E Belfort Bax 1906

Materialistic Or Synthetic Historics?
Final Words

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. 10. no. 6, 15 June 1906, pp. 329-341;
A Reply to Lafargue and Rothstein;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

In his polemic against my article Lafargue concludes with the suggestion that the reason why I find the theory of one-sided economic determinism insufficient to explain the whole of human progress is because my “metaphysical mind” is incapable of properly applying the method in question. Now, I may as well observe here, once for all, that I have never found the said method unsatisfactory when and where I have myself applied it, for the simple reason, as I am presumptuous enough to think, that I can distinguish between its legitimate and its illegitimate employment. Where I find it breaks down is where taken in hand by our esteemed friend Lafargue and his colleagues of the ultra-Marxian historical school. Lafargue and his congeners in historical theory, in spite of what they say, treat it, not merely as a method, having its limitations like other methods, but as a dogma, or, to be strictly accurate, as a dogmatic framework (a “schablone,” as the Germans call it), into which it is the duty of the good Socialist to force all events, ideas, and tendencies in history. As a method, in the true sense of the term, no one has a greater respect for historic determinism than myself. It is not only a useful but an indispensable instrument in historical investigation, and to Marx belongs the indisputable merit of having first distinctly formulated it. All that we who criticise the ultra-Marxians in favour of what I have termed the synthetic conception of history contend, is that this method cannot be made to cover the whole dynamics of social development, but that the psychical side of such development possesses, up to a certain point, an independent character of its own, which has to be reckoned with in the completed synthesis of human evolution. The absurdities to which the negligence of this other factor gives rise, are patent to any impartial investigator in the treatment of the history of thought by writers of the ultra-Marxist school. Some of these attempts, indeed, can only be described as ghastly travesties of speculative history-bad jokes, in fact.

But apart from their one-sidedness in their treatment of historical causation, the ultra-Marxists are guilty of a looseness of thought inexcusable in anyone making a boast of scientific methods, as they do – and this even from their own point of view. For example, they invariably (except, perhaps, when driven into a corner in argument) fail to distinguish between three different senses in which causal efficacy can be ascribed to economic conditions. 1. There is the most usual and on the whole the most important sense, that of economic interest on the part of individuals but more especially classes (the class war). 2. There is the sense of the reaction, by way of suggestion, of technical, industrial and commercial progress on human thought and feeling. 3. There is the sense in which any economic change by removing an obstacle, and thus leaving the way free for an extra-economic development, may be said to be the cause of that development. The first two of these senses imply, as far as they go, positive causation, the third is purely negative. All these ways in which economic conditions causally affect human affairs are of importance, but the most significant and far-reaching is undoubtedly the first, the type of which is the “class struggle.” The second is of less historical weight, while the third, as already said, is not a positive cause at all but a mere negative condition. As illustration of the first, any instance of a state of struggle or rivalry between a possessing and a non-possessing class will serve; the second, the case so often referred to in the course of this controversy, of the suggestion of the laws of geometry through land measuring, or any other theoretical insight, or state of feeling, acquired in the course of the observation of contemporary social conditions; of the third, which is that of a negative condition of progress, the classical instance is the rise and development of intellectual and artistic culture in early civilisation, consequent on the coming into being of a leisured class, owing to the increase of wealth. Here, as just said, we have simply the removal of a hindrance, and not a positive cause. The above, of course, is merely a skeleton outline of these three forms of economic determinism as causal factors.

Now, I am unaware of any attempt on the part of the “scientific” fanatics of ultra-Marxism to seriously formulate the distinction between these three distinct senses in which causal efficacy may be ascribed to economic conditions in history, still less to estimate their relative value as factors in historic evolution. So slipshod is the procedure, even within the limits of their own particular method, of our so supremely scientific friends!

