Max Beer January 1908

Studies in historic Materialism

Chapter I - The Rise of Jewish Monotheism
Chapter II - The Rise of Jewish Monotheism
Chapter III - The Rise of Christianity

Source: Social Democrat,Vol. XII, No. 1, January 15, 1908, pp.7-15;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


Historic materialism claims to be a sociological theory, and, by implication, a method of research, dealing with the dynamics, with the motor forces and causes of change, of human society. Its purpose is to do for history what Galileo, Bacon, and Darwin have done for natural science. It starts from the proposition that the mind is neither the centre of innate, supersensuous, and eternal ideas, nor a mirror that passively reflects the external world, but an active physiological organ capable of producing thought out of the materials received, through the senses, from the external world. It does not inquire into the origin of mind and of the laws of thinking. It accepts the data of psychology and logic. Its inquiries begin with the question, How does the mind produce and fill itself with definite conceptions of religion, ethics, art, laws, politics, and economics? And why does the mind, at certain periods of social development, reject old-established truths, well-grounded ideas and accepted theories, and begin to work up new conceptions which in their translation into rules of conduct and institutions change in a radical, revolutionary manner our social system?

To that question two replies only can be given.

One reply is: Through the enlightenment of the mind, acting through great men. The enlightenment may be effected through inspiration or through ratiocination. With inspiration we can have nothing to do; the theological stage is a thing of the past. There remains only ratiocination, which means that the mind by its capacity of analysing, combining, and syllogising can discover the unsoundness of established conceptions and build up new ones that are more satisfactory to human reason. Historic materialism accepts the first halfof that reply, but rejects the other half. It unreservedly admits the capacity of the mind to ratiocinate and to carry certain conceptions, produced from given external material, to their logical conclusions, even if those conclusions are beyond the reach of empirical observation. But it denies the mind the capacity of arriving, by logical reasoning, at new conceptions without having received new sensations from the external world. Since the time of Galileo, Bacon and Darwin it has become a commonplace in natural science that observation precedes ratiocination, and practice precedes theory. Why should it be different in historical science? Why should we subject the mind to the law of causation in natural science and elevate it to the role of a creator in historical science? On what ground are we justified in ascribing to the mind two contradictory qualities, viz., of being only the interpreter of nature, but the sovereign master of history? Looking closely at the reply we are dealing with, it amounts to a deification of the human mind as manifested in the religious founder, lawgiver, empire-builder, and financier. It is, indeed, nothing but a remnant of the theological stage, which has not yet been overcome in the domain of history.

The other reply is: Were the external world fixed, stable, and unchanging, no new conception would arise; we should have a system of eternal truths. The world is, however, anything but fixed and unchanging. It is in a constant flux, undergoing an infinite process of evolution. This applies both to nature and social history. The bases of history are geographic and economic conditions - the land on which man dwells and the modes of production by which he lives. In the more primitive stages of social evolution, geographic conditions control his settlement, his food, his raw materials, his technology, his communications with the outer world, and his defence. Their effect on the dynamics of society is, however, not so far-reaching and direct; they have more to do with the statics of social organisation and with the fixing of racial types, geographic conditions being more stable and more liable to control by man, especially in his scientific stage. For the comprehension of the dynamics of society the economic conditions are of greater importance. The lines of economic development and technique are more complicated, their movements more rapid, their changes more striking, and therefore their effect on man more direct and embracing. Still, both sets of conditions are so closely interlaced with each other that we may call them geo-economic conditions, always, however, bearing in mind that the economic elements are the more active and fluid. The phases of geo-economic evolution furnish the mind with new sensations and stimuli. A geo-economic system in its formation and growth produces in the minds of the members of the community conceptions of religion, morality, laws, and politics which correspond to the needs and aspirations of that community. A system of thought has been formed that appears to be true and right and beautiful. As, soon, however, as the geo-economic system has undergone a considerable number of imperceptible changes  - viz., by accumulation of the means of life, by inventions and discoveries, by communication with other communities, by wars of expansion, by a consequent shifting of social relations, the necessity for a reorganisation of society and the need for a new system of thought begin to make themselves felt, generally in the form of social and class struggles. Then new leaders, new philosophers, new prophets arise and work up the new sensations into new conceptions and ideals and formulate a new order of things. Society enters on a period of revolution. It is evident from our reply that the mind reacts on the material bases of society. There is, indeed, an interaction between matter and mind. In this interaction the geo-economic conditions are the legislative, the mind is the executive; the material factors precede, the mind follows, interprets, transforms external facts into logical truths and ethical maxims, and the into motives of the actions of man.

This reply to our question deals with history, and is based on material factors - viz., geo-economic conditions. We call it, therefore, Historic Materialism.

In the following articles, which are based partly on independent research, partly on the work of others, especially on Marx and modern geographers and historians, an attempt is made to illustrate Historic Materialism by the working out of certain historical and political problems.

