Karl Kautsky

The Aims and Limitations of the
Materialist Conception of History

(August 1902)

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. 6 No. 8, August 1902, pp. 242–248;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
This is the start of a debate. It is replied to by Belfort Bax, in the same journal, Vol. 6, No. 9, pp. 270–275.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (November 2011).

Some time ago there appeared in the Neue Zeit, of Stuttgart, a discussion between E. Belfort Bax and Karl Kautsky on the “Materialist Conception of History.” It has more than once been suggested that this discussion would be of interest to readers of the Social-Democrat, and thanks to our comrade, J. B. Askew, who has been good enough to translate it, we are now able to reproduce it here.

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We followers of the methods of scientific Socialism, as laid down by Marx and Engels, are most unlucky; not only do the opponents of Marx and Engels fight us – besides that is natural – but, there are also people who every now and again go too far in their praise of Marx and Engels, and yet who find it incompatible with the dignity of a free thinker to apply their theories in a logical manner. The witty remark of Marx that he himself was no Marxist, they apply in deadly earnest, and they would very much like to make people believe that Marx considered those who shared his point of view as idiots, who were utterly incapable of thinking for themselves. Or they declare that the Marxists are in the main incapable of understanding Marx, and that they, the non-Marxists, are raped upon to defend Marx’s theory from the fanaticism of the Marxists.

Generally these curious beings content themselves with uttering certain of those phrases which, when brought out with the requisite tone of moral indignation, are sure of success in an assembly of freethinkers. A somewhat more serious attempt of this sort is made by the English Socialist, Belfort Bax, with an article entitled The Materialist Conception of History, which he has published in a recent issue of the Vienna weekly, Die Zeit.

Bax says of the materialist conception of history, after an introductory sentence:

“Taken in its most extreme form, therefore, this (the materialist) conception (of the historical development) says nothing less than that morality, religion, and art are not merely influenced by the economic conditions, but that they spring alone from the thought-reflex of those conditions in the social consciousness. In one word, the essential foundations of all history are material wealth, its production and exchange. Religion, morals, and art are chance phenomena, whose expression can be directly, or indirectly, traced back to an economic foundation.”

And in a footnote, Bax remarks in addition:

“No one who knows the theories of Karl Marx will need to be told that Marx himself was far from taking up such an extreme standpoint in his statement of the materialist conception of history. ‘Moi même je ne suis pas Marxiste’ – (myself, I am no Marxist) he wrote once, and he would most certainly have repeated this opinion if he had seen the latest performances of the ‘Marxists,’ Plechanoff, Mehring, or Kautsky.”

This footnote is decidedly original. The latest performances of the Marxists have been a source of displeasure to Bax. But he is afraid it would not have sufficient weight if he simply gave expression to his personal feelings of dissatisfaction with us. With a tenacity, which would have done honour to Miss Eusapia, he invokes the spirit of Karl Marx and allows him to formally disavow us.

It is, doubtless, in the highest degree fatal for us if Marx, through the medium of Bax, had disavowed our latest performances. But Bax has really no need to strain his theosophic powers so much. The materialist conception of history is the work not only of Marx, but also of Engels, and he had seen the “latest performances of the Marxists.” Why does Bax not mention Engels?

That is not the only remarkable point about this footnote. It is clear the only object is to get rid, once for all, of the three Marxists in question. To a clearing up of the issue it does not contribute in the smallest degree. On the contrary. In the text we only hear of the materialist conception of history. The note, on the other hand, tells us the conception developed in the text is not that of Marx. But he is very careful not to tell us whose conception it really is. Does Bax wish to insinuate that the conception of history there explained is the view of Mehring, Kautsky, &c.? Then I must protest against that, not only in my own name but in that of the Marxists generally. To no Marxist, who is to be seriously taken, has it occurred to speak of “Reflex-thoughts in the social consciousness,” whatever Bax may have meant by that? We have never looked for the “real foundation of all history in material welfare,” since we never seek the real foundation of all human activity in “material welfare” alone. And one does not require to have studied the literature of historic materialism very deeply to know that no Marxist holds that religion, morals and art are “chance” phenomena.

It is also thoroughly unknown to me that any materialist historian has written any nonsense of that kind. The materialist conception of history which Bax fights is therefore neither the conception of Marx, not that of the Marxists who, it is alleged, differ from Marx. We hand it over to Bax with pleasure, and will not feel ourselves in any way affected if he destroys it root and branch.

But Bax does not take merely a negative position, but also a positive, as becomes a philosophic critic. He improves the materialist conception of history.

That is to him too one-sided.

