Karl Kautsky

The Aims and Limitations of the
Materialist Conception of History

The Critics of the Theory

(October 1902)

Source: Social Democrat, October 1902, pp. 296–299.
First published: Neue Zeit, XV. Jahrg.: No. 7, Part I.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
This is a reply to E. Belfort Bax, The Synthetic or the Neo-Marxist Conception of History originally in Neue Zeit – XV. Jahrg: (October 28, 1896) but translated in Social Democrat, pp. 270–274.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (November 2011).

My reply to Bax’s article in the previous number of the Neue Zeit will not be as short as I myself wished. If the continuation of the discussion is to be of value it will be necessary to go into a deeper discussion of some material questions.

It certainly is to me no laughing matter when Bax, without any hesitation,, ascribes to me “interpolations” and “tricks which are beneath the dignity of a scientific criticism.” These accusations find their answer in the fact that I have quoted all the passages which Bax accuses me of falsifying fully and accurately. My readers were therefore in a position to control my criticism.

But if anyone is not justified in raising the charge of false quotation of his words, it is Bax, who as well in the presentation of his own views as in those of others shows a quite astonishing lack of interest in accuracy. That is all the more unpleasant as he has not the habit of quoting verbally the sentences he criticises. He prefers, as he says himself, to give them in “slightly altered language for the sake of brevity.” The desire for brevity is very praiseworthy, but I think the necessity for accuracy ought to outweigh that in a discussion.

An example suffices. Bax writes in his reply:

“And now let us consider a concrete case of the application by Kautsky of the methods of Marx. Kautsky asserts in his History of Socialism that the whole dispute over the question of the Lord’s Supper, in the Hussite War was simply a ‘cloak’ under which the class struggles of that time were fought out ... Now I ask what the word ‘cloak’ in this connection means? If the phrase ‘cloak’ has any meaning it must be this, that the question of the cup, e.g., the theological belief of that time, had no independent force in determining the action of those who played a part; in short, if the expression of Kautsky is to mean anything at all then it can only mean the following: either the belief was sincere and real or a conscious or unconscious hypocrisy as such beliefs mostly are to-day; only in the latter case can one with good right talk of a ‘cloak.’”

Thus Bax puzzles himself at great length to find out what I meant by the word “cloak.” This expression it is which pains him. What have I in reality written in the History of Socialism?

“In the Catholic Church it had become the custom to give the laity not bread and wine, but simply wine. It was quite in keeping with a theory which aimed at abolishing the privileges of the priesthood, that it also made a stand against this privileged position. The cup, the lay cup, became from, then onwards the symbol of the Hussites. According to the traditional method of writing history, in the gigantic struggles of the Hussite Wars there was nothing more at stake than the question whether the Communion was to be taken under both kinds or not, and the ‘enlightened people’ do not forget to point out with satisfaction in this connection how narrow the people of that time were and how clear, on the contrary, are the Freethinkers of our time.

“But this presentation of the Hussite movement is just about as wise and justified as it would be if, in describing historically in future centuries the revolutionary struggles of our time, it were to be said that people were still so ignorant in the nineteenth century as to ascribe a superstitious importance to certain colours, so that bloody struggles arose over the fact whether the colours of France should be white or blue-white-red, that of Hungary black-yellow or red-white-green, that in Germany. for a long time everyone who carried a black-red-golden band was sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, &c., &c.

“What the different flags mean to-day for the different nations and parties meant also the cup for the Hussites; their banner, around which they assembled, which they defended to the last, but not the object for which they were fighting.”

Anyone can see I have not used the word “cloak,” and I have expressed myself fully and clearly enough to exclude all doubt as to how I wish the question of the cup to be conceived. I have nevertheless on my side not the intention to turn the tables and accuse Bax of dishonourable conduct or of intentional interpolation. I will restrain myself from making any such accusation lightly. I have not mentioned the case in order to proceed against Bax in a fit of moral indignation. I note the fact of Bax’s indifference to accuracy only on these grounds, because it is manifested not simply in minor details, but also in the main question, in the presentation of the object of the discussion itself, and thereby gives this its character.

This indifference assumes at times, as I have already remarked “quite a monstrous” form.

I have pointed out to Bax (Neue Zeit, Jahrg. 1895–96, No. 47, translated in Social-Democrat, August), in my reply to his article in the Zeit, that he is guilty of the “quite monstrous confusion of material interests with material conditions.” And what does Bax answer?

“In the developing of the materialist conception of history I find that these ideas more or less coincide ... The material conditions which have determined history are indisputably in most cases to be traced back to the material interests of classes or nations, therefore I consider the indignation of Kautsky somewhat exaggerated.”

Not enough that Bax confuses the material interests with the material conditions, but he clings fast to his confusion, even after he has been shown that it is absurd.

Can it be that Bax really does not know what is meant by the material conditions of society? These material conditions – that is, the conditions of production – this word taken in the broadest sense of the word; how can anyone assert that that is for the materialist conception of history pretty much the same as the material interests of classes and nations? The difference between the two words is shown by the following consideration: It is, in my opinion, possible, from the material conditions of the Roman Empire, to explain the revulsion from earthly things, and the passionate desire on the part of the Christians. But it would be monstrous to look behind the desire for death for a material interest! And yet Bax finds that the material condition, “in most cases,” are to be traced back to material interests. He would, therefore, explain the methods of production from the class interests, and not, vice versa! According to Bax, it is not necessary to study the methods of production to understand the class interests of capitalists and proletariat, but vice versa. The methods of Political Economy acquire thus a valuable addition.

