E. Belfort Bax

The Aims and Limitations of the
Materialist Conception of History

(January 1903)

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. 7. No. 1, January 1903, pp. 32–43.
First Published: Neue Zeit 1896–7, Jahrg. XV, 21.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
This is a continuation of the discussion with Kautsky who wrote in the issues of October, November and December.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (November 2011).

To answer a criticism of my thesis, which embraces three articles of the Neue Zeit, in one limited article, is evidently difficult. I am naturally forced to limit my reply to such points as appear to me most important. Thereby it remains always open to an opponent to say I was unable to refute certain arguments as I did not touch them. I only refer to these difficulties to forestall any possible reproaches in this sense.

Kautsky’s articles, The Aims and Limits of the Materialist Conception of History, contain three principle arguments: 1. The attempt to convict me of inaccuracy. 2. To prove, what I never contested, that in all stages of historical development the economic factor has played a very important part. 3. To justify the making of the economic factor alone decisive in certain cases where I had pointed out the insufficiency of the method to explain historical structures in their totality.

Let us turn for a moment to the personal accusations of inaccuracy, &c. As far as the word “cloak” is concerned, I am obliged – although I may, by the way, remark that I am still convinced that I have read this word used in this connection somewhere by Kautsky – to confess that my memory has served me a bad turn when I applied the word to the Lay Cup and the Hussites. Unfortunately at that time I had to rely on my memory, as no copy of the History of Socialism was at my disposal. In this case I grant Kautsky his triumph. But even if we put “standard” in the place of “cloak” the sense of my criticism remains unaltered. The question shapes itself thus: Let us say an influential nobleman had come into the camp of the Hussite rebels in order to lend them his advice and influence under the plea of his full belief in the matter of the Lay Cup but with express repudiation of the social demands of the Hussites. Now, would he have been accepted or rejected by the majority of those concerned? If, as I believe, he would have been accepted, that ought, I think, to prove that this stupid theological question nevertheless was more than a mere standard. If he had been, however, rejected, then we might concede Kautsky to be probably right in this case.

Interests and conditions are naturally not identical, but, as I have said, regarded as a source of historical movements, the two ideas imply pretty much the same thing. The interest of a rising class forces on a further development in the conditions of production and exchange in a corresponding direction, just as much as the reverse. Economic conditions always form class interests, but class interests on the other hand are just as much formed by economic conditions. We have here again a case of reciprocal action. If I cannot work that all out as clearly as I could had I more space I must nevertheless say that I consider Kautsky’s indignation over my “absolutely monstrous confusion,” to say the least, somewhat exaggerated. The latter leads me to refer to what Kautsky has to say about my “abbreviations” and “inaccuracy.” If I had had three articles at my disposal I could have explained my thesis in a fitting manner. But Kautsky the disputant seems to forget that Kautsky the editor begged me – and with full justice – to show praiseworthy brevity, in that he requested me not to exceed a certain number of pages. Otherwise, instead of talking about the exhaustion of the Greek Spirit, I should have said something about “the decline of the Greek civilisation in its creative and even self-supporting activity at once in the regions of national economy, of politics, of philosophy, mathematics, religion, art and literature.” If I had availed myself of this prosaic, but somewhat tedious method of expression for the fact of the exhaustion, I should have presumably spared myself, probably in this case, at least, the censure of Kautsky; whether, however, the worthy readers of the Neue Zeit would have been very much more edified by this greater accuracy, I should much doubt.

I cannot avoid expressing my regret that Kautsky, if I may be allowed to say so, is so fond of occupying himself with hair-splitting. In the first article he fell foul of my expression, “Thought-reflex in the social consciousness” (of the economic conditions). Why, may I ask, does he not attack Engels, when he says of religion that it is the “fantastic reflection in the minds of men of the external forces which control their every-day life” – or Marx, when he in a well-known locus classicus says “that distinct forms of social consciousness correspond to the totality of the circumstances of production of a Society?” If Marx or Engels talk of reflection or forms of consciousness, the good Kautsky passes it by; but when I dare to do a similar thing, he finds the method of expression highly confused and incomprehensible.

