Karl Kautsky

The Historic Accomplishment of Karl Marx

II. Summary of Natural Science and the Humanities

The foundation for all of Karl Marx’s lasting success is his theoretical rigor. This we have to be most aware of. But it is this fact that presents itself as a challenge for a popular presentation [of Marxism]. We will hopefully overcome this dilemma in spite of limited intimations or clues. In any case, the points covered after this one will be easy to understand. The reader should not shy from plowing through the next few pages to get to these latter points.

The sciences are divided into two great categories: the natural sciences, which research the dynamics of living and non-living objects and the humanities, which are unjustly named such; only if the subject of study in humanities takes the form of one single individual is it given attention. The field of psychology, stemming from the humanities, operates solely with the methods of natural science without ever considering curing the spiritual illness plaguing humanity. The narrow application of natural science in this field unfortunately remains unrivaled.

What is called “the humanities” is in reality a social science, a science which analyzes man’s relation to his fellow men. Only certain relationships are eligible, however, and only some intellectual expressions in human society come into consideration and are examined by the humanities.

Within the humanities themselves two groups can be distinguished: The first is those which study human society as such, or man as he exists en masse. These include: political economy, the study of the laws of the social economy under the rules of commodity production; ethnology, the study of social conditions in all their tribal diversity; and, finally, prehistory, the study of social conditions from that time before written witness.

The other group of the humanities comprises sciences which up to now have primarily emanated from the individual and dealt with the position and effect of the individual in and on society: history, jurisprudence, and ethics or morality.

This second group of humanities is ancient and has always had the greatest influence on human thought. The first group, on the other hand, developed at the time of Marx’s youth and had only just arrived at scientific methods. It remained restricted to specialists and had no influence on general thinking, which was influenced by the natural sciences and the humanities of the second group.

There was then a huge gap between the latter two types of sciences, which was revealed in contemporary worldviews.

Natural science had uncovered so many necessary, legitimate connections and laws in nature; that is, it had repeatedly tested the identification of cause with effect so that it thoroughly incorporated the assumption of general lawfulness in nature. It therefore completely banished from its practice the assumption of mysterious powers which mythically intervene in natural events at will. Modern man no longer seeks to make such powers favorable to himself through prayers and sacrifices, but only to recognize the lawful connections in nature in order to be able to achieve in it, through his intervention, those effects which he needs for his existence or comfort.

This is not the case in the humanities. These were still dominated by the assumption of the freedom of the human will, which was not subject to any such lawful necessity. The jurists and ethicists felt urged to hold on to this assumption, because otherwise they would lose the ground under their feet. If man is a product of circumstances, if his actions and will have the necessary effect of causes that do not depend on his own will, what should become of sin and punishment, of good and evil, of legal and moral condemnation?

The motive of that accusation was of course only a motive of “practical reason,” not logical reasoning from proof. These practical reasons were provided primarily by historical science, which was essentially based on nothing other than the collection of written documents from earlier times, in which the acts of some individuals, namely the rulers, were communicated either by themselves or by others. It seemed impossible to discover any inherent necessary laws behind these individual acts. In vain did scientific thinkers try to find such laws. They were, however, reluctant to accept that the general laws of nature should not apply to man’s actions.

Experience offered them enough material to show that the human mind was no exception in nature, that it always responded to certain causes with certain effects. However, as undeniable as this could be for the simpler activities which man has in common with animals, for his complicated activities, for social ideas and ideals, the natural scientists could not find the necessary causal connections. They could not fill this gap. They could claim that the human spirit was only a part of nature and within its necessary context, but they could not prove it sufficiently in all areas. Their materialistic monism remained incomplete and could not break with idealism and dualism.

Then Marx came and saw that the history, ideas, and ideals of man, and their successes and failures, are the result of class struggles. But he saw even more. Class antagonisms and class struggles had already been seen before him in history, but they had mostly appeared as the work of stupidity and malice on the one hand, of arrogance and enlightenment on the other; only Marx uncovered their necessary connection with economic conditions, the laws of which had been laid down by the laws of time. These economic conditions themselves, however, are again ultimately based on nature and the extent of man’s domination of nature, which emerges from the knowledge of its laws.

