Antonio Labriola

Essays on the
Materialist Conception of History

Part 2: Historical materialism


This class of studies, like many others, but this more than any other, is confronted with a great difficulty, indeed an irksome hindrance, in that vice of minds educated by literary methods alone which is ordinarily called verbalism. This bad habit creeps into and spreads itself through all domains of knowledge; but in studies which relate to the so-called moral world, that is to say, to the historico-social complexus, it very often happens that the cult and the dominion of words succeed in corrupting and blotting out the real and living sense of things.

In the field where a long observation, repeated experiences, the certain use of improved instruments, the general or partial application of the calculus have resulted in putting the mind into a constant and methodical relation with things and their variations, as in the natural sciences properly so-called – there the myth and superstition of words are left behind and vanquished; there the questions of terminology no longer have more than the secondary value of pure convention. In the study of human relations and actions, on the contrary, the passions, the interests, the prejudices of school, sect, class and religion, the literary abuse of the traditional means of representing thought, and scholasticism, ever vanquished and always reborn, conceal the actual things, or transform them involuntarily into terms, into words, into abstract and conventional fashions of speech.

We must, first of all, take account of this difficulty when we use the expression or the formula "materialistic conception of history." Many have imagined, do imagine, and will imagine that it is possible and convenient to penetrate into the sense of the phrase by the simple analysis of the words which compose it instead of arriving at it from the context of an explanation, from the genetic study of the formation of the doctrine, [1]or from the polemical writings in which its partisans refute the objections of its opponents. Verbalism tends always to shut itself up in purely formal definitions; it gives rise in the minds to this erroneous belief, that it is an easy thing to reduce into terms and into simple and palpable expressions the agitated and immense complexus of nature and history and that it is easy to picture the multiform and complicated interlacings of causes and effects; in clearer terms, it obliterates the meaning of the problems because it sees in them nothing but questions of nomenclature.

If, moreover, it then happens that verbalism finds a support in certain theoretical hypotheses, for example, that matter indicates something which is below or opposed to another higher or nobler thing which is called spirit; or if it happens to be at one with that literary habit which opposes the word materialism, understood in a disparaging sense, to all that, in a word, is called idealism, that is to say, to the sum total of the anti-egoistic inclinations and acts; then our embarrassment is extreme! Then we are told that in this doctrine it is attempted to explain the whole of man by the mere calculation of his material interests and that no value whatever is allowed to any ideal interest. The inexperience, the incapacity and the haste of certain partisans and propagandists of this doctrine have also been a cause of these confusions. In their eagerness to explain to others what they themselves only half understand, at a time when the doctrine itself is only in its beginnings and still has need of many developments, they have believed they could apply it, such as it was, to whatever historic fact they were considering, and they have almost reduced it to tatters, exposing it thus to the easy criticism and the ridicule of people on the watch for scientific novelties, and other idle persons of the same type.

Since it has been my privilege in these first pages simply to rebut these prejudices (in a preliminary fashion) and unmask the intentions and the tendencies underlying them, it must be remembered that the meaning of this doctrine ought, before all else, to be drawn from the position which it takes and occupies with regard to the doctrines against which it is in reality opposed, and particularly with regard to the ideologies of every sort; – that the proof of its value consists exclusively in the more suitable and more appropriate explanation of the succession of human events which is derived from it; – that this doctrine does not imply a subjective preference for a certain quality or a certain sum of human interests opposed by free choice to other interests, but that it merely affirms the objective coordination and subordination of all interests in the development of all society; and this it affirms, thanks to that genetic processus which consists in going from the conditions to the conditioned, from the elements of formation to the things formed.

Let the verbalists reason as they like over the value of the word matter in so far as it implies or recalls a metaphysical conception, or in so far as it is the expression of the last hypothetical substratum of experience. We are not here in the domain of physics, chemistry or biology; we are only searching for the explicit conditions of human association in so far as it is no longer simply animal. It is not for us to support our inductions or our deductions upon the data of biology, but, on the contrary, to recognize before all else the peculiarities of human association, which form and develop through the succession and the growing perfection of the activity of man himself in given and variable conditions, and to find the relations of co-ordination and subordination of the needs which are the substratum of will and action. It is not proposed to discover an intention nor to formulate a criticism; it is merely the necessity arising from the facts that must be put in evidence.

And as men, not by free choice, but because they could not act otherwise, satisfy first certain elementary needs, which, in their turn, give rise to others in their upward development, and as for the satisfaction of their needs, whatever they may be, they invent and employ certain means and certain tools and associate themselves in certain definite fashions, the materialism of historical interpretation is nothing else than an attempt to reconstruct by thought with method the genesis and the complexity of the social life which develops through the ages. The novelty of this doctrine does not differ from that of all the other doctrines which after many excursions through the domains of the imagination have finally arrived, very painfully, at reaching the prose of reality and halting there.


There is a certain affinity, apparently at least, between that formal vice of verbalism and another defect of the mind, whose origins may, however, be varied. In consideration of some of its most common and popular effects I will call it phraseology, although this word is not an exact expression of the thing and does not set forth its origin.

For long centuries men have written on history, have explained it, have illustrated it. The most varied interests, from the interests more immediately practical to the interests purely esthetic, have moved different writers to conceive and to execute this type of composition. These different types have always taken birth in different countries long after the origins of civilization, of the development of the state and of the passage from the primitive communist society to the society which rests upon class differences and class antagonisms. The historians, even if they have been as artless as Herodotus, were always born and formed in a society having nothing ingenuous in it, but very complicated and complex, and at a time when the reasons for this complication and complexity were unknown and their origins forgotten. This complexity, with all the contrasts which it bears within itself and which it reveals later and makes burst forth in its various vicissitudes, stood forth before the narrators as something mysterious and calling for an explanation, and if the historian wished to give some sequence and a certain connection to the things narrated, he was obliged to add certain general views to the simple narration. From the jealousy of the gods of Father Herodotus to the environment of M. Taine, an infinite number of concepts serving as means of explanation and as complements to the things related have been imposed upon the narrators by the natural voices of their immediate thought. Class tendencies, religious ideas, popular prejudices, influences or imitations of a current philosophy, excursions of imagination and a desire to give an artistic appearance to facts known only in a fragmentary fashion, all these causes and other analogous causes have contributed to form the substratum of the more or less artless theory of events which is implicitly at the bottom of the narration, or which serves at least to flavor and adorn it. Whether men speak of chance or of destiny, whether they appeal to the providential direction of human events or adhere to the word and concept of chance, the only divinity left in the rigid and often coarse conception of Machiavelli, or whether they speak, as is frequent enough at the present time, of the logic of events, all these conceptions were and are effects and results of ingenuous thought, of immediate thought, of thought which cannot justify to itself its course, and its products, either by the paths of criticism or by the methods of experience. To fill up with conventional causes (e. g., chance) or with a statement of theoretical plausibility (e.g., the inevitable course of events which sometimes is confused in the mind with the notion of progress the gaps of our knowledge as to the fashion in which things have been actually produced by their own necessity without care for our free win and our consent, that is the motive and the result of this popular philosophy, latent or explicit, in the chroniclers, which by reason of its superficial character dissolves as soon as scientific criticism appears.

In all these concepts and all these imaginings which in the light of criticism appear as simple provisional devices and effects of an unripe thought, but which often seem to "cultured people" the non plus ultra of intelligence – in all these a great part of the human processus is revealed and reflected; and, consequently. We should not consider them as gratuitous inventions nor as products of a momentary illusion. They are a part and a moment in the development of what we call the human mind. If later it is observed that these concepts and these imaginings are mingled and confounded in the accepted opinions of cultured people, or of those who pass for such, they make up an immense mass of prejudices and they constitute an impediment which ignorance opposes to the clear and complete vision of the real things. These prejudices turn up again as etymological derivations in the language of professional politicians, of so-called publicists and journalists of every kind, and offer the support of rhetoric to self-styled public opinion.

To oppose and then to replace this mirage of uncritical conceptions, these idols of the imagination, these effects of literary artifice, this conventionalism by the real subjects, or the forces which are positively acting – that is to say, men in their various and diversified social relations – this is the revolutionary enterprise and the scientific aim of the new doctrine which renders objective and I might say naturalizes the explanation of the historical processus.

A certain definite nation, that is to say, not a certain mass of individuals, but a plexus of men organized in such and such a fashion by natural relations of consanguinity, or following such or such an artificial or customary order of relationship and affinity, or by reason of permanent proximity; – this nation, on a certain circumscribed and limited territory, having such and such fertility, productive in such and such a manner acquired through certain definite forms by continuous labor; – this nation, thus distributed over this territory and thus divided and articulated by the effect of a definite division of labor which is scarcely beginning to give birth to or which has already developed and ripened such and such a division of classes, or which has already disintegrated or transformed a whole series of classes; – this nation which possesses such and such instruments from the flint stone to the electric light and from the bow and arrow to the repeating rifle, which produces according to a certain fashion and shares its products conformably to its way of producing; – this nation, which by all these relations constitutes a society in which either by habits of mutual accommodation or by explicit conventions, or by acts of violence suffered and endured, has already given birth, or is on the point of giving birth to legal-political relations which result in the formation of the state; – this nation, which by the organization of the state, which is only a means for fixing, defending and perpetuating inequalities, by reason of the antagonisms which it bears within itself, renders continuously unstable the organization itself, whence result the political movements and revolutions, and therefore the reasons for progress and retrogression; – there is the sum of what is at the bottom of all history. And there is the victory of realistic prose over all the fantastic and ideological combinations.