Again, Kautsky rather mounts the high horse in respect of the accusation which he hurls in my teeth, that I had misinterpreted the problem raised in his first article concerning ancient and modern Greece with reference to Pericles and Aristotle. But what said Kautsky? (Neue Zeit, No. 47, Jahrg. XIV., p.655) – “But has the human organism its power of thought, its esthetic capacity, & c., noticeably altered in the historical period? Certainly not. The brain power of an Aristotle is certainly scarcely surpassed, just as little the aesthetic capacity of the ancients. What has otherwise changed in the outer world? Nature? Also not. Over Greece the same blue sky smiles, as in the time of Pericles. But the society has altered, i.e., in the last resort the economic circumstances. And so far as nature and men have changed, it is under the influence of the economic circumstances.”

And what do I say? (Neue Zeit, No. 6, Jahrg. XV, p. 172) – “Kautsky, asks why, if that is so, 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.” Now I put it to anyone who reads the two questions whether the problem of Kautsky is really “something quite different to the question mentioned by Bax.” To say it is a different question because it is not given literally in the same words is certainly somewhat strong. One might believe that in the words of Kautsky, like those of Holy Writ, there lay a magic power. If the question, which he has put, is not equivalent to the problem why the modern Greeks have produced no Pericles or Aristotle, what does it mean otherwise? It seems to me in any case that hair-splitting could not be carried farther. I must also repeat that it seems to me beneath the dignity of a scientific discussion, and beneath the natural dignity of a Kautsky to spend so much time with such small trivialities and the exaggeration of microscopic differences in the formulating of sentences. Kautsky ought to be capable of defending his cause with brilliancy and dignity, without being obliged to take refuge in such dodges (I cannot call them anything else), since with one exception already mentioned, all Kautsky’s accusations of inaccuracy, &c., rest on such.

We come now to the more pleasant consideration of the contents of Kautsky’s article. I must here in the first place urgently point out that I am no opponent of the materialist conception of history. A well-known follower of the Kautsky school said to me it struck him as more reasonable if my critique had been directed against the method itself. That I can very well understand. The method, within its own boundaries, remains so impregnable, that if I had undertaken to attack it itself, Kautsky would have certainly been able to polish me off in one article in a manner which now he has not achieved in three. No, what I attack is not the method itself, but the exaggeration of the method, by which it is attempted to force from it an exhaustive explanation in regions where it is only in the position to give a partial explanation. So far as Kautsky expressly recognises the influence of the individual as of equal value with the economic processes in the historical evolution, he has already made a step to overcome the one-sidedness of his position (if one may judge by certain of his historical utterances), a one-sidedness which if possible comes even more to expression in the writings of Mehring and Plechanoff. When he now allows that the individual can, to a small extent, not only hasten or retard a given development, but can in a creative manner contribute in guiding the development, he makes a big step in my direction.

On the other hand, I cannot allow Kautsky to be right, when he says, that the question “whether and how the idea can influence society, coincides with the question whether and how this is possible in the individual.” In the space at my disposal I cannot set out my reasons fully, still I will call Kautsky’s attention to the fact that an idea very often works quite differently on the mass to what it does on individuals. The expression “spirit of the age,” even if frequently a mere literary phrase, still has its significance. There exists, without doubt, in society as a whole, a spirit, which, although based on the individual temperament, is yet a different product and cannot be deduced from the sum of those temperaments. A similar observation has often been made in mass meetings, and other like social phenomena. Concerning the importance of this fact I might have something to say on another occasion.

What is actually to be understood by the phrase “the idea is simply a function of the brain,” I do not know, considering that the brain and its functions, together with the whole objective world, as known by us, consists of nothing but impressions of consciousness, gathered up under certain determinations or, if one will, “ideas.” In other words, the idea, from one side regarded, forms an essential element in the object itself (Universalia in rebus). The picture of Munchausen and his hare seems to me really better in this place to fit Kautsky, than in the other place where Kautsky applies it to me.

It is simply an awkward and philosophically effete form of materialism which asserts that thought is a brain function. Thought is thought, and brain function is brain function, to all eternity. What materialism really means is, that objectively regarded as quality of a psychological substance, thought is to be looked on as indissolubly associated with a particular form of matter. In philosophy friend Kautsky seems to have lost his keen sense of “accuracy.”

