N.I. Bukharin: Historical Materialism - a System of Sociology


Introduction: The Practical Importance of the Social Sciences

a. The Social Sciences and the Demands of the Struggle of the Working Class

Bourgeois scholars speak of any branch of learning with mysterious awe, as if it were a thing produced in heaven, not on earth. But as a matter of fact any science, whatever it be, grows out of the demands of society or its classes. No one takes the trouble to count the number of flies on a window-pane, or the number of sparrows in the street, but one does count the number of horned cattle. The former figures are useful to no one; it is very useful to know the latter. But it is not only useful to have a knowledge of nature, from whose various parts we obtain all our substances, instruments, raw materials, etc,; it is just as necessary, in practice, to have information concerning society. The working class, at each step in its struggle, is brought face to face with the necessity of possessing such information. In order to be able to conduct its struggle with other classes properly, it is necessary for the working class to foresee how these classes will behave. For this it must know on what circumstances the conduct of the various classes, under varying conditions, depends. Before the working class obtains power, it is obliged to live under the yoke of capital and to bear in mind constantly, in its struggle for liberation, what will be the behavior of all the given classes. It must know on what this behavior depends, and by what such behavior is determined. This question may be answered only by social science. If the working class has conquered power, it is under the necessity of struggling against the capitalist governments of other countries, as well as against the remnants of counter-revolution at home; and 'it is also obliged to reckon with the extremely difficult tasks. of the organization of production and distribution. What is to be the nature of the economic plan; how is the intelligentsia to be utilized; how are the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie to be trained to communism. how shall experienced administrators be raised from the ranks of the workers; how shall the broad masses of the working class itself, as yet only slightly class-conscious, be reached; etc., etc., - all these questions require a knowledge of society in order to answer them properly, a knowledge of its classes, of their peculiarities, of their behavior in this case or that; they require a knowledge also of political economy and the social currents of thought of the various groups in society. These questions show the need for the social sciences. The practical task of a reconstruction of society may be correctly solved by the application of a scientific policy of the working class, i.e., a policy based on scientific theory; this scientific theory, in the case of the proletarian, is the theory founded by Karl Marx.

b. The Bourgeoisie and the Social Sciences

The bourgeoisie also has created its own social sciences, based on its own practical requirements.

When the bourgeoisie is the ruling class, it must solve a great number of questions: how to maintain the capitalist order of things; how to secure the so called "normal development" of capitalist society, which means a regular influx of profits; how to organize for this purpose its economic institutions; how to conduct its policy with regard to other countries; how to maintain its rule over the working class; how to eliminate disagreements in its own ranks; how to train its staffs of officials: priests, police, scholars; how to carry on the business of instruction so that the working class may not become savage and destroy the machinery, but may continue to be obedient to its oppressors, etc.

For this purpose the bourgeoisie needs the social sciences; these sciences aid it in its adaptation to the complicated social life and in choosing a proper course in the solution of the practical problems of life. It is interesting, for example, to note that the first bourgeois economists were great practical merchants and government leaders, while the greatest theoretician of the bourgeoisie, Ricardo, was a very able banker.

c. The Class Character of the Social Sciences

Bourgeois scholars always maintain that they are the representatives of so called "pure science", that all earthly sufferings, all conflicting interests, all the ups and downs of life, the hunt for profit, and other earthly and vulgar things have no relation whatever with their science. Their conception of the matter is approximately the following: the scholar is a god, seated on a sublime eminence, observing dispassionately the life of society in all its varying forms; they think (and yet more loudly proclaim) that vile "practice" has no relation whatever with pure "theory". This conception is of course a false one; quite the contrary is true: all learning arises from practice. This being the case, it is perfectly clear that the social sciences have a class character. Each class has its own practice, its special tasks, its interests and therefore its view of things. The bourgeoisie is concerned chiefly with safeguarding, perpetuating, solidifying, extending the rule of capital. The working class is concerned in the first place with the task of overthrowing the capitalist system and safeguarding the rule of the working class in order to reconstruct life. It is not difficult to see that bourgeois practice will demand one thing, and proletarian practice another; that the bourgeoisie will have one view of things, and the working class another; that the social science of the bourgeoisie will be of one type, and that of the proletariat unquestionably of a different type.

d. Why is Proletarian Science Superior to Bourgeois Science?

This is the question we have now to answer. If the social sciences have a class character, in what way is proletarian science superior to bourgeois science, for the working class also has its interests, its aspirations, its practice, while the bourgeoisie has a practice of its own. Both classes must be considered as interested parties. It is not sufficient to say that one class is good, highminded, concerned with the welfare of humanity, while the other is greedy, eager for profits, etc. One of these two classes has one kind of eye-glasses, red ones, the other class has a different kind, white ones. Why are red glasses better than white ones? Why is it better to look at reality through red ones? Why is there superior visibility through red ones?

We must approach the answer to this question rather carefully.

We have seen that the bourgeoisie is interested in preserving the capitalist system. Yet it is a well-known fact that there is nothing permanent under the sun. There was a slavery system; there was a feudal system; there was, and still is, the capitalist system; there also have been other forms of human society. It is evident - and incontrovertibly so - that we must infer the following: he who would understand social life on its present basis must also understand, at the outset, that all is changing, that one form of society follows upon another. Let us picture to ourselves, for example, the feudal serf-owner, who lived in the period before the liberation of the peasants from serfdom. Such a man in many cases could not even imagine that there might exist an order of society in which it would be impossible to sell peasants or exchange them for greyhounds. Could such a serf-owner really understand the evolution of society correctly? Of course not. Why not? For the reason that his eyes were covered not by glasses, but with blinders. He could not see further than his nose, and therefore was unable to understand even the things going on right under his nose.

