E. Belfort Bax

The economical theory of history

(July/October 1905)

From Social Democrat, Vol.9 no.10, 15 October 1905, pp.589-597.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


Since the time when the world began to think scientifically on history at all (as opposed to theologically, regarding history as the puppet-show of a deus ex machina), two theories of the determining causes of social development have held the field. It has been either assumed that all historical and social phenomena are ultimately reducible to the speculative beliefs at the basis of the religion of a society, the political forms, the moral and intellectual influences of individual clever men who have appeared in it, etc. (the eighteenth century idea), or it has been assumed that all these things are simply the “Ueberbau,” the superstructure, built upon the foundation of the material, or more especially the economic, life of society (the modern Socialist view of Marx and Engels). According to this latter doctrine, political forms, religion, art, science, philosophy, all are simply the reflex, near or remote, of the modes of the production and distribution of the wealth of society. The problem of the theory of history therefore, in the last resort, is identical with the problem of the progressive changes in the production and distribution of wealth. Every event, and every department of human interests, can be shown to ultimately rest on the economic structure of society and the modifications it is undergoing.

Now the first of these general theories is still prevalent with the bourgeois historian, notwithstanding the fact that its inadequacy becomes daily more apparent, while the second dominates the Socialist thought of the day. Addressing oneself to Socialists, it is hardly necessary to dilate on the inadequacy of the first theory mentioned, but it may, perhaps, be worth while to consider whether it is not possible that the second theory, which we all admit to contain such a large measure of truth, may not also be inadequate, per se, to the complete explanation of the entire system of human life; whether, in fact, in discarding the older theory, we have not perhaps performed the dialectical feat known in Germany as emptying out the baby with the bath.

A nervous horror has been engendered among Socialist thinkers of the “ideological,” i.e., of admitting anything as a causal value in history otherwise than the economical. Certain of our friends would like, I think, if they could, to treat the axioms and postulates of mathematics, or the laws of mechanics, as the reflex of the mode of production dominant in the time of Euclid, of Archimedes, &c., but most of us are belated enough to have some misgivings as to whether the relations of the angles of a triangle, or even say whether the first law of motion, can be shown to have its origin in any mode of social production. And, mind you, if you give up the absoluteness of your theory at one point, you give up its absoluteness altogether.

Again, religious belief is reduced by the economic theory of history to a reflex of economic conditions. But let us not forget that where a belief is vital – i.e., is really held by vast masses of men – its effect on the social as on the individual consciousness in determining the direction of will-power and hence of material progress, may be equally great with that deducible from an economic cause. To a world that believes that this life has no significance save as a preparation for a life after death, it is obvious that life will assume quite a different complexion, and the motive power determining change will be speculative and not economical – primarily, that is – for it is perhaps impossible to find any historical event which is not influenced to some extent by material considerations. The efforts of the champions of the unilateral economic view (as I may term it), to get over such considerations as the foregoing are more startling than edifying. Even Marx himself did not show up always favourably in this connection. For example, a review of Marx’s Capital, by an American writer, if I mistake not, while accepting the dominance of the economic factor to-day and since the advent of modern capitalism, demurred to it as regards the Middle Ages and classical antiquity. In the Middle Ages, it said, you had the fundamentals of Christian dogma as the dominant motive power of human events, in antiquity the religion of the “ancient city.” Now, whether we endorse the above view or not, the answer of Marx to the criticism is significant. Kautsky relates that Marx had a pencil note in the margin of his copy of the review in question as follows: “But they could not eat Catholicism in the Middle Ages nor city politics in Greece or home.” That Marx should not see that the above reply was a mere begging of the question is scarcely credible. The whole point of the criticism was that the material conditions of life need not be in all ages equally dominant, and Marx, according to Kautsky, answers by a weak petito principii. Of course, we all know mankind must eat to live, but not only is the quality and quantity of what he can live on infinitely varied, but it by no means follows that what he eats, or for that matter, his material conditions of life generally, should be at all times and places the most potent determinants of his actions, and hence of any given course of human events. That, as a rule, it has been so in history I readily admit, but I deny the necessity, nay, I deny that it has in all cases been so even in history. But not only do the fanatics of the unilateral Marxian doctrine deny the determining power of ideal influences on the course of social evolution, but they would even deny any other material influence than the economic. For example, in a recent number of the Neue Zeit Kautsky falls foul of the Vienna Arbeiterzeitung for assuming the existence of what to most of us is an obvious fact – viz., a special race temperament (in the case in question that of the Slavs). Says Kautsky, in effect, this is a damnable heresy. There is no such thing as a special race temperament. The history of Russian popular movements, for instance, is determined solely by the fact that there is a peasant population of 80 per cent., and a small intellectual class and city proletariat. This peasant class presents all the characteristics that a similar class presents anywhere else. But in Western countries the class itself is much smaller, and the conditions of its life are modified by other factors. Therefore, it does not, as in Russia, play such a leading rule as a class. In a word, race-character is reducible simply and solely to the conditions of life, economically, of the race – i.e., the particular stage in economic evolution under which it exists. No one conversant with the subject will deny the measure of truth contained in this view, but is it sufficient to account for the whole facts of race difference? I think not.

