H.M. Hyndman

Evolution of Revolution

Chapter 27
The Limits of Historical Determinism

There were three great and original books written in the nineteenth century. Their authors were English, German and American. Darwin’s Origin of Species, Marx’s Kapital, and Morgan’s Ancient Society constituted an epoch in the progress of human knowledge and thought. Unfortunately, owing to the prejudices of the dominant class in all civilised countries with regard to private property and the origin and permanence of the monogamous family, the two latter did not immediately obtain the general recognition which accompanied the publication of the first. Even now, for example, educated Americans are often found who do not recognise the eminence of Lewis H. Morgan. Persistent efforts have been made on both sides of the Atlantic to belittle and misrepresent the economic theories and historical surveys of Karl Marx, whose works are, nevertheless, more studied to-day than ever. That is to say, now, thirty-seven years after their author’s death, sixty years after the appearance of his first important work, Zur Kritik der Politischen Ekonomie, and nearly as long since the publication of the first volume of Das Kapital, Marx’s theories and analyses are not only widely accepted, as the foundation of sound economic teaching, on the continent of Europe, but even in our English universities – always the last seats of learning to consider any new views on political economy – his investigations can no longer be advantageously boycotted. No doubt the fact that Marx was an active revolutionist as well as a powerful thinker, and a virulent denouncer of the frightful inhumanity engendered by capitalism, wage slavery and the entire system of production for profit, affected the judgment of the educated champions of the class which he attacked. They could not separate his economies and sociology from his revolutionary propaganda and pamphlets.

Examining any human society in the long progress of mankind, from the earliest times upwards, we find that, taken as a whole, it is influenced and moulded by the manner in which its members produce their food, manufacture their raiment, build and decorate their houses, construct their vessels, and obtain the large or small articles of luxury which they desire. That is to say, the foundation of an association of human beings is the method of creating and distributing wealth at the period when we examine into its constitution. Customs, laws, re­ligions, forms of worship, arts and culture generally, grow out of the means of satisfying the collective and individual needs of the community. The members of the society in the early days are themselves so completely a part of the entire structure that they accept the conditions under which they are born, and live in the relations to which they are accustomed from their birth, ignorant, for the most part, whence they came or whither they are going. The movement within the society or community, if movement there be, is wholly unconscious. Men and women, under such conditions, are merely sentient automata, guided by their social and almost instinctive customs. Their relations to other men and their families are regulated, unknown to them, by the material facts of their surroundings and social inheritance, which they are unable to understand or, consciously, to modify.

When, however, these material conditions of producing and distributing wealth undergo a change, then the whole of the other relations built up upon the previous methods of satisfying social needs must, in the long run, be transformed also. Thus the modifications in material conditions and methods of production, unnoticed at the time and unconsciously accepted, act upon the whole of the human relations which make up the entire superstructure of the society, in the body of which these modifications and changes have occurred. Customs, laws, political institutions and all the arrangements which were previously regarded as unchangeable and permanent, must now submit to such alteration as may bring them into harmony with the fresh economic forms. A new society has been growing up in the old society, which in due time must force the old society to revolutionise itself, whether the members of that society desire to do so or not. What had previously been generally advantageous now becomes harmful. What had before ensured peace now tends to engender war. What was a pleasing conservatism now shows itself as obstructive hindrance or downright reaction. No portion of the existing human relations can permanently withstand the current of change, thus brought about by the simple development of the modified forms of material creation of wealth.

So the process goes on from age to age, from generation to generation, sometimes so slowly that the forms of the existing system seem destined to endure for ever, sometimes with greater rapidity, but always very gradually. Every age and each successive generation believes that its own social relations will continue as they are, even when the material relations of production below have already doomed them as obsolete. Communal society, chattel slave society, serf society, free individual society, bourgeois society – all except communal society having their special gradation of classes, with their mutual antagonisms – each in turn regarded themselves as the last irremovable form of human society. It was both futile and criminal, they thought, for the classes representing the new economic forms to try to overthrow, or even greatly to alter, the existing social relations. Thus men think with reference to the bourgeois, or capitalist competitive wage slave society under which we live to-day. But here, too, the economic material relations have changed, are changing and will change. This will inevitably lead to a transformation of the entire social superstructure, consequent on the substitution of new forms for old, the abolition of wage slavery, and the establishment of co-operation without classes.