Certainly it requires some resignation to see things as they are, passing beyond the phantoms which for centuries have prevented right vision. But this revelation of realistic doctrine was not and is not designed to be the rebellion of the material man against the ideal man. It has been and is, on the contrary, the discovery of the principles and the motives which are real and which belong to all human development, including all that we call the ideal in positive conditions, determined by facts which carry in themselves the reasons and the law and the rhythm of their own development.


But it would be a complete error to believe that the writers who narrate, explain, or illustrate have themselves invented and given life to this enormous mass of unripe concepts, imaginings, and explanations which, thanks to the force of prejudice, concealed for centuries the real truth. It may happen, and it certainly does happen, that some of these concepts are the fruit and the product of personal views, or of literary currents formed in the narrow professional circle of the universities and academies. The people in this case are absolutely ignorant of them. But the important fact is that history itself has put on these veils; that is to say, that the very actors and workers of the historic events – great masses of people, directing and ordering classes, masters of state, sects or parties, in the narrowest sense of the word, if we make exception for an occasional moment of lucid interval – never had up to the end of the past century a consciousness of their own work, unless it be through some ideological envelope which prevented any sight of the real causes. Already at the distant epoch when barbarism was passing over into civilization, that is to say, when the first discoveries of agriculture, the stable establishment of a population upon a definite territory, the first division of labor in society, the first alliances of different gentes, gave the conditions in which developed property and the state, or at least the city – even then, at the epoch of all the first social revolutions, men ideally transformed their work, seeing in it the miraculous acts of gods and heroes. So much so that, while acting as they could and as they must, granted the necessity and the fact of their relative economic development, they conceived an explanation of their own work as if it did not belong to them. This ideological envelope of human works has changed since then more than once in form, in appearance, in combinations and in relations in the course of the centuries, from the immediate production of the ingenuous myths up to the complicated theological systems and to The City of God of St. Augustine – from the superstitious credulity in miracles down to the bewildering miracles of the metaphysicians, that is to say, down to the Idea which for the decadents of Hegelianism engenders of itself, in itself, by its own disaggregation, the most incongruous variations of social life in the course of history.

Now, precisely because the visual angle of ideological interpretation has not been finally outgrown until very lately, and because it is only in our days that a sum total of the real and really acting relations has been clearly distinguished from the ingenuous reflections of myth and the more artificial reflections of religion and metaphysics, our doctrine states a new problem and carries within itself grave difficulties for whoever wishes to fit it for providing a specific explanation of the history of the past.

The problem consists in this: that our doctrine necessitates a new criticism of the sources of history. And I do not wish to be understood as speaking exclusively of the criticism of documents in the proper and ordinary sense of the word, because as for this we may content ourselves with what is delivered to us ready made by the critics, the scholars, and the professional philologists. But I would speak of that immediate source which is behind the so called documents properly and which, before expressing itself and fixing itself in these, resides in the spirit and in the form of the consciousness in which the actors accounted to themselves for the motives of their own work. This spirit, that is to say, this consciousness, is often inadequate to the causes which we are now in a position to discover, from which it follows that the actors seem to us enveloped, as it were, in a circle of illusions. To strip the historic facts from these envelopes which clothe the very facts while they are developing – this is to make a new criticism of the sources in the realistic sense of the word and not in the formal documentary sense. It is, in short, to make react upon the knowledge of past conditions the consciousness of which we are now capable, and thereby to reconstruct them anew.

But this revision of the most direct sources, if it marks the extreme limit of the historic self-consciousness which may be reached, may be an occasion for falling into a serious error. As we place ourselves at a point of view which is beyond the ideological views to which the actors in history were indebted for a consciousness of their work and in which they often found both the motives and the justification of their action, we may falsely believe that these ideological views were a pure appearance, a simple artifice, a pure illusion in the vulgar sense of the word. Martin Luther, like the other great reformers, his contemporaries, never knew, as we know to-day, that the Reformation was but an episode in the development of the Third Estate, and an economic revolt of the German nation against the exploitation of the Papal court. He was what he was, as an agitator and a politician, because he was wholly taken up with the belief which made him see in the class movement which gave an impulse to the agitation a return to true Christianity and a divine necessity in the vulgar course of events. The study of remote effects, that is to say, the increasing strength of the bourgeoisie of the cities against the feudal lords, the increase of the territorial dominion of the princes at the expense of the inter-territorial and super-territorial power of the emperor and the pope, the violent repression of the movement of the peasants and the more properly proletarian movement of the Anabaptists permit us now to reconstruct the authentic history of the economic causes of the Reformation, particularly in the final proportions which it took, which is the best of proofs. But that does not mean that we are privileged to detach the fact arrived at from the mode of its realization and to analyze the circumstantial integrality by a posthumous analysis altogether subjective and simplified. The inner causes, or, as would be said now, the profane and prosaic motives of the Reformation, appear to us clearly in France, where it was not victorious; clearly again in the Low Countries, where, apart from the differences of nationality, the contrasts of economic interests are shown strikingly in the struggle against Spain; very clearly again in England, where the religious renovation realized, thanks to political violence, placed in full light the passage to those conditions which are for our modern bourgeoisie the forerunners of capitalism. Post factum, and after the tardy realization of unforeseen consequences, the history of the real movements which were the inner causes of the Reformation, in great part unknown to the actors themselves, will appear in full light. But that the fact came about precisely as it did come about, that it took on certain determined forms, that it clothed itself in certain vestments, that it painted itself in certain colors, that it put in movement certain passions, that it displayed a special degree of fanaticism – in these consist its specific character, which no analytic ability can make otherwise than as it was. Only the love of paradox inseparable from the zeal of the passionate popularizers of a new doctrine can have brought some to believe that to write history it was sufficient to put on record merely the economic moment (often still unknown and often unknowable), and thereupon to cast to the earth all the rest as a useless burden with which men had capriciously loaded themselves, as a superfluity, a mere trifle, or even, as it were, something not existent.

From the fact that history must be taken in its entirety and that in it the kernel and the husk are but one, as Goethe said of all things, three consequences follow:

First, it is evident that in the domain of historico-social determinism, the linking of causes to effects, of conditions to the things conditioned, of antecedents to consequents, is never evident at first sight in the subjective determinism of individual psychology. In this last domain it was a relatively easy thing for abstract and formal philosophy to discover, passing above all the baubles of fatalism and free will, the evidence of the motive in every volition, because, in fine, there is no wish without its determining motive. But beneath the motives and the wish there is the genesis of both, and to reconstruct this genesis we must leave the closed field of consciousness to arrive at the analysis of the simple necessities, which, on the one side, are derived from social conditions, and on the other side are lost in the obscure background of organic dispositions, in ancestry and in atavism. It is not otherwise with historical determinism, where, in the same way, we begin with motives religious, political, aesthetic, passionate, etc., but where we must subsequently discover the causes of these motives in the material conditions underlying them. Now the study of these conditions should be so specified that we may perceive indubitably not only what are the causes, but again by what mediations they arrive at that form which reveals them to the consciousness as motives whose origin is often obliterated.

And thence follows indubitably this second consequences that in our doctrine we have not to re-translate into economic categories all the complex manifestations of history, but only to explain in the last analysis (Engels) all the historic facts by means of the underlying economic structure (Marx), which necessitates analysis and reduction and then interlinking and construction.

It results from this, in the third place, that, passing from the underlying economic structure to the picturesque whole of a given history, we need the aid of that complexus of notions and knowledge which may be called, for lack of a better term, social psychology. I do not mean by that to allude to the fantastic existence of a social psyche nor to the concept of an assumed collective spirit which by its own laws, independent of the consciousness of individuals and of their material and definable relations, realizes itself and shows itself in social life. That is pure mysticism. Neither do I wish to allude to those attempts at generalization which fill up treatises on social psychology and the general idea of which is to transport and apply to a subject which is called social consciousness the known categories and forms of individual psychology. Nor again do I wish to allude to that mass of semi-organic and semi-psychological denominations by the aid of which some attribute to the social being, as Schaeffle does, a brain, a spinal column, sensibility, sentiment, conscience, will, etc. But I wish to speak of more modest and more prosaic things, that is to say, of those concrete and precise states of mind which make us know as they really were the plebeians of Rome at a certain epoch, the artisans of Florence at the moment when the movement of the Ciompi burst forth, or those peasants of France within whom was engendered, to follow Taine's expression, the "spontaneous anarchy" of I789, those peasants who finally became free laborers and small proprietors, or, aspiring to property, transformed themselves rapidly from victors over the foreigner into automatic instruments of reaction. This social psychology, which no one can reduce to abstract canons because, in most cases, it is merely descriptive, this is what the chroniclers, the orators, the artists, the romancers and the ideologists of every sort have seen and up to now have conceived as the exclusive object of their studies. In this psychology, which is the specific consciousness of men in given social condition, the agitators, orators and propagandists trust today, and to it they appeal. We know that it is the fruit, the outcome, the effect of certain social conditions actually determined – this class, in this situation, determined by the functions which it fulfills, by the subjection in which it is held, by the dominion which it exercises; and finally, these classes, these functions, this subjection and this dominion involve such and such a determined form of production and distribution of the immediate means of life, that is to say, a determined economic structure. This social psychology, by its nature always circumstantial, is not the expression of the abstract and generic process of the self-styled human intellect. It is always a specified formation from specified conditions. We hold this principle to be indisputable, that it is not the forms of consciousness which determine the human being, but it is the manner of being which determines the consciousness (Marx).

