Theo Rothstein November 1905

The Eclectic Theory of History


Source: The Social Democrat, Vol. IX No. 11, November, 1905, pp. 649-662;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


I do not think Hyndman has done a service to Bax by prevailing upon him to publish the paper on “Historical Materialism” which he had read before the Central branch. I think such “criticisms” of Marx, if uttered at all, had better have remained within the small circle of a branch audience, and not given to the public as a body of opinion professed by a man of Bax’s standing. For what he says has been said over and over again by all our bourgeois critics, and if he claims for his own view the originality of a “synthetic” philosophy he only shows how little he knows of the Marxist and anti-Marxist literature. His “criticism” is based partly on a total misconception of what historical materialism really teaches, and partly on a most vicious predilection for eclecticism of the worst type. It is just one of the greatest services which Marx’s teaching has rendered to the philosophical thought that it has done away once and for all with dualism, and has laid the foundations of a real, unadulterated monism. Now comes Bax, of all people in the world, and re-introduces the worst features of modern bourgeois thinking – its looseness, vagueness, and “faltering fear.”

I say, Bax’s first fault is his ignorance of the doctrine he criticises. He thinks that that doctrine professes to offer a “complete explanation of the entire human life” – nay, even of cosmical laws and mathematical truths. He goes so far as to threaten us with an adverse verdict if we do not prove to him that “the relations of the angles of a triangle or the first law of motion” has “its origin in some mode of social production.” Mind you, he says, “if you give up the absoluteness of your theory at one point you give up its absoluteness altogether.” It is terrible. Yet we must, in all humbleness, confess that we cannot explain “the entire human life,” and as for the relations of the angles of a triangle, we are bound, at the risk of forfeiting Bax’s pleasure, to acknowledge that they existed long before not only we, poor Marxists, but even man himself first made his appearance in this valley of tears.

Bax will say: I have told you so; you cannot explain; ergo, your historical materialism is bankrupt, Oh, my just, though severe, Cadi, but if Monkey Soap won’t wash clothes does it follow that it is no good for polishing metal, as it professes? Think of it, Cadi: do the relations of the angles of a triangle form part of human history? Or did any Marxist ever make the pretence to explain “economically” the circulation of the blood, which presumably is part of “the system of human life"? Surely, oh Cadi, you will find enough justice within your breast to answer these questions negatively. If so, then why do you threaten us with extinction when we refuse to explain mathematical or anatomical facts from the point of view of historical materialism? Neither a triangle nor blood is a product of human history, and it is about as logical to ask of us an explanation of their properties as it is to ask of a biologist an explanation of the movements of the planets. La plus plus fille, etc.

This sample is characteristic of Bax’s state of knowledge of what we. Marxists, mean by our materialist conception of history. If he is capable of such gross mistakes in cases which are, or should be, plain even to a child, what can we expect of him in other, more complicated, cases? Indeed, take his disquisition on the role of religion. Belief, he says, when it is “vital,” has a great effect on the direction of our material progress, and in a world which regards this life as a mere preparation for another after death, life itself must assume a different complexion. Which, of course, is quite true; only it is as shallow as a duck’s pond. It may well be asked why does, at a particular moment, religious belief become “vital,” and why does it assume this particular form, not the other? To these questions Bax is so little alive that he does not even see the point in Marx’s remark, which he quotes, about Catholicism in the Middle Ages and the city politics in Greece and Rome. He might have helped himself in the difficulty if he had looked up the first volume of the “Capital,” where on page 54 of the English translation – not in a private manuscript as he supposes – he would have found in a footnote the whole remark: “This much,” there says Marx, “is clear that the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the mode in which they gained a livelihood that explains why here politics, and there Catholicism, played the chief part” (the italics are ours). This, so far from being a “weak petitio principii,” puts the whole case in a nutshell. Granted that Catholicism played a great part in the Middle Ages and city politics – in antiquity – this does not in the least invalidate the Marxists’ assertion that it is the relations of production which determined the course of historical life in those periods. It was precisely owing to them that a religious belief of the particular form which we associate with Catholicism arose and took such a mighty hold of the minds of the people. Had they been different, either Catholicism would not have arisen at all, or, if it had, it would not have played such a great part. Catholicism exists to-day; yet it has not a tenth part of the power which it had in the Middle Ages. On the other hand, there were times when strong religious beliefs existed and yet Catholicism had not yet arisen.

