Henry Hyndman

The Scientific Investigation of History


Source: Social Democrat, Vol.10 No.2, 1906. pp.74-78.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

It seems to me that there are certain defects in style, on both sides, in this controversy, which I may reasonably speak of without offence to either disputant. Rothstein, in his criticism of Bax, apparently forgot that he was discussing with a man, who, whatever may be his shortcomings in practical politics, is possessed of quite exceptional learning, and who, in the domain of pure philosophy, has shown himself, beyond dispute, to be one of the most acute intellects of his time. This is no exaggeration whatever of Bax’s position in the world of thought and letters. To write of him, when treating of his own subject, as if he were a mere sciolist is a piece of literary presumption which, I confess, for Rothstein’s sake, I regret. This sort of thing is far too common among extreme “Marxists,” who push dogmatism to the point of bigotry, and strain Marx’s theories to an extent which that great thinker would have been the first to deride – which, indeed, he himself laughed at contemptuously many years ago.

On the other hand, I cannot, for the life of me, understand why Bax, who has a complete command of philosophic and academic phraseology of a clear and convincing kind, and is not at all wanting in power to handle plain, nervous English, should disfigure his argument by sticking into it great gobbets of slang, when he could express his meaning much more forcibly without any such derogation from his literary dignity. I am convinced that Bax is right and Rothstein wrong in this discussion; but Bax’s refutation, in my opinion, is strong enough to stand by itself, without any of these grotesque and unseemly interpolations.

That the main developments of human society have been chiefly influenced by economic causes Bax has never denied. On the contrary, I know of no writer who has insisted more strongly upon this than he. In my own way, I have worked on the same side, as all my books and pamphlets show. It was more important to insist upon this element in human history, during the past quarter of a century, than to take account of the modifications which must inevitably be weighed and considered if the whole subject is to be adequately dealt with. When Marx and Engels, therefore, had systematised the material conception of history it was a matter of much more urgent necessity to verify and spread and extend this conception than to point out the great parallel current, or even at times counter-current, which was running through human affairs at the same time. Just as in attempting to solve any mechanical or geometrical problem we eliminate friction, or the pressure of the atmosphere, or even matter itself, though perfectly aware that it exists.

Far too little account had been taken of the actual economic causes as bearing upon the succession of social developments before Marx came to the front; though, of course, he would never for a moment have claimed that he originated the idea. Consequently, the whole Socialist school, which has accepted him as its chief master in economics, and to some degree in sociology, has thought itself justified in temporarily excluding what Bax designates as the psychic influence on man in society, which, as already said, has not infrequently overcome, for the time being, the economic influence.

Surely, however, it is now high time that we should openly recognise that there is something in history beyond the annals of production and distribution. In the human body ninety-nine hundredths of its action must be automatic, yet the mind, which is a function of this highly-developed animal, exercises an influence of a most potent character over the whole material organism; so, in society, what we may call, for want of a better phrase, the social mind, has often obtained temporary control, to the extrusion of the economic factor pure and simple.

As Bax himself has admirably put it in one direction “The idea of a future life is not an economic factor.”

Yet there is no man in his senses, not even a Marxian eager to discover in the materialist conception of history the universal theorem which shall comprise and elucidate all human expansions; there is no man in his senses who would dispute that the doctrine of a future life, the hope of future reward and the fear of future punishment, has at times, and even often, swept the economic motive aside, not only for individuals, but for vast masses of men. These people, so moved by a non-economic factor, were living under known economic conditions – we all admit that; but the psychical motive has, nevertheless, for long periods dominated the physical motive – and he who does not admit that, has, in my judgment, read history to very little purpose. Illustrations of the truth of this proposition rush, indeed, to the point of the pen. The difficulty would be to know where to stop, not where to begin.

Again, since Bax has referred to the instance of progress in the higher mathematics, which I suggested at the time of his discussion with Kautsky, I may here again point out that in nearly all such investigations, as in the establishment and verification of new formulae, the abstract discovery precedes the concrete application, often by decades, sometimes by centuries. Human reason in such cases acts, as it were, in vacuo, and has a marvellous power of intellectual anticipation, entirely divorced from the practical material facts of the time. Here, once more, evidence of a completely overwhelming character is ready to hand. In fact, the tendency of purely abstract thought in this connection, is towards unrealisability, to coin a word; and the old joke of the two famous Cambridge Professors, Cayley and Stokes, meeting on one occasion and vigorously denouncing the “scoundrel” who had found a practical use for their most recent theorem, only exaggerates a frame of mind in this department which is well known to all who have even a superficial knowledge of the subject. Bax’s own mind in philosophy, also, positively abhors concrete illustration, and he never, in my opinion, shows his capacity to so much advantage as when he is writing entirely in the abstract.

But, really, it is scarcely worth while to argue this point farther before any well-educated audience. To repeat and sum up, therefore. It is obvious that the individual human mind, though a function of highly-organised matter, has an existence and laws peculiar to itself, and a power of reaction upon matter, as well as a capacity of unconscious anticipation, which cannot be brought under the heading of any economic factor whatever. Overwrought imagination, religious creeds and feelings, hopes and fears of a future life, the ideas of spirits or shades of the departed, are all conceptions, lying on the borderland of hallucination, and producing extraordinary personal and social phenomena, which have vastly affected the history of individual man and of mankind in society. On the other hand, in the domain of science, imaginary quantities, which no human mind can grasp, and which have no application so far in actual fact at all, infinities of time and space and numerals, of attraction and repulsion, of the indistinguishably small and the inconceivably great, which the mental processes of man at present admittedly cannot comprehend, expansions and differentiations and integrations, etc., which are wholly unverifiable in all the categories of matter, are nevertheless used to push forward the boundaries of human knowledge, and, by reasoning on the abstract and the unknown to-day, to prepare the ground for the concrete and known in the more advanced society of a future time.

I accept Bax’s statement – though I have arrived at the same conclusion by a very different route – that history has two main factors: the first, and by far the most important as a whole, the material or economic factor; the second, always present, and at special periods dominant, the psychical or mental factor. To exclude either from a serious investigation is inexcusable nowadays. And, though I believe I may claim to have done as much to popularise, and even to extend, Marx’s teachings as any man living, I do hope we Socialists shall not attempt to put him on a pedestal of infallibility, similar to that which, occupied by Aristotle, dominated and stunted human intelligence for some centuries.



Last updated on 30.7.2007