E Belfort Bax 1906

Dogmatic Historics

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. 10. no. 1, (3,506 words) 15 January 1906, pp. 7-17;
A reply to Theodore Rothstein;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Our friend Rothstein claims that he “has succeeded in showing” that my criticism of one-sided “Marxism” in historical theory is “shallow,” and my views thereupon “crude.” These be brave words, but there may possibly be some among those who have read his article who hold less drastic views of Rothstein’s success than he himself does. On a careful perusal, with the best intentions, of Rothstein’s polemic, I, personally, can find not a single thesis proved, albeit plenty of dogmatic assertion and a luxurious amount of question-begging. The one point in which Rothstein (not to be too hard on him) may be granted a trifling “score,” is in his criticism, to be referred to later on, of one expression of mine, which I am prepared to concede to him was not, perhaps, quite happily chosen.

I must protest, once for all, that, pace Rothstein, I have never as yet laid any claim to be the author of a “new scientific philosophy” (sic) called “synthetic.” The question in hand, I may observe, moreover, is not one of philosophy as such at all, but of the theory of history, or if Rothstein prefers it, the “philosophy” of history. Neither have I claimed “originality” for the view put forward by me. When I “took on” Kautsky on this subject some ten years ago in the “Neue Zeit,” I found that Hyndman had independently reached similar conclusions. (In fact, he it was who first called my attention to the history of mathematics as a crucial refutation of the one-sided Marxian view.) The same is true of Jaurès, who has, if I mistake not, more than once publicly debated the subject. At the same time I hereby challenge Rothstein, not to make good his wild assertion that “this has been said over and over again by all our bourgeois critics” – which would be too much to expect of him – but to give the name of one single bourgeois writer who has stated the matter as I have stated it. If bourgeois historians have reached the same conclusions I congratulate them, only I don’t know who they are.

Naturally my criticism of an impossibly one-sided theory gives Rothstein the opportunity to raise the cheap cry of “eclecticism.” This can always be done under similar circumstances. Aristotle himself, when he criticised the pretensions of the one-sided pre-Socratic thinkers – each of whom had his own special abstract formula as the last word of philosophic wisdom – when he did justice to each by showing its relative truth in the great synthetic system he himself elaborated, might well have been condemned as a vile eclectic, by, let us say, a servile follower of Zeno of Elea or of Herakleitos of Ephesus, respectively. “Eclecticism” in the bad sense means a piecing-together, a patchwork, not an organic unity. What I have pointed out is that history is an organic unity, but that in tracing the causation of events we have, in the last resort, to take account of a double causal series, that of the evolution of material (mainly economic) circumstances on the one hand, and that of the intellectual and emotional side of man on the other. All I have contended is that one of these series cannot be reduced, without remainder over, to the other, albeit the proportional causal efficacy of each as regards the total result, varies. I may here remark that Rothstein plumes himself upon being a Monist, and seems to think that Monism is incompatible with my view. To this I reply, that while myself a Monist in historical theory no less than in philosophy, I recognise in both cases two sorts of Monism, an arid fallacious abstract monism and a fruitful and productive concrete monism. The historical Monism of the extreme Marxists seems to me to belong to the former category.[1]

According to my severe critic, I am not only a base and vile eclectic, but my animadversions display a “total misconception of what historical materialism teaches.” My first sin is that I assume the doctrine in question to offer an explanation of “the entire human life.” All I can say is, that, with all my ignorance of the controversy, I have read enough of the modern epigoni on the subject to be in a position to say that most of them in their expositions of the doctrine speak as though the formula of historical materialism could be made to cover the whole sphere of human thought and action. I am also not unaware that when brought to book, they (e.g., Kautsky in his discussion with me) take refuge in some such caveat as that entered by Rothstein.