Kautsky will not allow that even to a certain extent economic circumstances and human intellect can each form their own chains of cause and effect. His principal argument against me consists in a repetition of his celebrated joke, of which he seems to be very proud, anent Munchausen and his hare. I cannot, however, allow that a simple joke, be it never so good, can rank as valid proof in a scientific discussion. Certainly, it does not seem to me to fit in this case. Munchausen or not, it is only too clear that an idea, or a system of ideas, can relate to other ideas, or systems of ideas, as a cause, and that it does so in the development of humanity. As an example of this I have given the history of philosophy, and thereby, also, even certain distinct periods, as a proof. Now, what says Kautsky? Instead of proving that the history of philosophy, in all its main ideas, is to be deduced from the economic circumstances, he speaks of all sorts of interesting subjects concerning natural science (which does not belong to philosophy proper at all) and social science. As far as the first is concerned, he taunts me with using the expression “observation of the proceedings of external nature,” because, he says, with simple observation one does not get far. Now, really, Kautsky had no need to take the phrase in its narrowest significance. I assume in my readers so much goodwill and common-sense that they understand a word or a sentence in its most appropriate and not in its, for the context, most inappropriate significance. Naturally the expression employed by me did not exclude experiment, but I had in my mind all methods of induction which, in the last resort, after all, rest on the observation of natural processes.

He asks, further, why I have not dealt with the application of philosophy to society? I answer, from the same reason that I have only shortly touched on natural science. My object was to lay before Kautsky a case of a thought-evolution (not of thought-revolution, as the so-exact Kautsky has three times falsely quoted) which could not be deduced from material causes. Natural and social science are, however, both evidently fields of knowledge, most closely bound up with the material and, more especially, economic development. I have expressly spoken of the principal problems of philosophy (e.g., of the theory of knowledge, the analysis of the forms of consciousness, the meaning of reality in general). There I gave as an example the development of philosophy from Descartes to Hegel as a test. To my request Kautsky has not replied at all, but has made great efforts to prove the close connection between technical and scientific progress and between existing social forms and the theories of law and society, which are at the time in the ascendant – in other words, with matters which I, at least, have never disputed and would never dispute. As Hyndman, on the occasion of the appearance of the articles in question, very rightly wrote to me, the most of what Kautsky says “we can both well accept.” “But,” he adds, “it seems to me he (Kautsky) passes over the most important points which have been raised, and applies his own theories falsely.” Hyndman then gives pure mathematics in its different stages of development as a striking example of an abstract science, in whose development technical progress and economic conditions have played little or no part. But as I am no mathematician, I will not dwell any further on that. In any case, Kautsky has not taken up my challenge concerning the history of philosophy.

As in thought-evolution, so in many cases of economic evolution. One might almost say that it develops itself mechanically, without any evident interference of the conscious human intelligence, in the essentials of the process. Naturally that is relatively speaking in both cases. As I have expressed myself, “the independence of the causal chain only applies to a certain extent.”

No one has pointed out more expressly than the writer of these lines, that hitherto during the whole of human history the economic circumstances have been the “master” and the intellect the “servant,” to speak with Kautsky. I only lay stress on the fact that this relation is no final one, but that the end of capitalist society will at the same time be its end. In a developed Socialistic society will the economic conditions once and for all be made a servant of the human intellect and will. I think that Kautsky will scarcely dispute that Engels also shared this opinion.