The reader will note that we are not concerned here with interpreting this or that historical phenomenon – Catholicism or any other. Historical materialism is a method of historical enquiry, not a ready solution for historical riddles. What we are concerned with here is to show that all objections to this method do not hold water. They are all either shallow or arise out of a misconception of what Marx has taught, and Bax’s objections share the common characteristics.

What he says about the race factor is but a further illustration of his mode of thinking. He takes exception to the protest raised by Kautsky against the introduction of the racial factor in the interpretation of the course of the present revolution in Russia, and scorns the idea that there are no “special race temperaments.” It may first be asked, did Kautsky or any other Marxist ever deny that there is such thing as a race temperament? To my knowledge, no; what they do deny is that this race temperament ever played an historical role. It is manifestly two different things to recognise a certain fact as existent and to ascribe to it an important part. We may well acknowledge that there are people with blue eyes, and yet deny that they play a role in their individual history. Of course, Bax’s implication is that race temperament does influence the course of a nation’s history, and this historical materialism denies. It says that, inasmuch as the race, as well as other natural factors, such as the climate, or the soil, and biological factors, such as the size of the cranium, etc., remain throughout ages practically unchanged, human history, which is a movement, cannot be produced by them. They are, so to say, the groundwork of the canvas on which the economic brush draws its designs. Of course, since the very groundwork is different in the different nations, the designs themselves will bear a different complexion. The same reaction against asceticism, brought about by similar causes, will produce in sunny France a troubadour gallantry, and a heavy lewdness in cold England. But this difference in the outward manifestation of one and the same thing is of no greater importance to the historian than the manifold individual varieties of the same species are to the biologist. The historian deals with mass-phenomena, which alone reveal the laws of social development, and their individual forms of manifestation are to him of no account. It is with the race and other such like factors as, say, with the paper on which I am writing these lines. No doubt, with paper of different quality the particular shape of the letters which I draw will be different; nevertheless, it is the pen which produces them, not the paper.

Here I must add an explanation. I said before that the natural, biological and other similar factors are practically unchangeable. This means that sometimes, or during a long period, they do change, and consequently may become a factor in history. This may seem an important qualification, making away with “the absoluteness of the theory.” Yet let the reader only ask himself why do they change, and he will soon find a correct answer – they change because of the action of the economic factor. It is this economic factor which brings together and intermingles two races, it is this factor which leads to the destruction of forests, and to the consequent change of the climate, it is this factor which is responsible for the wasteful tillage of the soil, resulting in the change in its fertility, etc. And as this factor is, and has been, continually at work, it follows that even race itself, and the climate, and the rest of the “pigments” which make up the groundwork of the picture, are largely the product of the particular economic forces.

