Karl Kautsky

The Aims and Limitations of the
Materialist Conception of History

The Application of the Theory

(December 1902

Source: Social Democrat, Vol. 6 No. 12, December 1902, pp. 375–382.
First published: Neue Zeit, Jahrg. XV, 9, Part III.
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.
Proofread: Einde O’Callaghan (November 2011).

Every theory must be founded on facts. But, on the other hand, a methodical investigation of facts is not possible without a fixed theoretical standpoint. The appearances of reality are so many-sided and complicated that the empiricist, pure and simple, loses himself hopelessly in them. The way through the endless brushwood can only be found by him who has previously acquired a wide outlook, and who knows how to distinguish between the essential and the unessential, the accidental from the typical, the general from the particular, the real cause from the occasion. Therefore the methodical investigation comes after and not before the theory.

A new theory can only arise when certain new facts become known, or previously known facts appear in a new light, facts which are so striking and characteristic that they, at a given state of theoretical thinking, force at least the genius to a new conception of things. Through the laws acquired by generalisation we arrive at a new theory.

Every theory is in the beginning defective, for it arises before we have attained to a systematic investigation of the whole of the facts which it wishes to explain. Exactly as aid to this investigation has it to prove its worth.

It is, therefore, no valid objection to a new theory when the fact is brought against it that it had not explained all phenomena to which it is applicable. The number of the phenomena which it has not yet explained, and still leaves to be explained, shows only its comparative youth and the limited number of its representatives, but can never be used as a proof against its soundness.

For this there is only one test – the criticism of the theory where it comes to be applied. By its fruits must it be known, and must be judged by what it has performed, not according to that which it ought to have performed.

If, for example, the Marxists or the neo-Marxists have as yet written no materialistic history of philosophy, that does not prove in the least that philosophy is not dependent upon the material conditions of society. Despite the youth of the materialistic method, and despite that its originators, and since then, almost without exception, all its younger students, were no well-to-do professors who could apply themselves exclusively to the theory, but were fighters for the cause of the proletariat, has this method already been brought to application in the most various fields of history. There is, therefore, no lack of opportunities to apply to it the only test which is decisive, and to enquire whether it can explain better than any historical theory hitherto brought forward those facts of history whose explanation it has attempted. That is the question, and not “whether man can regard it as final truth or not.”

But so many opponents as the materialist conception of history has already found, still no serious attempt has been made to apply this proof to the historical achievements even of only one of the pupils, let alone the master.

But one can turn the tables, and apply the above proof to the performance of our opponents. This shall be attempted in the following manner. We take two examples which come handy, which friend Bax has given in his reply. By these it will be seen how far his method is superior to that of the neo-Marxists, whether it is more fruitful than this.

“Kautsky asks,” remarks Bax in his reply, “why, if that is so, the modern Greeks have produced no Aristotle, no Pericles, &c.; in other words, why modern Greece is different from ancient; he is of opinion that in reality only the economic conditions have changed, thereby he ignores everything which does not agree with his theory; as, for example, that a race, just as happens with individuals, can get old; secondly, the fact of the mixture of races; thirdly, that a large period of the historical development of humanity, quite apart from the economic, has taken place in the meantime. All, these factors have co-operated in Greece and elsewhere. The Greek spirit, literary, philosophic, and aesthetic, was manifestly exhausted long before any real alteration in the means of production and exchange had taken place. If this exhaustion could be brought into connection with any social factor, it would be rather of a political or a religious kind than an economic. Loss of political independence, and the introduction of Oriental ideas, and later of Christianity, can well have contributed a great deal to hasten the decay. Moreover, a great many races have passed through Greece, all of whom have left traces behind; Goths, Slavs, Normans, Catalonians, Venetians, and Turks, from whom also many, especially Slavs, have settled there and become quite absorbed in the previous population. The modern Greek is ethnically quite a different being from the ancient. Finally Kautsky ignores, as stated, in his zeal, the entire historic development, spiritual, political, and ethical as well as economic, which has taken place between the ancient and the modern time.”

