Karl Kautsky

The Aims and Limitations of the
Materialist Conception of History

The Historical Theory

(November 1902)

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. 6 No. 11, November 1902, pp. 340–348.
First published: Neue Zeit, Jahrg. XV, 8, Part II.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
This document is kindly provided by Adam Buick to the MIA.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (November 2011).

Bax says “Kautsky accuses me of confusing the historical development with the whole of human life.” Certainly I maintain that one has the right to demand from a complete theory of historical development, that it shall be capable of giving a fitting explanation of the whole of human life, or sufficient hints to such explanations, considering the whole of human life develops itself in history.”

Definite as that sounds, nevertheless, I allow myself to doubt the inviolability of that sentence – that the whole of human life develops itself in history. The functions of the human organism – digestion, procreation, child birth, belong to a certain extent to “the whole of human life” but it will occur to no one to assert that they have developed themselves in the course of history.” But quite apart from that, I am not of opinion that we can demand from a theory that it shall explain more than it sets out to explain. If the Darwinian theory gives an explanation of the development of the species of plants and animals, one cannot intense it of being insufficient because it does not in addition explain organic life itself.

One may describe also human society as an organism, but certainly not as animal or vegetable. It forms a peculiar organism, which has its own laws and its own life. Human life, so far as it is animal life, life of the individual organism, is subject to quite different laws from those of the social life. History has only to investigate the laws of this last.

The object of the materialist conception of history is not to study the universal in human history, what is common to men of all times, but what is historically peculiar, what distinguishes men at different periods from one another. But on the other hand their object is to see what the people of a particular time, nation, or class have in common, not that which divides a particular individual from other individuals with whom he lives and works.

This is in no way altered by the fact that history books hitherto have related to us not the usual, the social, but the unusual and the individual. The materialist conception of history does not allow itself to be guided in its aims by the older methods of writing history.

The materialist conception of history makes no claim to explain the fact and to trace it back without any further ado to economic conditions, that Caesar had no children and adopted Octavian, that Antony fell in love with Cleopatra, and that Lepidus was an impotent weakling. Certainly, however, it believes itself able to explain the break-up of the Roman Republic and the rise of Caesarism.

From that it is clear that Bax has a false idea of the materialist conception of history, when he thinks that it aspires to explain the “special poetic gift of the poet, the poetical qualities of a Shakespeare or a Goethe.” That it neither can nor wishes to do. It may be a defect; but will Bax assert that any other historical conception is in the position to explain these qualities? I am of opinion it is an achievement not to be despised if the materialist conception of history can explain the extent of the ideas which Shakespeare or Goethe had in common with their contemporaries.

From the existing Marxist literature Bax could have discovered for himself that the historic materialism is not of opinion that genius is directly to be traced back to the economic facts. I may be allowed, in proof of this, to point to my own writings.

In my work on Thomas More I distinguish three factors which influenced his work. In the first place, and that is the most important factor, the general social relations of his time and country, which can be traced back to the economic conditions. Then the special social surroundings, in which More developed, and to that belong not only the special economic conditions, in which he lived, but also the men with whom he associated, whose particular ideas are again to be traced back to factors of various kinds, the traditions which he found, the literature which was accessible to him, &c. But all these elements do not suffice to render quite clear the effect, of the “Utopia,” and the personal peculiarity of More must also be taken into account.

It is clear that the materialist conception of history is by no means so simple and cut-and-dried as some people describe it. As another example, I can point to my work on Das Kapital, and the Elend der Philosophie (translated as Poverty of Philosophy into English).

Besides the general social conditions, in the last resort the economic conditions of their time come in to account for the results of Marx and Engels, their special surroundings. If More stood there quite apart among Englishmen through his combination of humanism with the activity of a practical lawyer, so Marx and Engels stood apart through their combination of the revolutionary elements which Germany produced at that time with those of France and England. But first when one in addition to that takes their personal gifts into account, is their influence in history to be understood.

Should we, however, view Socialism as a social phenomenon, we will in consequence be able to disregard the individual influences, the more we look on it as a phenomenon where the masses come into account. For a comprehension of the common contents of the collective Socialist movements of the nineteenth century the social relations of the capitalistic system of production are fully sufficient.

The materialistic method is alto indispensable to a right comprehension of the individual in history. We can first grasp his peculiarity if we have found out what he had in common with his time, and what were its leading motives. We can first examine what he gave to his time when we know what he got from it.