My contention and that of those who think with me, is that man attained to natural knowledge essentially through observation of fact (supplemented later on by experiment) and reasoning from fact; to mathematical and philosophical knowledge essentially through reflection on the abstract relations of time, space, and number, and on the conditions presupposed in conscious experience in general. We say that the mere question whether the impulse to observe or to reflect in special departments was given, or even whether the results were suggested by current conditions of life, though undeniably an interesting one, is relatively unimportant. That geometry, as the name implies, had its origin in land measurement may be perfectly true. But it is the correctness of the formulation of the space-relations involved in it that is the crucial point for the science as such. The practical necessities which led men’s attention to these relations is the mere superficial and proximate cause. Similarly, it may be true or not that the doctrine of “natural selection” was suggested to Darwin and Wallace by the competition of the commercial life around them; but if true, interesting though the fact may be, it is trivial, since observation and experiment on the phenomena of natural history themselves would have been quite sufficient in a mind such as Darwin’s to have led to the same result. This even Rothstein will hardly deny. If anything is “shallow as a duck’s pond,” it is surely the triviality in which Rothstein makes this materialistic theory of history to “peter out.” Ex monti partituritur mus.

The attempts which have been made to show a connection between philosophical theory and economic conditions are too ghastly for words. I think it was our worthy friend Lafargue who suggested that the distinction between phenomena and things-in-themselves in Kant represented the endeavour of the rising bourgeois to hocus the guileless proletariat into thinking that the bourgeois was, after all, in himself, his best friend! Engels, if I mistake not, in his pamphlet on Feuerbach, has also a “go” at Kant and the ding-ansich. According to Engels the “thing-in-itself” was a conception due to the backward state of chemistry in Kant’s day! Now that our acquaintance with the properties of bodies is so much enlarged, the conception of the “thing-in-itself” is superfluous! This is a crucial illustration of the saying anent the shoemaker and his last. It is veritably astounding that a man of Engel’s capacity and acuteness in economic science, when it comes to a question of philosophy, should write the baldest nonsense, betraying the absence of even a schoolboy’s acquaintance with the meaning of the problem of which he is speaking. For this pitiable exhibition the attempt to push the materialistic theory of history à outrance must be held responsible.

The statement that the “materialist theory of history” does not profess to deal with the whole of human life is not the only protest that the extreme Marxists are fond of making when hard pressed in controversy. Like Rothstein, one and all they indignantly repel the idea that by economic condition they mean nothing but the material interests of individuals or classes. They protest they refer to the conditions of life, of production and distribution generally and not merely to “interests.” But here, again, can it be denied that Marx (with undoubted justice) repeatedly insists that the salient factor in history is the struggle of classes, the conflict of class interests, maintaining further that to this human evolution during the historical period may be reduced? And can it be further denied by anyone acquainted with the recent party literature, that nine-tenths of the writing on the subject consists in the endeavour to trace the whole intellectual, esthetic and moral development of man precisely to this conflict of class interests? Now, there is no one who is more strongly impressed with the importance of the class struggle, not only in its form of to-day, but in its earlier phases as exhibited in history, than myself; but nevertheless I cannot subscribe to the extravagance that it is capable per se of adequately explaining every fact of human progress. The note on p.60 of the original German edition of “Das Kapital” (now before me), which by a slip I erroneously, in memory of a reference of Kautsky’s in his controversy with me, spoke of as a manuscript comment of Marx, says that “the manner in which they [the men of antiquity and the Middle Ages respectively] made their living explains why there city-politics, here Catholicism, played the chief role.” In this sense Rothstein similarly asks why at a particular moment one form of religious belief becomes dominant rather than another. The answer, according to Rothstein, is naturally that “it was precisely owing to them [the relations of production, etc.] that a religious belief “like Catholicism” arose and took such a mighty hold of the minds of the people.” Proof of this assertion is as little attempted by Rothstein as it was by Marx. I remember once challenging Engels to demonstrate the connection between the rise of the Gnostic systems in the second century and the special economical conditions of the Roman Empire at that time. His answer was that to do that one would have to go far to the social origins of things! Exactly what he meant I do not know. Neither myself nor any other Socialist thinker of the order of what Rothstein terms the “unscientific mind” would deny the influence of economic conditions in all these cases. What our unscientific minds fail to grasp is the possibility of an adequate explanation of the facts by economic circumstances alone.

