Ernest Belfort Bax

The synthetic or the neo-Marxist conception of history


Originally published in German in Neue Zeit, XV. Jahrg (October 28, 1896). [1*]
This version from Social Democrat, Vol.6, No.9, June 1902, pp.270-274.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A scathing criticism from the principal representative of the Marxist conception, or what now-a-days passes for such, calls for an answer from me, because I look on this theory as one of the most important historical truths even if I cannot accept it in its present-day form as the final summing up of all truth. In any case I can bit congratulate myself that Kautsky finds an amusing side to my article. I cannot return the compliment; possibly because Kautsky, as his article shows so evidently, set not with the intention to produce something funny; but wit is apt to have a way much the same as the ghosts at Marathon; it only shows itself to those who do not seek it. It was intention, certainly, to have a quiet and sober debate with the modern representatives of the Marxist conception of history; it appears, however, that the gods have had pity on me, and have on this occasion bestowed wit on me. Kautsky may possess many great literary qualities, but the faculty of furnishing amusement is certainly not a strong feature in his writing.

I protest, however, most decidedly against being described as an “opponent of the conception of history laid down by Marx,” simply because I regard it in its present form as insufficient to explain the whole process of history.

I regret that I added the little footnote to my article, because Kautsky seems to feel insulted thereby, and personalities of that kind throw little light on the controversy. I was of opinion that Marx and from certain expressions which he used, also Engels, would have regarded the materialist conception of history as interpreted by Kautsky, Mehring, and Plechanoff as too stereotyped. Nevertheless, I make Kautsky a present of the whole personal question. As far as I am concerned, Marx, and even Engels, might, be Marxists in Kautsky’s sense; the principal question for me, is whether this method suffices to explain the whole history of man in its concrete reality, or whether it requires to be amended in my sense.

Kautsky asserts that the economic conditions form the only variable element in history, while taken by themselves all the other elements are constant, and that they undergo change only in consequence of changes in the former. Here we have, in any case, an assertion which is laid down clearly and in a form which renders it open to discussion. Kautsky’s assumption I deny most emphatically. All elements leave their variable and constant sides. As I have often said, the economic element has through the whole historic period [1] for the most part had the direction of human history, although not always in the same degree.

But there are, even during the historical era, certain, what Kautsky would call “ideological” formations, which can in no way be derived from the economic conditions. To give au example: The history of philosophy in its three principal divisions, of antiquity (from Thales to the neo-Platonists), the middle ages (Scholasticism), modern times (Descartes to Hegel) can in its main outlines in no way be traced back to economic conditions. Although the practical application of philosophical systems and ideas can be partially explained from those facts, we have nevertheless in the main to deal with an evolution in the realm of thought, as can be very easily proved. If Kautsky means to say that philosophy was only then able to flourish, after that civilisation, consequently economic life, was far enough developed to allow that a certain number of people should have sufficient leisure to employ themselves with speculative ideas, that would be a statement no one could take any exception to, but it would clearly be only a negative condition of the appearance of philosophy and not a positive cause of the origin of philosophy in general, let alone of the contents of the same at any given period. If Kautsky further asks, how the original germs of philosophical ideas have arisen, I answer through observation of the operations of external nature and the human mind, the analysis of the conditions of knowledge and consciousness generally. I should much like to read an explanation of but one of the main divisions of philosophy, for example Plato and Aristotle, or gent to Hegel, from one of the neo-Marxists.

Kautsky asks why does it happen that the modern Greeks have produced no Aristotle, no Pericles, &c., in other words why modern Greece is different from ancient; he is of opinion that in reality only the economic conditions have changed, thereby he ignores everything which does not agree with his theory, as for example, that a race, just as happens with individuals, can get old; secondly, the fact of the mixture of races; thirdly, that a large period of the historical development of humanity, not exclusively economic, has taken place in the meantime. All these factors have co-operated in Greece as elsewhere. The Greek spirit, literary, philosophic, and artistic, was manifestly exhausted, long before any real alteration in the methods of production and exchange had taken place. If this exhaustion could be brought into connection with any social factor it would be rather of a political or a religious kind than an economic. Loss of political independence, and the introduction of oriental ideas, and later of Christianity, can well have contributed a great deal to hasten the decay. Moreover, a great many races have passed through Greece, all of whom have left traces behind – Goths, Slavs, Normans, Catalonians, Venetians, and Turks, of whom also many, especially Slavs, have settled there and become quite absorbed in the previous population. The modern Greek is ethnically quite another being to the ancient. Finally, Kautsky, as stated, ignores in his zeal the entire concrete historic development, intellectual, political, and ethical, as well as economic, which has taken place between the ancient and the modern worlds.