The bourgeoisie also wears such blinders. The bourgeoisie is interested in the preservation of capitalism and believes in its permanence and indestructibility. It is therefore blind to such phenomena and such traits in the evolution of capitalist society as point to its temporary nature, to its approaching ruin (even to the possibility of its destruction), to its being succeeded by any other organization of life. This is made most clear by the example of the World War and the revolution. Did any one of the more or less prominent bourgeois scholars foresee the consequences of the world slaughter? Not one! Did any one of them foresee the outbreak of revolution? Not one! They were all busily occupied in supporting their bourgeois governments and predicting victory for the capitalists of their own country. And yet, these phenomena, namely, the general destruction by warfare, and the unprecedented revolution of the proletariat, are deciding the destinies of mankind, are changing the face of the entire earth. But of all this, bourgeois science had not a single premonition. But the communists-the representatives of proletarian science-did foresee all this. The difference is due to the fact that the proletariat is not interested in the preservation of the old and is therefore more farsighted.

It is not difficult to understand now why proletarian social science is superior to bourgeois social science. It is superior because it has a deeper and wider vision of the phenomena of social life, because it is capable of seeing further and of observing facts that lie beyond the vision of bourgeois social science. It is therefore clear that Marxists have a perfect right to regard proletarian science as true and to demand that it be generally recognized.

e. The Various Social Sciences and Sociology

Human society is a very complicated thing; in fact, all social phenomena are quite complicated and varied. We have for instance the economic phenomena, the economic structure of society and its national organization; and the fields of morality, religion, art, learning, philosophy; and the domain of family relations, etc. These are often interwoven into very peculiar patterns, constituting the current of social life. It is of course clear that for an understanding of this complicated social life it is necessary to approach it from various starting points, to divide science into a group of sciences. One will study the economic life of society (science of economics) or even the special universal laws of capitalist economy (political economy) ; another will study law and the state and will go into special matters of detail; a third will study - let us say- morality, etc.

And each of these branches of learning, in its turn, can be divided into two classes: one group of these sciences will investigate the past, a certain time in a certain place-this is historical science. For example, in the field of law: it is possible to investigate, and to describe precisely, how law and the state have developed, and how their forms have changed. This will be the history of law. But it is also possible to investigate and solve certain questions: what is law; under what conditions does it grow, or die out; on what do its forms depend; etc. This will be the theory of law. Such branches of learning are the theoretical branches.

Among the social sciences there are two important branches which consider not only a single field of social life, but the entire social life in all its fulness; in other words, they are concerned not with any single set of phenomena (such as, economic, or legal, or religious phenomena, etc.), but take up the entire life of society, as a whole, concerning themselves with all the groups of social phenomena. One of these sciences is history; the other is sociology. In view of what has been said above it will not be difficult to grasp the difference between them. History investigates and describes how the current of social life flowed at a certain time and in a certain place (for example, how economy and law and morality and science, and a great number of other things, developed in Russia, beginning in 1700 and going down to 1800 ; or, in China, from 2000 B.C. to 1000 A.D.; or, in Germany, after the Franco-Prussian War in 1871; or in any other epoch and in any other country or group of countries). Sociology takes up the answer to general questions, such as: what is society? On what does its growth or decay depend? What is the relation of the various groups of social phenomena (economic, legal, scientific, etc.), with each other; how is their evolution to be explained; what are the historical forms of society; how shall we explain the fact that one such form follows upon another; etc., etc.? Sociology is the most general (abstract) of the social sciences. It is often referred to under other names, such as: "the philosophy of history", "the theory of the historical process", etc.

It is evident from the above what relation exists between history and sociology. Since sociology explains the general laws of human evolution, it serves as a method for history. If, for example, sociology establishes the general doctrine that the forms of government depend on the forms of economy, the historian must seek and find, in any given epoch, precisely what are the relations, and must show what is their concrete, specific expression. History furnishes the material for drawing sociological conclusions and making sociological generalizations, for these conclusions are not made up of whole cloth, but are derived from the actual facts of history. Sociology in its turn formulates a definite point of view, a means of investigation, or, as we now say, a method for history.

f. The Theory of Historical Materialism as a Marxian Sociology

The working class has its own proletarian sociology, known as historical materialism. In its main outlines this theory was elaborated by Marx and Engels. It is also called "the materialist method in history", or simply "economic materialism". This profound and brilliant theory is the most powerful instrument of human thought and understanding. With its aid, the proletariat finds its bearings in the most complicated questions in social life and in the class struggle. With its aid, communists correctly predicted the war and the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat, as well as the conduct of the various parties, groups, and classes in the great transformation through which humanity is now passing. This book is devoted to expounding and developing this theory.

Some persons imagine that the theory of historical materialism should under no circumstances be considered a Marxian sociology, and that it should not be expounded systematically; they believe that it is only a living method of historical knowledge, that its truths may only be applied in the case of concrete and historical events. In addition, there is the argument that the conception of sociology itself is rather vague, that "sociology" signifies sometimes the science of primitive culture and the origin of the primitive forms of the human community (for instance, the family), and at other times extremely vague observations on the most varied social phenomena "in general", and at still other times, an uncritical comparison of society with an organism (the organic, biological school of sociology), etc.

All such arguments are in error. In the first place, the confusion prevailing in the bourgeois camp should not induce us to create still more confusion in our ranks. For the theory of historical materialism has a definite place, it is not political economy, nor is it history; it is the general theory of society and the laws of its evolution, i.e., sociology. In the second place, the fact that the theory of historical materialism is a method of history, by no means destroys its significance as a sociological theory. Very often a more abstract science may furnish a point of view (method) for the less abstract sciences. This is the case here also, as the matter in large type has shown.