The objections to my demand from an historical method, that it ought “to furnish an adequate explanation of the whole 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,” cause me small discomfort. The “mild” doubts of Kautsky produce a very “mild” effect on me. They run thus: “The functions of the human organism, digestion, conception and child birth, &c., belong also to a certain extent to the totality of human life; no one, however, will assert that they have developed themselves in history.” To that I can well answer: the functions of the human organism quoted here, digestion, conception, childbirth, &c., form certainly the animal foundation of human development, but regarded by themselves, one cannot take the functions, which man possesses in common with the animals, as especially pertaining to the subject in hand, to wit, the development of human society as such. When I wrote the statement called in question, I had, obviously, the last particularly in view. Nevertheless, I will not appeal to that. I am quite ready to stand to my guns before Kautsky, and to defend my thesis over against him, even in the sense in which he claims to have understood it. I assert emphatically that the functions of the human organism named have developed themselves during the historical period or at least altered. The theme is very interesting and I would very much like to see it treated from a competent authority in the Neue Zeit, or elsewhere. I content myself here, with pointing out that our modern customs and a part of our modern ethics undoubtedly point to a considerable change of the human organism. Kautsky, as a good materialist, if I were not concerned, would scarcely deny that our modern humane feelings, our sympathy with suffering in general, has for basis an enormous change in our nervous systems as against those of men, let us say, in the Middle Ages. One could bring hundreds of facts which prove the assertion. Naturally, this change has also its shady side. To which, among the modern civilized peoples would it be possible to compare with the less developed nervous system of the people of the Middle Ages or antiquity in contempt of physical pain? Who among us could, like Hieronymus of Prague, sing hymns while he was burnt? That would be physically impossible – except, perhaps, with a very rare lusus naturae – and this is only one example of what formerly occurred daily in different kinds and degrees. As regards digestion, what modern stomach could stand a medieval menu and live? Again, what civilised woman could, as the wild Arabian women do in a caravan procession, give birth to a child, take it on her back, and continue walking? And so on with the other organic functions. Kautsky is certainly in this case, in his zeal against me, untrue to his own materialist principles, since while the refinement of the human organism may often be deduced from changed economic circumstances, also our finer feelings arise just as much from a refinement of the human nervous system. In the face of the facts I have given and similar others, I think Kautsky’s “few mild doubts” ought to become so mild as to quite die away.

Kautsky is naturally right when he says, one must not demand further explanations from a theory than it is itself ready to give. But the principal representatives of the Marxian method remain so silent over the limits of theirs, that it frequently has the appearance that they believe it suffices to explain the whole process. In any case, if it does not do that, it remains only one side of an historical method, which, be it ever so important, requires completion-and the latter is exactly the assertion I have defended through the whole discussion. [1]

The personal accusation of Kautsky in the Greek question, that I had imposed on him a problem which he had never raised, has already been refuted by me. Now we will proceed to discuss the subject itself, and in regard to that I have to say that I can in no way agree to Kautsky’s assertion that the actual decline of the Greek Spirit took place in the fourth century B.C. He confuses here the time of the bloom of the creative activity of Greece with the existence and influence of Greek civilisation on humanity in general. I had simply the last in my eye. I know that it is difficult to define exactly great historical periods. I do not think that I shall go wrong if I say the Greek Spirit, in the widest sense of the word, ruled the higher life of the most advanced section of humanity from about the sixth century B.C. till the sixth century A.D. The actual downfall of the Greek Spirit, the period when it obviously could not maintain itself anywhere near the old level, came in with the beginning of the Byzantine era – i.e., with its crystallisation in old forms, whose living content had long disappeared, and with the final victory of Christianity. To confine the working of the Greek Spirit to the period, about half a century, of Pericles is, in my opinion, pedantic. [2] Therefore, for the problem, as I have conceived it, the migration of the nations did not begin too late to have exercised an influence. If Kautsky wished to confine himself to the so-called period of Pericles, he had naturally every right to do so. But what has he achieved with his solution of the problem, even in this very circumscribed form? He has pointed out the, for the most part, negative conditions under which a series of highly-gifted men grew up. Now I must again repeat that I never disputed that the production of great artists and men of distinguished performances in the intellectual field may be closely bound up with the piling up of wealth, with a commanding political position, and with a quickly developing and brisk social life. That may be perfectly true; it proves, however, nothing more than that an unusually favourable soil was ready, and disappeared later. It gives us no information as to the direction or the method of thought, or anent the forms of art, or finally about the essence of Greek Art in general. Perhaps Kautsky will reply that he has not raised the problem. That I will certainly allow, and in no way deny that the dominating material conditions of that time, even if they cannot exhaustively explain the problem, can, nevertheless, give us valuable information about it. I simply state that the facts brought forward by Kautsky do not do it.