But to return to our Lafargue. His argument consists mainly in the attempts to prove that certain mathematical results were suggested by certain phases of economic development. My answer is simple. I have already admitted that this may have sometimes been the case in mathematics, as in other departments, but I deny the necessary connection between the two, and I also deny its supreme importance when it does occur. All Lafargue has achieved is to adduce cases where the connection between economic progress and mathematical progress, by way of suggestion, apparently obtains. That this can be done I have never doubted, but I must appeal to our friend Hyndman, who probably knows more mathematics than Lafargue and myself together, for a list of cases in which no such connection can possibly be traced. That he has such a list up his sleeve I know, and as I am no mathematician myself, I prefer leaving this side of the argument to him. I may as well point out, however, that Lafargue has chosen the simplest and most obvious instances. Let him trace respectively the discovery of logarithms, of the differential calculus, or of the binomial theorem neatly back to its appropriate economic condition – if he can!

There is one more personal explanation I have to make before finishing what I have to say about Lafargue’s article. Lafargue appears to be labouring under the delusion that I am concerned to defend Kant’s “Ding-an-sich” as a speculative thesis. I can assure him such is not the case. I no more accept Kant’s “Ding-an-sich” than does any other modern thinker. My criticism was merely that of one who, as a student of the history of philosophy, was interested in vindicating, for philosophic thought, the significance and import of Kant’s assumption against the pseudo-explanations of Engels and Lafargue himself, which are no explanations at all, being based on complete misapprehensions of the issue (due, evidently, to an imperfect acquaintance with the problems of philosophy), coupled with an excess of zeal in jumping to “materialistic” conclusions whether such are in place or not. Kant was dealing with a problem concerning the constitution of knowledge – the nature of consciousness itself, and the thing-in-itself he postulated had no more to do with the chemical properties of bodies, as Engels imagined, than it had with the relations of the bourgeois to the proletaire, as Lafargue imagined.

Turning now to Rothstein’s article, I must at the outset express the hope that his tone of controversy will not find many imitators in our party discussions. No attempts of Rothstein to be funny in talking about lèse majesté will alter the fact that wholesale accusations of ignorance and puerile misconception, not to speak of a strongly personal tone in general, is a manner of “plain speaking” about an opponent which most educated persons, with some pretence to manners, would resent in common with comrade Hyndman, in a magazine not precisely on the level of the gutter. Ignorance and ineptitude, where they exist, can be nailed down more effectively without “vulgar abuse” than with it. Of course, I always make allowance in this connection for a man with a weak case, and the consequent temptation to carry things off with bluster, but all the same, I would advise Rothstein to cure himself of the habit before it becomes chronic and constitutes, as one might say, an indelible burning stain on his controversial character.

I disclaimed, says Rothstein, to be the discoverer of a new “philosophy” (of history) called synthetic. I disclaimed, i,e., to be the discoverer of the fundamental truth at the basis of such a theory of history, to wit, that human progress has a psychic as well as an economic side; that each is up to a certain point possessed of a relative independence, but that the concrete fact, social evolution, implies the synthesis of these co-ordinate elements. Rothstein proceeds to attempt to prove, in answer to my challenge to name a bourgeois writer (not, be it noted, who holds the above view, but) who had stated the matter as I had stated it, the already-admitted fact that in my recognition of this truth I am not original. I say attempted to prove, advisedly, for it is noteworthy that the writings he quotes from are, if I mistake not, all of subsequent date to my article in the Vienna “Zeit” (July, 1896), in which I first enunciated my point of view, and, therefore, I might easily claim that he had not made good his assertion as to my “repeating” what these particular writers had said, seeing that I had the priority. However, I do not wish to labour this point. Granting, therefore, that he has succeeded in proving what I myself had already admitted, the question arises – has he met my challenge to name a bourgeois writer who had stated the matter as I have stated it? Let us hear Rothstein, himself, as to this. On page 206, after crowing loudly over his imagined success, comes the significantly fatal admission: “However, in one point he (viz., myself) is decidedly original.” Now, it so happens that this “one point” is the one which is of the utmost importance from a practical as opposed to a purely academical point of view. It is only the question whether the tendency is, as I maintain, for the economic factor to dominate over and so to say atrophise the independence of the psychic factor in a progressive ratio with the advance of capitalism, or whether the reverse process takes place, as is insisted upon by Bernstein and the bourgeois historical theorists! A mere bagatelle for the “scientific mind!” eh, comrade Rothstein? After his self-confession of inability to meet my challenge, if our friend still holds to the opinion that I was “overhasty in issuing this challenge,” I can only record the fact that I must humbly beg to disagree with him.

