Karl Kautsky

My Book on the Materialist Conception of History

(February 1928)

Source: This article appeared under the title Eine Selbstanzeige in the monthly journal of the Swiss Social-Democratic Party, Rote Revue (Zurich), VII, No.6 (February 1928), pp.161-67.
It is here slightly abridged, especially at its beginning and end, and translated by John H. Kautsky.
Published in International Journal of Comparative Sociology XXX, 1-2 (1989).
Transcribed: for marxists.org, August, 2002.


In this brief summary of his magnum opus, Kautsky, emphasizing some of his differences with Marx and Engels, explains history as an ongoing process of man adapting to a changed environment by the creation of tools and social institutions which increasingly dominate him and require further adaptation. Pre-capitalist states are doomed to stagnate or decline, but capitalist societies advance through social revolution, first bourgeois and then proletarian. – J.H.K.

WHAT I PRESENT [in my book on The Materialist Conception of History] is my own conception of history. To be sure, it rests on that of Marx and Engels, but it was formed a generation after theirs and in it are elaborated all the experiences and discoveries that became accessible to me in a half century of continual application of historical materialism. A whole generation has passed since Engels left us, an age full of enormous political, economic, and scientific changes. They confirm and reinforce our conception of history, which has thereby acquired ever more validity. But they have also caused me to modify this conception with respect to certain points. No doubt, Marx and Engels would have done this, too, had they lived until our own time, but it is obviously quite impossible to know in what way they would have done it. Thus, I can only speak for myself, and it is from that perspective that I present the materialist conception of history in my book.

First, I reject its crude forms that hold that men are moved only by their economic interests or that their intellectual and spiritual life is determined only by the material conditions in which they exist. For the intellectual life of an age, the inborn capacities and drives of men are to a large degree determinative as well as the ideas and social institutions they have inherited from their ancestors. But what is new in the intellectual life of a particular period, what they add to inherited human nature and inherited ideas and institutions, that can always be traced back to newly-developed economic conditions. Thus, economic development becomes the driving force of intellectual and social development. To prove this conception valid is the goal of my book.

I investigate first the relationship of our conception of history with the materialist world view. That is the principal content of Part I. In Part II, I consider the starting point of human development, the drives that preceded any economic activity, that man inherited from his animal ancestors and that can therefore not be explained with reference to the economy. Then I investigate the driving force of the evolution of organisms in nature. This driving force consists of changes in the surface of the globe that can in the last analysis be traced back to its progressive cooling and shrinking. They cause again and again new and ever more varied living conditions to develop for the organisms that are thereby themselves changed. If these changes favor the preservation of a particular species of organisms, then it will continue to exist. It has adapted itself to the new conditions.

This is true for man as well as for animals. But man develops his capacities, especially his hand and his brain, so far that he can introduce a new factor that lends to human history a character quite different from that of the history of animals. Part III of my book is concerned with this new factor. It is man’s capacity consciously to create new artificial organs in order to adapt himself to a new environment, at first tools, later also social organizations that permit him better to succeed in the struggle for existence under new living conditions. To unconscious natural adaptation in the world of animals there is now added, in the world of man, conscious adaptation through technical and later also social inventions.

But what is the driving force of this technical and economic development that now commences? It, too, rests on adaptation to the environment. It is the latter that creates the problems and provides the means to their solution. New problems and new means appear only when the environment changes. But in human history, we see economic and technical development occurring even when the natural environment does not change. What, then, is the source of environmental change?

To explain the new, the appearance of new ideas, goals, and solutions in the history of mankind along “materialist” lines, that is, with reference to changes in the environment, is impossible as long as these changes are themselves not explained. This has so far not been adequately done. Therefore there predominates in the philosophy of history the assumption of the creative role of geniuses who out of themselves create new ideas and finally cause them to be adopted, a process that is presumed to have no cause and is thus quite supernatural. Our need to know causes rebels against this assumption, but where else is the cause of what is new in man’s environment to be found?

I believe that I have found the cause that produces technical and thus all human progress in such a way that it fits into the total context of nature. That cause is the following: The artificial organs created by man are distinguished from animal organs in that they are not part of his body, but exist outside it. They are thus of an ambiguous nature. They belong to man as his organs and are yet at the same time part of his environment. This matters little as long as the artificial organs are few in number, small, and simple and accessible and familiar to every individual. The character of the artificial organs as environment, however, grows more and more to become a mighty force the more numerous and extensive these organs become, the more complex and varied, so that the individual confronts the great majority of them as an alien power that comes to determine the conditions under which he lives.

Artificial organs are invented to solve specific problems that are posed for men by the existing environment, that is, for the purpose of adaptation to it. But each of these organs, once it has achieved a certain scope and extent, becomes a new piece of the environment that confronts and dominates man, poses new problems for him and forces him to invent new means of renewed adaptation to the new environment. Thus social development becomes a process that goes on without interruption and creates its own impulse – truly a perpetuum mobile. Limited space does not permit me to illustrate or further to explain this process For this, I must refer the reader to my book.

