology but in a more probing, many-sided, rigorously scientific way that gives more insight into the total life of society and more foresight about its trends of development.

Historical materialism is not the whole of Marxist theory. It forms a special branch arising from the application of its dialectical and materialist principles to the evolution of society. This is disputed by certain revisionist interpreters of Marxism, like Sidney Hook and Jean-Paul Sartre, who contend that the Marxist domain is restricted to social phenomena, to the life of man, and cannot be extended to nature. The Russian Marxist Plekhanov, more correctly stated that it had an all-embracing universal jurisdiction.

Plekhanov divided the unified and systematic structure of Marxist thought into three parts: 1. Dialectical materialism , the most general approach to reality, which covers nature, society and the mind and which aims to discover the general laws governing the modes of motion in all three interacting sectors of existence; 2. Historical Materialism , the application of these laws to the development of mankind and the discovery of the specific laws involved in social existence; 3. Scientific socialism , the application of the laws of historical materialism to that particular stage of social evolution in which capitalism takes shape, fulfils and exhausts its potential, and passes over to the higher formation of socialism. Thus dialectical materialism is a school of philosophy, logic and theory of knowledge; historical materialism, of sociology; and scientific socialism, of political economy and revolutionary practice.

Historical materialism is accurately named. It did not acquire either element of its designation by chance. Its title formulates the essential features which demarcate this method from other ways of interpreting social phenomena: On the one hand, its derivation of all the higher manifestations of culture from their economic foundations opposes it to the historical idealisms which have been the chief adversary of materialist thought in history and sociology. On the other hand, there have been tendencies which analysed social processes and structures materialistically but disregarded or minimised their evolutionary aspects. These unhistorical materialisms attributed the basic elements of social formations either to an unchangeable nature or to some fixed traits of human nature.

The distinctiveness of Marxist sociology comes from its fusion of the materialist approach to society with a thoroughgoing evolutionary outlook. It teaches that everything in social life is subject to modification and transformation in accord with causes of a physical or historical character.

An idealistic philosophy of history may also be evolutionary, as in Hegel, but it vests the ultimate causal agencies in nonmaterial factors such as spirit, mind or God. Marxism in fact originated by detaching the evolutionary outlook projected by Hegel in his dialectical logic from its idealistic context and by removing the nonhistorical elements from preceding materialist theories. Many critics insist that this marriage of dialectical method with materialist principles is impossible. Nonetheless, their indivisible combination constitutes the pith of the Marxist mode of thought in sociology as in all other fields.

The Class Character Of Sociology

Sociology could not have arisen or prospered in a homogenous, harmonious, equilibrated, unchanging, social medium. The accelerated economic changes, social instability and class antagonisms characteristic of commercial civilisation were needed to impel men to look for the forces which moved and transformed society.

The earliest systematic observations and critical reflections on the course and causes of social change were made by Greek thinkers in those city-states torn by class conflict where revolutions and counterrevolutions periodically upset and replaced the form of rule. Plato set forth the specifications for his ideal republic in the quest for stability as the obverse of the restless regimes of the commercial slave society around him. Aristotle carefully analysed the causes of revolution with an eye to preventing, not promoting, them.

Ibn Khaldun brought forth his new science of culture, the first extended essay in sociology, in response to the decline and disintegration of the Islamic states of North Africa and Spain during the 14th century. Living in a time of distress and desolation when nomadic incursions and the Black Death had ruined the Maghreb he keenly felt the need for a deeper understanding of history. “When the universe is being turned upside down, we must ask ourselves whether it is changing its nature, whether there is to be a new creation and a new order in the world. Therefore today we need a historian who can declare the state of the world, of its countries and people, and show the changes that have taken place in customs and beliefs”, he wrote.

Since his time inquiry into the causes of social progress and regress has been quickened whenever and wherever the social order has been unsettled, turned topsy-turvy, and the historical destiny of peoples has been radically redirected. The upheavals in social relations and political institutions issuing from the development of the bourgeois-democratic revolutions in England, France and North America provided both the incentives and data for the research and reflections which crystallised in the creation of sociology as a separate science in the 19th century.