But, pardon! I am using an expression against which Bax will revolt with all his might. I say that the economic factor has continually been at work, whilst Bax distinctly confines its influence to but modern times. An important qualification! Bernstein has discovered that the “predominance” of the economic factor was limited to former historical periods; nowadays, forsooth, it is the moral factor which rules the show. Bax says the precise reverse. His discovery is that we see in general a “progressively determining influence of the economic factor as we advance towards modern times,” whilst formerly other factors – presumably “psychological spontaneity” – were the determinants. A happy complement to Bernstein – only rather too crude. Evidently Bax has in his mind, when speaking of the economic factor, the power of money – the almighty dollar – to which even kings nowadays bow. Indeed, he says as much when speaking of the progress of science: “It is only by the elimination of such disturbing influences as are embraced under economic conditions, that pure science progresses at all.” This means, if it means anything, that it is only when a man does not care for any ultimate pecuniary gain, but concentrates his thoughts unselfishly upon the subject, that he is able to push science forward. With which we may agree, and yet assert that no cruder view of what we, Marxists, understand by the term “economic factor” could have been propounded by any bourgeois thinker. When will our soi-disant critics understand that when we speak of the economic factor we do not mean by it the material interests of an individual or even of a class (as conceived by it), but what Marx has called “the totality of the relations of production?” “In the social production of their existence,” says Marx, in a famous passage, “men enter into definite, inevitable and, independent of their will, productive relations, which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The totality of these productive relations forms the economic structure of society, the real basis on which,” etc. Can anything in the face of this be more ridiculous than the above quoted passage of Bax? As a “totality of the relations of production” the economic factor always existed, because men always produced in order to live, and the present lust for material goods is in no way a more direct expression of it than at one time was the lust for heavenly goods. At one time the totality of the relations of production gives rise to a chase after the dollar, at another to a craving after a martyr’s crown; at one time it gives rise to selfishness, at another to self-sacrifice; here it produces patriotism, there it calls forth a cosmopolitan movement; now it brings about a thirst for asceticism, later on it rehabilitates the flesh. Always and everywhere, as Marx said, “the mode of production of material life determines the process of social, political and moral life” in its manifold forms and strength.

Bax, feeling that in the domain of social history proper he can easily be refuted, takes refuge in the most abstract regions of thought – in the history of philosophy and pure mathematics. Here, he triumphantly says, perched on the top, you cannot reach me. Here is the kingdom of intellectual “spontaneity” – exite profani! A good position, no doubt. The Marxists, as a rule, are economists and historians, and few are specialists in mathematics and even in philosophy. It is, no doubt, very easy to propound riddles in those “disciplines” to which an average Marxist will not be able to reply satisfactorily. In fact, until somebody arises with the special knowledge of the subject and with leisure from everyday work, both for himself and for the movement, who will undertake to apply the Marxist method in those domains, I am afraid the majority of us will only be able to offer certain “finger-posts,” leaving to the opponents the satisfaction of a temporary triumph. However, even those finger-posts, scanty as they are, will appeal to those whose mind is trained in a monistic direction, as a proof that the causal connection between the economic conditions and the development of those “disciplines” holds, in spite of the absence of detailed facts, as good as elsewhere. When we see, for instance, how the atomistic philosophy of Democritus first makes its appearance with the emancipation of the individual from the tribal family ties, or how the romantic materialism of Lucretius closely corresponds with the ruin of Italian agriculture, we get a glimpse into the inner working of the philosophical mind, and say to ourselves: What little we are able to analyse confirms the view of Marx and his followers. Likewise in mathematics. It was Engels who pointed out that geometry, as its very name shows, has arisen out of the measuring of the land, necessitated by the formation of private property. With this “finger-post” Bax is dissatisfied, saying that it is “a crass confusion between the subject-matter of the science itself and the impelling reasons that first led men to undertake its investigation.” I am afraid the confusion is on Bax’s side. What Engels said was, not merely that the needs compelled men to create the science of geometry, but that its truths have been suggested to them in their economic practice. In a similar manner, as can be proved documentarily, the idea of the struggle for existence and of natural selection has been suggested to Darwin and Wallace by .the competitive system of the present day, itself the product of the “totality of the relations of production.” No doubt, it would be difficult to interpret the discovery of the differential calculus in the same way – that is, to show how, by which of its features, the economic conditions have suggested to Newton and Leibnitz that remarkable feat of mathematical imagination. Yet, because it is difficult, it does not quite follow that such a deduction is, per se, impossible. If a biological generalisation can, as an act of thought, be traced to an economic suggestion, we may yet live to see – if our Sphynx does not devour us in the meantime for not solving his riddle – the same with regard to the mathematical one.