We cannot quite “tumble” to the scientific procedure which consists in trying to force recalcitrant facts under a one-sided formula which doesn’t fit them or which only fits them in part. But what of the other factor which we say enters into historical change? What of the mental or ideal factor considered per se? I will here make a concession to Rothstein and admit that my expression “intellectual spontaneity” was unhappily chosen. What I meant was that the factor in question was relatively spontaneous so far as the other factor was concerned, not, of course, spontaneous in the sense of being out of relation to a causal series altogether; in other words, that, up to a certain point at least, it followed its own causal series and was not solely the product (epiphenomenon) of the series of external causation. This, I am prepared to maintain till doomsday if necessary.

According to Rothstein, p.659, the individual consciousness and will as such has no historical importance. It does not belong to the domain of history, but to that of biography. Now, I am quite prepared to admit that society is in no sense the mere sum of the individuals composing it, any more than the human body is the mere sum of its component cells and nerve-centres. Hence what Rothstein, following Marx, terms the social-consciousness – i.e., the psychical side of society – is more than the mere sum of the individual psyches of its members. But you cannot separate the one from the other. The individual psyche and the social psyche are in indissoluble synthesis of action and reaction. The whole of history illustrates this. We may none of us believe in Carlyle’s “great man” theory of history in the present day. But will Rothstein deny that the individuality, the personal will-consciousness, of a Martin Luther or a Jean Jacques Rousseau entered formatively into the main development of history? Or have Caesar, Luther, Rousseau, Napoleon, no historical, but only a biographical, significance?

Marx says there are “certain forms of social consciousness which correspond” to the “economic structure of society.” Engels says that these “forms of social consciousness” “reflect” the “economic conditions.” Now here we come to the crucial point. According to the extreme Marxian view, the forms of social consciousness are mere forms and nothing else. They are simply passive reflectors of the economic structure. They express nothing but what that structure impresses upon them, albeit, of course, they express it in terms of their own nature, just as the reflection in a mirror is largely determined by the character of the glass of which it is made.[2] Now this purely passive role of the intellectual and emotional side of human life is what we of the guild of the “unscientific mind” absolutely refuse to admit. We say there never was a period, since human society existed, when the “social consciousness” did not play the part of a distinct agency or activity in the formation of the total result called human evolution, and that even the content it receives from without is not necessarily exclusively economic. That it has always been in part determined by the economic factor, that the relation between these two elements of human development has always been one of action and reaction – no Socialist has thought of denying. The great service of Marx in this matter has been to call attention to the preponderating influence of the economic factor throughout history. And I must here correct a direct falsification of my view on the part of Rothstein. Says Rothstein, “Bax distinctly confines its [the economic factor’s] influence to but modern times.” This is inexcusable of Rothstein. If he will but glance at the article he is criticising, he will find that Bax “distinctly” does the very opposite. He carefully guards himself against any such interpretation. What I said in the article in question was that both factors were operative throughout history, but that the preponderance of the economic factor became more marked as we approached the zenith of the capitalist period, when its relative predominance has become so great that for practical purposes the opposite factor (as being so relatively unimportant) might be almost disregarded. Moreover, to speak of my view as “a happy complement to Bernstein,” is distinct “cheek” on the part of Rothstein, seeing that, as that Marxian of the Marxians, Karl Kautsky, pointed out some years ago, Bernstein’s view is, au fond, simply a plagiarism from my own (published two or three years before his book), but inverted in a manner that makes complete unhistorical nonsense of it.

I now come to a passage of Rothstein’s article which is characteristic of the one-sided Marxian, and highly edifying (p.652). La voila! “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 inquiry, not a ready solution for historical riddles.” Delightful, is it not? “Heads I win, tails you lose” Where the economical element in an historical phenomenon is sufficiently preponderant as to render it possible for the so-called “historical materialist” to make it pass muster for the whole cause, then that is a crucial score to the success of his method. When the contrary is the case, then the explanation of the phenomenon in question becomes an “historical riddle,” which it is no business of the “historical materialist” to solve. Somehow, I rather “cotton” to this “method.” It saves one such a lot of mental exertion. It is so deuced scientific, too!