Can, however, the individual, according to the materialist conception of history, give anything to society? Does he not simply stand as a recipient in relation to it? Does not the materialist conception of history shut out all idea of a reciprocal influence between the individual and society?

Here we have arrived at the question, what part the man, or if it is preferred the “mind,” the “psychological motor,” the idea, plays in history. For idealist historians the idea is in the position to lead an independent existence for itself. For us it, is simply a function of the human brain, and the question whether the idea can influence society coincides with the question whether and how this is possible to the individual.

Bax will be very surprised when I declare that I fully agree to the sentence which he holds up against me: “Economic conditions make history only in combination with human mind and will.” I do not agree, however, when he continues: “That is equivalent to saying that the neo-Marxist conception of history is on the wrong track.”

One must have an almost mystical idea of the economic development if one believes that it could make the smallest step forward without the activity of the human spirit. People must, however, not confuse economic development and economic conditions. These are two quite different things.

In the last resort the economic development is nothing more than the development of technique, that is, of the successive inventions and discoveries. What are these other than the “alternate working” between the intellect and the economic conditions?

Historic materialism, far from denying the motor force of the human intellect in society, gives only a special explanation, and one different from that hitherto accepted, of the working of this intellect. [1] The mind governs society, but not as master of the economic relations, but as their servant. They it is that set the mind the problem which it has to solve at the time. And, therefore, it is also they that determine the results which it can and must achieve under given historical conditions The immediate result which the human intellect achieves with the solution of one of its problems can be one which it has wished for and foreseen. But each of these solutions must produce effects which it could not foresee, and which often contradict its intentions. The economic development is the product of the alternate working between the economic circumstances and the human intellect, but it is not the product of the free and unimpeded activity of mankind arranging the economic conditions as seems to them good. Every solution of a technical task confronts us with new tasks. The surmounting of every natural barrier confronts us with new barriers which we have yet to surmount; the satisfaction of any want produces a new want. Every technical advance brings, however, new means to accomplish new tasks.

But not only that. No technical alteration, no alteration of the methods of production or of life is possible without reaction on the relations of men to one another. A certain sum of technical progress will continually imply new conditions of labour and life, which are incompatible with the prevailing organisation of society, with the ruling principles of law, morality, &c.

Technical progress creates not only new problems for the discoverer and inventor, but also for the organisers and leaders of society; problems whose solution is continually rendered difficult owing to the might of tradition, mostly also owing to lack of knowledge and insight, and, in societies with class antagonism, also owing to the interests of the classes who derive an advantage from the existing state of affairs, but which in such cases will be finally forced on owing to the interests of the classes whose interests lie in the new order and always owing to economic necessity.

Societies which do not possess the requisite strength and insight to carry out the adaptation of social organisation to the new economic conditions rendered necessary must decay.

In the beginnings of society the Darwinian mode of unconscious development, the survival of the best adapted organisms and the disappearance of those who could not adapt themselves, prevailed. But the farther we proceed in history the more does man control nature, the more do men react consciously to the suggestions, which the economic development gives them; so much the quicker and more striking does this progress, so much the easier do the arising problems come to the consciousness of men and so much the higher developed are the methods of consciously solving the new problems, so much the more does the social revolution cease to be simply instinctive, and begins to be conceived through ideas, through aims which men set themselves, and finally through systematic research.

Tim connection between the economic conditions, which place humanity before their problems and produce the means for their solution, and the thereby produced intellectual activity of mankind, becomes always more complicated, the more embracing and complicated both the spheres in which this activity proceeds, the sphere of nature controlled by man and the society, and the more intermediaries obtrude themselves between cause and effect. Out of the originally purely empirical attempts to render the one or the other natural force serviceable to man, natural science finally developed itself; there enters the division of labour between the men of theory and of practice, between the men of research and these who apply the results, which latter themselves are always subdividing into different groups and categories. And so it is the case in society. The social philosopher separates himself from the politician, and politics and social philosophy themselves again split into subdivisions. By the side of the practical legislator comes the legal expert, by the side of the preacher and custodian of morality comes the moral philosopher, &c.

Each of these activities separates itself from the other, believes that it lives an inner life of its own apart, and forgets that its duties, and the means to their performance, are in the last resort laid down for it by the economic conditions of society.

Bax is of another opinion.