Rothstein thus is unable to name a single bourgeois writer “who has stated the matter as I have stated it.” – Q.E.D.

“Every rising class thinks materialistically,” says Rothstein. I almost felt, on reading this (in spite of the incongruity), inclined to gasp out, “Oh, Rothstein, pray for me, that I may learn to think materialistically,” as every good Socialist should!” However, on this point I fear the ultra-Marxian priesthood is not quite unanimous. Our friend Lafargue, for instance, has written many an article to prove that the “rising bourgeoisie,” in its struggle with the “decaying aristocracy,” the case expressly cited by Rothstein, thought quite otherwise – to wit, that it was altogether immersed in feeble, foolish “metaphysical” notions, and that the class struggle expressed itself to the rising bourgeois mind “ideologically” in “metaphysical” formulae, such as “virtue,” “liberty,” “country,” “rights of man,” etc., to which anything but a “materialistic” sanctity was attached. Now, when these “scientific” pundits fall out, I am sure I do not know what a poor “unscientific” student of history like myself is to do. The repudiation of the charge of eclecticism which Rothstein finds “delightful” is perfectly simple and straightforward. If I affirm that the “subject matter of thought” constitutes in the last resort a unity I thereby, surely, assert my “mode of thinking” with regard to it to be monistic! Evidently Rothstein, in his eagerness to score a point against me here, has overshot his mark, and “caught a mare’s nest’” (as someone has expressed it). I can only repeat that I am a monist in historical theory (as also in philosophy, though that is another story), and shall remain so in spite of Rothstein’s terrible threat of calling me by “another name."[1]

I suggested a problem, which Engels himself admitted was a fair one, as a test case for Rothstein to demonstrate his method. To this Rothstein loftily replies that he has “something more important to do than to thus help to prove his case. Has he? I beg leave to doubt it. All I can say is, if he deems it more important to write articles abusing my humble self rather than to take steps to establish the theory he espouses, I can do no more than leave the matter to the judgment of all impartial readers of the “Social-Democrat.” At the same time, I must protest against the utterly and wantonly false gloss which Rothstein has chosen to put upon the incident I mentioned with regard to Engels. Rothstein endeavours to make it appear that Engels treated me, on the occasion in question, with discourtesy. Now, whatever he may have been to others, I owe it to Engels’s memory to say that to me, personally, he was never, on any occasion, discourteous. The conversation spoken of was unfortunately interrupted by the arrival of visitors – merely that and nothing more. There was no “sending about business” on either side. We were simply having a quiet chat, and I put the gnostic problem to Engels, which, unlike Rothstein, he admitted to be a legitimate and an interesting one, and Engels had just made the remark quoted by me when the interruption referred to took place. The fact is, Rothstein wants to rope in Engels here, to cover his own feeble shirking of his controversial responsibilities. All this talk of Rothstein is so much bluff to disguise the damning fact that he and his colleagues cannot prove their case when brought to the test.

To Rothstein’s assertion that I have no method of historical enquiry, I consider it unnecessary to reply. He professes to think it an admission of a “damaging nature” that I granted the fact that scientific results may be suggested by economic conditions. Why on earth should they not? They may be suggested by economic conditions, they may be suggested by natural environment, they may be arrived at by reflection on mental processes, or by the analysis of abstract relations, and so on. The impulse to study them may be due to economic causes, or merely to “scientific curiosity.” All I have denied is that they are exclusively traceable to economic circumstance, and it is this point which no advocate of the extreme school of economic materialism has succeeded yet in proving, or has even attempted seriously to prove. Some of the extracts given by Rothstein, I may mention, are conspicuously not to the point. For example, he tries to drag in a theory of F.D. Maurice, to the effect that the political ideas of certain thinkers strongly affected their philosophy, into an acknowledgment that their philosophy was the mere reflection of the economic circumstances under which they lived and thought. Besides, I have never denied a possible influence of economic surroundings in philosophy any more than elsewhere. It is the exclusive, or even necessarily, paramount, influence that I dispute.