In the first place, I must say that I asked quite another question than Bax makes me ask. I have in my first reply to Bax (in No. 47 Neue Zeit), thrown out the question, which of the three elements that control human affairs, the human organism, nature, and the economic conditions of society, had changed since ancient times. I explained that the first had not altered, and its power of thinking is the same, as in Greece; the brain-power of an Aristotle is scarcely surpassed, just as little the artistic talent of the ancients. Also nature has not altered. “Over Greece laughs to-day the same blue heaven as at the time of Pericles.” But the society has altered; i.e., in the last resort, the economic conditions. These are the variable factors of human development.

It is clear that is quite different to the question as stated by Bax. This divergence can be regarded as a striking illustration of his accuracy, so often mentioned. Bax’s obstinacy is a thing to be wondered at. To accuracy he makes no claim. Scarcely have I spoken the names Aristotle and Pericles, at once Bax confronts me with the question why Greece has to-day no Aristotle or Pericles to show. Yes, still more, he already hears me give an answer to that and learns from me that essentially “only the economic conditions have altered,” and not the whole society with them. In the meantime, this kind of criticism has in the above case one advantage. It causes Bax to set out the grounds which, in his opinion, explain why Greece has ceased to produce men like Pericles and Aristotle, to show what are the causes of the decay of Greek philosophy and art.

There Bax has a series of causes to hand which are to make the economic quite superfluous. As first and principal he gives the mixture of races which has taken place in Greece. Now, I am very far from denying that the race peculiarities exercise a certain influence on the way in which the historic development proceeds. But this influence must not be over estimated, as the upholders of the modern theory of heredity are ready to do. The human organism has shown itself to be one of the most adaptable organisms, and certainly the human brain belongs to the most adaptable and most variable human organs. In any case, if the Greeks had intermixed with the Botucudos or the Patagonians, this might, at least temporarily, have paralysed their artistic and philosophic capacities. The peoples whom Bax names, Germans, Slavs, Spaniards, Italians, are, however, certainly not to be counted among those who lack all philosophic and artistic aptitude. Perhaps one can say this of the Turks, but these came first in the fifteenth century to Greece, and have had only a small influence on the racial existence of the Greeks. But even the other peoples arrived too late in Greece to explain the artistic and philosophic decay. This began in the fourth century B.C.; the first invasion of the Goths came in the third century A.D. At that time Greece was completely decayed.

The mixture of races in this relation therefore explains nothing. If I had really occupied myself with the question which Bax as a matter of fact first raised, then I should have had every reason to ignore the fact of the mixture of peoples.

But Bax has a second consideration to bring forward, which I, by my never-written discussion of a question which I never put, “have left out of account,” naturally because “it does not fit in with my conception,” namely, the fact “that a race, just as happens with individuals, can get old .... The Greek spirit was manifestly exhausted long before any real alteration in the means of production and exchange had taken place.”

It is doubtless “evident” that the “Greek spirit” was exhausted when the degeneration of the Greek philosophy and art began. This “exhaustion of the spirit “ is, however, nothing else than a somewhat poetical way of describing the fact of the degeneration. I could just as well say “evidently the Greek spirit was completely degenerated, when the degeneration of the Greek art and philosophy began.” So evident that is to me, I hope I shall be excused if this exhaustive explanation “does not fit in with my conception.”

Equally right is Bax when he assumes that the assumption that a race gets old just like an individual “does not fit in with my conception.” Does Bax wish to say, by that, that the social organism is an organism of the same kind as the animal, so that the laws of one are without any further ado applicable to the other? Then I would call attention to the peculiarity which the race possesses, in contrast to the individuals, the renewal of youth. The French nation under Louis XV had become very senile. The steel bath of the great Revolution made them young again and gave them giant strength. Also in our own time we have seen that the Japanese nation, which also gave many signs of senility, was rejuvenated by a similar, certainly a weaker, steel bath, and has forced itself into the row of the growing and promising peoples.

The old age of a people is also nothing else than a poetical and therefore not quite exact description of the fact of its social decay. With that kind of phrase we explain practically nothing.

Finally, have I as third consideration in the explanation of the decay of the Greek spiritual life “ignored in my zeal” the whole concrete development between ancient and modern times.

That I said nothing of all that in my article, I must in any case allow, but I may beg Bax to ascribe that not to my zeal but to the circumstance that I have undertaken to answer this question simply according to his imagination and not according to the reality.