“Does Bax,” says Kautsky, “wish to say that the social organism is an organism in the same sense as an animal, so that the laws of the one are transferable without any further ado to the other?” Certainly not; in many respects, however, the parallel can be fairly exactly drawn, even in the case of old age of a nation. If that does not suit Kautsky’s conception, so much the worse for it. For the rejuvenation of a really worn-out nation there is no historical example. That an historian so well read as our friend Kautsky could champion such a superficial view as he announces in the assertion that the French nation had become senile under Louis XV., only because the upper, and especially court society was somewhat used up, I should have hardly credited. A society which could produce a Voltaire [3], a Helvetius, a Diderot, a D’Alembert, a Condillac, a Bonnet, a Turgot, a Mirabeau, a Bichhât, a Lavoisier, not to mention lesser lights in art as Grétry or Boildieu in music, David or Watteau in painting; a society which a generation previously had seen a Corneille and a Molière, which was the focus of the intellectual movement of the eighteenth century throughout the whole of Europe – such a society I certainly cannot call senile.

That below the court society and the higher officials there was a fresh life, in many circles already fermenting, and in the still lower circles quite ripe to ferment, Kautsky does not notice; a society which in the field of social theory alone already had a big utopian literature to show. (See the section by Karl Hugo on France in the History of Socialism.) Such a society seems to me anything but senile. The apparent rottenness of the state of society at that time, so far as it is at all true, could rather be described as a partial paralysis, a paralysis brought about by its petrified, feudal-bureaucratic forms, and the oppression from above. So soon as these forms were burst and this pressure removed, the nation flourished completely again. If the Kautsky theory of the steel bath were true, this would be a brilliant confirmation of the much decried “psychological motor power,” as an essential factor of progress. But even the “psychological impulse” is no more in a position than the “material conditions” to rejuvenate a really senile society. Both can, however, co-operate as natura medicatrix in the healing of temporary illnesses of the social organism, and this as a matter of fact did occur in the French Revolution. As has been said, the old petrified forms were burst, and the pressure removed through the volcanic influence of the new ideas and an all-devouring enthusiasm, which found a favourable and already matured material soil on which to work. The “psychological motor power” set itself, however, too high aims, aims that rose above the receptive power of the soil, and were either not realisable or were only capable of being temporarily and imperfectly realised by the use of force. Hence the reaction and the later development in accordance with the needs of the prevailing economic circumstances. Therefore, Kautsky will not take it amiss if I repudiate the existence of the fact which he brings forward, namely, the rejuvenation of a really senile nation, and the explanation of which he demands from me, and that in respect of his own example.

Now we come to what is at first sight the most plausible of all Kautsky’s utterances, to his explanation of the peculiarities of English Puritanism and the resulting specific peculiarities of Anglo-Saxon customs in general. As is well known, Puritanism and similar modes of thought were partially spread among the peasant population and everywhere strongly in the small bourgeoisie of the towns at the end of the Middle Ages. Now, says Kautsky, the fact of the peculiarities and relative commonness of these views and, the customs which sprang from them in England are thereby to be explained, that the “democratic classes, small bourgeoisie, peasants, wage-workers” ruled during the Commonwealth (a period which actually can be reckoned at eleven, but at most fifteen years, was certainly a short time to give a nation a moral stamp that has more than maintained itself for close on two and a-half centuries). But did the classes in question really rule? Everyone who knows English history must answer with a decisive “No.” The classes who did rule were a portion of the poorer nobility, but principally the lesser landlords (yeomen and country gentlemen) and the rich merchants and handicraft-masters of the towns. The actual peasants, small bourgeoisie, and wage-workers never attained to mastery, and it was in their ranks that the majority of the Levellers and Fifth Monarchy men, the Diggers and other small sects, were to be found, who at the most succeeded in getting as far as an unsuccessful rising, or a few popular demonstrations, which Cromwell promptly suppressed. Yet the last were the actual English representatives of the “Bohemian Brothers,” the “Anabaptists,” the “Mennonites,” and other similar sects which had formed themselves on the Continent from the same classes. The fact that other more powerful classes also to a great extent embraced Puritanism (since these were the ruling classes during the interregnum, and their Puritanical tendency was in any case in existence before they began to rule) is not explained by Kautsky. The Puritanic tendency which was so much more widely spread in England among all classes than on the Continent, and whose after-effects were so much more striking, that all has to be explained. But, still more, not only was the aforesaid tendency in England more common than elsewhere, it was at the same time more strict and more logical. When and where, e.g., was to be found among the English Puritan population in general, especially the small bourgeois sects, the festal banquets, with the pomp and splendour which distinguished the kingdom of God, in Munster? Such a tendency among the English would certainly have been reckoned as Papist, as heathen, even as blasphemous. Then, again, what English sects would so openly have given themselves up, to carousals and banquetings as the evangelical bands the German peasants permitted themselves at the time of the Peasants’ War (I quote from Germany because, in the matter of serious and respectable life, the Germans are supposed to be most like the English; among the Latin nations one could bring still more glaring instances of the distinction)? Therefore this apparently so brilliant explanation of Kautsky, achieved with the sole aid of the materialist conception of history, according to his interpretation of the word, evinces itself, on nearer examination, as totally fallacious. On the other hand, my suggestion in explanation of the above hitherto unexplained facts – namely, the supposition of some peculiarity of the mixture of races, was not quite so foolish as Kautsky wants to make out. It may be true that the mixture of races was completed in the early Middle Ages, and the aforesaid quality not immediately have made itself particularly noticeable (with the exception of the Lollards). Will Kautsky, however, deny that it is possible that a feature can for a long time remain latent, till it is brought into activity through the combination of external circumstances? That happens frequently in the case of individuals, and I do not see why the supposition should be unreasonable, that it can just as well occur in the case of a nation. Now, the last was my hypothesis. By means of the favourably developed economic soil, as I conjectured, this psychological national peculiarity came to maturity and expression. In any case, whether I was right or wrong, Kautsky’s attempt to explain the fact of the peculiarity and the dissemination of English Puritanical methods of thought and customs, in contrast to those of other nations, by purely economic causes, has come thoroughly to grief.