“The history of philosophy,” he says, “is in no way, in its principal developments, to be traced back to economic causes. Although the practical application of philosophical systems and thought can partially be explained on that ground, we have, nevertheless, in the main to deal with a revolution in the realm of thought, as is very easy to be proved. Kautsky possibly wishes to explain that philosophy can only flourish after civilisation, including the economic development, is sufficiently advanced to allow that a sufficient number of men possess sufficient leisure to give themselves up to speculative thought, that would be self-evidently only a negative condition of the appearance of philosophy, and neither a positive cause of the origin of philosophy in general, let alone the contents of the same at various periods. If Kautsky further asks how the original germs of philosophical ideas have arisen, I answer through observation of the proceedings of external nature and the human mind, and from analysis of the conditions of knowledge and consciousness.”

Not so harmless, as it is made out by Bax, is my assertion. I claim by no means that the relation of philosophy to the economic conditions of their time lies simply in the leisure which these conditions allow to the philosophers for the observation of nature and the intellect, and for “thought-revolutions.” No, the philosopher still gets something more from society.

In the first place, it is remarkable that Bax mentions, among the objects of philosophy, simply external nature and the human mind, but not society itself. In my opinion, philosophy occupied itself up to now partly with the investigation of nature – in which I also reckon the human mind – partly with the investigation of society. That a philosopher can draw his ideas about human society only from society itself, and that the structure of a society at any period is to be explained from its economic conditions, I do not need to explain any further, but from that it follows already that a very important part of philosophy is by its very nature traceable back to the economic conditions and not simply to be explained through a “thought-revolution,” or a formal-logical development.

How does it stand, however, with natural science? Bax traces this back to simple “observation of the proceedings of external nature.” But with that one does not get very far. The savage can also observe, and he observes, as a rule, the proceedings of nature much more sharply than we. But that does not make him a philosopher. Only so far as the observation of nature leads to the mastery over nature does it attain to an investigation of nature. What distinguishes the philosopher from the savage is not the fact of the observation of nature; the distinction consists in this: For the savage, nature is something self-evident, to the philosopher she is a riddle. The simple observation shows us only the “how” of the proceedings of nature. The philosophical research of nature commences first with the question of “why.” Man must first, to a certain extent, have cut the navel string, which bind him to nature; he must, to a certain extent, dominate nature, have raised himself over her, before he can think of the mastery over her. And only in the degree in which the mastery of man over nature extends itself, in which technical progress advances, does the field of scientific research of nature extend itself. The philosophers would not have got very far in their “thought-revolution” without telephone, and microscope, weighing and measuring instruments, laboratories and observatories, & c. These produce not only the means of solving the problems of natural science, they produce the very problems themselves. But they themselves are the results of the economic development – results which through man again become the cause of further progress. The development of the natural sciences goes hand in hand with the technical development – this word being understood in its widest sense. Under the technical conditions of a time the tools and machines are not solely to ho understood, The modern methods of chemical research and modern mathematics form integral parts of the existing technique. Let anyone build a steamship or a railway bridge without mathematics! Without the mathematician of to-day capitalist society would be impossible. The present position of mathematics belongs just as much to the economic conditions of the present society, as the present position of the technique of machinery, or the world-commerce. It all hangs together.

The development of natural and social philosophy is, therefore, bound up in the closest manner with the economic development. The economic conditions of the time give the philosopher not simply the necessary leisure for his observations, but something more: the problems which stir the age and wait for a thinker to solve them, and the means of solution.

The direction in which this solution has to move in every single case is laid down once for all with the elements of the solution. That is not to say that it is always forthwith clearly recognisable to everybody. The problems, namely, those of society, and only with these have we to do, although, mutatis mutandis, it is valid also for the progress of natural science, are concerned with highly complicated phenomena.

Certainly, with the economic development, the aids to and methods of research increase, but in the same degree do also the objects of research become more complicated. The statesman and philosopher of the Middle Ages had not the means or methods of modern statistics at his disposal; but he had only to deal with small peasant and town communities, which each lived for itself, was easy to superintend, and was only brought into contact with the rest of the world through a commerce utterly insignificant. To-day the statesmen and economists have to deal with a commerce which embraces the most important elements of the production and consumption of the civilised states. So complicated are the phenomena which have yet to be explained, the tasks which have to be performed, that it is for the individual, as a rule, impossible to recognise all their aspects, and therewith to find what is in all points the right explanation and solution. Although there can be only one solution of a problem, yet we see innumerable solutions brought forward, from which each one draws one or other element of the question into account. On the other hand, none are the elements of the same. Therefore, the variety of opinions about the same subject among men, and among those even who stand on all equal height of knowledge and capacity. One cannot understand the other, not for this reason, that one is stupider than the other, but because, in the same thing the one sees something quite different from the other.