The extreme Marxists are, like eels, difficult to get hold of; now they show themselves as holders of quite a harmless commonplace, then again as the champions of a speculative theory which seems so bold in its one-sidedness that one can scarcely believe that it is seriously meant. The importance of the economic basis for the historical development is, as I have said, denied by no one, let alone a Socialist with any knowledge of history; but to assert that it and it alone is, so to say, the exclusive causal agent in history, contradicts the whole course of historical facts. When one, for the sake of conciseness, ventures to express their theory “in slightly different language,” then our extreme friends assert that we have misinterpreted them. I have spoken of “Thought-Reflex,” and Kautsky makes a great fuss over it; and yet Engels has often used the expression “psychological reflex of economic processes,” and it appears to me quite apt, despite Kautsky’s objections. With our extreme Marxists one must, as Hamlet says, “speak by the card, or equivocation will undo us.” I can only say that if the materialist conception of history does not signify that which I have said – namely, the thought-reflex of economic conditions in the social consciousness – then it means nothing more than the colourless platitude that for human existence and activity a material basis is required. If one applies this to the individual, it would run something like this: If the poet gets nothing to eat, he must cease to make poems. This most important principle would, however, contribute very little to an explanation of the poetic qualities of a Shakespeare or a Goethe. Such banality, however, I do not ascribe to comrades Kautsky, Mehring, and Plechanoff. Therefore I stick to my concise definition, which seems to me to correspond to the ideas of Kautsky, so far as I know them.

And now let us consider a concrete case of the application by Kautsky of the methods of Marx. Kautsky asserts is his History of Socialism that the whole dispute over the question of the Sacrament in the Hussite wars was simply a “cloak” under which the class struggles of that time were fought out. Now, we will take for granted (it being of no consequence whether in this special case it is historically true or not) that the disputants really believed firmly in the Christian dogma. Now I ask what the word “cloak” in this connection means. That at the same time the class struggles played a part in the formation of the character of the time (Enstehung des gesammten Zeitbildes) is self-evident, but if the phrase “cloak” has any meaning it must be this, that the question of the cup [i.e., the custom of the Catholic Church to refuse the cup to laymen in the administration of the sacrament. – Translator’s note], i.e., the theological belief of that time, had no independent force in determining the action of those who played a part; in short, if the expression of Kautsky is to mean anything at all, then it can only mean the following: either the belief was sincere and real or a conscious or unconscious hypocrisy as such beliefs mostly are to-day; only in the last case can one with good right talk of a “cloak.” Altogether it seems to me that the “economic conditions” of a period play much the same role in the neo-Marxist school – as one may well call them – which the thing in itself (Ding an sich) plays in the Kantian philosophy. Even in the rare cases where the economic relations have played a really unimportant part must the economic development be dragged in as the sole cause of the whole. There is a scholastic maxim, “Entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem” (Things [beings] are not to be multiplied beyond what is necessary), that applies to a certain extent in this case, especially if we alter the sentence slightly, so that it rung, “Causae non sunt multiplicandae praeter necessitatem” (Causes are not to be multiplied beyond what is necessary), since even when a psychological explanation of a certain historical event is absolutely sufficient, even then the neo-Marxists postulate a hidden influence of the economic facts.