The same process as in the economy proceeds in science; its progress, too, is conditioned by the progress of technology. Science is constantly occupied with the solution of problems posed to it by the observation of the environment. Sooner or later it succeeds in solving each of them that is properly posed. But it accomplishes this only through achievements and implements that provide it with new insights into the environment and thus change its appearance and thereby pose new problems. We solve one puzzle after the other, but only in a way that piles up new and ever bigger puzzles for us.

Thus evolution in society as in science proceeds dialectically. The conflict between man and his environment is in each case overcome in such a way as to change the environment and thus to produce a new conflict by the very means that overcame the old one. This kind of development is peculiar to mankind. It distinguishes the evolution of human society from that of the species of organisms as well as from that of the individual organism, which is again of a different kind. If we choose to designate the environment as material, then human evolution proceeds on the path of a materialist dialectic.


The entire investigation carried on in the first three Parts is concerned with areas that Marx and Engels did not deal with at any length, that they glanced at only occasionally. What concerned them primarily was history in the narrower sense, the history of states resting on antagonistic classes. They dealt less with man’s struggle with the environment, which conditions all social development from its beginnings, than with the struggles of classes in the state, the institutions of which serve the ruling and exploiting classes to suppress the ruled and exploited ones.

This is the subject of Part IV which comprises more than two thirds of the second volume. Here I enter the area of Marxism in the narrower sense, in which Marx and Engels did their principal and pioneering work. But even that is true mostly with reference to the last few centuries, the age of industrial capitalism. For the pre-capitalist forms of the state and of society in the state, they could, given the status of knowledge of their time, present to us only views that are today very much in need of being supplemented. In the case of some of these views, for example those on the origin of the state and of classes, I even came to conclude that I could not accept them at all.

But for the further development of the state, too, I arrive in some respects at results that deviate from those of Marx and Engels. Thus, ... I limit substantially the time period for which the law of social development through social revolution is valid. Marx assumed, at least in 1859, that the form of evolution of society until now was that through social revolution ... But the forward and upward movement of society is, rather, a process limited to the most recent centuries, the period of the effects of industrial capital. Before that, the various states, to be sure, often developed a high level of civilization with brilliant advances in art and science, but the advances in technology served almost exclusively to meet the needs of the exploiters, that is, the production of luxury goods and of weapons. Production for the needs of the masses was barely affected by these advances. Production was carried on principally by corvée laborers, slaves, and serfs. If free workers existed at all, their position was depressed by the competition of unfree ones.

All this has the result that pre-capitalist states, in spite of temporary brilliant advances, are all incapable of developing the elements of a new, higher mode of production. There are plenty of movements to overthrow governments, but none leads to a social revolution, to the formation of a new, higher society. Rather, the pre-capitalist states and societies all lead, with growing exploitation of the working classes, not only to the demoralization of the upper classes but also to growing decay of the lower ones. States end, at best, in stagnation, like, for example, the Chinese one, but mostly in depopulation and pauperization, as the ancient Roman empire demonstrates most obviously. In this condition they fall prey to neighboring barbarians who, on their ruins, begin the entire course of the development of the state anew, though starting on a somewhat higher basis formed by the ruins of the preceding state. This and not development through social revolution is the form of movement of states and of societies in them before the appearance of industrial capital. How the latter takes shape in the womb of the feudal society of the Middle Ages and brings on a new form of movement of society through social revolution, how this form of movement itself appears in two very different phases, that of the bourgeois and that of the proletarian revolution, I cannot even briefly hint at here within the limited spaced available to me.

In my discussion of this state of society, I must, of course, touch on some very current problems. Here, more than elsewhere, I can also move along paths that have been pointed out by our teachers. But here, too, I must sometimes modify them by what the experiences of the past generation have shown us. They themselves would, of course, have heeded and utilized these experiences had they come to know of them. They were not among those dogmatists who obstinately insist on adjusting inconvenient facts to their dogmas ... Marxism was, even while its fathers were still alive, subjected by them so some transformations. It was not, however, thereby given up, but was deepened and strengthened. I should be happy if I succeeded in continuing their work through my book.

My work is concluded by Part V, which deals with “the Meaning of History.” There I investigate whether and to what extent we can draw lessons from history for our political and social activity and to what extent it is possible to draw conclusions for the future from the past. In this context, I investigate the role played in history by outstanding individuals and by the masses. And finally I attempt to provide a view into the future of mankind and discuss the question whether or not the meaning of history involves a steady perfection of humanity ...

The materialist conception of history has been widely – not only by its adversaries but also by some of its friends – conceived of in too simplistic a manner, as a simple formula that claimed that its possession provided the solution to all the riddles of human history. Well, my book may be met with a great variety of objections and criticisms, but one thing everyone will concede after reading it: The materialist conception of history is anything but a simple pattern or rule of thumb. On the contrary, it presupposes for an understanding of each historical epoch far more comprehensive and varied historical research than any other conception of history. And that is true not only for the scholarly historian but also for the politician who wishes to ground and strengthen his practice historically.


Last updated on 12.12.2003