Differences in intellectual capacity produce naturally also differences of opinion, but in the mass of mankind these differences of capacity are very unimportant. But what is very different among men, is their standpoint, which means in other words, the social position from which they approach the questions of their time. And these differences increase with the progress of the economic development. The differences of the position of the individuals in the society postulate not only differences in the development of their capacities and in their knowledge, but also in their traditions, therefore prejudices, and finally in their interests – personal and class interests.

In spite of all individual distinctions, the standpoint from which the mass of the members of a particular class approach a particular question is nevertheless a fixed one, and therewith is also given the direction in which it looks for a solution. This standpoint is, however, to be traced back to the economic conditions of the society at the time; through these conditions will not only the problem be given, and the direction in which alone it can find a solution, but also the various directions in which the various classes and sections of society look for this solution.

In the whole period which up to now has been subjected to the scientific investigation of history no class has ever succeeded, and still less any individual, in finding a complete solution of one of the social questions.

The right and only possible solution, which emerged from the struggles of interests and opinions, was always different from any one aimed at and sought by the various classes, parties, and thinkers. But we find continually that those classes whose interests coincided with those of the necessary development are more open to the truth than others whose interests stood in opposition to this. And, while the ideas and views of the first always came nearer to the real solution of the whole problem, the other exhibited a tendency to get further and further removed from it. Here we are arrived at the point where we can see how far the individual can modify the development of society. He can invent no new problems for it, even if he is occasionally in a position to recognise problems there, where others have hitherto found nothing to puzzle them. He is in respect of the solution of these problems confined to the means which his time offers him. On the other hand the choice of the problems to which he applies himself, that of the standpoint from which he approaches their solution, the direction in which he looks for it, and finally the strength with which he fights for it are not, without qualification, to be ascribed to the economic conditions alone; for, besides these, also the individuality asserts itself with that particular energy which it has developed, thanks to the particular nature of its talent and the particular nature of the special circumstances in which it is placed. All the circumstances here related have influence, even if not in the direction of the development, nevertheless on its march, on the form in which the result, finally inevitable, is brought about. And in this respect individuals can do for their age a great deal, a very great deal. Some, as thinkers, when they acquire a deeper insight than the people around them, emancipate themselves more than these from the inherited traditions and prejudices, overcome the narrow class vision.

The last may sound curious in the mouth of a Marxist. But in fact Socialism rests on an overcoming of the narrow class vision. For the shortsighted bourgeois the social question consists in the problem, how to keep the workers quiet and contented; for the short-sighted wage-worker it is simply a food question, the question of higher wages, shorter hours of labour and assured work. It is necessary to have overcome the narrowness of one as well as the other, to attain to the view that the solution of the social problems of our time must be a more embracing, and such a one as is only possible in a new social order.

Certainly, that is not to say, however, that this higher knowledge of the Socialists is the complete knowledge, and that the new society will not perhaps develop quite other forms than we expect.

The thinker who overcomes the class tradition and class narrowness places himself on a higher position and thereby discovers new truths; which means that he comes nearer to the solution of the question than the average individual, therefore, he cannot reckon on the applause of all classes. As a rule, only those classes will agree with him whose interests coincide with the general development – very often not even those, if the thinker has raised himself too much above his surroundings. In any case, interest has wonderful powers of sharpening the intelligence.

But it is not the thinker alone who can shorten the path of development, and can lessen its sacrifices. The artist who grasps the truths discovered by the thinker and expresses them in a manner that is at once clearer, more attractive, more rousing, more inspiring; the organiser and tactician, who gathers the scattered forces and applies them to concerted action, they all can hasten and help the development.

I have spoken of organisers and tacticians. To these belong not only the politicians, but also the generals. It has become the fashion in democratic circles to look down somewhat on the general and on war, as if it were quite without importance for the development of humanity. That is the reaction against the historical conception of the royalist of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, traces of which even to-day are to be seen in the historical works of men capable of forming an opinion, that all progress starts from the monarchs, and that wars are the most important and beneficial events of their reigns.

That is nonsense. But it is a fact, that hitherto among the most powerful levers of revolution, that is, the forcible hastening of the social development, has belonged war, and that the generals who won the victories for the cause of revolution are to be named among the first of those who have promoted the cause of human development.

