E. Belfort Bax

Plechanoff and the Marxian Historical Theory

(17 May 1917)

Belfort Bax, Plechanoff and the Marxian Historical Theory, Justice, 17th May 1917, p.8. (letter)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (May 2007).

Dear Comrade – In the exceedingly interesting article in Justice of April 12, on his interview with the departing Plechanoff, our comrade H.M.H. mentions a conversation on the subject of the materialist theory of history of Marx which he had with our Russian friend. In pointing out the one-sideness of the theory, as usually presented by Marx’s followers and to a lesser extent by Marx himself, inasmuch as it attributes the whole of human progress to the evolution of the material or economic conditions of society alone, ignoring the psychological factor, whereby the latter is reduced to the mere effect (epiphenomenon) of the material conditions themselves, he adduced the case of Finland as an illustration of what he was saying.

Now, if ever there was an instance in which the Marxian historical theory ought, if true, to apply without reservation, it is that in the development of Socialist convictions and their realisation in a Socialist party the latter ought to presuppose as condition an advanced stage of capitalist development. But, as H.M.H. justly pointed out, the case of Finland flies directly in the teeth of this presumption on the basis of Marx’s teaching. Finland is a country in an exceptionally backward stage of economic development, and yet Socialism is stronger in Finland in proportion to its population than say in the United States or other countries at the head of modern capitalistic development. To this crushing illustration of the fallacy of the view our esteemed Russian comrade champions, Plechanoff it seems could only answer by a reference to the fact, as he regarded it, that balloons and aeroplanes apparently contradict, though without overthrowing, the law of gravitation.

But surely he forgot that if the phenomena of aeronautism and aviation can be said to present even an apparent contradiction, it is of the most superficial kind. The whole principle to which they are referable is obviously the elastic medium of the air which counteracts in its own way and on its own conditions the effects of the law of gravitation, though without contradicting the law itself, just as the intervention of any other form of matter as a supporting medium does the same. Throughout the whole economy of Nature we see one “law” or rule counteracting the operation of another without there being any contradiction between them. In the case of balloons the explanation is childishly simple. The gas used is lighter than atmospheric air, which means that the air as intervening medium is capable of supporting the gas-filled balloon. The explanation as applied to the flight of aeroplanes and birds may be rather more technical in its details, but it is based upon the same universally recognised mechanical principles.

The case of Socialism in Finland is quite different. Here we have a direct contradiction with an alleged law as formulated by certain of the followers of Marx, to the effect that all social development is dominated exclusively by the economic conditions of society at the time – with the corollary that the development of capitalism determines the rise and prevalence of Socialism and of a Socialist party. Now, I submit, neither can Plechanoff nor any one else show us any countervailing social law capable of explaining the fact, on the basis of the above theory, that Finland in a comparatively backward stage of industrial development has nevertheless relatively the strongest Socialist party in Europe.

This problem of historical theory, although to many of our friends it may seem purely academical, is nevertheless not without its practical significance for Socialism. – Yours fraternally,


Belfort Bax


Last updated on 28.5.2007