But these forms of consciousness, even as they are determined by the conditions of life, constitute in themselves also a part of history. This does not consist only in the economic anatomy, but in all that combination which clothes and covers that anatomy even up to the multicolored reflections of the imagination. In other words, there is no fact in history which does not recall by its origin the conditions of the underlying economic structure, but there is no fact in history which is not preceded, accompanied and followed by determined forms of consciousness, whether it be superstitious or experimental, ingenuous or reflective, impulsive or self-controlled, fantastic or reasoning.


I was saying a moment ago that our doctrine makes history objective and in a certain sense naturalizes it, going from the explanation of the data, evident at first sight, of the personalities acting with design, and of the auxiliary conceptions of the action, to the causes and the motives of the will and the action, in order to find thereupon the co-ordination of these causes and of these motives in the pre-elementary processus of the production of the immediate means of existence.

Now this term "naturalizing" has led more than one mind into confusing this order of problems with another order of problems, that is to say, into extending to history the laws and the manners of thinking which have already appeared suitable to the study and explanation of the material world in general and of the animal world in particular. And because Darwinism succeeded in carrying, thanks to the principle of the transformation of species, the last citadel of the metaphysical fixity of things, and in discerning, in the organisms, phases, as it were, and moments of a real and proper natural history, it has been imagined that it was a commonplace and simple enterprise to borrow for an explanation of the future and the history of human life the concepts, the principles and the methods of examination to which that animal life is subjected which in consequence of the immediate conditions of the struggle for existence is unfolding to topographical environments not modified by the action of labor. Darwinism, political and social, has, like an epidemic, for many years invaded the mind of more than one thinker, and many more of the advocates and declaimers of sociology, and it has been reflected as a fashionable habit and a phraseological current even in the daily language of the politicians.

It seems at first sight that there is something immediately evident and instinctively plausible in this fashion of reasoning, which it may be said is principally distinguished by its abuse of analogy and by its haste in drawing conclusions. Man is without doubt an animal, and he is linked by connections of descent and affinity to other animals. He has no privileges of origin or of elementary structure, and his organism is merely one particular case of general physiology. His first immediate field was that of simple nature not modified by work, and from thence are derived the imperious and inevitable conditions of the struggle for existence, with the consequent forms of adaptation. Thence are born races in the true and authentic sense of the word; that is to say, in so far as they are immediate determinations of black, white, yellow, woolly-haired, straight-haired, etc., and not secondary historico-social formations, that is to say, peoples and nations. Thence are born the primitive instincts of sociability and in life in promiscuity arise the first rudiments of sexual selection.

But if we can reconstruct in imagination the primitive savage, by combining our conjectures, it is not given us to have an empirical intuition of him, just as it is not given us to determine the genesis of that hiatus, that is to say, that break in continuity, thanks to which human life is found detached from animal life to rise, in the sequel, to an ever higher level. All men who live at this moment on the earth's surface and all those who, having lived in the past, were the objects of any trustworthy observation, are found, and were found, already sufficiently removed from the moment when purely animal life had ceased. A certain social life with customs and institutions, even if it be of the most elementary form that we know, that is to say, of the Australian tribes, divided into classes and practising the marriage of all the men of one class with all the women of another class, separates human life by a great interval from animal life. If we consider the maternal gens, of which the classic type, the Iroquois type, has, thanks to Morgan's work, revolutionized prehistoric science, while giving us at the same time the key to the origins of history properly so called, we have a form of society already much advanced by the complexity of its relations. At that stage of social life which, according to our knowledge, seems very elementary, that is to say, in the Australian society, not only does a very complicated language differentiate men from all other animals (and language is a condition and an instrument, a cause and an effect of sociability), but the specialization of human life, apart from the discovery of fire, is manifested by the use of many other artificial means by which the needs of life are satisfied. A certain territory acquired for the common use of a tribe, a certain art of hunting – the use of certain instruments of defense and attack and the possession of certain utensils for preserving the things acquired – and then the ornamentation of the body, etc., all this means that at bottom this life rests upon an artificial, although very elementary, basis, upon which men endeavor to fix themselves and adapt themselves – upon a basis which is after all the condition of all further progress. According as this artificial basis is more or less formed, the men who have produced it and who live in it are considered more or less savage or barbarous. This first formation constitutes what we may call pre-history.

History, according to the literary use of the word, namely, that part of the human processus whose traditions are fixed in the memory, begins at a moment when the artificial basis has been formed for a considerable length of time. For example, the canalization of Mesopotamia gives us the ancient pre-Semitic Babylonian state, while the extremely ancient Egyptian civilization rests upon the application of the Nile to agriculture. Upon this artificial basis, which appears in the extreme horizon of known history, lived, as now, not shapeless masses of individuals, but organized groups whose organization was fixed by a certain distribution of tasks, that is to say, of labor and by consecutive methods of co-ordination and subordination. These relations, these connections, these ways of living were not and are not the result of the crystallization of customs under the immediate action of the animal struggle for existence. What is more, they presuppose the discovery of certain instruments, and, for example, the domestication of certain animals, the working of minerals and even of iron, the introduction of slavery, etc., instruments and methods of economy which have first differentiated communities from each other and have subsequently differentiated the component parts of these communities themselves. In other words, the works of men in so far as they live together react upon the men themselves. Their discoveries, and their inventions, by creating artificial ways of living, have produced not only habits and customs (clothing, cooking of food, etc.), but relations and bonds of coexistence proportioned and adapted to the mode of production and reproduction of the means of immediate life.

At the dawn of traditional history economics is already operating. Men are working to live, on a foundation which has been in great part modified by their work and with tools which are completely their work. And from that moment they have struggled among themselves to conquer each from the other a superior position in the use of these artificial means; that is to say, they have struggled among themselves whether as serfs and masters, subjects and lords, conquered and conquerors, exploited and exploiters, both where they have progressed and where they have retrograded and where they have halted in a form which they have not been capable of outgrowing, but never have they returned to the animal life by the complete loss of their artificial foundation.

Historical science has, then, as its first and principal object the determination and the investigation of this artificial foundation, its origin, its composition, its changes and its transformations. To say that all this is only a part and a prolongation of nature, is to say a thing which by its too abstract and too generic character has no longer any meaning.

The human race, in fact, lives only in earthly conditions, and we cannot suppose it to be transplanted elsewhere. Under these conditions it has found from its very first beginnings down to the present day the immediate means necessary for the development of labor, that is to say, for its material progress as for its inner formation. These natural conditions were and they are always indispensable to the sporadic agriculture of the nomads, who sometimes cultivated the earth merely for the pasturage of animals, as well as for the refined products of intensive modern horticulture. These earthly conditions, precisely as they have furnished the different sorts of stones suited for the fabrication of the first weapons, furnish now also, with coal, the elements of the great industry; precisely as they gave the first laborers osiers and willows to plait, they give now all the materials necessary to the complicated technique of electricity.

It is not, however, the natural materials themselves which have progressed. On the contrary, it is only men who progress, through discovering little by little in nature the conditions which permit them to produce in more and more complex forms, thanks to the labor accumulated in experience. This progress does not consist merely in the sort of progress with which subjective psychology is concerned that is to say, the inner modifications which would be the proper and direct development of the intellect, the reasoning and the thought. Moreover, this inner progress is but a secondary and derived product, in proportion as there is already a progress realized in the artificial foundation which is the sum of the social relations resulting from the forms and the distributions of labor. It is, then, a meaningless affirmation to say that all this is but a simple prolongation of nature, unless one wishes to employ this word in so generic a sense that it no longer indicates anything precise and distinct; that which is not realized by the work of man.

History is the work of man in so far as man can create and improve his instruments of labor, and with these instruments can create an artificial environment whose complicated effects react later upon himself, and which by its present state and its successive modifications is the occasion and the condition of his development. There are, then, no reasons for carrying back that work of man which is history to the simple struggle for existence. If this struggle modifies and improves the organs of animals, and if in given circumstances and methods it produces and develops new organs, it still does not produce that continuous, perfected and traditional movement which is the human processus. Our doctrine must not be confounded with Darwinism, and it need not invoke anew the conception of a mythical, mystical or metaphorical form of fatalism. If it is true in effect that history rests, before all else, upon the development of technique, that is to say, if it is true that the successive discovery of tools gives rise to the successive distributions of labor, and therewith to the inequalities whose sum total, more or less stable, forms the social organism, it is equally true that the discovery of these instruments is at once the cause and the effect of these conditions and of those forms of the inner life to which, isolating them by psychological abstraction, we give the name of imagination, intellect, reason, thought, etc. By producing successively the different social environment, that is to say, the successive artificial foundations, man has produced himself, and in this consists the serious kernel, the concrete reason, the positive foundation of that which by various fantastic combinations and by a varied logical architecture has suggested to the ideologists the notion of the progress of the human mind.

Nevertheless, this expression of naturalizing history, which, understood in too broad and too generic a sense, may be the occasion of the equivocations of which we have spoken, when it is, on the contrary, employed with proper precaution and in a tentative fashion, sums up briefly the criticism of all the ideological views which, in the interpretation of history, start from this hypothesis, that human work or activity are one and the same with free will, free choice and voluntary designs.