Kautsky accuses me of confusing the historical development with “the whole of human life.” Certainly, I assert that one has the right to demand from a complete theory of historical development that it shall afford a sufficient explanation of the whole of human life, or at least be in a position to give guidance in that direction, seeing that the whole of human life develops itself in history. Further, he accuses me of the “enormity” of confusing “material interests” with “material conditions,” but I find that in the application of the materialist conception of history these two ideas cover very much the same thing. In fact, what are the great class struggles which play such a large part in the materialist conception of history? What are they but the struggles of various classes over their opposed “material interests”? Besides this, Kautsky would, in his History of Socialism, explain the rapid spread of Christianity in the lower sections of the society of that time by the practice of almsgiving on the part of the well-to-do believers; what is falsely described as Christian Socialism. The material conditions which have determined history can unquestionably be traced in most cases to the material interests of peoples or classes; therefore I consider the indignation of Kautsky over my “enormity” somewhat exaggerated. Further, he accuses me “of having denied to the materialists any of the finer impulses of the human soul”; where he has found that in my article, I do not know, and I do not consider it exactly fair on his part to ascribe idiocy to me which I have nowhere written, and which never occurred to me. Such devices seem to me beneath the dignity of a scientific criticism. I simply express my doubt whether the method in question as explained by Kautsky can sufficiently explain such phenomena.

No one can demand that anyone should allow himself to be put off with mere phrases when the question is important and unsolved problems. If the neo-Marxists are not able to give a good account of them, I have the right to charge them with neglect of universally known facts (not phrases). It is possible that the Middle ages could not live from Catholicism, or the ancient world from politics; it is also possibly just as true that a poet cannot live from his poetry, but requires a public who recognise him, so that it becomes possible for him to eat and drink; but that does not sufficiently explain his special poetic gift, although I readily allow that by means of an exact enquiry it might be possible to prove that the potatoes, &c., eaten had an influence on the production of his thought. It is simply a petitio principii to say, that the method in which they gained their living, explains why here politics, and there Catholicism played the principal role; the controversy hinges on the questions whether the method in which they acquired their living suffices to explain the rôles which politics, and Catholicism – the one at one period, the other at the other have played.

To the, as it seems to me, one-sided conception of history of the extreme Marxists I oppose my “improved method” as follows: – Kautsky asserts that the economic conditions are the only variable element in human development; all the rest are, by themselves, constant or change in consequence of changes in the first. I say, on the contrary, that in the totality of the human development (since human life is continually developing) two principal factors are contained. First, a psychological motive power, which is determined by its original direction, and by influences of various kinds, among others by reflection, by observation of and impulses from the outer world. This motive force is, nevertheless, taken by itself, variable, and is generally hindered and brought to a standstill by outside influence; it recovers from the check which it received through the external conditions, only gradually, even when it is subjected to contrary influences. Secondly, as the most important of these outside influences during the historical period, the mode of life, i.e., the economic conditions, of classes and of peoples. But that has not always been equally the case. Even the psychological impulse has often found support elsewhere. The action and reaction of both these two factors forms historical evolution; it is possible from certain points of view to treat them separately. Each has up to a certain point an independent development, but regarded as a whole they appear as mutually completing each other in their interaction. The independence and the reciprocal action of these factors both play their part in the historical drama. Kautsky reproaches me with looking on the changes in the “psychological motive force” at the commencement of Christianity as a consequence of the “psychological motive force,” which (and here appears a sample of Kautsky’s humour), “like Munchausen, draws itself out of the mire by its own hair and goes its own way.” That sounds very funny, certainly; nevertheless, I assert that in the psychological element just as clearly an independent development can be to a certain extent proved, as in the economic conditions of society. Both form, up to a certain degree, their own chains of cause and effect; on the other hand, both stand also in interaction with each other in every concrete historical case. In any case the direction of primitive Christianity was not, as Kautsky asserts, a new one, but it is possible to trace signs of it far back into the earlier stages of thought of the Jewish and Grecian spirit.