Only under certain social conditions is the driving force of history the class struggle; it is always ultimately the struggle against nature. No matter how peculiar human society may seem to the rest of nature, here and there we find the same kind of movement and development through the struggle of opposites that emerge again and again from nature itself: dialectical development.

Thus, social development was placed within the framework of natural development, the human spirit presented as a part of nature, even in its most complicated and supreme manifestations. The natural laws of social development were hence proven in all fields and the last ground taken away from philosophical idealism and dualism.

In this way, Marx not only completely revolutionized the science of history, but also filled the gap between the natural sciences and the humanities, established the unity of all human science, and thus made philosophy superfluous, insofar as philosophy, as a special wisdom outside and above the sciences, sought to establish a unified thought about the world process which could not previously be gained from the sciences.

It means a tremendous elevation of science, which Marx brought about with his conception of history; the entirety of human thought and understanding had to be fertilized in the most powerful way – but strangely, bourgeois science was completely hostile to it. Only in opposition to bourgeois science, as a special, proletarian science, could this new scientific conception prevail.

The opposition between bourgeois and proletarian science was mocked, as if there could be bourgeois and proletarian chemistry or mathematics! But the mockers only prove that they do not know what it is.

Marx’s discovery of the materialistic conception of history had two preconditions. One was a certain raising of scientific development, the other a revolutionary point of view.

The laws of historical development could only be recognized when the new humanities – political economy, economic history, then ethnology and prehistory – had reached a certain height. Only these sciences, from whose material the individual was excluded from the outset, and which were based on mass observations, could reveal the basic laws of social development and thus pave the way for the investigation of those trends which propel individuals to the surface appearance and who alone observe and record the conventional representation of history.

These new humanities developed first with the capitalist mode of production and its international trade, and could only really achieve significant gains when capital had come to rule; but soon the bourgeoisie had ceased to be a revolutionary class.

Only a revolutionary class, however, was able to accept the doctrine of class struggle. A class that wants to conquer power in society must also want the struggle for power; it will easily understand its necessity. A class which has power will regard every opposing struggle for it as an unwelcome disturbance and will reject any doctrine which demonstrates its necessity. It will appear all the more against it if the doctrine of class struggle is a doctrine of social development which, as a necessary conclusion of the present class struggle, sets forth the overthrow of the present masters of society.

But the teaching that people are the products of social conditions, to the extent that the members of a particular social form differ from the people of other social forms, is also not acceptable to a conservative class, because the only way to change people consequently then is to change society itself. As long as the bourgeoisie was revolutionary, it also paid homage to the view that people were the products of society, but unfortunately, at that time, the sciences with which the driving forces of social development could have been recognized were not yet sufficiently developed. The French materialists of the eighteenth century did not know the class struggle and did not pay attention to technical development. They knew that in order to change people one had to change society, but they did not know where the forces that would change society would come from. They saw it in the omnipotence of individual extraordinary men, especially schoolmasters. Beyond that, bourgeois materialism did not develop.

As soon as the bourgeoisie became conservative, it found the thought intolerable that it was the social conditions that were to blame for the particular grievances of their time and that they had to be changed. As far as it thinks scientifically, the bourgeoisie now seeks to prove that men are and must be as they are because of nature, that wanting to change society means nothing more than turning the natural order upside down. One must, however, have been educated very exclusively in natural science and have remained unaffected by the social conditions of our time in order to assert its necessary natural continuity for all time. The majority of the bourgeoisie no longer finds the courage even for this, seeking consolation by denying materialism and recognizing freedom of the will. It is not society that makes people, they assert, but rather people who make society according to their will. It is imperfect because they are. We must improve society not by social transformations, but by raising the individual higher, by instilling in them a higher morality. The better people will then surely produce a better society. In this way, ethics and the recognition of the freedom of the will become the favorite doctrine of today’s bourgeoisie. It is supposed to show the good will of the bourgeoisie to counteract social grievances and yet not commit it to any societal change, but on the contrary, to repel any such change.

From this perspective, the insights that can be gained from the basis of the unity of all the sciences, as developed by Marx, are inaccessible to anyone who stands on the ground of bourgeois society. Only those who are critical of the existing society can grasp these insights, that is, only those who stand on the ground of the proletariat. In this respect one can distinguish between proletarian and bourgeois science.