That in the main is the doctrine of the Material Development of History, or the theory of historical determinism, which has so widely influenced opinion of late years in the growing Socialist movement. Its more vehement advocates have put this theory forward as the solution of all the problems of human society: the philosopher’s stone of all social investigation. But this view cannot be accepted as any full explanation of human development. For we find that forms of production in agricultural communities, which remained unchanged for hundreds and even thousands of years, accommodated themselves to widely different social superstructures. Thus, in China and in India the main forms of small production on the land and in handicraft are almost precisely similar. Yet it is difficult to imagine two systems of association and government more widely different than those subsisting in these two great and populous empires. In China there are no castes, no fixed and immutable creeds, no wide dissemination of the precious metals on a large scale, almost universal education and no warrior spirit. In India everything is totally different. Caste, religion, general lack of education prevail, and wars were the rule rather than the exception, prior to the European conquest. It would be absurd to say that here forms of production governed, either directly or indirectly, the shape of the society above. The same forms resulted in quite other social relationships, and this not for a short period but for generations. Similar and almost equally striking illustrations can be drawn from the contrast between Egypt and Italy, where, apart from the difference of climate, the same small culture resulted in highly contrasted social forms.

Moreover, we have a striking example of the impossibility of accepting this general rule in the position of France and England. From the economic standpoint, France is still two or three generations at least behind Great Britain. Consequently, her political development ought to be similarly behindhand. But it is quite the reverse. France, with small peasant proprietorship controlling her chief industry, agriculture, and still in the early stage of the great factory industry, is a long way in advance of Great Britain politically. Her entire political constitution is, indeed, adapted to a far higher economic development than she has attained. Though, therefore, economic forms, inherited from the long past, do greatly and inevitably influence human development, and, in a period of rapid change of forms of production below, such as that of the last two centuries or more, the conflict between these modifications and the older methods is reflected in social antagonisms; yet the exceptions are so marked, in earlier epochs of human history, and extend over such vast areas of time, that it is impossible to accept the theory in its full meaning. Many other circumstances besides mere forms of production have to be taken into consideration.

Furthermore, there is another important element which is overlooked when the purely material monist theory of history is forced upon us. Thus it must be admitted that the general material progress of mankind is unconscious. Hitherto men have not been able, by understanding thoroughly the course of their social evolution, to forecast their own immediate future and lay scientific plans for the next stages in the development of the race. So far, it is clear, from the survey in the preceding chapters, that mankind has been dominated by its own unconscious growth. But this does not show that all the movements of our ancestors have been wholly engendered by material causes or that all collective actions have been entirely divorced fron psychologic motives, as the extreme monists contend. Granting even that economic causes account for many, if not most, of tin great changes in human affairs and human conceptions, never theless, when society has arrived at a certain level, human psychology, running side by side with human development, generally also has its share in historic movements. Arising out of society with the material economic conditions functioning throughout this psychologic tendency exercises for short, and sometimes for relatively long, periods the dominant influence. There are great episodes in history which no conceivable manipulation of the material theory can explain without taking psychology currents into account.

In this respect there is a similarity between society and the individual. By far the greater part of the processes of individual human life are automatic, and beyond the control of the person whose lungs, liver, stomach, eyes, ears, spleen, etc., do their material work independently, in the main, of his volition. But out of this sentient automatism a psychologic element is engendered in the highest mammals, which subsists in our own consciousness, has a reflex action upon the functions of the boch of which it is itself a higher function, and comes within the scope of the individual mind and reason, as we speak of such action in its own being. This is not an element of the human animal outside matter. But it is related to matter in a different sense from the heart or the lungs, or even the instincts.

So with society. The minor operations of mere collectivity in society are unconscious and involuntary. This was more so in the past than it is to-day. But throughout history there have been cases where large numbers of people have been induced to do things which, whether advantageous or disadvantageous to them, justifiable or unjustifiable to their neighbours, cannot be put down as due to material influences pure and simple. That is to say, at particular moments, though the material development goes on as before, the psychologic influence, whatever it may be and whencesoever it may arise, becomes for the time being the dominating factor. Examples of the psychologic, as overcoming the economic factor, on a large scale, are not far to seek. From the individual Malay who runs amok out of religious mania to the rise of the great Mohammedan religion is a very long way. The one we stigmatise as temporary lunacy, the other is one of the greatest episodes in the history of mankind. It would be difficult to attribute either wholly and solely to the material evolution of the individual or of the collection of tribes. The effect of the religion of Mohammed was tremendous from the beginning, and its influence, still unexhausted, has extended over many centuries. Yet at the time when the founder of the religion first preached his creed, the Arabs of pure race were living the life which their ancestors had lived for hundreds, and even thousands, of years before. No change whatever had taken place in their forms of production, pastoral or agricultural, for generations. None can be traced in action, when the Prophet of Allah made his appearance. Certainly, as Arabs, they were exercising no great influence upon the history or the development of the adjacent countries. The old fetishist idolatry and the old tribal customs remained as they had ever been. The aristocratic Arab gentes were still in control.