Kautsky’s wit, which drags its way like a funeral march through the whole article, reaches its climax in the concluding remarks over two passages which he quotes from Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome. Here Kautsky thinks he has made a discovery which will crush me; I can only say that I am in a position to justify both these passages. In general, I agree readily with Kautsky and his friends that the alteration in the English temper at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries is to be traced to the economic revolution which took place then. But there are certain characteristics of the English Protestant movement, which on the Continent, although a similar revolution obtained in the economic conditions – even if this in many localities took place somewhat later – have nowhere shown themselves to anything like the same degree. Where on the Continent does one find the English Sunday, the dogma of the wickedness of dancing, of the theatre, or reading novels? All these peculiarities are not to be explained through a general formula; accordingly, I made the modest suggestion that the Puritanism from which these sprung could somehow or another be traced back to the peculiarity of the mixture of races which produced the English people.

Kautsky thinks that he has discovered another confusion when he says that I, “in that I take the material interest of the individuals as equivalent to the economic foundations of society, change the first, therefore selfishness, into an external factor working on men which is distinguished from the inner psychological factor.” To that I have to reply that I have, throughout, not occupied myself with the material interests of individuals, but simply with the material interests of classes; when the word “individuals” is used that is an interpolation from the side of friend Kautsky. I call the direct influence of the economic conditions on men the external factor; on the other hand, I describe as the inner factor the effect produced by an idea which springs directly from psychological reflection; this inner reflection does not require to have been excited directly by any economic conditions, but the resulting idea may arise from the analysis of the conditions of consciousness in general or through observation of the processes of nature. If Kautsky flings in my face that the application of the expression “outer” and “inner” is arbitrary, I can only point to the fact that many expressions one uses in scientific discussions suffer under a certain arbitrariness. I maintain that the expressions “inner” and “outer” are sufficiently plain when one is not on the look-out for quibbles.

In concluding my reply, I may once more expressly say how highly I esteem the materialist conception of history as an inspiring method, and how much I value Kautsky’s writings; the fact that I criticise the theory does not mean that I think at all “meanly” of the conception or those who hold it. If my expressions have called forth this impression, it was certainly not intentional on my part.

With a certain amount of difficulty I have obtained at last a copy of the third volume of the Neue Zeit, where the two articles which Kautsky refers to in his contribution are contained. I consider them quite excellent. The first shews almost the same train of thought that I had followed in an article which appeared in Justice, 1884. I have treated the question at greater length in my essay, Universal History from the Socialist Standpoint which was first, if I am not mistaken, published in the magazine Time in the year 1886. Both, somewhat revised, are contained in my book Religion of Socialism. An article on the Evolution of Ethics which appeared about the same time in the Neue Zeit comprised also something similar. I mention these writings only to show that even the so highly-ridiculed by Kautsky Baxian conception of history can show results which are very unlike those of the High Priest of the neo-Marxian school. The second article from Kautsky is undoubtedly original, clever, and, so far as it goes, also very true. The carrying out of the same leaves my position absolutely untouched. Attention is called in it to the economic and social conditions of that time which afforded a favourable ground for the bringing to expression of ideas that had arisen far earlier in the East and the Graeco-Roman world, and which clearly can be traced back to other ideas which had a still earlier origin. The essence of the matter is contained in the fact that it is not possible either to explain world-historical ideas as the result of purely economic facts, or to trace back economic and political institutions to purely ideologic causes. The first blunder is made, in my opinion, by the neo-Marxist, the second by the old ideological writers of history. Against the last the materialist conception of history has an easy task; with the “world-known” phrases it wins an easy victory. But the neo-Marxian writers do not see that they apply the same category as their opponents, namely, that of cause and effect, and that this category is in the last resort not applicable. The true category of historical research is, namely, that of “action and reaction” (Wechselwirkung). Political and economic institutions are, taken by themselves, no independent whole, which could function as cause, but they are the dependent parts of a whole. By themselves they are nothing. Economic formations make history only in connection with human mind and will; by that is said, that the neo-Marxist. conception of history is wrong in so far as it seeks to reduce human history to economy as the only determining factor. Excogitated little jokes over the deeper meaning of the “Baxian methods of writing history” are not sufficient to dispose of this truth.


1. In the Neue Zeit, p.6, is a misquotation: Human Society (Gesellschaft), instead of History (Geschichte).



1*. This article is a response to Kautsky’s critique of an article on historical materialism that Bax had written for the for the Viennese weekly Die Zeit.


Last updated on 23.11.2005