Conceived, nurtured and functioning in a setting of clashing social interests, the social sciences could not avoid having a class character. In order to serve as tools and weapons in the contest of social forces, they have been bent to class purposes.

This bias can be observed from ancient times. It is obvious in Aristotle’s Politics . Like other Greek aristocrats, he viewed the state as founded on households where the male is master over wives, children, slaves and all property; the concept of sexual, civic or universal equality is conspicuously absent in Aristotle’s social thought.

Coming to our own time, those Anglo-American sociologists who ignore evolution in society, disregard revolutionary changes in social organisation, and focus exclusively on functional correlations in small-scale static structures are equally class-conditioned in their outlook. They present the viewpoint of the liberal middle-class intellectual or progressive.

How is the patently class character of social science and its practitioners to be reconciled with the tests of scientific objectivity? This is one of the most vexing problems in the sociology of knowledge. If the vision of the investigator is inescapably blurred and distorted by class motivations, how can any valid truths be attained in the social sciences?

Karl Mannheim offered an ingenious solution. He held that the ideologists of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat are prohibited from being clear-sighted and impartial because they must defend overwhelming material interests. Their views are clouded by a deceptive “false consciousness” and a utopianism, which, despite its unrealism, is in practice the generator of political action and social progress. Fortunately for science, the relativism and subjectivism of the representatives of the major classes can be offset by the capacity of socially detached and politically uncommitted intellectuals to comprehend and appraise social phenomena without prejudice. Thus Mannheim tried to resolve the contradiction between prejudiced spokesmen for contending social forces and the demands of science by vesting the virtues of objectivity in an uprooted but fair-minded intellectual elite with which he identified himself.

Marxism handles this problem in a more correct and consistent way. It acknowledges that the thinkers of every social regime and layer without exception are animated by class considerations, however little or much they may be aware of the influence on them. This class outlook can hamper their work and warp their conclusions. But it is not an insuperable barrier to the acquisition of genuine knowledge and indeed under certain circumstances may prompt and speed its development.

Every successive ruling class—and the rising class which challenges its supremacy—has created a general conception of the world and society conforming to its needs. These ideologies intermingle accurate descriptions and correct explanations of phenomena with prejudices derived from the special situation and outlook of the class formation they speak for. This twofold character permeates Aristotle’s Politics , which, through his aristocratic angle of vision, conveys valuable information and valid generalisations on the economic, sociological and political features of the Greek city-states.

The demands which a given social order or class imposes upon its ideologists have differential effects upon their capacities to extend knowledge at different points of their historical evolution. When the basic interests of a class accelerate economic development and promote political and cultural progress, the beneficial influence of its predispositions and preoccupations radiates through the sciences and spurs the advance of knowledge.

The science of mineralogy received its strongest impetus from the direct economic interest of the Western European mine owners in the study of rocks. The father of mineralogy, the German physician Georg Bauer (1490-1555), better known under his Latinised name, Agricola, who lived and worked in one of the mining centres of the continent, wrote on the geographical distribution of various economically useful metals, the growth of metallurgy and its machinery in Germany and Austria, and the classification of the minerals known in his time. After him more and more attention was directed to the study of rocks for their potential economic value and many institutions of learning established teaching positions in mineralogy. The growth of this science led to increased knowledge of the history of the earth and eventually to the need for ascertaining a time scale for prehistory. Thus the progress made in positive knowledge and the accrued benefits to mankind transcended and outlasted the drive for private profit which gave birth to mineralogy.

The same considerations are true of the social sciences. The businessmen, financiers and statesmen of the early bourgeois era needed more extensive and exact statistics for trade, insurance, banking, government tax and administrative purposes. Their interests brought the science of statistics into being during and after the 17th century. Yet this branch of knowledge has an objective basis and scientific validity which goes beyond the special class motives inseparable from its origins and development.

In order to conduct a successful struggle against precapitalist institutions and ideas, the rising bourgeoisie had to probe more deeply into the structure of society and the motive forces of history. Its economists studied foreign trade, the role of money and the forms of capital and labour, amassing materials and devising theories for placing economics on solid scientific foundations. Its political thinkers developed theories of popular sovereignty and representative government in opposition to monarchical and theocratic views. Their critical and creative thought introduced lasting enlightenment into these fields of social science.