Of course, the contrast between the two is most pronounced in the humanities, while the contrast between feudal or Catholic and bourgeois science is most pronounced in the natural sciences. But man’s thinking always strives for uniformity, as the various fields of knowledge always influence each other, and therefore our social perceptions affect our entire conception of the world. Thus, the contrast between bourgeois and proletarian science is also reflected in the natural sciences.

This can already be seen in Greek philosophy, as shown, among other things, by an example from modern natural science which is closely related to our subject. I have already pointed out in another place that the bourgeoisie, as long as it was revolutionary, also assumed that natural development took place through catastrophes. Ever since it became conservative, it has not wanted to know anything about catastrophes in nature either. In its opinion, development is now taking place very slowly, exclusively by means of imperceptible changes. Catastrophes appear to it to be something abnormal, unnatural, only capable of disrupting natural development. And despite Darwin’s doctrine of the struggle for existence, bourgeois science does its utmost to make the concept of evolutionary development appear synonymous with that of a completely peaceful process.

For Marx, on the other hand, the class struggle was only a special form of nature’s general law of development, which is by no means peaceful. For him, development, as we have already noted, is “dialectical,” that is, the product of a struggle of opposites that necessarily occur. Every fight of irreconcilable opposites, however, must ultimately lead to the overcoming of one of the fighters: that is, to a catastrophe. The catastrophe can prepare itself very slowly; imperceptibly the strength of one fighter may grow, that of the other absolutely or proportionally diminish, until finally the collapse of one part becomes inevitable – that is, inevitable as a result of the fight and the increase of the strength of one part, not inevitable as an event that takes place by itself. Every day, at every turn, we encounter small catastrophes, both in nature and in society. Every death is a catastrophe. Every existing structure must eventually succumb to a supremacy of opposites. This applies not only to plants and animals, but also to whole societies, whole kingdoms, entire celestial bodies. For them, too, the progress of the general development process prepares temporary catastrophes through the gradual increase of resistance. No movement and no development without temporary catastrophes are possible. These form a necessary stage of development, since evolution is impossible without temporary revolutions.

By this conception, we also find the revolutionary bourgeois one overcome, which assumed that development takes place exclusively through catastrophes. The conservative bourgeois revolution thereafter [in contrast to the proletarian one] saw in catastrophe not the necessary point of passage of an often quite slow and imperceptible development process, but a disturbance and inhibition of this process.

We find another contrast between bourgeois and proletarian, or if we prefer, between conservative and revolutionary science, in the critique of knowledge: a revolutionary class that feels the power within itself to conquer society is not inclined to recognize any barrier to its scientific conquests and feels itself capable of solving all the problems of its time. A conservative class, on the other hand, instinctively shuns any progress not only in the political and social fields, but also in the scientific field, because it feels that any deeper knowledge can no longer be of much use to it, but can harm it infinitely. It is inclined to reduce confidence in science.

The naive confidence that still animated the revolutionary thinkers of the eighteenth century, as if they were carrying the solution to all world riddles in their pockets, as if they were speaking in the name of absolute reason, can no longer be shared even by the boldest revolutionary today. Today no one will want to deny anymore what, of course, already in the eighteenth century, and even in antiquity, some thinkers knew, namely that all our knowledge is relative; that it represents a relationship of man, of the self, to the rest of the world, and shows us only this relationship, not the world itself. So all knowledge is relative, conditioned, and limited; there are no absolute, eternal truths. But this means nothing other than that there is no conclusion to our knowledge, that the process of knowledge is an infinite, unlimited one, that it is foolish to present any knowledge as the ultimate conclusion of truth, but no less foolish to present any proposition as the ultimate limit of wisdom, beyond which we could never get.

Rather, we know that mankind has still succeeded in crossing every limit of its knowledge of which it became aware sooner or later, of course only to find further limits behind it of which it previously had no idea. We have not the least reason to shy away from any particular problem that we are able to recognize nor to let our hands sink into our laps and mumble resignedly: ignorabimus, we will never know anything about it. But this despondency characterizes modern bourgeois thinking. Instead of striving with all its might to broaden and deepen our knowledge, today it spends its noblest power on finding out certain limits that should be drawn from our knowledge forever and discrediting the certainty of scientific knowledge.

When the bourgeoisie was revolutionary, it avoided such tasks. For this despondency Marx never had anything to spare, much to the indignation of today’s bourgeois philosophy.


Last updated on 5 November 2020