“The attempt,” he says, “to deduce the whole of human life from one element, to declare all history on the basis of economy, overlooks the fact that every concrete reality must have two sides, a material and a formal, therefore at least two fundamental elements ... According to my idea the theory under question requires to be improved in the following sense: The speculative, ethical, and artistic capacities of mankind exist as such in human society – even if undeveloped from the beginning – and are not simply products of the material conditions of human existence, although their expression at every time in the past, always to a small and very often to a considerable extent, has been modified by these factors. The whole development of society is to a far greater degree modified through its material conditions, than through any speculative, ethical or artistic cause. But this is not equivalent to saying that every ‘ideological’ cause can be resolved into a purely material condition ... I allow fully that the peculiar form of a movement, be it intellectual, ethical, or artistic, is determined by the material conditions of the society in which it asserts itself, but it will also be equally determined by the psychological elements and tendencies from which it is produced. Ability to think, e.g., the power of generalisation, of explaining events as cause and effect, can certainly not be reduced to the psychological reflex of the economic circumstances. In short, to summarise the views which I have here represented in opposition to the extreme Marxists: These extremists hold that human affairs are solely regulated through outward physical causes, while others hold the exact contrary, seeing only inward psychological and idealistic grounds. Both views I consider one-sided.”

It we strip the core from all this philosophical learning, then we find that Bax wants to say that morals, religion, art and science are not produced through the economic conditions alone; it is necessary that these conditions act on men with certain ethical, artistic and speculative capacities. Only through the co-operation of both factors does a social, artistic, or ethical movement arise.

Who can deny that Bax is right, and that the materialist conception of history is put completely out of court? But not the theory of Marx, not even of the Marxists, but that discovered by Bax, according to which morals, religion, and art formed the “thought-reflex of the economic conditions” in the “social consciousness,” material welfare the foundation of all action, and the “power of thought” could be “reduced to the psychological reflex of the economic conditions.”

The Marxian materialist conception is unfortunately far too one-sided and narrow to be able to raise a claim to explain the intellect, or all history. It has no pretension to be any more than a conception of history, a method for the research of the driving forces in the development of human society. Certainly it would be absurd to say that a work of art or a philosophical system regarded by itself was simply the product of social or in the last place economic conditions. But it is also not the duty of an historical hypothesis to explain artistic or philosophic activity. It has only to explain the changes which this activity had to undergo in the various periods. Doubtless, without intellect, no ideas. But does this deep knowledge help us in the smallest degree to answer the question, why the ideas of the nineteenth century differ from those of the thirteenth, and those again are not the same as those of the ancients?

It would be a palpable absurdity to pretend that the will and thought of men as, according to Bax, “the extreme wing of the materialist conception” say – are “alone determined through external physical force.” It is self-evident that the human organism plays a rôle in the production of idea, as the external world. But has the human organism changed its powers of thought, its artistic capacity, to any noticeable extent within historic time? Certainly not. The thought capacities of an Aristotle are certainly hardly surpassed; just as little the artistic ability of the ancients. What, on the other hand, has altered in the external world? Nature? Assuredly not. Greece enjoys just the same heaven today as in the days of Pericles but the society has changed, that is, really the economic condition and so far as nature and men have altered it has bean under the influence of the economic conditions.

The economic conditions are, therefore, not the only things which determine “human affairs” the “processes of human life,” but they are, among the determining factors, the only variable element. The others are constant, do not alter at all, or only under the influence of the changes of the variable element; they are, therefore, not motive forces of the historical development, even if they are indispensable elements of human life.

The materialist historian in no way overlooks, he does not undervalue the importance of the psychological factor in history. But very far from being a motive force of the historical development this factor shows itself far more as an essentially conservative element. Every historian knows what a great force tradition presents in history. While the economic development knows no standstill, human mind is always making the endeavour to remain in forms of thought which have been once attained; it does not directly follow the economic development but fossilises and remains in the old forms long after the social and economic conditions which created them are vanished.

So becomes, in the words of the poet, reason, folly; kindness a torment. That does not show itself only there, where a material interest is concerned in the maintenance of the old ways of thought. We would call to the mind, e.g., that designations of relationship are much more conservative than the family forms [1], as are our festivals, which defy all revolution, although the conditions are long passed away from which they sprung. The thought-forms of a later age offer accordingly many important hints for the recognition of the social conditions of a previous period. The economic development must then be far developed, its needs, and the new social relations produced by it must have already come into glaring contradiction to the accepted forms of law, of morals, and the whole traditional forms of feeling, and thinking, and organisation of society, before even the select, especially penetrating and courageous, are forced by it to develop and defend new views, new ideals for law and morality, and for the organisation of society, with the then existing means of art and science, ideals which owe their origin and their historical importance to the new needs and social relations, and whose historic importance, whose influence on the revolution of the human conscience, and the reconstruction of society depends on the degree of their approach to that required by the economic development.