As one type of social regime has supplanted another in the onward march of civilisation, there has been a cumulative growth of knowledge about society. The comprehension of social relations and their modes of transformation arrived at by the most penetrating theorists of one stage of social and scientific development and its dominant class has been reevaluated, sifted and corrected by the leading ideologists of the next higher social formation. Thus the political economy of the working class took off from a critical reworking of the doctrines of the classical bourgeois economists, just as its philosophy combined the principles of previous materialists with the logical method of the German philosophers from Kant to Hegel. In this way the deficiencies and inherent limitations of the outmoded stage were reduced and removed while the store of genuine knowledge was amplified and improved by the fresh findings of the representatives of the more progressive class forces.

The incentives for objective research and judgment in sociology are lessened and the advance of the science slowed down when the major efforts of a class become dedicated to preserving an obsolete system of production and a reactionary political structure. The statesmen and economists of Southern slavery added very little to the sum of knowledge even about the laws regulating their own peculiar social regime. This blindness to the real forces stirring within society and their trends of development has afflicted all decadent and outdated ruling classes. Because they had acted as the dominant power in national politics for decades, the representatives of the slavocracy believed they could continue to hold sway after the economic, social and political balance of forces in the country had decisively shifted against them. The test of the Civil War burst this illusion.

Today the statesmen and ideologists of the major capitalist power expect the United States to exercise the same prolonged supremacy over world affairs that England did 100 years ago, regardless of the growing weight of the anticapitalist states and forces in this century. Their vision and prevision of world history is impaired, not sharpened, by their class position and prejudices.

The best understanding of society at the disposal of the world working class is contained and codified in the tenets of historical materialism. This is the most comprehensive and integrated system of sociological laws and the most profound interpretation of historical development. It incorporates the verified knowledge of history and society bequeathed from the past with the contributions made by the masters of Marxism.

The needs of the working class in its struggle for emancipation impose exacting demands and a severe objectivity upon its ideologists. As two world wars and fascism have demonstrated, the working class has to pay heavily for every failure of cognition about the dynamics of contemporary society. It suffers from every instance of ignorance, subjectivity and shortsightedness in the socioeconomic analyses of its leaders and scholars.

This puts a premium on finding out the reality of social and political conditions and ascertaining the precise movements of the diverse social forces. False ideas have to be constantly corrected by the results of actual experience in the arena of struggle on a world scale; a more objective and rounded picture of the concrete situation in all its interacting aspects has to be worked out if the historical aims of the socialist movement are to be fulfilled.

These vital stimuli emanating from the movement for liberation from bondage to class society are the lifeblood of the progress of historical materialism. This method teaches that theory and practice, science and experience go hand in hand throughout history. But the two do not evolve symmetrically; their progress is extremely uneven. The understanding of peoples and classes about their situation and tasks has usually lagged far behind their actual relations and the possibilities of changing them.

This gap has never been greater than in the atomic age. Although the world is ready to receive socialism, a considerable section of the working class in the West is not ready to achieve it. Yet the very salvation of humanity depends upon its capacity to intervene as the dominant and decisive force in redirecting the history of our time. The enlightenment and guidance provided by historical materialism can do much to alter the gross imbalance between the immense untapped revolutionary potential of the working people and their present inadequate level of consciousness.

From the 1840s to the 1960s the victories and defeats, advances and setbacks of the masses in their strivings to change the course of history and reconstruct society on new foundations has amplified the method and enriched the content of historical materialism. The greatest value of all science comes from its usefulness in practice. The science of the social process formulated in historical materialism must also meet and pass this supreme test.

The history of the past century has given many proofs of its superior capacities to decipher the past, analyse current events, and forecast the variants of social and political development Its truth and potency will be irrefutably vindicated as the application of its ideas enables the revolutionary forces to forge a policy which can bring about with the greatest speed and efficiency the abolition of the old order and the building of a better world.