This indifference to an exact definition of ideas has, however, all the more a disturbing influence on the discussion, in that Bax so determinedly leaves us in the dark as to what his criticism is directed against.

As in his article in the Zeit, so in his reply, he persists in maintaining that a difference exists between the historic conception of Marx and Engels, and; that of their followers. Certainly he expresses himself less decidedly than in his first article. In that article he declared in a footnote:

“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. ‘Myself I am no Marxist,’ he wrote once; and he would most certainly have repeated his opinion if he had seen the latest performances of the ‘Marxists,’ Plechanoff, Mehring, or Kautsky.”

This time Bax simply says:

“I was of opinion that Marx, and from certain expressions which he used, also Engels, would have regarded the materialist conception of history as interpreted by Kautsky, Mehring, and Plechanoff as too stereotyped. Nevertheless, I make Kautsky a present of the whole personal question.”

That is certainly very kind of Bax, but he is making me a present of something which no longer belongs to him but to the public. The whole of his first article rests on the supposition of an antagonism, between Marx and his pupils. To my reply he repeats this assertion, which is expressed in the title of his second article, and goes through his article like a red trail; but when Bax has to prove this assertion, then he generously makes me a present of the question and himself a present of the answer, not forgetting, however, to drop an obscure hint that Engels, “from certain expressions which he used,” would have regarded the materialist conception of history as interpreted by Kautsky, Mehring and Plechanoff, as “too stereotyped.” Unfortunately, Bax does not give us the least information whether these expressions were oral or written, public or private, what they referred to and – how they ran. As long as he is silent on these points, he must allow me to take for granted that these “certain expressions” have as much in common with a disapproval of my historical methods as a “cloak” with a “flag” or an interest with a condition, all the more, as I am in the happy position of being able to point to certain very distinct utterances of Engels which say just the contrary of what Bax asserts.

Naturally, I do not wish to say that Engels would have subscribed to every word, which I, or any other Marxist – I can here only speak for myself – had expressed. Each of us is an individuality for himself, who makes his own researches independently for himself, and gives an account of them, and none of us is a Marx or an Engels.

But what is common to us is the standpoint, and that is the same as that of Marx and Engels.

If Bax wishes to prove that our application of the Marx-Engels principles is false, he must treat each of us as an independent individuality, and for each one of us specially out of his own writings bring the proof which he wishes to express.

If he wishes, however, only in general terms, as is actually the case, to criticise our common standpoint, then it is absolutely arbitrary for him to set up a difference between us and our masters which we ourselves do not recognise.

Bax thinks, it is useless to trouble ourselves with this, for the whole affair is in the last degree an unimportant personal question. “As far as I am concerned, could Marx or even Engels have been Marxists in the sense of Kautsky?”

Now, it does not appear to me that in the given connection this question is so purely personal. Before one discusses a theory, the subject of the dispute must be clearly defined. But the same lack of precision is developed by Bax, as elsewhere. At one time it is the “neo-Marxist” “extreme” conception, which he is fighting, then again the materialist conception of history in general, but he always carefully avoids pointing out what are actually the opinions which he is criticising. Marx, Engels, each of the “neo-Marxists” have frequently expressed themselves on the materialist conception of history, but Bax does not quote a single sentence to hang his criticism on.

This lack of accuracy, as well in the definition of the subject as in the separation of the concepts, and in the expression, is undoubtedly a serious impediment to all discussion; it is, however, twice as great a disturbance in a discussion of the Marxian ideas.

One of the essential advantages by which Marx and Engels were enabled to make their great scientific discoveries, was their clearness in the division and separation of ideas. Anyone who aspires to be a “Marxist,” that is, to work in the spirit of both the mastery referred to, must in the first place aim at this sharpness and clearness.

In reality, things are not so sharply divided as in the abstract; one thing passes over into another, and those who remain on the surface, who want to explain the world of phenomena straight off the reel, easily find that the Marxian idea is one-sided or that it is arbitrary, and does not correspond to reality. Almost every critic of Marx’s ideas starts by confusing ideas which he divided; begins, therefore, with a scientific relapse. Some confuse utility value and exchange value, value and price, surplus value and profit. They find that Rodbertus “pretty well,” “in slightly other language,” says the same as Marx, talk of a Marx-Rodbertus theory of value, and “refute” or improve on this. Again, other authors confuse the animal and social organism, the laws of social development and those of the individual; they do not distinguish between the being of men and their consciousness, between the contents of history and their superficial forms, between material interests and material conditions, and succeed thus with ease in overcoming the one-sided ideas of Marx and to look with pity on the Marxists who have shut themselves up in this “one-sided formula.”

Because, however, almost all criticism of Marx’s views rests on such a confusion, the discussion which ensues is often unfruitful and many times also unedifying, since to defend the Marxist theories we Marxists have for the most part nothing else to do than to lay down what Marx or one of the Marxists has really said, and make clear that this is quite different to what the critic had made him say, that, therefore, the criticism was not valid, an occupation which is neither very, amusing nor very suggestive, but one which, owing to the kind of criticism passed on Marxism, one is unfortunately always again and again to take up.

Thus also the discussion with which we are occupied has first to arrive at that place which should be the starting point, i.e., a discussion of what is actually meant by the much debated, abused and so little understood historical materialism. The theme is not new, but it is not simply of academic, as I will yet show, but also of practical importance, and since Bax’s remarks will give me occasion to bring, as I believe, some new points of view into the discussion, I hope that it will not be entirely without general interest.

But that demands a special article.

(To be continued)

Last updated on 13.11.2011