The truth is, any attempt to reduce the complex process of history, or for that matter any other process within the real world, to a single element of the process is hopeless. We cannot exhaust the meaning of human evolution, any more than the meaning of any other reality, within the limits of a single one-sided formula. If we do so, we have lost touch with reality altogether, and are hugging an abstraction .in its place. But the complex whole of history may be, I take it, reduced to two fundamental elements or factors from both of which combined (though the part played by each respectively may vary greatly) the whole detail of the process is deducible. These two elements are – (1) What I might term in popular phraseology the external or material factor, and (2) the internal or psychological factor. The determination of social progress by this external factor is mainly, though not entirely, deducible, especially during the historical period, to the conditions under which the wealth of society is produced and distributed-in a word, to the economical conditions prevailing therein. The second or psychological factor embraces the whole processes of the human mind, in perception, reflection, and impulse. Neither of these two elements can be eliminated or reduced the one to the other each follows up to a certain point a determinate causal order of its own, but they are, nevertheless, in a continuous process of reciprocal interaction. There is no such thing as a history determined by the minds of great men alone, as Carlyle thought, or even by the speculative beliefs held by the bulk of a given society alone, as the old-school historians thought ; but then, neither is there a history solely determined by the causation of external circumstances as embodied in the methods and principles of economic production and distribution, as some of our friends, in their reaction from the old view, would contend to-day. There are, however, periods and events, where one or other of these factors is so preponderant over tile other in determining the course of things as to reduce, for practical purposes, the influence of the antithetic factor to the minimum.

During the historical period, i.e., the period of civilisation, as already said, the economic factor has in the main, been incontestably the salient one, although there have been sporadic epochs and events where this does not hold. In general we see a progressively-determining influence of the economic factor as we advance towards modern times. This influence is accelerated in proportion as we approach the zenith of modern capitalism with its new conditions, the great industry and all which that implies. In this last epoch the economic side of human affairs becomes so colossally preponderant as to dwarf everything else into insignificance. What I may term the psychological spontaneity of human nature is so reduced as to convey the appearance of its being no more than the slave of the current methods of production, distribution and exchange. But throughout history it is also easy to distinguish special pieces of progress which have, nevertheless, vastly modified the current of development, in which the causal factor has been, to all intents and purposes, purely economic, so minimal has been the psychological element in its determination. Human will and thought appear to have little or no significance with regard to it. In this way, especially, the progress of production, in many of its stages, appears to move mechanically from one step to another as if driven by an internal principle of its own. As an instance, we may take the well-known case, cited by Adam Smith, of the boy, “who loved to play with his fellows,” and who invented, to save himself the trouble of turning a handle, an automatic contrivance by which he was relieved of this drudgery. From this simple circumstance, we may say, the steam-engine, as a workable machine, dates its origin. Thus, out of the mere playful instincts of a child, in the absence of any intention or thought of ulterior result, an economic revolution began. Again, the individual capitalist of the present day is compelled to toe the pace with the main current of industrial and commercial development, whether he will or no, on pain of going under in the process. This counts with us, and justly, as an excuse for the individual capitalist. Before this mechanical-seeming juggernaut we are all of us aware, the conscious intentions of men are impotent.