It is very kind of Rothstein to refer me to his Bible on the subject of the history of philosophy – to wit, F.A. Lange’s “History of Materialism.” However, even the great Rothstein may err. Be my learning “quite exceptional” or quite insignificant, it owes nothing whatever (pace Rothstein) to F.A. Lange in general or his “History of Materialism” in particular. The latter, at the time respectable but now somewhat belated product of German scholarship of the last generation, I cursorily glanced through some years ago, but I cannot say it made any impression on me. Within the last few weeks I have again taken this popular compendium in my hands, with no different result. Rothstein is evidently a humorist when he suggests that I am quite reduced to sitting at the feet of the excellent but somewhat second-rate worthy in question. There are many works on the history of philosophy from which doubtless in various degrees I owe something (of some of which possibly Rothstein has never heard), but it so happens that Lange’s book is not among them.

But has friend Rothstein made no hit in his rejoinder? Far be it from me to affirm such a thing. On receiving my copy of the January “Social-Democrat” containing my last article, my eye soon lighted upon the misprint of an i for an e in a certain well-known Latin quotation, and I at once exclaimed, “It is well – poor Rothstein will be able to score at least one point against me!” And sure enough he did. I congratulate him! We used to hear of “No case, abuse the plaintiffs’ attorney!” This we shall have now to amend, I think, so far as literary advocacy is concerned, to “No case, work misprints for all they are worth!”

On page 214, after obscure references, which are beyond my comprehension, to depths of infamy in my controversial methods, we have the usual indignant repudiation of the ultra-Marxian position as exhibited in the statements of its protagonists and illustrated in the application of their principles. We are now told that the contents of the “social-consciousness” need not be necessarily derived from economic conditions. One is inclined to ask, where are we then? The only difference between us, we are assured, is that “he (viz., myself) regards the rays emitted by social-consciousness as spontaneously generated from its inner arbitrary self,” while the ultra-Marxists regard them as “generated by the body and pressure of the time.” The present transformation of Liberal England is then quoted as an illustration. Of this, it is further alleged, “Bax regards it as a spontaneously generated agency – one that might have arisen 500 years ago as easily as 500 years hence – we Marxists regard it in our dogmatic limitation as” etc. Now, on first reading this my inclination was to refuse to bandy another word with Rothstein. For, as a farrago of disingenuous falsification in controversy, it would be hard to beat. Rothstein knows perfectly well that the view imputed to me is not merely nonsense in itself, but has never been held by me and is in contradiction with all I have ever written. Rothstein does well to talk of “conscientiousness as a polemist” (sic) after this. To solve an ordinary problem in the history of human thought in accordance with his dogma, Rothstein is incapable, but to take a current economico-political event, and then categorically impute nonsensical views respecting it to an opponent, this he can do.

The synthetic theory of history emphasises the point that the concrete content of history is a progressive evolution no stage of which and no crucial event even of which could have happened before it did happen. But this is not to say that the thought-movement invariably advances pari passu with, or follows, the economic movement. It does not even assert that there is no “spontaneity” in the individual mind. Thus to take Darwin. Yes, there were undoubtedly great minds before Darwin, and some of them came very near to discovering the law of evolution as Darwin discovered it. That Darwin improved upon them is simply due to the fact that Darwin had the advantage of their and others’ pioneering work, that, so to say, he stood on their shoulders. Anaximander, in the sixth century B.C., under quite different economic conditions, postulated in a crude form the theory of the origin of species by a kind of natural selection. Empedokles also came near to a similar conception. Lamarck, Oken, Goethe, and others of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries helped to build up the doctrine of organic evolution. That Darwin was the first to raise the old Greek speculation from comparative oblivion to the rank of a scientific truth of first-class importance is primarily due to his position in the line of thought on the subject, in addition to his special individual gifts. That it fructified and was accepted by the world was because the time was ripe for entering into the concrete structure of the “social-consciousness.” And here economic and other external conditions come in. The world, the social milieu, generally, was fitted in Darwin’s day to receive the doctrine, and to form the seed-ground for its fertilisation, while before it was not.