I am, namely, of opinion that everything depends upon the concrete development. But unfortunately Bax leaves us at the decisive point without help, and contents himself with an obscure reference to the loss of political independence and the degrading influence of Christianity, but himself ascribes to the factors only the hastening, not the cause, of the decline.

What, then, does the improved method of Bax offer us as the cause of the decline? Nothing, nothing at all.

Now, let us attempt, if not to treat exhaustively – for which we have no room and for which a weekly review is not suitable – at least to give an outline of the article already by Bax criticised even if not written by me over the downfall of the Greek spiritual life, to see whether we, with the factors which Bax has ignored, will not have better luck.

In the first place our business is to exactly define the task. The spiritual decline of Greece begins in the fourth century B.C. If one is to lay bare the roots of the same, they must not be looked for in phenomena which came first at a later period, but only in phenomena which were already at work in the fourth century. If one is to learn to comprehend why Greece in later centuries did not produce an Aristotle or a Pericles, then one must first know the reason why Greece at one time brought forward an Aristotle and a Pericles. It is necessary, therefore, to examine the period of the bloom of Greek culture as well as the period of decline. This is limited to a few generations of mankind, to one century.

The century between Greece’s greatest philosophers: Heraclitus the dark (circa 500 BC), and Plato (born 429 BC), and Aristotle (born 385 BC), saw also Greece’s greatest historians, Herodotus and Thucydides; its greatest dramatists, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes; its greatest masters in the field of the plastic arts, Phidias and Polygnotos. The fourth century BC sees still other great performances in these fields as after-effects of the great movement of the fifth century BC but already commences the decline, fast and irresistible.

Now that we have exactly defined the phenomenon to be explained, let us examine the economic movement, which coincides with the above movement in respect of space and time. There we find that the flourishing period begins with the Persian wars (492–479 BC) and ends with the Peloponnesian (431–404 BC). Each of these wars inaugurated an economic revolution. Up to the Persian wars the economic, and also the intellectual, centre of gravity of the Greeks lay in Asia Minor. It is noteworthy that Albert Lange, the great opponent of materialism, explains the philosophy of the Greeks of Asia Minor (and also of the Magna Graecia) quite in materialist fashion. Certainly, only because the facts forced him to that, not from materialistic zeal. He says

“If we cast a glance to the shores of Asia Minor in the centuries that immediately precede the brilliant period of Hellenic intellectual life, the colonies of the Ionians are distinguished for wealth and material prosperity, as well as for artistic sensibility and refinement of life. Trade and political alliances, and the increasing eagerness for knowledge, led the inhabitants of Miletos and Ephesus to take long journeys, brought them into manifold intercourse with foreign feelings and opinions, and furthered the elevation of a freethinking aristocracy above the standpoint of the narrower masses. A similar early prosperity was enjoyed by the Doric colonies of Sicily and Magna Graecia. Under these circumstances, we may safely assume that, long before the appearance of the philosophers, a freer and more enlightened conception of the universe had spread among the higher ranks of society.”

It was in these circles of men – wealthy, distinguished, with a wide experience gained from travel – that philosophy arose. (Lange: History of Materialism, English translation, pp. 7 and 8)

The victory of the inhabitants of Greece proper over the Persians transferred the economic centre of gravity from the east coast to the west coast of the Aegean Sea. It brought net only enormous booty for the Greek peasants and sailors who up to then lived for the most part in very simple circumstances; it brought it also about that the victors, after they had warded off the attack, passed over to the offensive. This was not, however, the business of the peasant clinging to the soil, but the quick-moving sailor. The commercial town, Athens, won the lead in the struggle; and she attained to the mastery over, and exploitation of, the Aegean and the Ionian – indeed, also of the Black Sea. The exploitation was in part direst, by means of the tribute of the conquered islands and coasts, in part indirect; while Athens sought as far as possible to monopolise the Greek trade, which was grown to a world commerce, an intermediary between East sad West. Enormous treasures were gathered in Athens; an unheard-of economic awakening was the result, but also an awakening of the arts and sciences. Athens became the centre in which the most brilliant intellects of Greece gathered together, to which they dedicated their services. Nowhere did artists and thinkers find such favourable conditions to develop themselves and exercise their activity, nowhere such plentiful suggestion as there.