Rothstein’s “finger posts,” according to which the atomistic philosophy of Democritus was a product of the dissolution of the old family and tribal relations in Greece, and the materialism of Lucretius of the ruin of Italian agriculture, are apt illustrations of the loose and vague guesses which seem to satisfy the “scientific mind” of the extreme-Marxist. As regards race-temperament, while starting out to combat my contention that it plays a part in general historical development, Rothstein practically has to throw up the sponge. His own admission that such widely different results as the troubadour movement in “sunny France,” and “heavy lewdness” in cold England, were brought about by like economic causes, is a sufficient recognition that other determinant influences besides purely economic ones, among them race-temperament, have their share in the making of human history.

Rothstein complains that the synthetic method as opposed to the one-sided Marxian is old. Well, it may be so, but for myself I confess to having a weakness for old sense over new nonsense. And I am prepared to maintain the assertion is nonsense, that all human development can be explained, without remainder over, by the simple formula which declares all things historic to be merely the reflex of material or economic conditions. As Jaurès remarked to me some time ago, the absurdities of the ultra “historical materialists” discredit Socialist theory and are in the long run injurious to the movement. Whenever the method of this one-sided historical materialism is reduced to a test in any given instance, it breaks down utterly and hopelessly. Its only chance is to remain suspended in the vague, to take refuge in bare general assertions without attempt at proof, and to avoid allowing itself to be brought to book with the concrete.

I now bid farewell to my esteemed friend of the “scientific mind.” Yet my heart bled for him on reading his article, and I have appealed to the Throne of Grace, to wit, the Editor of the SOCIAL-DEMOCRAT, not to close the discussion as was originally intended, but to allow him another chance, as I didn’t want to be too hard on him. To this our Editor has consented. So Rothstein will now have the opportunity of dilating further on my unscientific mind, my ignorance, crudeness, unoriginality and the like. I am prepared to accept “all this quantity of sack” provided only that I get my “ha’porth of bread” in the shape of a genuine attempt to solve one problem in man’s intellectual development by means of the one-sided formula under discussion. Let Rothstein take his time about it and tackle the Gnostic business or Catholicism and Manichaeism, for example, and show these speculative conceptions to have nothing for their content but speculatively metamorphosed economic conditions. I do not propose at present to go over the whole ground again, and shall confine such comments as I may make thereupon to any new points raised by comrade Rothstein.


P.S. – In re-reading Rothstein’s article, I find there is one point of his I have failed to notice. This is his criticism of my statement that only by the elimination of such disturbing influences as economic conditions can pure science progress at all. This, says Rothstein (p.654), must mean “that it is only when a man does not care for any ultimate gain, but concentrates his attention unselfishly on the subject, that he is able to push science forward.” No, dear comrade, wrong again! I meant a great deal more than this in the passage quoted. I meant that a science must emancipate itself from being the mere handmaid of material things and practical purposes before it can attain the rank of a true science. Take the example in question, geometry to wit. Geometry did not become a science until it had shaken off not merely the personal economic interests of the land-measurer, but the clogging and disturbing influence of the land itself, or any other material thing or practical use. It had to become a science of pure space relations employing constructions, strictly speaking, unrealisable in material objects at all. This it is that gives it its cachet as a pure science. Whether its truths were suggested by the measurement of land or in any similar way, is doubtless an interesting question, but without the slightest philosophico-historical importance. With this explanation Rothstein’s dithyramb on my “crudeness” may be taken or left, as the reader pleases.

1. Rothstein is pleased to make sweeping assertions as to my “ignorance” of the literature of the Marxist historical theory. This kind of “slogging” in controversy is not usually nowadays considered “good form.” However, I don’t mind it, recognising that it is only “pretty Fanny’s way” of intimating that she disagrees with me. As a matter of fact, my acquaintance with the literature in question is probably at least as extensive as that of comrade Rothstein.

2. I devoutly hope Rothstein won’t again perform the one-sided Marxist’s usual wriggle when he is in a corner, and accuse me of “misunderstanding” once more, for if we can’t accept plain statements of doctrine and argue from them, it is of no use discussing at all.