So far, then, we see that all attempts by Bax to introduce in the explanation of historical phenomena any other factor than the economical, are either superficial or an abuse of the situation. It is with him as with the proverbial man in the street, who, when unable to explain a thing by some rational method, falls back upon the primitively na´ve contrivance of introducing some “blessed word” – be it electricity or God – to do duty for the time being. Bax does not understand how Thales came by his idea that water is the principle of the universe, It is “intellectual sponaneity,” he says. On the other hand, he sees clearly through Spencer’s organic theory of society. Ah! that is different, he says, it’s economics! And so throughout human history in all its departments. It is a very convenient method – this combining of “two fundamental elements or factors, from both of which combined the whole detail of the process is deducible.” What you cannot explain by one you relegate to the other, and then the whole thing is as plain as daylight. Only the thing is a bit too old; in fact, as old as the unscientific mind itself, and the daylight is no clearer than a fog at the waterside. The whole history of philosophical speculation is witness thereto, and Bax claims in vain for his “synthetic” philosophy originality and “scientific adequacy.” With this “adequacy” we have not till Marx made a single step forward in the explanation of “any event or series of events in the complex dynamics of human society” throughout the centuries which had elapsed since Thales, and I guarantee that neither will Bax except when he applies just Marx’s method.

But here arises a very important point – perhaps the most important in the whole controversy between Marxists and their critics. Do we really recognise only one factor, the economic, and deny the existence of all others – the psychological, for instance? Our critics think we do, and even Bax, when granting the “measure of the truth contained in our view “speaks of economic processes” which appear “to move mechanically,” which “seem to come about without the co-operation of human will, or definitely-directed intelligence,” which, “in fact, follow a one-sided mechanical causation of their own.” That is, according to our critics, our view, and that is the standpoint on which they place themselves, when acknowledging the measure of truth contained therein.

Shall we say that this opinion of our critics is wholly fantastic, and only shows how little they understand what Marx has taught us? I am afraid, if I say this, I shall be threatened with immediate extinction by the approved method of “mind you, if you give up the absoluteness of your theory at one point,” etc. Yet, let our critics, before pronouncing the sentence, turn to the original words of Marx. He says: “The totality of these productive relations forms the economic structure of society, the real basis, on which a juristical and political superstructure is built, and to which certain definite forms of social consciousness correspond.” Will our critics note the wording of the underlined sentence? The juristical and political superstructure is built, whilst the forms of social consciousness correspond. What does it mean? It means that the State (if any) and its particular organisation is the direct product of the totality of the productive relations, whilst social consciousness, as a fact, is given, and exists apart from it, and only its particular contents are the direct product of this factor. In other words, man is an organic being which thinks and feels. This is a biological fact, which is quite independent of “economics.” But the form, how and what he thinks, and how and what he feels, depends directly on the economic conditions. To give an example. The faculty and impulse to believe are innate with our organic constitution. They have nothing to do with the mode of production of our life. But the form of belief which we call religious is the product of “a particular stage of development of our material productive forces,” when man has not yet got the full control of nature. As such, that stage embraces the whole historical life of mankind till the advent of Socialism, when man will, at last, become the master of nature, and religious belief will disappear. But again, within that stage there are several divisions – there is the tribal communism, the transition from that to village communism, village communism, individual ownership of land, the full development of the latter, the rise of money-capital, etc. We see corresponding to them, fetishism, polytheism, monotheism, with all their gradations and blendings. Then again monotheism itself will assume a different character – national and international – in accordance with the economic conditions of production and exchange, and international monotheism – Christianity – will in its turn sub-divide into different creeds, holding sway of the masses, according to the different modes of production, etc.