The case of Vico at the beginning of the eighteenth century is again specially remarkable, as illustrating at once the evolution of thought and the spontaneity of the individual intelligence. Vico, as is well-known, founded the science or philosophy of history in the modern sense at a time when the current tendencies of the age were in quite a different direction. But precisely because the social milieu, economic and other material conditions, were unfavourable, the whole life-work of Vico perished so far as direct ulterior result was concerned. It fell upon barren soil. Scientific history had to be rediscovered in the nineteenth century. Intellectual initiative and genius is not alone sufficient to make historic reality, it must take root in a suitable soil of material conditions.

Once more let us take a technical invention – the steam-engine, to wit. Not to mention Hiero in antiquity, we have G.B. de la Porta, who, in 1601, published his treatise describing the principle of the steam engine. But this, and developments of the same principle during the seventeenth century, came to nothing. Economic conditions were not yet ripe for the realisation of the thought of Porta. Well-nigh two centuries from his time had to elapse before the steam engine became a part of the concrete social evolution. As Mr. J.A. Hobson has recently pointed out, the bulk of scientific discoveries and inventions, even those subsequently realised through economic pressure, sprang originally out of intellectual curiosity pure and simple, and were neither dictated nor suggested by economic or other external conditions. In other words, the psychic side of human evolution has a relative independence of its own. Q.E.D.

According to the synthetic doctrine of history, social evolution as a whole, is, in the last resort, reducible to two elements, material (largely economic) conditions, and intellectual and emotional activity. The latter, up to a certain point, follows its own line of causation, but is also acted on by, and, in its turn, reacts upon, economic conditions. In every concrete phase of social evolution you can trace these two elements in the total result. But the psychic activity has a double character. On the one side it can be traced as a causal series, and therefore is not “spontaneous.” On the other hand, it has a side that is not wholly reducible to law – that of personality, of individual intelligence and will as such. This is the incalculable element, the unknown quantity in history, accelerating, retarding, and modifying phases of social evolution in their realisation. Such, in a word, is the position of the synthetic doctrine of history. In opposition to the above doctrine you have the theory of one-sided economic determinism, which, whenever brought to book, in order to save its face is forced to eat its own words, to resort to shuffling and shifting of its position, reducing to meaninglessness its own assertions, etc. It is always prepared to prove its thesis (oh, yes!) if you will but kindly allow it to choose its own instances; but it steadily refuses to deal with inconvenient test cases – in other words, it exacts for itself conditions under which it is easy to prove any theory of history you like.

Rothstein conveniently confuses between the growth of Marxian Socialism as a whole and the growth of this particular historical dogma. The allusion to Jaurès shows a still more inexcusable confusion between this same theory and the Marxian political tactics in France. As to Rothstein’s philosophical wisdom – derived, doubtless, from a diligent perusal of Lange’s “History of Materialism,” – Rothstein will excuse me if I say that I do not think it quite worth my while to enter upon it. I can only regret, in conclusion, that a good and useful method like that of historical materialism should be made nonsense of by being erected into a one-sided dogma to dissent from which is Socialist heresy. However, with the growth of the party on its theoretical side let us hope that this will correct itself.


1. This procedure, by the way, I believe is colloquially known in some parts of the country as “calling one out of one’s name.” I do not doubt the ability of Rothstein to do this. He has, in fact, already given evidence of being much more “fly” at calling names than he is at producing arguments.