It was easy and convenient for the theologians to carry back the course of human events to a preconceived plan or design, because they passed directly from the facts of experience to an assumed mind which ruled the universe. The jurists, who first had occasion to discover in the institutions which formed the object of their studies a certain guiding thread through the forms which manifestly succeeded each other, carried over, as they still carry over as cheerfully, the reasoning faculty which is their own duality, to serve as an explanation for the whole vast social fabric, however complicated. The men of politics, who naturally take their point of departure in this datum of experience, that the officers of the state, whether by the acquiescence of the subject masses or profiting by the antitheses of interests of the different social groups, may set aims for themselves and realize them voluntarily and in deliberate fashion – these men are brought to see in the succession of human events only a variation of these designs, these projects and these intentions. Now our conception, while revolutionizing in their foundations the hypotheses of the theologians, the jurists and the politicians, terminates in this affirmation, that human labor and activity in general are not always one and the same thing in the course of history with the will which acts with design, with preconceived plans and with its free choice of means; that is to say, that they are not one and the same thing with the reasoning faculty. All that has happened in history is the work of man, but it was not, and is not, with rare exceptions, the result of a critical choice or of a reasoning desire. Moreover, it was and is through necessity that, determined by external needs and occasions, this activity engenders an experience and a development of internal and external organs. Among these organs we must include intelligence and reason which also are the result and consequence of repeated and accumulated experience. The integral formation of man in his historical development is henceforth no longer a hypothetical datum nor a simple conjecture. It is an intuitive and palpable truth. The conditions of the processus which engenders a step of progress are henceforth reducible into a series of explanations; and up to a certain point we have under our eyes the schedule of all historical developments, morphologically conceived. This doctrine is the clear and definite negation of all ideology, because it is the explicit negation of every form of rationalism, understanding by this word this concept, that things in their existence and their development answer to a norm, an ideal, a measure, an end, in an implicit or explicit fashion. The whole course of human events is a sum, a succession of series of conditions which men have made and laid down for themselves through the experience accumulated in their changing social life, but it represents neither the tendency to realize a predetermined end nor the deviation of a first principle from perfection and felicity. Progress itself implies merely that empirical and circumstantial notion of a thing which is at present defined in our mind, because, thanks to the development thus far realized, we are in a position to estimate the past and to foresee, at least in a certain sense and in a certain measure, the future.


In this fashion a serious ambiguity is dissolved and the errors carried with it are removed. Reasonable and well founded is the tendency of those who aim to subordinate the sum total of human events in their course to the rigorous conception of determinism. There is, on the contrary, no reason for confusing this derived, reflex and complex determinism with the determinism of the immediate struggle for existence which is produced and developed on a field not modified by the continued action of labor. Legitimate and well founded, in an absolute fashion, is the historical explanation which proceeds in its course from the volitions which have voluntarily regulated the different phases of life, to the motives and objective causes of every choice, discovered in the conditions of environment, territory, accessible means of existence and conditions of experience. But there is, on the contrary, no foundation for that opinion which tends to the negation of every volition by consequence of a theoretical view which would substitute automatism for voluntarism. There is nothing in it, as a matter of fact, but a pure and simple conceit.

Wherever the means of production have developed, to a certain point, wherever the artificial foundation has acquired a certain consistency, and wherever the social differentiations and their resulting antitheses have created the need, the possibility and the conditions of an organization more or less stable or unstable, there, always and necessarily, appear premeditated designs, political views, plans of conduct, systems of law and finally maxims and general and abstract principles. In the circle of these products, and of these derived and complex developments of the second degree, spring up also the sciences and arts, philosophy and learning, and history as a literary fashion of production. This circle is what the rationalists and the ideologists, ignorant of its real foundations, have called, and call, in an exclusive fashion, civilization. And, in fact, it has happened, and it happens, that some men, and especially professional scientists, lay or clerical, have found, and find, the means of intellectual livelihood in the closed circle of the reflex and secondary products of civilization, and that they have been able and are able consequently to submit all the rest to the subjective view which they have elaborated under these conditions; that is, the origin and explanation of all the ideologies. Our doctrine has definitely outgrown the visual angle of ideology. The premeditated designs, the political views, sciences, systems of law, etc., instead of being the means and the instrument of the explanation of history, are precisely what require to be explained, because they are derived from determined conditions and situations. But that does not mean that they are pure appearances, soap bubbles. If they are things which have been developed and derived, that does not imply that they are not real things; and that is so true that they have been, for centuries, to the unscientific consciousness, and to the scientific consciousness still on the way towards its formation, the only ones which really existed.

But that is not all.

Our doctrine, like others, may lead to reverie and offer an occasion and a theme for a new inverted ideology. It was born on the battlefield of communism. It assumes the appearance of the modern proletariat on the political stage, and it assumes that alignment upon the origins of our present society which has permitted us to reconstruct in a critical manner the whole genesis of the bourgeoisie. It is a doctrine revolutionary from two points of view: because it has found the reasons and the methods of development of the proletarian revolution which is in the making, and because it proposes to find the causes and the conditions of development of all other social revolutions which have taken place in the past, in the class antagonisms which arrived at a certain critical point, by reason of the contradiction between the forms of production and the development of the producing forces. And this is not all. In the light of this doctrine what is essential in history is summed up in these critical moments, and it abandons, momentarily at least, what unites these different moments to the learned ministrations of the professional narrators. As a revolutionary doctrine it is, before all else, the intellectual consciousness of the actual proletarian movement in which, according to our assertion, the future of communism is preparing long beforehand; so much so that the open adversaries of socialism reject it as an opinion, which, under a scientific mask, is only working out another utopia.

Thus it may happen, and that has already resulted, that the imagination of people unfamiliar with the difficulties of historic research, and the zeal of fanatics, find a stimulus and an opportunity even in historic materialism for forming a new ideology and drawing from it a new philosophy of systematic history, that is to say, history conceived as schemes or tendencies and designs. And no precaution can suffice. Our intellect is rarely contented with purely critical research; it is always attempting to convert into an element of pedantry and into a new scholasticism every discovery of thought. In a word, even the materialistic conception of history may be converted into a form of argumentation for a thesis and serve to make new fashions with the ancient prejudices like that of a history based on syllogisms, demonstrations and deductions.

To guard against this, and especially to avoid the reappearance in an indirect and disguised fashion of any form whatever of finality, it is necessary to resolve positively upon two things: First, that all known historic conditions are circumstanced, and second, that progress has thus far been circumscribed by various obstacles and that for this reason it has always been partial and limited.

Only a part, and, until recent times, only a small part of the human race, has traversed completely all the stages of the processus by the effect of which the most advanced nations have arrived at modern civil society, with the advanced technical forms founded upon the discoveries of science and with all the consequences, political, intellectual, moral, etc., which correspond to this development. By the side of the English – to take the most striking example – who, transporting European manners with them to New Holland, have created there a center of production which already holds a notable place in the competition of the world's market, there still live, like fossils of prehistoric times, the Australian aborigines, capable only of disappearing, but incapable of adapting themselves to a civilization which was not imported among them, but next to them. In America, and especially in North America, the series of events which have brought on the development of modern society began with the importation from Europe of domestic animals and agricultural tools, the use of which in ancient times gave birth to the slow moving civilization of the Mediterranean; but this movement remained entirely inside the circle of those descended from the conquerors and colonists, while the aborigines are lost in the mass through the intermingling of races or perish and disappear completely. Western Asia and Egypt, which already in very ancient times, as the first cradle of all our civilization, gave birth to the great semi-political formations which marked the first phases of certain and positive history, have appeared to us for centuries as crystallizations of social forms incapable of moving on of themselves to new phases of development. Upon them is the age-long weight of the barbaric camp – the dominion of the Turk. Into this stiffened mass is introduced by secret ways a modern administration, and in the name of business interests the railroads and the telegraphs push in – bold outposts of the conquering European bank. All this stiffened mass has no hope of resuming life, heat and motion except by the ruin of the Turkish dominion, for which are being substituted in the different methods of direct and indirect conquest the dominion and the protectorate of the European bourgeoisie. That a process of transformation of backward nations or of nations arrested in their march, can be realized and hastened under external influences, India stands as a proof. This country, with its own life still surviving re-enters vigorously under the action of England into the circulation of international activity even with its intellectual products. These are not the only contrasts in the historic physiognomy of our contemporaries. And while in Japan, by an acute and spontaneous phenomenon of imitation, there has developed, in less than thirty years, a certain assimilation of western civilization which is already moving normally the country's own energies, the forcible law of Russian conquest is dragging into the circle of modern industry, and even into great industry, certain notable portions of the country beyond the Caspian, as an outpost of the aproaching acquisition to the sphere of capitalism of Central Asia and Upper Asia. The gigantic mass of China appeared to us but a few years ago as motionless in the hereditary organization of its institutions, so slow is every movement there, while for ethnic and geographical reasons almost all Africa remained impenetrable, and, it seemed, even up to the last attempts at conquest and colonization, that it was destined to offer only its borders to the process of civilization, as if we were still in the times not even of the Portuguese, but of the Greeks and Carthaginians.

These differentiations of men on the track of written and unwritten history seem to us easily explicable when they can be referred to the natural and immediate conditions which impose limits upon the development of labor. This is the case with America, which up to the arrival of the Europeans had but one cereal, maize, and but one domestic animal for labor, the llama, and we can rejoice that the Europeans imported with themselves and their tools the ox, the ass and the horse, corn, cotton, sugarcane, coffee and finally the vine and the orange tree, creating there a new world of that glorious society which produces merchandise and which with an extraordinary swiftness of movement has already traversed the two phases of the blackest slavery and the most democratic wage system. But where there is a real halt and even an attested retrogression, as in Western Asia, in Egypt, in the Balkan Peninsula and in Northern Africa – and this arrest cannot be attributed to the change of natural conditions – we find the problem before us which is awaiting its solution from the direct and explicit study of the social structure studied in the internal modes of its development, as in the interlacings and complications of the different nations upon that field which is ordinarily called the scene of historic struggles.