It was not the riches alone which offered these conditions; that was also to be found elsewhere. But never and nowhere in antiquity did an economic revolution, as I have just described, proceed with such rapidity, or so immediately, as in Athens of the fifth century B.C. Nowhere, therefore, did it give such a powerful impulse to thought and imagination, the philosophic and artistic capacity; nowhere were such unheard of successes so unexpectedly won; nowhere was the population so full of confidence and bravery which communicated itself to the artists and thinkers and forced them to attempt the most difficult problems.

The wealth which flowed to Athens did not remain, as elsewhere, confined to the narrow circle of a ruling aristocracy. Athens was a democratic community, the collective body of citizens had a share in the economic awakening, as well, however, in the intellectual. Nowhere found thinkers and artists such a public as in Athens. But if the thinker and the artist make their public, so the latter also, vice versa, and to a still greater degree, make the former.

To all this must be added the fact that Athens at the beginning of the Persian wars already stood at the head of contemporary civilisation. That was not the case, for example, in Rome, whose development was similar, when not quite so concentrated as that of Athens. The Romans came to the eastern basin of the Mediterranean as barbarians, as upstarts, who at best came up to a civilisation already existing, which they could not at once carry independently farther and surpass. In Rome the wealth brought in consequence of the policy of conquest and exploitation might bring forward lovers of art, collectors, scholars, and compilers, but not original philosophers and artists as in Athens.

But when Rome had assimilated the culture of the East, then her economic development had already arrived at the period of decline, and then the Roman world empire could not produce anything more on the intellectual plane – than Christianity.

Rome, therefore, could never do in the domain of intellect what Athens had done, but even for the latter the economic development proceeded in the same direction as that of Rome.

The wealth which, since the Persian wars, flowed to Greece, destroyed the old system of barter, and money became the medium of exchange. On the land the peasant got into debt and was ruined; in the place of the peasant came big estates, worked by slaves. The country was depopulated. The mass of the people crowded to the cities. By the side of the rich, growing ever richer – merchants, speculators, usurers, big landlords, fortunate generals who returned home loaded with booty – was crowded an ever-growing mass of the “submerged tenth.” The old virtues disappeared, the characteristics of the new classes asserted themselves. In the place of a feeling of solidarity came venality, instead of valour came cowardice and effeminacy. The citizen-soldier who fought for his own hearth was supplanted by the mercenary, who served him who paid best.

All that led in Greece, as in Rome, to general social decay. But in Greece the decline did not spin itself out in a process lasting for centuries, as in home, hat it was just as unexpectedly brought on through a catastrophe in war as the awakening by a victory.

In Athens, the centre of the economic revolution, the corrupting influences of the new economic conditions made themselves first and most strikingly felt. But Athens became the centre of the hatred of the whole of Greece. So much the more the use of money developed, and the “submerged tenth” increased, so much the more increased the economic pressure on the subjects of Athens, so much the greater also became the covetousness of the reactionary peasant cantons for the treasures of the world-city. Neighbours and subjects made alliance, and in a desperate struggle destroyed for ever the world-power. This thirty years’ war exhausted and laid waste the whole of Greece, and thanks to the declining tendencies of her economic development, she never again fully recovered. Soon she became the booty of foreigners, who drained her; the world-commerce, the trade between East and West, took paths which led past Greece, and thus it remained economically without importance till the present day.

Those are the most important facts, to which I should have had to point if I had really undertaken to explain the decay of the Greek intellectual life from the materialist standpoint. I think these facts speak clearly enough for themselves. As well in the rise as in the fall, the economic development took the lead and the intellectual development followed it truly. The connection between the two is, however, too close for the post hoc in this case not also to be a propter hoc; this will be more evident when one goes more into detail than is here possible. Beside this, the same parallelism is also elsewhere observed, therefore it is no mere chance.

I must leave it to readers to decide whether anybody who arrived through the materialist conception of history to a knowledge of this parallelism still feels the need to look to the mixture of races with Slavs and Turks, or even to the “exhaustion of the Greek spirit” and other desperate means, to make the intellectual decay of Greece comprehensible.