On the other hand, however, if there are certain processes of economical development which seem to come about without the co-operation of human will, or definitely-directed intelligence – to follow, in fact, a one-sided, mechanical causation of their own – so there are certain other processes of intellectual development which similarly appear to accomplish themselves without any appreciable influence of economic or other external factors. For the latter I would instance the history of philosophy-i.e., the development of reasoned speculation upon, and analysis of, the world-order as the content of conscious experience. Here, in the domain of pure philosophy (as opposed to the more concrete departments of ethics, philosophy of nature, of law, of history, etc.), the development is mainly, if not entirely, a purely intellectual one, following its own causal series, and not influenced – appreciably at any rate – by anything outside itself. A further illustration might be taken from the history of pure (as opposed to applied) science, the type of which is to be found in Mathematics. In debating this subject with Kautsky some years ago, on my instancing mathematics as a science not deducible, in its various stages, from contemporary economic conditions, I was confronted with the following quotation from Engels: “Like all other sciences, mathematics has arisen from the (material) needs of men, from the measurements of land, and of cubic contents, from mechanics, and the reckoning of time.” Now, be it observed, in this passage we have quite a crass confusion between the subject matter of the science itself and the impelling reasons that first led men to undertake its investigation. The point really is that the conceptions which the human intellect formulated, as regards the science, were not determined from without by any economical or other considerations, but by reflection on the intrinsic character of the content of the science itself. We are none of us concerned to deny that the stimulus to undertake different departments of scientific investigation may have come from material needs or generally be traceable to economic circumstances. Necessity, as is well recognised, is the mother of invention, and often of scientific investigation as well. Neither are we prepared to deny that, in its indirect influence on the progress of knowledge – through the creation of a leisured and cultured class – economic circumstance has played an important part. But once more I insist that the progress of every abstract science itself means reflection on, and the intellectual elaboration of, its subject-matter, undisturbed by external influences, economic or other. It is only by the elimination of such disturbing influences as are embraced under economic conditions that pure science really progresses at all.

The point of view here indicated in a few words is what I term the Synthetic Conception of History, as opposed, on the one side, to the extreme economical theory of Kautsky and other modern Marxists, and, on the other, to the old ideological theory. Viewing history as a whole, we find that, in the main, progress, and, indeed, all change, implies ab initio the reciprocal interaction of the material and psychological factors. One of these can never be resolved into the other, or completely deduced from the other. The analogy of an economic foundation and an intellectual superstructure is inexact. How impossible it is to seriously defend the one-sided materialist position is sufficiently shown, I think, in the controversy between Kautsky and myself in the Neue Zeit before-mentioned, whereas those who have read it will remember – Kautsky was continually shifting his ground, now insisting upon a narrow and rigorous interpretation of the Marxian formula, now declaring the same formula to include all that I was contending for – according, of course, to the special case with which he was confronted. In this he seemed to forget that, if the latter assertion were true, and the Marx theory were identical with my own, it ceases to be materialistic in any accurate sense of the word, while, if the former be true and it remains materialistic, it fails, ex hypothesi, as an adequate explanation of social evolution.

Only, as I contend, in the frank recognition of the dual nature of the one great fact to be explained, namely, the evolution of human society, can we attain to a scientifically adequate view, not only of the whole ensemble of historic development, but to a satisfactory explanation of any historical period, or even of any distinct event or series of events in the complex dynamics of human society. When we cease to recognise this we are pursuing a plausible (perhaps) but a treacherous ignis-fatuus which has already been responsible for more than one false conclusion in Socialist theory.



Last updated on 29.2.2004