This same civilized Europe, which by the continuity of its tradition, presents the most complete diagram of its processus, so much so that upon this model have been conceived and constructed, thus far, all the systems of historical philosophy, this Western and Central Europe, which produced the epoch of the bourgeoisie and has sought and is seeking to impose that form of society upon the whole world by different modes of conquest, direct or indirect – this Europe is not completely uniform in the degree of its development, and its various agglomerations, national, local and political, appear disturbed, as it were, over a decidedly sloping ladder. Upon these differences depend the conditions of relative superiority and inferiority of one country to another and the reasons, more or less advantageous or disadvantageous, for economic exchange; and thereon have depended, and still depend, not only the frictions and the struggles, the treaties and the wars, but also everything that with more or less precision the political writers have been able to relate to us since the Renaissance, and certainly with increasing evidence, from Louis XIV and Colbert to our own time.

This Europe in itself is highly variegated. Here is the consummate flower of industrial and capitalist production, namely, England, while at other points survives the artisan, vigorous or rickety, at Paris and at Naples, to grasp the fact in its extreme points. Here the land is almost industrialized, as in England and elsewhere vegetates, in various traditional forms, the stupid peasant, as in Italy and in Austria, and in the latter country more than in the former. In one country the political life of the state – suited to the prosaic consciousness of a bourgeoisie which knows its business because it has conquered the space that it occupies – is exerted in the surest and most open fashion of an explicit class domination (it will be understood that I am speaking of France). Elsewhere, and particularly in Germany, the old feudal customs, the hypocrisy of Protestantism and the cowardice of a bourgeoisie which exploits favorable economic circumstances without bringing to them either intelligence or revolutionary courage, strengthen the existing state by preserving the lying appearances of an ethical mission to be accomplished. (With how many unpalatable sauces this state ethics, Prussian into the bargain, has been served up by the heavy and pedantic German professors!) Here and there modern capitalist production is edging its way into countries which from other points of view do not enter into our movement and especially into its political side, as is the case with unhappy Poland; or again this form only penetrates indirectly, as in the Slavonic countries. But now comes the sharpest contrast, which seems destined to put under our eyes, as in an epitome, all the phrases, even the most extreme, of our history.

Russia could not have advanced, as it is now advancing, toward the great industry, without drawing from Western Europe, and especially from our charming French Chauvinsim, that money which she would in vain have sought within her own borders, that is to say, from the conditions of her obese territorial mass, where vegetate in ancient economic forms fifty million peasants. Russia, in order to become an economic modern society ripening the conditions of a corresponding political revolution, and preparing the means which will facilitate the addition of a large part of Asia to the capitalist movement, has been led to destroy the last relics of agrarian communism (whether its origins be primitive or secondary) which had been preserved within herself up to this point in such characteristic forms and on so large a scale. Russia must capitalize herself, and to this end she must, to start with, convert land into merchandise capable of producing merchandise, and at the same time transform into miserable proletarians the excommunists of the land.

And, on the contrary, in Western and Central Europe we find ourselves at the opposite point of the series of development which has scarcely begun in Russia. Here, with us, where the bourgeoisie, with varied fortunes and triumphing over such a variety of difficulties, has already traversed so many stages of its development, it is not the recollection of primitive or secondary communism, which scarcely survives through learned combinations in the heads of scholars, but the very form of bourgeois production, which engenders in the proletarians the tendency to socialism, which presents itself in its general outlines as an indication of a new phase of history and not as the repetition of what is inevitably perishing in the Slavonic countries under our eyes.

Who could fail to see in these illustrations, which I have not sought out, but which have come almost by chance, and which can be indefinitely prolonged in a volume of economic-political geography of the present world, the evident proof of the manner in which historic conditions are all circumstanced in the forms of their development. Not only races and peoples, nations and states, but parts of nations and various regions of states, even orders and classes, are found, as it were, upon so many rounds of a very long ladder, or, rather, upon the various points of a complicated and slowly developing curve. Historic time has not marched uniformly for all men. The simple succession of generations has never been the index of the constancy and intensity of the processus. Time as an abstract measure of chronology and the generations which succeed one another in approximate periods give no criterion and furnish no indication of law or of process. The developments thus far have been varied because the things accomplished in one and the same unit of time were varied. Between these varied forms of development there is an affinity or rather a similarity of movements, that is, an analogy of type, or again an identity of form; thus the advanced forms may by simple contact or by violence accelerate the development of backward forms. But the important thing is to comprehend that progress, our notion of which is not merely empirical, but always circumstanced and thus limited, is not suspended over the course of human events like a destiny or a fate, nor like a commandment. And for this reason our doctrine cannot serve to represent the whole history of the human race in a unified perspective which repeats, mutatis mutandis, the historic philosophy from thesis to conclusion, from St. Augustine to Hegel, or, better, from the prophet Daniel to M. De Rougemont.

Our doctrine does not pretend to be the intellectual vision of a great plan or of a design, but it is merely a method of research and of conception. It is not by accident that Marx spoke of his discovery as a guiding thread, and it is precisely for this reason that it is analogous to Darwinism, which also is a method, and is not and cannot be a modern repetition of the constructed or constructive natural philosophy as used by Shelling and his school.

The first to discover in the notion of progress an indication of something circumstantial and relative was the genial Saint Simon, who opposed his way of seeing to the doctrine of the eighteenth century represented by the party of Condorcet. To that doctrine, which may be called unitary, equalitarian, formal, because it regards the human race as developing upon one line of process, Saint Simon opposes the conception of the faculties and of the aptitudes which substitute themselves and compensate for each other, and thus he remains an ideologist.

To penetrate the true reasons for the relativity of progress another thing was necessary. It was necessary, first of all, to renounce those prejudices which are involved in the belief that the obstacles to the uniformity of human development rest exclusively upon natural and immediate causes. These natural obstacles are either sufficiently problematical, as is the case with races, no one of which shows the privilege of birth in its history, or they are, as is the case in geographical differences, insufficient to explain the development of the completely different historico-social conditions on one and the same geographical field. And as the historic movement dates precisely from the time when the natural obstacles have already been in great part either vanquished or notably circumscribed, thanks to the creation of an artificial field upon which it has been given to men to develop themselves further, it is evident that the successive obstacles to the uniformity of progress must be sought in the proper and intrinsic conditions of the social structure itself.

This structure has thus far started in forms of political organization, the object of which is to try to hold in equilibrium the economic inequalities; consequently this organization, as I have said more than once is constantly unstable. From the point where there is a known history, it is the history of society tending to form the state, or having already constructed it completely. And the state is this struggle, within and without, because it is, above all, the organ and the instrument of a larger or smaller part of society against all the rest of society itself, in so far as the latter rests upon the economic domination of man over man in a more or less direct and explicit fashion, according as the different degree of the development of production, of its natural means and its artificial instruments, requires either chattel slavery, or the serfdom of the soil, or the "free" wage system. This society of antitheses, which forms a state, is always, although in different forms and various modes, the opposition of the city to the country, of the artisan to the peasant, of the proletarian to the employer, of the capitalist to the laborer, and so on ad infinitum, and it always ends, with various complications and various methods, in an hierarchy, whether it be in a fixed scaffolding of privilege, as in the Middle Ages, or whether, under the disguised forms of supposed equal rights for all, it be produced by the automatic action of economic competition, as in our time.

To this economic hierarchy corresponds, according to various modes, in different countries, in different times, in different places, what I may call almost a hierarchy of souls, of intellects, of minds. That is to say, that culture, which, for the idealists, constitutes the sum of progress, has been and is by the necessities of the case very unequally distributed. The greater portion of mankind, by the quality of their occupations, are composed of individuals who are disintegrated, broken into fragments and rendered incapable of a complete and normal development. To the economics of classes and to the hierarchy of social positions corresponds the psychology of classes. The relativity of progress is then for us the inevitable consequence of class distinctions. These distinctions constitute the obstacles which explain the possibility of relative retrogression, up to the point of degeneracy and of the dissolution of an entire society. The machines, which mark the triumph of science, become, by reason of the antithetic conditions of the social plexus, instruments which impoverish millions and millions of artisans and free peasants. The progress of technique, which fills the towns with merchandise, makes more miserable and abject the condition of the peasants, and in the cities themselves it further humbles the condition of the humble. All the progress of science has served thus far to differentiate a class of scientists and to keep ever further from culture the masses who, attached to their ceaseless daily toil, are thus feeding the whole of society.

Progress has been and is, up to the present time, partial and one-sided. The minorities which share in it call this human progress; and the proud evolutionists call this human nature which is developing. All this partial progress, which has thus far developed upon the oppression of man by man, has its foundation in the conditions of opposition, by which economic distinctions have engendered all the social distinctions; from the relative liberty of the few is born the servitude of the greater number, and law has been the protector of injustice. Progress, thus seen and clearly appreciated, appears to us as the moral and intellectual epitome of all human miseries and of all material inequalities.

To discover this inevitable relativity it was necessary that communism, born at first as an instinctive movement in the soul of the oppressed, should become a science and a political party. It was then necessary that our doctrine should give the measure of value for all past history, by discovering in every form of social organization, antithetical in its origin and organization, as they have all been up to this time, the innate incapacity for producing the conditions of a universal and uniform human progress, that is to say, by discovering the fetters which turn each benefit into an injury.


