Jack Fitzgerald

Review of Historical Materialism and the Economics of Marx

Source: Socialist Standard, August 1915.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain
HTML Markup: Michael Schauerte
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2007). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

Historical Materialism and the Economics of Marx
by Benedicto Croce

One of the advantages of being a University Professor, or a Lecturer at a College, is that one may write arrant nonsense and pass it off for great wisdom on the uncritical reader.

The net result of the various essays forming the above volume is to leave the student with the conviction that the elder Weller’s statement can still be applied with force when he asked whether “it was worth while going through so much to learn so little.” Words, words, words, my masters, but little of real ideas or thoughts represented by these words and still less of any real criticism of Marx’s works.

The essays dealing with “Historical Materialism” are in the main an attempt to criticise Labriola’s writings on this subject. Labriola has replied to some of them in a new edition of his work, Socialism and Philosophy, so we need not cover the same ground here.

In their attempts to answer certain questions, Marx and Engels found that all the old theories and explanations taught at the Universities failed to give any satisfactory reply. Hence they were forced to re-examine the basis for themselves. And note the result. For this re-examination compelled them to abandon all their early training in philosophy, including their Hegelianism, as these furnished no answer.

It was in the facts of history they had to look for, and finally found, the answer to their questions. This was that the conditions of production and distribution of wealth formed the basis of, and gave the explanation to, the general form and structure of society. Now it should be evident that if there is a “structure of society” on a given basis, the factors of this structure will have a modifying effect upon the direct movement of the base. Perhaps an illustration may make this clear. Due to the fact of Gravity water will descend from a hill-top to a valley. The Gravity is the basic factor. The actual path will depend upon the kinds of soil, and obstacles met upon the way down. The stream seldom follows a straight course, but it still remains true that the only explanation of the water’s main movement is the force of Gravity.

In the case of social development the matter is of course not only more complex in itself, but we are far more ignorant of the factors and their properties than in the case of the soils in our illustration. The interest of the ruling class in hiding or falsifying certain of these factors is no mean stumbling-block in our way.

The discovery of Marx and Engels was independently rediscovered by Lewis H. Morgan from the Ethnological side. But in neither case was it pretended that it gave an automatic answer to every petty little incident in history. At best it only supplied the answer to the question of fundamental changes in society, and as Lafargue pointed out, it became a splendid instrument of research into history, not a ready answer to little puzzles. Marx himself applied the discovery twice with conspicuous success—first in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Napoleon III, and secondly in the pamphlet on the Commune of Paris, called The Civil War in France. But Marx was at a serious disadvantage compared with our “professors.” He had to work for his living—often a poor one—in the midst of his other labours. Hence the incompleteness of many of his writings, particularly on this subject.

Yet how do his critics deal with those writings? At first they ignored them. Then it became the fashion to treat them as nonsense easily disposed of by a sneer. Unfortunately for these beautiful methods the working class is taking up the study of Socialism in steadily increasing numbers, and, despite the admitted difficulties of the form in which Marx wrote, are more and more reading his books. So the “latest and loveliest” method is to adopt the attitude of “revising” and “improving” Marx. It is now admitted that he was a giant intellect—hence the greater credit in “putting him right” —and that his works are important contributions to our knowledge—or rather they will be when properly “revised.”

Just here, however, the student finds himself laced with a pretty problem. No two of these “critics” are agreed upon what is wrong in Marx’s writings, if we leave out the question of value for a moment. Who is he to follow? Many of these “critics” are Professors or Fellows of Colleges. They have written in some cases ponderous tomes, more difficult to understand than Marx and for a sufficiently obvious reason. In the volume under review the author claims that “Historical Materialism” is a “mass of new data, of new experiences, of which the historian becomes conscious.” (p. 12.)

Indeed! what are these “new experiences” and “data” thus supplied? Croce cannot tell us because they don’t exist. On page 77, however, he tells us “Historical Materialism if it is to express something critically acceptable...must be simply a canon of historical interpretation.” This “canon” he describes as an aid in seeking results—an utterly nonsensical definition to English readers, as they understand the word “canon” to mean a standard for: measuring or comparison.

By far the most audacious claim of this Italian critic is his discovery that Marx was really a metaphysician and idealist! True! This was charged against Marx when his Critique of Political Economy first appeared, so let us look at Croce’s grounds for this claim.

On page 60 he says: “the capitalist society studied by Marx is not this or that society, historically existing, in France or in England, nor the modern society of the most civilised nations, that of Western Europe and America. It is an ideal and formal society, deduced from certain hypotheses, which could indeed never have occurred as actual facts in the course of history.” If it were not for the fact that the phrase might seem discourteous we should feel inclined to call this statement an absurd fabrication; instead we merely remark that every line of Marx’s works flatly contradicts Croce’s claim. Indeed, on page 79 he says “Marx was addicted, in short, to a kind of concrete logic”!

His general view may be stated as that Marx only examined one fact in history and this is so overlaid and interconnected with other facts that though it may be important it is not a dominant one. It may be “rich in suggestion”; it may be the road “along which the solution must be sought of some of the greatest problems of history,” but it is only a metaphysical abstraction. From his high and pure position he can look down and smile at both the Marxians who regard the research into so-called “pure economics” as absurd, and at the various critics who have all failed to see in Marx what was left for Croce to discover.

If it were possible the essays dealing with’ .Marx’s economics are worse than those dealing with historical views. Once more the “abstract” and “metaphysical” charges are made without the slightest evidence to support them. Croce agrees with the “utility theory” of value formulated in its modern form by Jevons and appropriated by the so-called “Austrian School” without, apparently, being aware of how completely the theory was crushed by Marxian criticism, in the land of its birth. In the only chapter in which Croce attempts to come to close quarters with Marx’s economics—the one on “The fall in the Rate of Profit,” he attempts to build up a case by maintaining that, according to Marx, when a number of labourers are displaced by improved methods of production, they are not discharged but kept on and production increased accordingly. Croce says that usually the production remains the same, the men are discharged and therefore profits rise with the alteration in the composition of capital. As the base of his criticism is false—for of course Marx has worked out the result of such a condition—his house of cards collapses.

According to the publisher’s note, a Mr. A. D. Lindsay has written an “illuminating introduction.” The thing most illuminated by this introduction is Mr. Lindsay’s ignorance of Marx’s writings. For he refers to “the laws of supply and demand which alone affect all things that have economic value” and says that the pure economist “finds little difficulty in refuting Marx’s theory,” in complete ignorance that Marx had shattered the so-called “Law of Supply and Demand” in Value, Price and Profit as well as in Capital. His reference to Socialism as an “automatic working out of economic laws” is too childish for farther consideration to-day.

However, as he admits at the end of his introduction that his knowledge of Marx and of economics is too small to allow him to judge Croce’s appraisement of Marx’s work, we may be thankful for small admissions.

Despite Croce’s attempt to forestall the criticism he feared would come when he states (p. 64) that he does not consider an explanation adequate and appropriate “which resolves itself into accusing a large number of students of allowing themselves blindly and foolishly to be overcome by passions alien to science; or, what is worse, of knowingly falsifying their thought,” it still remains the only explanation of these various falsifications of Marx under the cloak of “criticising” or “revising” his works. Unless, indeed, he would desire us to flatter their honesty at the expense of their intellects.