Chapter I

The Rise of Jewish Monotheism

The Old Testament presents itself as a collection of legends, traditions, customs, laws, and literary productions of the ancient Hebrews, covering a period of more than a thousand years - from about the fifteenth to the second century B.C. For ages past they were transmitted orally from generation to generation, undergoing in the process of transmission important changes, each generation unconsciously weaving into their texture some new thread, colouring them with the tints of its own age, until a number of scribes arose who engraved them on clay tablets and stones, and recorded them on papyri and parchment. The first editor, who brought a certain order into the chaos of Hebrew lore, was Ezra, the priest and scribe. In the year 444 B.C. he finished the composition of the Pentateuch - the story of creation, the division of mankind, the lives of the Patriarchs and of Moses, and the laws, and handed it over to the people as the Book of Moses. In Jewish tradition Ezra stands second only to Moses the lawgiver. The composition of the Scriptures once begun, was continued in the following two centuries, when the Old Testament was finally shaped and canonised into that document which has been known to Jew and Christian unto this day.

The editors of the Old Testament had, unfortunately, neither the historical sense nor the critical faculty, neither method nor system. Orientals, as a rule, do not possess them. The long ages of stagnant social organisation, the slow, uniform rhythm of their economic life, the essential sameness of their experience, resulted in a veneration of the past that stifled research and impeded renovation. The ideals to be striven for, the models to be acted upon, were supposed to have been realised at the beginning of things; the primeval age was perfection and the farther we were removed from it the more hopeless was our deterioration. The great bulk of Eastern humanity has not yet got beyond that conception which forms the essence of the medieval mind. Questioning the wisdom of the hoary past, testing and weighing tradition, independent and critical research, historical sequence and progressive development are the fruits of economic and political revolutions which by their violent convulsions remove the taint of sin from freedom of thought and give rise to the modern mind. The Greeks reached that stage after the Persian wars, Western Europe during the age of discoveries, Japan during the Western industrial expansion of the second half of the nineteenth century, and the great bulk of Asiatic humanity is now being cast adrift from its medieval moorings by the surging waves of Western imperialism. That stage we may call the Periclean age, or we may know it as the Renascence, or as the age of Meji - in essence it is the deliverance of man from medieval conceptions and the opening up of a period of scientific research and progressive development. It marks a change of front of humanity from the past towards the present and future. Only in that sense we may say the East stands for faith, the West for science. The difference is neither racial nor geographic, but economic, political, and mental. Instead of East and West we may put Medievalism and Modernism, and as long as the difference lasts the respective mental attitudes vary greatly. Even the spiritual rebellion of an Oriental does not go beyond sombre questioning, while with the Occidental questioning is the beginning, then follow research, methodical arrangement of materials, and the building up of a system. The Oriental, in stopping short at questioning, never arrives at the necessity of research and method. The boldest Hebrew, Job, exhausts himself in woebegone questionings and succumbs abruptly to a vision, while the Greek rebel, Prometheus, wrests the light from Heaven and teaches man to reason and to act.

Lacking, then, critical insight and methods of research, the editors of the Old Testament were manifestly unequal to their task. Records that originated in the remotest past were amalgamated with records of later ages, conceptions that arose from nomadic, tribal migrations were interwoven with conceptions produced under settled, agricultural, and individualistic life. Hence anachronisms remained unheeded, and the sequence of progressive unfolding of religious and legal thought was broken or wholly lost sight of. The Old Testament may be likened to a land the geological strata of which have been convulsed and jumbled up by a volcanic upheaval; debris of Silurian strata came to lie near Jurassic, Pliocene near Cambrian, so that the record of its growth has been mutilated. The Old Testament, in its traditional shape, can thus not be used as a history of the development of the ancient Hebrews. It must be reconstructed to its natural order. This reconstruction has been undertaken by the “Higher Criticism.” It is evident that such a reconstruction can only be undertaken by sociologists who have not only observed or studied the working and transformation of primitive communities, ancient societies, medieval organisations, and modern movements, but who have studied the dynamic factors, the motor forces which cause those transformations and movements to take place. Now, the Higher Critics have rarely cared much for sociology. Their aids have been chiefly Semitic philology and analogies between ancient Hebrew and Arabic life, but they either neglected or under-estimated economic and geographical factors and social struggles: the methods of historic materialism, as used by Marxists, are still unknown to them. So it came about that, while the Higher Critics have accomplished a great deal of pioneering work, much remains yet to be done. We are still at a loss to understand the exceptional position of the ancient Hebrews, the rise of prophecy, one of the most remarkable phenomena in human history, the real cause of the struggle between Yahve and Baal, the birth of ethical Monotheism and social justice, in short, the essential result of Hebrew history which went to the making of Christianity.


(To be continued.)