With the second historical example, in which we compared the Bax method with the materialist method, we can express ourselves more briefly.

In my reply in No. 47 of the Neue Zeit, I had accused Bax of inconsistency, in that he, in Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome, traces the loss of the mediaeval love of life and the rise of Puritanism in England on one occasion to the economic development, and a few lines later to the peculiar spirit of the English people.

“In general I agree readily with Kautsky and his friends that the alteration in the English temper at the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century, is to be traced to the economic revolution which took place then. But there are certain characteristics of the English Protestant movement which, on the Continent, although a similar revolution took place in the economic conditions – even if this in many places took place some what later – have nowhere shown themselves in anything like the same degree. Where, on the Continent, does one find the English Sunday, the dogma of the wickedness of dancing, of the theatre, or reading novels? All these peculiarities are not to be explained through a general formula, accordingly I made the suggestion that the Puritanism from which these sprang, could somehow or other be traced back to the peculiarity of the mixture of races which produced the English people.”

Here again, therefore, the mixture of races plays a part. But, unfortunately, even this time it does not come at the right time to explain anything. The mixture of races with the Greek people commenced 500 years after the commencement of that phenomenon which it, according to Bax, was to account for. The racial mixture in the case of England was already completed in the twelfth century – at the end of the eleventh century the last great invasion of England, that of the Normans, took place. It comes, therefore, about 500 years too soon to account for the English Puritanism of the seventeenth century. Between this mixture and Puritanism lies exactly the period of merrie England. We materialists are in the first place inclined to look for the cause of the peculiarities of an age in the conditions of the same. Can it now be that the England of the seventeenth century was only distinguished from the rest of Europe through its mixture of races, so that we must ascribe the English Puritanism to this?

If we look closer, we find at once a very striking and important peculiarity of England in the seventeenth century. It is for England the most prominent fact of the whole century: The Revolution of 1642–1660, that is the rule of the democratic classes, small shopkeepers, peasants, and wage-workers. This phenomenon is quite unique in the whole of Europe during the seventeenth century, since everywhere else the feudal absolutism won the upper hand, and the democratic classes were completely crushed.

Just as well known is it that Puritanism was not a characteristic mental tendency of the whole English people, but the mental tendency of special classes, and indeed of those very classes who in England, in opposition to the rest of Europe, attained temporarily the upper hand during the seventeenth century.

But if one looks still closer, one finds still more. If Puritanism was the mental tendency not of the English people, but of particular classes in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth century, neither was it anyway simply in England characteristic of these classes, but in the whole of Europe.

As Bernstein and I were at work on the second volume of the History of Socialism, we were not a little surprised, when we, quite independently of each other, in all Socialistic-Democratic parties and currents at the end of the Middle ages and the beginning of modern times found exactly the same puritanical views, in often quite ludicrous agreement. What Bernstein found in England, I found among the Bohemian Brothers, among the followers of Münzer, the Anabaptists, and the Mennonites. We came to the conviction that this agreement was no chance one, but a historical necessity. Puritanism is a necessary method of thought of particular classes under particular conditions. As during the Middle ages, with their almost universal system of barter, “live and let live “ is the maxim of peasants, small bourgeoisie and wage workers, so these classes succumb at the commencement of the capitalist method of production to a gloomy Puritanism, and, indeed, the more, the faster, and more incisively the economic and the corresponding political development makes itself felt the more lively is the reaction of the lowest classes against it. But because Puritanism, although it came up also in the rest of Europe, only got the upper hand in England, could only there force itself on society, explains itself after what has been related.

This very phenomenon, which Bax with his “improved method found so completely insoluble, that he for the solution of the problem took refuge in a completely arbitrarily conceived peculiarity of an already many-centuries-old mixture of races, forms for us one of the most brilliant corroborations of the materialist conception of history.

And this fruitfulness and accuracy has been shown in all departments in which we have tried it, be it the research of the past or in the understanding of the present.

It serves the latter purpose rust as well as the former, and therein lies its practical importance, therein its great importance not only for the Socialist engaged in research, but also for the fighting Socialist, and for that reason the materialist conception is no simple question for the learned, but a question of interest for all.

Last updated on 13.11.2011