We see, therefore, that Marx and all who follow him have never thought of denying the existence of other factors besides the economic, and our critics are simply knocking at the open door. But then does it not mean that we give up “the absoluteness of our theory"? Granted, that the forms of social consciousness are determined by “economics”; surely without the social consciousness itself, or rather without the faculty for it, you could not have its, forms. Is it not clear, then, that biological, psychological and other factors, too, play their part? Quite true, we will reply; only what is consciousness without a particular form? It is simply non-existent as a fact, and can, therefore, play no part in history. It is only a faculty of the individual which reveals itself in various directions, having in themselves no historical importance. It is only when out of the individual consciousness there arises a social consciousness that it becomes an historical fact; but then precisely its contents will be determined by the totality of the relations of production. Naturally, what we say about social consciousness equally applies, for instance, to social will. Will is a faculty of the individual, and, as such, does not belong to the domain of history, but to that of biography. As soon, however, as the individual wills coalesce into a social will it becomes an historical fact, but then it will be directed by the economic factor.

The reader can at the same time now perceive how crude it is to imagine that we, Marxists, conceive the historical process as a mechanical movement, developing “without the co-operation of human will or definitely-directed intelligence.” Why, it is precisely we, Marxists, who have first raised these factors to the importance which belongs to them by defining exactly their place in the historical process, and by introducing in their movement the element of law! We say, as always was said, that history is made by man – by his intelligence, by his feelings, by his will; only instead of making man and his powers a mere plaything in the hands of blind chance – for that is what the expressions “psychological spontaneity” and such like really imply – we make them the expression and the bearers of the law. Consider our own Socialist movement. On what is it based? How is it carried on? Do we say, intelligence, and will, and enthusiasm, do not enter into it? Do we say, it is not based on a spirit of solidarity and of self-sacrifice? No, we say all that, but we say something more besides. We say that all this “psychology” is not a chance phenomenon, but is strictly law-determined by the relations of production – law-determined in its origin, in its strength, in its direction. Without this psychology, as a means, the objective development towards Socialism could not proceed; on the other hand, that objective development was bound to produce such a “psychology” if it was to be realised at all. But not merely this general psychology of classes “struggling to be free” is the product of economic development. There is a special proletarian psychology which is of prime importance for the realisation of Socialism, and which is determined by the relations of production.” As I was looking, on the morning of Sunday, November 5, at the

Jewish contingent starting from Mile End Waste in a downpour of rain, and in deep mud, for Trafalgar Square, I thought to myself: some, with a nice overcoat, thin boots, and new trousers, will not venture on such a journey in spite of all their sympathy with the revolution; but these fellows – they dare: they are not afraid of spoiling their suits, and boots, and hats, because they are all the same, not in a prime state. This example may look trivial, yet it illustrates the specific proletarian psychology on which all our hopes and all our theory is based. The proletarian is a man without property, who literally owns nothing but his chains. That is why he dares so much. That is why he will make a revolution. That is why he will carry it through to its most ultimate conclusions. There is nothing in the world that can stop him and make him look round to see if he does not endanger anything. He has no property; he has no family life which he may ruin; he and his children starve all the same – he can afford to go the whole hog, and make a clean sweep of the whole capitalist society.

Is not that “psychology"? Do we deny it? Ah, non! But we say at the same time that this psychology has not fallen from the skies, that it has not been “spontaneously” generated, but is both the legitimate product of the “totality of productive relations,” and their means of developing further. It is with them as – to use a familiar analogy – with the silkworm who spins his cocoon. The cocoon is both his product and the means of his development to a further stage – that of a butterfly. Only the silkworm’s cocoon is always the same, alike in material and other properties; whilst that of the forces of production varies infinitely.

With this I will conclude. I dare say there are a number of points which I have not succeeded in elucidating as clearly as I would wish. But when jotting down hastily a few remarks on a subject as complex as historical materialism, shortcomings are inevitable. I venture to think, however, that I have succeeded in showing how shallow is Bax’s criticism and how crude are his own views. As I said at the beginning, it is eclecticism of the worst type; and it is a matter of surprise that a man with a philosophical education like Box should seriously regard himself as the author of a new scientific philosophy called “synthetic.” It is neither new nor scientific, as can be proved by chapter and verse; and my comrades who have shown him already their teeth in “Justice” will do well to stick to their old, unscientific Marxism.

Th. Rothstein.