Mohammed was a personally impoverished member of one of these aristocratic gentes. The whole of the Arab tribes together, extending over a wide expanse of by no means fertile territory, amounted to fewer than 15,000,000 souls, women and children included. There was nothing whatever to show that this race was ready for one of the greatest movements of aggression and conquest the world has yet seen; nor were there any economic grounds at all that could account for the preaching and spread of a powerful new religion. If ever in human history the foundation and promulgation of a fighting creed was the work of one man, the faith of Islam was the work of Mohammed. He himself converted first his own family – no easy matter – and then, in spite of stupendous difficulties, persuaded his tribesmen, partly by force and partly by persuasion, to adopt the watchword of Allah, the one God, and Mohammed, his Prophet. For Mohammed, though he gathered round him able and devoted followers, had no Saul of Tarsus to take up, to organise, and to philosophise his teachings. The whole propaganda hinged upon himself. It was not a religion of plunder at the start. It was a blind enthusiasm, divorced from any economic or material motive, a faith that removed mountains. All the ingenuity in the world will not accommodate this tremendous awakening of the Arabs to pure material, historic determinism.

When I was discussing the matter with Plechanoff, perhaps the ablest champion of the complete determinist theory, he argued that Mohammedanism might be an apparent exception to the general rule, which, with wider knowledge, could be harmonised with the full, unmodified Marxian theory. But that was a very wide assumption. Not only Mohammed himself, but Mohammedans, throughout the early days of their astounding victories, fought their best when the element of material gain was entirely eliminated, and they sacrificed their lives for God and his Prophet with the consciousness that in dying in such a cause Paradise would be their eternal portion. But if that accords with economic determinism, then words and thoughts have no clear meaning.

Here we have a distinct, and curiously powerful psychologic or religious influence, which, basing itself on a Monotheism expounded by one individual, who made no pretension to being in any way other than a man, who claimed no miraculous powers whatever, and had no cohort of male and female saints to conduct his believers in safety to Elysium, nevertheless so inspired his race with a belief in his religion that they could not refrain from going forth to propagate his doctrines with exhortation, fire and sword. So far did they carry matters on this non-material basis that, within a hundred years, they had conquered region after region far more numerously peopled than their own, sometimes with inhabitants who, before the advent of these fanatics, had shown themselves vigorous warriors, and were better equipped for battle than the Mohammedans who attacked and defeated them.

Again, we may take the antagonistic movement to this Mohammedanism which came centuries later. Can any reasonable man contend that the hermit Peter and those who first went forth with him were inspired with conceptions of wealth to be gained by retaking Jerusalem from the infidel? The very idea is absurd. Those crowds who followed the Christian illusionist were filled full of zeal for the glory of God and His Christ – His Christ who had been crucified in the great Jewish city many centuries before, in order to save them from eternal fire. It was an outrage that this Holy City, about the history of which they knew little or nothing, should be in the hands of the infidel. Therefore they went forth from their homes, and perished by the thousand of famine and disease before they had got a tenth part of the way to their destination, where if they had, by some miracle, arrived, they would have been slaughtered like sheep. These men, women and children were not impelled upon their bootless and ruinous mission by any form of economic or material influence. Obviously, they were smitten with religious hallucination, exterior to all desire for material gain. Historic determinism had no voice in this matter. Knowing all the antecedents even, can we say, in the early Crusades, or in the case of Mohammed, that we could have predicted this immediate consequent?

Here, then, are two great movements which produced an enormous effect on their time, whose history is well known. Both had their origin, not in any economic cause, or modification in the forms of production, but in purely psychologic influences, which, though arising out of material development, cannot be attributed to material action on the minds of those who took part in the religious manifestations.

All this argument would be quite unnecessary, but for the fact that the extreme monists of materialism have obtained a following for their rigid determinism which will not bear the test of examination. Illuminating as the theory is when properly interpreted, obvious as it seems, when once fully stated, that the forms of production do constitute the main basis of social superstructures, the whole conception is made ridiculous when its votaries refuse to recognise the demonstrable truth that similar forms of production sometimes have wholly dissimilar governments superimposed upon them. The fanatics of materialism divorced from mind, who are as superstitious as the fanatics of mind divorced from matter, damage their own theory when they claim to solve all problems with this single key.