But so conservative is human thought, that even the most revolutionary spirits at the commencement of a revolution of thought cannot refrain from pouring the new wine into old bottles, and regarding their ideas not as the overturning but as the fulfilling. Christ came, as is well known, not to abolish but to fulfil the law; the Reformers had no desire to erect a new Christianity, which corresponded to the needs of the fifteenth or sixteenth centuries, but to bring back the primitive Christianity of the Gospels, and the first Democratic Socialists of our time believed they had only got to complete the work which the French Revolution had begun but not completed. Social-Democracy was originally only a logical democracy.

The struggle of the new with the old elements must be already far advanced before the thinkers of the new idea are aware of the fact that these are irreconcilably opposed to the old. Even later is this naturally the case with the average man – even within those classes who have an interest in the rearranging of things. The class antagonism must have come to a head, the masses must be deeply stirred and agitated through the Class War before they acquire any interest for the now theories.

Thanks to this inertia of human consciousness the progress of society appears on superficial observation as the product of ideas, which come to certain “spirits favoured of God,” to use an expression which has made Bax especially angry, of ideas for which then the champions of progress win the mass of mankind. Thus it appears as though it was ideas which produce the progress of society. Nothing is more naive, than when the representatives of idealism reproach the materialists with overlooking the role of ideas in history. As if it were possible, as if the above-described process did not force itself on the attention of anyone who even began to study history. No, the materialists do not overlook this process, but they are not satisfied with that, in the manner of previous methods of writing history, which consists in remaining on the surface of the phenomena. They study deeper, and they find that the sequence of ideas is not arbitrary or haphazard, but determined by law; that to every distinct economic epoch of humanity distinct forms of religion, morals and law correspond, which one finds in all climates and among all races, and that, wherever the corresponding changes allow of investigation the change in the economic conditions precedes, and the alteration in the ideas of men only slowly follows, that therefore the latter is to be declared through the former and not the contrary.

That is the materialist conception of history; not as Bax describes it, but as it is laid down by Marx and Engels (let anyone compare among other things of the former the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, and of the latter &Feuerbach) and their pupils. That Bax’s criticism and even Bax’s amendment is not to the point, is clear.

The whole criticism which Bax applies to the materialist conception of history, rests on his confusion of the historical development with the “whole of human life.” He believes that an explanation of the first must suffice to give a full explanation of the latter. But he does not rest content with this confusion.

After he has discovered that human affairs are regulated through outward and inward causes, he at once puts his discovery into application, and remarks that in the course of the historical development alternately one factor, “the fundamental psychological tendencies,” alternately the other, “the economic conditions,” acquired the mastery.

“We come now,” he says, “to the important question, in what proportion to one another the two elements come into force at the various periods. That the one can considerably preponderate, and that this one throughout the whole history of human society has been the material element, is certainly to-day indisputable. But even in the periods for which we possess an historical record, we find – and that is indisputable – distinct periods in which the ‘ideological element’ preponderates. Those are the times in which a speculative belief is so firmly held by its followers that it forces the material interests of life into the background. To these belong the commencements of Christianity ... In the development of Christianity in the first two generations the material conditions played a very unimportant role, almost only a negative. Just so was in the early heretical movements of the Middle Ages the speculative element throughout predominant ... Certainly, it is hard for us who live in a period in which the economic factor forces all other into the background, to understand a time when that was not the case, so that children of this world could ever have accepted the teaching of theology with such unflinching faith, that it influenced their action; that chivalry, fealty, blood-relationship could ever have been so strong as to force all other expressions of life into the background, seems to the modern man inconceivable.”

What common folk we materialists must be! All the finer feelings of the human soul, which rise above the passion for money-making, are to us inconceivable. The virtues of chivalry, loyalty, altruism, these are not to be grasped by materialists, but only by certain select idealists among whom Bax evidently counts.

And how ignorant we materialists are! Every schoolboy knows what strong belief possessed the souls of the first believers in Christianity, and the reformers of the Middle Ages, only we materialists do not. But Bax has no need to go to the extreme Marxists to find this crass ignorance, even Marx is guilty of it. It is well known that in the Preface to his Critique of Political Economy, 1859, he developed the “Theory of Historic Materialism.” An American critic made the same discovery that our English critic makes to-day: Marx had declared that “the method of production of the material life determines the social, political and spiritual life in general”; to this the critic replied “that is all very right for the world of to-day, where the material interests dominate, but neither for the Middle ages where Catholicism, or for Athens or Rome where the political interest, was predominant.” In a note in Capital on this Marx remarked:

“In the first place it is strange that anyone should have chosen to assume that these universally known figures of speech about the Middle ages and the ancient world could have remained unknown to anyone. One thing is clear, that neither the middle ages could live from Catholicism, nor the ancient world from politics. The method in which they acquired their living, on the contrary, explains why there politics, and here Catholicism, played the principal role.”