Certainly, the number of those generals, who have opposed the development, and retarded it through their victories, would be probably much greater. But in the camp of the reactionaries and those who hinder the cause of the development are not only to be found generals, but also politicians and legislators; and not a few philosophers and artists have been drawn into this camp. No more than the reactionary tendency of the majority of officers in modern times should our opposition, on the grounds of principle, against militarism cause us to undervalue the influence of military genius on the process of previous historical development.

Still another democratic prejudice must be pointed out, which people only too readily seek to justify by means of the materialist conception of history; the dislike to the conferring of honour and distinction on individuals, what they reject as a “worship of personality,” “authoritarianism,” &c. These are the war cries which we have inherited from the petty bourgeois democracy, and which on account of their beautiful sound are still current in our ranks, although they avail for nothing more than to give the Anarchists an argument against us.

It is certain that every individual is a product of circumstances; that he inherits the peculiarity of his organism all is indebted for his particular development to the special surroundings in which he has been thrown.

Genius is, therefore, not responsible for the fact that it is genius. That is nevertheless no ground why any public-house Philistine should have the same importance and interest for me as a thinker who has mastered the knowledge of his century, and who has infinitely extended my insight, or that I should pay as much attention to the opinions of a political recruit as to those of an experienced politician who, during a lifetime, has given proofs of his capabilities through numberless victories.

We do not need to excuse ourselves for our “worship of personality” if we revere the memory of a Lassalle or a Marx; if we oftener ask to hear a Bebel or a Liebknecht than a Smith or Jones, and we have need to protest heatedly against the reproach that we have leaders. Yes, we have leaders, and it depends in no infinitesimal extent upon the quality of our leaders whether our way to victory is longer or shorter, rough or smooth. But not only the reverencing, but also the antagonism to individual persons, is not incompatible with our materialist standpoint. People say, readily: “We do not fight persons, but against the system.” But the system exists only in persons, and I cannot attack it without attacking persons.

I cannot abolish the system of monarchy without deposing the person of the monarch. I cannot end the capitalist method of production without expropriating the person of the capitalist. And if anyone among our opponents stands out through his special ability, power, hostility, or inflict special damage on us, we must fight this person in particular. That is in no way incompatible with our materialist conception of history. In the present we are not simply historians, but in the first place fighters. Our materialist conception puts us in a position to understand our opponents, but not in order that we should cease to fight them. The materialist conception is no fatalist conception. Only in battle, in battle against a hostile nature, a hostile people, a hostile class, hostile opinion, the hostile individual, does the individual come to complete development.

But not only the fighter in the present, also the writer of the history of the past will never be able to entirely ignore individual people, if he wants to portray the exact manner is which the historic development has proceeded under particular circumstances, and in so far will he find that the materialist conception of history alone does not suffice.

But only in so far as the sphere of the materialist conception of history reaches, is the investigation and description of the historical development a science. So soon it leaves this territory, it becomes simply art, which also requires to lay a foundation through the materialist method if it will win a sure foothold.

We see now clearly what this can achieve and will. It starts from the principle that the development of society and the views prevailing in it are governed by law, and that we have got to look for the motor power of this development and the ultimate ground of the same in the development of the economic conditions. To each particular stage of the development of the economic conditions correspond special forms of society and ideas.

To investigate these laws and connections is the most important and fundamental work of historical research. This accomplished, it is comparatively easy to comprehend the particular forms of the development in particular cases.

In this sense I conceive the materialist conception of history, and if I have not wholly misunderstood Marx and Engels, this conception is wholly in their sense.

But if it gives any pleasure to anyone, they can call it neo-Marxist.

The principal point is naturally the question whether it is right. The answer to that must be given by the practice, the application of the method.

A further article will give a few additional illustrations, in which we take Bax’s criticism as a starting point.

(To be continued)


1. Marx points out that a critical history of technology does not yet exist, and remarks farther: “Darwin has interested us in the history of natural technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of the organs that are the material basis of all social organism, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this: that we have made the former, but not the latter? Technology discloses man’s modes of dealing with Nature, the process of production by which he sustains his life, and thereby also lays bare the mode of formation of his social relations, and of the mental conceptions that flow from them. Every history of religion even that fails to take account of this material basis is uncritical. It is in reality much easier to discover by analysis the earthly core of the misty creations of religion than conversely it is to develop from the actual relations of life the corresponding celestialised forms of these relations. The latter method is the only materialistic and, therefore, the only scientific one.” (Capital, vol. I, Eng. trans., p. 367)

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