There is one question which we cannot evade: What has given birth to the belief in historic factors?

That is an expression familiar to many and often found in the writings of many scholars, scientists and philosophers, and of those commentators who, by their reasonings or by their combinations, add a little to simple historic narration and utilize this opinion as an hypothesis to find a starting point in the immense mass of human facts, which, at first sight and after first examination, appear so confused and irreducible. This belief, this current opinion, has become for reasoning historians, or even for rationalists, a semi- doctrine, which has recently been urged several times, as a decisive argument, against the unitary theory of the materialistic conception. And indeed, this belief is so deeply rooted and this opinion so widespread, of history being only intelligible as the juncture and the meeting of various factors, that, in consequence, many of those who speak of social materialism, whether they be its partisans or adversaries, believe that they save themselves from embarrassment by affirming that this whole doctrine consists in the fact that it attributes the preponderance or the decisive action to the economic factor.

It is very important to take account of the fashion in which this belief, this opinion, or this semi-doctrine takes its rise, because real and fruitful criticism consists principally in knowing and understanding the motive of what we declare an error. It does not suffice to reject an opinion by characterizing it as false doctrine. Error always arises from some ill- understood side of an incomplete experience, or from some subjective imperfection. It does not suffice to reject the error; we must overcome it, explain it and outgrow it.

Every historian, at the beginning of his work, performs, so to speak, an act of elimination. First, he makes erasures, as it were, in a continuous series of events; then he dispenses with numerous and varied suppositions and precedents; more than this, he tears up and decomposes a complicated tissue. Thus, to begin with, he must fix a point, a line, a boundary, as he chooses; he must say, for example: I wish to relate the beginning of the war between the Greeks and the Persians, or to inquire how Louis XVI. was brought to convene the States General. The narrator finds himself, in a word, confronted with a complexus of accomplished facts and of facts on the point of being produced, which in their totality present a certain aspect. Upon the attitude which he takes depends the form and the style of every narration, because to compose it he must take his point of departure from things already accomplished, in order to see henceforth how they have continued to develop.

Yet into this complexus he must introduce a certain degree of analysis, resolving it into groups and into aspects of facts, or into concurrent elements, which afterwards appear at a certain moment as independent categories. It is the state in a certain form and with certain powers; it is the laws, which determine, by what they command or what they prohibit, certain relations; it is the manners and customs which reveal to us tendencies, needs, ways of thinking, of believing, of imagining; altogether it is a multitude of men living and working together, with a certain distribution of tasks and occupations; he observes then the thoughts, the ideas, the inclinations, the passions, the desires, the aspirations which arise and develop from this varied mode of coexistence and from its frictions. Let a change be produced, and it will show itself in one of the sides or one of the aspects of the empirical complexus, or in all of these within a longer or a shorter time; for example, the state extends its boundaries, or changes its internal limits as regards society by increasing or diminishing its powers and its attributes, or by changing the mode of action of one or the other; or, again, the law modifies its dispositions, or it expresses and affirms itself through new organs; or, again, finally, behind the change of exterior and daily habits, we discover a change in the sentiments, the thoughts and the inclinations of the men variously distributed in the different social classes, who mingle, change, replace each other, disappear or reappear. All this may be sufficiently understood, in its exterior forms and outlines, through the usual endowments of normal intelligence which is not yet aided, corrected or completed by science strictly so-called. Assembling within precise limits a conception of such facts is the true and proper object of narration, which is so much the clearer, more vivid and more exact, as it takes the form of a monograph; witness Thucydides in the Peloponnesian war.

Society already evolved in a certain fashion, society already arrived at a certain degree of development, society already so complicated that it conceals the economic substructure which supports all the rest, has not revealed itself to the simple narrators, except in these visible facts, in these most apparent results, and in these most significant symptoms which are the political forms, the legal dispositions and the partisan passions. The narrator, both because he lacks any theoretical doctrine regarding the true sources of the historic movement, and by the very attitude which he takes on the subject of the things which he unites according to the appearances which they have come to assume, cannot reduce them to unity, unless it be as a result of a single, immediate intuition, and if he is an artist, this intuition takes on a color in his mind and transforms itself there into dramatic action. His task is finished if he succeeds in massing a certain number of facts and events in certain limits and confines over which the observer may look as on a clear perspective; in the same way, purely descriptive geography has accomplished its task, if it sums up in a vivid and clear design a concourse of physical causes which determine the immediate aspect of the Gulf of Naples, for example, without going back to its genesis.

It is in this need of graphic narration that arises the first intuitive, palpable, and, I might almost say, esthetic and artistic occasion for all those abstractions and those generalizations, which are finally summed up in the semi-doctrine of the so-called factors.

Here are two notable men, the Gracchi, who wished to put an end to the process of appropriation of the public land and to prevent the agglomeration of the latifundium, which was diminishing or causing to completely disappear the class of small proprietors, that is to say, of the free men, who are the foundation and the condition of the democratic life of the ancient city. What were the causes of their failure. Their aim is clear, their spirit, their origin, their character, their heroism are manifest. They have against them other men with other interests and with other designs. The struggle appears to the mind at first merely as a struggle of intentions and passions, which unfolds and comes to an end by the aid of means which are permitted by the political form of the state and by the use or abuse or the public powers. Here is the situation: the city ruling in different manners over other cities or over territories which have lost all character of autonomy; within this city a very decided differentiation between rich and poor; and facing the comparatively small group of the oppressors and the all-powerful, stands the immense mass of the proletarians, who are on the point of losing or who have already lost the consciousness and the political strength of a body of citizens, the mass which therefore suffers itself to be deceived and corrupted, and which will soon decay till it is but a servile accessory to its aristocratic exploiters. There is the material of the narrator, and he cannot take account of the fact otherwise than in the immediate conditions of the fact itself. The complete whole is directly seen and forms the stage on which the events unfold, but if the narration is to have solidity, vividness and perspective there must be points of departure and ways of interpretation.

In this consists the first origin of those abstractions, which little by little take away from the different parts of a given social complexus their quality of simple sides or aspects of a whole, and it is their ensuing generalization which little by little leads to the doctrine of factors.

These factors, to express it in another way, arise in the mind as a sequence of the abstraction and generalization of the immediate aspects of the apparent movement, and they have an equal value with that of all other empirical concepts. Whatever be the domain of knowledge in which they arise, they persist until they are reduced and eliminated by a new experience, or until they are absorbed by a conception more general, genetic, evolutionary or dialectic. Was it not necessary that in the empirical analysis and in the immediate study of the causes and the effects of certain definite phenomena, for example the phenomena of heat, the mind should first stop at this presumption and this persuasion, that it could and should attribute them to a subject, which if it was never for any physicist a true and substantial entity, was certainly considered as a definite and specific force, namely, heat. Now we see that at a given moment, as a result of new experiences, this heat is resolved in given conditions into a certain quantity of motion. Still further, our thought is now on the way toward resolving all these physical factors into the flux of one universal energy, in which the hypotheses of the atoms, in the extent to which it is necessary, loses all residue of metaphysical survival.

Was it not inevitable, as a first step of knowledge in what concerns the problem of life, to spend a considerable time in the separate study of the organs and to reduce them to systems? Without this anatomy, which seems too material and too gross, no progress in these studies would have been possible; and nevertheless, above the unknown genesis and co-ordination of such an analytic multiplicity, there were evolving, uncertain and vague, the generic conceptions of life, soul, etc. In these mental creations have long been seen that biological unity which has finally found its object in the certain beginning of the cell and in its process of immanent multiplication.

More difficult certainly was the way which the thought had to traverse to reconstruct the genesis of all the facts of psychic life, from the most elementary successions up to the most complex derived products. Not only for reasons of theoretical difficulties, but in consequence of popular prejudices, the unity and continuity of psychic phenomena appeared, up to the time of Herbart, as separated and divided into so many factors, faculties of the soul.

The interpretation of the historico-social processus met the same difficulties; it also was obliged to stop at first in the provisional view of factors. And that being so, it is easy for us now to find again the first origin of that opinion in the necessity that the historians have of finding in the facts that they relate with more or less artistic talent and in different professional views, certain points of immediate orientation, such as may be offered by the study of the apparent movement of human events.

But in this apparent movement, there are the elements of a more exact view. These concurrent factors, which abstract thought conceives and then isolates, have never been seen acting each for itself. On the contrary, they act in such a manner that it gives birth to the concept of reciprocal action. Moreover, these factors themselves arise at a given moment, and it is not until later that they acquired that physiognomy which they have in the particular narration. This State, it is well known, arose at a given moment. As for every rule of law, it may either be remembered or conjectured that it went into effect under such or such circumstances. As for many customs, it may be remembered that they were introduced at a given moment; and the simplest comparisons of the facts in different times or different places would show how society, as a whole, and in its character of being an aggregation of different classes, had taken and took continuously various forms.

The reciprocal action of the different factors, without which not even the simplest narration would be possible, like the more or less exact information upon the origins and the variations of the factors themselves, called for research and thought more than did the constructive narration of those great historians who are real artists. And, in effect, the problems which arise spontaneously from the data of history, combined with other theoretical elements, gave birth to the different so-called practical disciplines, which in a more or less rapid fashion and with varying success, have developed from the ancients up to our days, from ethics to the philosophy of law, from politics to sociology, from law to economics.