What now has Kautsky achieved with his three articles against my thesis? He has conceded to me that the “psychological motor power” at least of the individual plays a part in the historical development of humanity. He has further conceded “that economic institutions do not build history except in union with the human intellect and will.” He does that now apparently without ascribing to the last a purely passive rôle. He concedes also further to me, that the original mixture of races may have had something to say in the development of humanity. Therefore it seems to me that our views are not so very divergent after all. With at least three-quarters of what Kautsky writes, I agree. As concerns the remaining quarter, I assert – and I believe I have justified this assertion – that he has nowhere succeeded in confuting my criticism of the extreme school of the materialist conception of history. Certainly he has proved much that nobody has disputed (which is, perhaps, worth doing), thus, among other things, that the most perfect flowers of the Greek Spirit grew on the favourable soil of a quickly developing prosperity. The intellectual greatness of Greece he holds to have been the consequence of this rapid economic development. An ideological historian would certainly have explained the quick economic development from the natural vivacity of the Greek Spirit. I maintain on the other hand that neither of the two is properly speaking the cause of the other, but that both acted and reacted on each other as elements in one concrete development. The assertion that a senile and moribund race could rejuvenate itself, I have, in reference to the very instance so unfortunately chosen by Kautsky, already dealt with. His, to superficial reading, apparently most successful explanation, that of English Puritanism, collapses on nearer inspection. I leave it to the impartial reader to decide what Kautsky in his three articles has proved against me. The answer can hardly be doubtful, it must run (to quote Kautsky): “Nothing, nothing at all,” because the readers of the Neue Zeit will hardly allow themselves to be misled by the brilliant corruscations of Kautsky’s wit into accepting a defective argument. They will, I hope, remember the moral of the history of the restaurant keeper who was in the habit of substituting for roast hare not altogether fresh cat, and replied to the question whether his customers objected, “The meat doesn’t matter, it’s the seasoning as does it.”


1. The word “Ergänzung” (completion) is, I allow, somewhat better than the word “Verbesserung” (improvement or correction) which is used in the first article in the Zeit.

2. The reference Kautsky makes to Pericles and Aristotle I have taken in the sense as the highest types of the Greek Spirit in general – the same spirit which centuries later came to expression in a Plutarch or a Lucian; and in the philosophic and scientific schools of Alexandria – even if in much weaker and less creative a form.

3. I do not give Rousseau, because he, although brought up in France and. French, was born a few kilometres from the French frontier, and I want to be very careful to avoid all chance of a sermon on accuracy from our very accurate friend.

Last updated on 13.11.2011