But the acceptance of the doctrine leads to strange perver­sions on the other side. Thus the class antagonisms, which inevitably arise out of the economic relations of modern as of ancient society, are frequently declared to be inspired by “ambition” and “hatred.” Whereas it is quite impossible that hatred or love can affect the progress of economics, any more than they can the problems of mathematics. No man at present, reading of the sufferings inflicted upon slaves in the mines of antiquity, or in the legal torture chambers of the courts of justice, can fail to be horrified at such atrocities; nor can he peruse the records of the frightful treatment of children in the Lancashire cotton mills during the early part of the nineteenth century without bitter indignation against a class which piled up wealth and acquired social power by such practices. But the majority of men at the time felt no indignation; and we ourselves are used to cruelties enacted to-day which our descendants will hear of with indignation in their turn. Human pity influences but slowly the pressure of the economic force at the disposal of the dominant class. When profitable cruelty is put an end to by the higher ethic of an advancing society in one direction, it finds an outlet in another, until the time is ripe for a complete overthrow of the system.

Human development, we are told, is wholly unconscious, and men in society still nothing better than sentient automata. If, knowing all the antecedents, we are infallibly able to predict with accuracy the immediate consequent; if the antagonisms of classes, and of individuals as representatives of their classes, are eternal under existing conditions of human progress; if the members of the dominant class of the day are, like the rest of mankind, solely creatures of the surroundings into which they are born, brought up and trained; if, finally, it is impossible for any human being to rise out of the period that sees him grow up and develop – if all this is true, as purely material monism, divorced from psychology, declares it is, then, obviously, there is nothing moral or immoral under the sun. Slave-drivers of old, or the harshest of sweaters of our day, were, and are, no more responsible for their actions than sharks or alligators, tigers or boa-constrictors. Consequently, it is useless, as it is unscientific and unphilosophical, to denounce malefactors or glorify saints. Jack the Ripper and Sakya Mouni are on the same ethical plane; a Confucius or a Faraday is no better than a Rasputin. Each and all are acting upon predetermined lines laid down for them by their surroundings from birth, from which it is impossible, given the prior conditions, that they should at any time diverge. Obviously we have here the controversy of predestination and free will transferred materially, from the mere individual, to society at large. In spite of the undeniable psychologic current, and individual examples of a higher ethic, there can, according to this view, be no individual or social morality until humanity arrives at the stage where collective and social influence is exercised by society as a whole; the causes of immorality, as we call it, being removed by social, material and intellectual conditions, which remove all, or nearly all, inducements to anti-social acts. When this level of material development is reached the whole problem of human relations will be revolutionised. The Ten Commandments will be again as completely “out-of-date” as they would have been if they had come down from Sinai in the old communal period. The social ethic, that is to say, will be collective and communal, as property and wealth become communal and collective. Moreover, under such social collectivism and co-operative communism, the material development will be reflected in the mentality of the society. A new state of society will bring about new virtues and new crimes. But, above all, man being freed from care as to material needs, psychology will have increasing influence upon the social evolution.

That is of the future. But does it follow that there is no psychologic influence or conscious action, on a lower plane, in the present? Can we assert that there has been no such influence in the past? This would be to accept the doctrine that, as the extreme monists contend, men in society are still mere sentient automata, that they are wholly creatures of material conditions which they are powerless, either individually or collectively, to modify, or to react upon, and that, consequently, there can be no conscious psychologic element in existing society at all. That is what the contentions of the fanatics of historic determinism, including Kautsky, when pushed to extremities, virtually amount to. But this is directly counter to human experience in more than one direction. Not only is there manifestly a psychologic current in human affairs, but it is gaining in relative force, as mankind gains in knowledge and consciousness of its surroundings and begettings. Only thus can society with its individuals, and individuals with their society, intelligently comprehend, and, by comprehending, increasingly and capably guide, in part at least, their own development; social progress being admitted as the growing aim and object of all. What may be the limits of the two elements, purely material evolution and psychologic influence, we may be unable at any given moment to determine, but that the latter cannot safely be neglected is clear.

A survey of history shows that it is quite impossible to anticipate economic evolution by forcible action, or even greatly to accelerate an inevitable economic transformation by such means. Those who made these attempts, at most, brought to the front ideals which kept alive the hope, and strengthened the determination of the oppressed to take advantage of any future opportunity for successful revolt. On the other hand, the loss of leaders with knowledge, courage and initiative in the unsuccessful rising – and leaders of this character are indispensable and not easily replaced – brings about a period of discouragement among the survivors; while sheer reaction, which for a time crushes down progress, may also be the result of such failure. At present, when, in all economically advanced countries, and particularly in Great Britain, economically the most advanced of all, the comparatively short-lived capitalist system is manifestly making way for collective administration and communist and co-operative production and distribution, it is more than ever essential to keep these things in mind.

Last updated on 7.7.2006