Now with the rise and formation of so many disciplines, through the inevitable division of labor, points of view have been multiplied out of all proportion. It is certain that for the first and immediate analysis of the multiple aspects of the social complexus, a long labor of partial abstraction was necessary: which has always inevitably resulted in one-sided views. This can be shown, in a clearer and more evident manner than for any other domain, in that of law and its various generalizations, including the philosophy of law. By reason of these abstractions, which are inevitable in particular and empirical analysis, and by the effect of the division of labor, the different sides and different manifestations of the social complexus were, from time to time, fixed and stratified in general conceptions and categories. The works, the effects, the emanations, the effusions of human activity – law, economic forms, principles of conduct, etc., – were, so to speak, translated and transformed into laws, into imperatives and into principles which remained placed above man himself. And from time to time it has been necessary to discover anew this simple truth: that the only permanent and sure fact, that is to say, the only datum from which departs and to which returns every practical detail of discipline, is men grouped in a determined social form by means of determined connections. The different analytical disciplines, which illustrate the facts that develop in history, have finally given rise to the need of a common and general social science, which renders possible the unification of the historic processus, and the materialistic doctrine marks precisely the final term, the apex of this unification.

But that has not been, nor ever will be, lost time which is expended in the preliminary and lateral analysis of complex facts. To the methodical division of labor we owe precise learning, that is to say, the mass of knowledge passed into the sieve, systematized, without which social history would always be wandering in a purely abstract domain, in questions of form and terminology. The separate study of the historico-social factors has served, like any other empirical study which does not transcend the apparent movement of things, to improve the instrument of observation and to permit us to find again in the facts themselves, which have been artificially abstracted, the keystones which bind them into the social complexus. The different disciplines which are considered as isolated and independent in the hypotheses of the concurrent factors in the formation of history, both by reason of the degree of development which they have reached, the materials which they have gathered, and the methods which they have elaborated, have to-day become quite indispensable for us, if one desires to reconstruct any portion out of past times. Where would our historic science be without the one-sidedness of philology, which is the fundamental instrument of all research, and where should we have found the guiding thread of a history of juridical institutions, which returns again from itself to so many other facts and to so many other combinations, without the obstinate faith of the Romanists in the universal excellence of the Roman law, which engendered with generalized law and with the philosophy of law so many problems which serve as points of departure for sociology?

It is thus, after all, that the historic factors, of which so many speak, and which are mentioned in so many works, indicate something which is much less than the truth, but much more than simple error, in the ordinary sense of a blunder, of an illusion. They are the necessary product of a knowledge which is in the course of development and formation. They arise from the necessity of finding a point of departure in the confused spectacle which human events present to him who wishes to narrate them; and they serve thenceforth, so to speak, as a title, category or index to that inevitable division of labor, by the extension of which the historico-social material has, up to this time, been theoretically elaborated. In this domain of knowledge, as well as in that of the natural sciences, the unity of real principle and the unity of formal treatment are never found at the first start, but only after a long and troublous road. So that again from this point of view the analogy affirmed by Engels between the discovery of historical materialism and that of the conservation of energy appears to us excellent.

The provisional orientation, according to the convenient system of what are called factors, may, under given circumstances, be useful also to us who profess an altogether unitary principle of historic interpretation, if we do not wish simply to rest in the domain of theory, but wish to illustrate, through personal research, a definite period of history. As in that case we must proceed to direct and detailed research, we must first of all follow the groups of facts that seem pre-eminent, independent, or detached in the aspects of immediate experience. We should not imagine, in fact, that the unitary principle so well established, at which we have arrived in the general conception of history, may, like a talisman, act always and at first sight, as an infallible method of resolving into simple elements the immense area and the complicated gearing of society. The underlying economic structure, which determines all the rest, is not a simple mechanism whence emerge, as immediate, automatic and mechanical effects, institutions, laws, customs, thoughts, sentiments, ideologies. From this substructure to all the rest, the process of derivation and of mediation is very complicated, of ten subtle, tortuous and not always legible.

The social organization is, as we already know, constantly unstable, although that does not seem evident to every one, except at the time when the instability enters upon that acute period which is called a revolution. This instability, with the constant struggles in the bosom of that same organized society, excludes the possibility for men coming to an agreement which might involve a new start at living an animal life. It is the antagonisms which are the principal cause of progress (Marx). But it is equally true, notwithstanding, that in this unstable organization, in which is given to us the inevitable form of domination and subjection, intelligence is always developed not only unequally, but quite imperfectly, incongruously and partially. There has been and there is still in society what we may call a hierarchy of intelligence, sentiments and conceptions. To suppose that men, always and in all cases, have had an approximately clear consciousness of their own situation, and of what was the most rational thing to do, is to suppose the improbable and, indeed, the unreal.

Forms of law, political acts and attempts at social organization were, and they still are, sometimes fortunate, sometimes mistaken, that is to say, disproportionate and unsuitable. History is full of errors; and this means that if all was necessary, granted the relative intelligence of those who have to solve a difficulty or to find a solution for a given problem, etc., if everything in it has a sufficient reason, yet everything in it was not reasonable, in the sense which the optimists give to this word. To state it more fully, the determined causes of all changes, that is to say the modified economic conditions, have ended and end by causing to be found, sometimes through tortuous ways, the suitable forms of law, the appropriate political orders and the more or less perfect means of social adjustment. But it must not be thought that the instinctive wisdom of the reasoning animal has been manifested, or is manifested, definitely and simply, in the complete and clear understanding of all situations, and that we have left only the very simple task of following the deductive road from the economic situation to all the rest. Ignorance – which, in its turn, may be explained – is an important reason for the manner in which history is made; and, to ignorance we must add the brutishness which is never completely subdued and all the passions, and all the injustices, and the various forms of corruption, which were and are the necessary product of a society organized in such a way, that the domination of man over man in it is inevitable, and that from this domination falsehood, hypocrisy, presumption and baseness were and are inseparable. We may, without being utopians, but simply because we are critical communists, foresee, as we do in fact foresee, the coming of a society which, developing from the present society and from its very contrasts by the laws inherent in its historic development, will end in an association without class antagonisms; which will have for its consequence that regulated production will eliminate from life the element of chance which, thus far, has been revealed in history as a multiform cause of accidents and incidents. But that is the future, and it is neither the present nor the past. If we propose to ourselves, on the contrary, to penetrate into the historic events which have developed up to our own times, by taking, as we do, for a guiding thread the variations of the forms of the underlying economic structure up to the simplest datum in the variations of the tool of production, we must become fully conscious of the difficulty of the problem which we are setting ourselves: because here we have not merely to open our eyes and behold, but to make a, supreme effort of thought, with the aim of triumphing over the multiform spectacle of immediate experience to reduce its elements into a genetic series. That is why I said that, in particular investigations, we must ourselves start from those groups of apparently isolated facts, and from this heterogeneous mass, in a word, from that empirical study, whence arose the belief in factors, which afterwards became a semi- doctrine.

It is useless to attempt at counterbalancing these essential difficulties by the metaphorical hypothesis, often equivocal, and after all of a purely analogical value, of the so-called social organism. It was necessary too that the mind should pass through even this hypothesis, which so shortly became phraseology pure and simple. It indeed prepares the way for the comprehension of the historic movement as springing from the laws immanent in society itself, and thereby excludes the arbitrary, the transcendental and the irrational. But the metaphor has no further application; and the particular, critical and circumstantial research into historic facts is the sole source of that concrete and positive knowledge which is necessary to the complete development of economic materialism.


Ideas do not fall from heaven, and nothing comes to us in a dream. The change in the ways of thinking, lately produced by the historic doctrine which we are here examining and commenting upon, takes place at first slowly and afterwards with an increasing rapidity, precisely in that period of human development, in which were realized the great politico-economic revolutions, that is to say, in that epoch which, considered in its political forms, is called liberal, but which, considered in its basis, by reason of the domination of capital over the proletarian mass, is the epoch of anarchical production. The change in ideas, even to the creation of new methods of conception, has reflected little by little the experience of a new life. This, in the revolutions of the last two centuries, was little by little despoiled of the mythical, religious and mystical envelopes in proportion as it acquired the practical and precise consciousness of its immediate and direct conditions. Human thought, also, which sums up this life and theorizes upon it, has little by little been plundered of its theological and metaphysical hypotheses to take refuge finally in this prosaic assertion: in the interpretation of history we must limit ourselves to the objective co-ordination of the determining conditions and of the determined effects. The materialistic conception marks the culminating point of this new tendency in the investigation of the historic social laws, in so far as it is not a particular case of a generic sociology, or of a generic philosophy of the State, of law, and of history, but the solution of all doubts and all uncertainties which accompany the other forms of philosophizing upon human affairs, and the beginning of their integral interpretation.

It is thus an easy thing, especially in the way it has been done by certain shallow critics, to find precursors for Marx and Engels, who first defined this doctrine in its fundamental points. And when did it ever occur to any of their disciples, even of the strictest school, to represent these two thinkers as miracle-workers? What is more, if we wish to go on a search after the premises of the logical creation of Marx and Engels, it will not suffice to stop at those who are called the precursors of socialism, Saint Simon for example, and his predecessors, or the philosophers, particularly Hegel, or the economists who had laid bare the anatomy of the society which produces commodities; we must go back to the very formation of modern society, and then at last declare triumphantly that the theory is a plagarism from the things that it explains.