This passage reveals Marx in his full materialist wickedness. The new discoveries of Bax he declared a generation ago to be phrases universally known. But this kind of talk seems to enjoy immortality, so therefore we will examine it closely once more. According to Bax, in the history of society, sometimes the material conditions, and sometimes “psychic ideological motor forces” have most influence, and he thinks to prove this by pointing to the origins of Christianity; among the first Christians the “material interests” played a quite unimportant part. They were carried along by an unshakable faith.

I should not dream of denying that, but perhaps I may be allowed to ask where the materialist historians have asserted that human beings were guided in their actions solely by material interests, i.e., by selfishness. Bax falls into the grave mistake of confusing material interests, which form the conscious motives of the actions of individuals, with the material conditions, which underlie a given society, and therefore, also the thinking and feeling of the members of that society.

Hand in hand with this goes another confusion. While Bax puts the material interests of the individuals on an equal footing with the material foundations of society, he transforms the first, i.e., selfishness, into an external influence working on men which he places over against the inner psychological factor. But it is clear that selfishness is just as much to be reckoned with the inner psychological factors as chivalry, altruism, faith, &c.

When, therefore, Bax discovers that mankind are at one time moved by selfishness, at another time by other motives, he does not with that prove what he wishes to prove, namely, that at one time the material, at another the psychological conditions dominate society, but that the psychological motor power is different under different forms of society. The fact which to Bax, thanks to a series of quid pro quos, presents the solution, forms just the problem which is to be solved. Why were men in the Roman Empire seized by the idea of flying from the world, by the need for happiness in heaven, by the feeling of internationalism, and equality, and all the other distinguishing characteristics of Christianity? Historic materialism investigates the changes, which took place at that time in the economic structure of society, and at the same time in its political and legal conditions, and finds that these changes sufficiently account for the changes of the psychological motives. I may perhaps here point out that I, in 1885, made the attempt to give a materialist explanation of the origins of Christianity (Die Entstehung der Christenthums, Neue Zeit, 1885, p. 481ff.) This investigation involved much research. Bax makes a very light job of it. He declares simply that the changes in the psychological motor forces at the time of the rise of Christianity are a result of the psychological motor power which, like Munchausen, pulls itself out of the slough by its own hair, and gives a new direction.

In the meantime, there is a deeper significance in the law which Bax propounds. It seems to me, even though it is little calculated to help forward the study of social organisation in the past, it affords a clue to Bax’s methods of writing history.

As a “student” of the writings of Marx and the “performances” of the Marxists he has found not only in the first, but also in the latter, although rated by him so very low, many hints which he does not neglect. But he is not satisfied with that. He has to bring his “thinking capacity,” his “psychological motor power” into play; there we come across the inner ideal element. The higher synthesis of the two constitutes Bax’s writings. A sample sufficed. In his latest book: Socialism, its Growth and Outcome (reviewed Neue Zeit, XII, i., pp. 630ff.), he attributes on page 92, in agreement with the Marxists the rise of the puritanical spirit in England to the economic development leading to capitalism. He describes the proletarisation of the English agricultural population, and continues:

“England in this manner paid her tribute to commerce, and paid for it with nothing leas than the loss of that rough joviality, that abundance, and that feeling of self-respect which formerly aroused the admiration of foreigners who suffered more hardship from the feudal system and its abuses than the English.”

On page 97, Bax writes quite otherwise:

“Protestant Puritanism ... is a quite remarkable isolated fact, probably the result of certain peculiar features of the people which have been developed through their conditions ... One must allow that the origin of this (puritanical) spirit is quite as mysterious as its existence is dangerous.”

The materialist suggestion which led Bax to look for the explanation of the puritanical spirit in the peculiar capitalistic development of England, therefore, made no too deep impression. On page 92 he explains the puritanical spirit in a perfectly materialist manner; five pages later he has quite forgotten this, and now the “psychological motor power” comes into its right, and scarcely has Bax made quite clear the joviality of merry old England than he discovers the ground of the puritanical spirit in a dangerous tendency of the English people to gloominess. It is clear. One cannot reproach this style of writing history with being one-sided. Not only does it explain one historic phenomenon on materialist, and the other on idealist, grounds, but explains oven the same phenomenon one time as materialistic, the other time as idealistic – according to the “psychological motor power” under whose influence the intellect of the historian stands at the moment. To that height of “synthesis” we one-sided extreme Marxists can certainly not rise.

(To be continued)


1. “The family,” says Morgan, “is the active element; it is never stationary, but only goes forward from a lower to a higher form in the degree in which society develops from a lower to a higher form. The systems of relationship, on the other hand, are passive; only in the course of long periods do they register the advance which the family in the course of time has made, and we only then notice the radical change when the family has undergone a radical alteration.” “And,” adds Marx, “it is just the same with the political, legal, religious and philosophical systems.”

Last updated on 13.11.2011