The truth is that the real precursors of the new doctrine were the facts of modern history, which has become so transparent and so explanatory of itself since the accomplishment in England of the great industrial revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, and since the great social upheaval took place in France. These things, mutatis mutandis, have subsequently been reproduced, in various combinations and in milder forms, throughout the whole civilized world. And what else is our thought at bottom if not the conscious and systematic complement of experience, and what is this last if not the reflection and the mental elaboration of the things and the processes which arise and unfold either outside our volition, or through the work of our activity; and what is genius but the individualized, derived and acute form of thought, which rises through the suggestion of experience, in many men of the same epoch, but which remains in most of them fragmentary, incomplete, uncertain, wavering and partial?

Ideas do not fall from heaven; and what is more, like the other products of human activity, they are formed in given circumstances, in the precise fullness of time, through the action of definite needs, thanks to the repeated attempts at their satisfaction, and by the discovery of such and such other means of proof which are, as it were, the instruments of their production and their elaboration. Even ideas involve a basis of social conditions; they have their technique; thought also is a form of work. To rob the one and the other, ideas and thought, of the conditions and environment of their birth and their development, is to disfigure their nature and their meaning.

To show how the materialistic conception of history arises precisely in given conditions, not as a personal and tentative opinion of two writers, but as the new conquest of thought by the inevitable suggestion of a new world which is in process of birth, that is to say the proletarian revolution, that was the object of my first essay, "In Memory of the Communist Manifesto." That is, to repeat, a new historic situation found its complement in its appropriate mental instrument.

To imagine now that this intellectual production might have been realized at any time and at any place, would be to take absurdity for the ruling principle in research. To transport ideas arbitrarily from the basis and the historic conditions in which they arise to any other basis whatever, is like taking the irrational for the basis of reasoning. Why should one not fancy equally that the ancient city, in which arose Greek art and science and Roman law, remaining all the while an ancient democratic city, with slavery, might at the same time acquire and develop all the conditions of modern technique? Why not believe that the trade guild of the Middle Ages, remaining all the while on its inflexible mould, should take its way to the conquest of the world market without the conditions of unlimited competition, which actually began by its destruction and negation? Why not imagine a fief which, remaining a fief all the while, should become a factory producing commodities exclusively? Why could not Michel de Lando have written the Communist Manifesto? Why could we not also believe that the discoveries of modern science could have proceeded from the brains of men of no matter what other time and place, that is to say, before determined conditions had given rise to determined needs, and before repeated and accumulated experiences should have provided for the satisfaction of these needs?

Our doctrine assumes the broad, conscious and continuous development of modern technique, and with it that society which produces commodities in the antagonisms of competition, that society which as a first condition and an indispensable means for its own perpetuation presupposes capitalist accumulation in the form of private property; that society which continually produces and reproduces proletarians, and which if it is to perpetuate itself, must incessantly revolutionize its tools, and with them the State and its legal gearings. This society, which, by the very laws of its movement, has laid bare its own anatomy, produces by its reaction the materialistic conception. Even as it has produced in socialism its positive negation, so it has engendered in the new historic doctrine its ideal negation. If history is the product, not arbitrary, but necessary and normal, of men in so far as they are developing, and if they are developing in so far as they are making social experiments, and if they are experimenting in so far as they are making improvements in their labor, which accumulate and preserve products and results, the phase of development in which we live cannot be the last and final phase, and the contrasts which are intimately bound to it and inherent in it are the productive forces of new conditions. And this is how the period of the great economic and political revolutions of these last two centuries has ripened in the mind these two concepts: the immanence and constancy of the processus in historic facts, and the materialist doctrine, which is at bottom the objective theory of social revolutions.

It is beyond doubt that to reascend through the centuries and reconstruct in our thought the development of social ideas to the extent that we find their documents in writers, is something always very instructive, and serving especially to add to our critical knowledge of our concepts as of our ways of thinking. Such a return of the mind over its historic premises, when it does not lead us astray into the empiricism of a boundless erudition, and does not lead us to set-up hastily vain analogies, serves without any doubt to give suppleness and a persuasive force to the forms of our scientific activity. In the sum of our science we find again, in fact and through the approximative continuity of tradition, the excellence of all that has been found, conceived and proved, not only in modern times but even in ancient Greece, where first begins precisely and in a definite fashion for the human race the orderly development of conscious, reflective and methodical thought. It would be impossible to take a single step in scientific research without employing means long ago found and tried, such for example as logic and mathematics. To think otherwise would be to assume that each generation must begin over again all the work done since the childhood of humanity.

But it was not given either to the ancient authors in the limited circle of their urban republics, nor to the writers of the Renaissance, always drifting between an imaginary return to antiquity and the need of grasping intellectually the new world in process of birth, to arrive at the precise analysis of the last elements from which society results, and which the incomparable genius of Aristotle did not see, and did not understand beyond the limits within which passes the life of the typical citizen.

The investigation of the social structure, considered in its manners of origin and processus, became active and penetrating and took on multiform aspects in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when economics took shape and when under the different names of "Natural Rights," "The Spirit of the Laws," or "The Social Contract, it was attempted to resolve into causes, into factors and into logical and psychological data, the multiform and often obscure spectacle of a life in which was preparing the greatest revolution ever known. These doctrines, whatever may have been the subjective intention and spirit of the authors – as in the contrasting cases of the conservative Hobbes and the proletarian Rousseau – were all revolutionary in their substance and their effects. Under all of them is always found, as a stimulus and motive, the material and moral needs of a new age, which, by reason of historic conditions, were those of the bourgeoisie. Thus it was necessary to wage war in the name of liberty upon tradition, the Church, privileges, fixed classes, that is to say, the orders and conditions, and consequently upon the State which was or appeared to be their author, and then upon the special privileges of commerce, the arts, labor and science. And man was studied in an abstract fashion, that is to say, individuals taken separately, emancipated and delivered by a logical abstraction from their historic connection and from every social necessity: in the mind of many the concept of society was reduced to atoms, and it even seemed natural to the greatest number to believe that society is only the sum of the individuals composing it. The abstract categories of individual psychology sufficed for the explanation of all human facts; and this is how in all these systems, nothing is spoken of but fear, self-love, egoism, voluntary obedience, tendency toward happiness, the original goodness of man, the freedom of contract and of the moral consciousness, and of the moral instinct or sense, and also many other similar abstract and generic things, as if they were sufficient to explain history, and to create a new history out of its fragments.

By the fact that all society was entering upon an acute crisis, its horror at the antique, at what was superannuated, at what was traditional and had been organized for centuries, and the presentiment of a renovation of all human life, finally produced a total eclipse of the ideas of historic necessity and social necessity, that is to say, of those ideas which, barely indicated by the ancient philosophers, and so developed in our century, had at this period of revolutionary rationalism only rare representatives, like Vico, Montesquieu, and, in part, Quesnay. In this historic situation, which gave birth to a literature that was nimble, destructive and very popular, is found the reason for what Louis Blanc with a certain emphasis has called individualism. Later some have thought they saw in this word the expression of a permanent fact in human nature, which especially might serve as a decisive argument against socialism.

A singular spectacle, and a singular contrast! Capital, however produced, tended to overcome all previous forms of production, and, breaking every bond and boundary, to become the direct or indirect master of society, as, in fact, it has become in the greater part of the world; hence it resulted, that apart from all forms of modern misery and the new hierarchy in which we live, there was realized the most acute antithesis of all history, that is to say, the existing anarchy of production in the whole of society, and an iron despotism in the mode of production in each workshop and each factory! And the thinkers, the philosophers, the economists and the popularizers of the eighteenth century saw nothing but liberty and equality! All reasoned in the same way; all started from the same premises, which brought them to conclude that liberty must be obtained from a government of pure administration, or that they were democrats or even communists. The approaching reign of liberty was before the eyes of all as a certain event, provided they could suppress the bonds and fetters which forced ignorance and the despotism of church and state had imposed upon men, good by nature. These fetters did not appear to be conditions and boundaries within which men were found by the laws of their development, and by the effect of the antagonistic and thus uncertain and tortuous movement of history, but simply obstacles from which the methodical use of reason was to deliver us. In this idealism, which reached its culminating point in certain heroes of the French Revolution, is the seed of a limitless faith in the certain progress of the whole human race. For the first time, the concept of humanity appeared in all its branches, unmingled with religious ideas or hypotheses. The boldest of these idealists were the extreme materialists, because, denying every religious fiction, they assigned this earth as a certain domain to the necessity of happiness provided that reason might open the way.

Never were ideas abused in so inhuman a fashion as between the close of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth. The lesson of things was very hard, the saddest disillusions arose and a radical upheaval followed in the minds of men. Facts, in a word, proved to be contrary to all expectations; and this at first produced a profound discouragement among the disillusioned, which, notwithstanding, gave rise to the desire and the need of new investigations. We know that Saint Simon and Fourier, in whom operated precisely at the beginning of the century, in the exclusive forms of the ideas of premature genius, the reaction against the immediate results of the politico-economic revolution, arose resolutely, the first against the jurists, and the second against the economists.

In fact, when once the obstacles to liberty, which had been characteristic of other times, had been suppressed, new obstacles, graver and more painful, had replaced them, and, as equal happiness for all was not realized, society remained in its political form as it had been before, an organization of inequalities. It must be, then, that society is something autonomous, innate, a complex automaton of relations and conditions, which defies the subjective good intentions of each of the members who compose it, and which escapes from the illusions and the designs of the idealists. It thus follows a course of its own from which we may infer certain laws of process and development, but does not suffer us to impose laws upon it. By this transformation in the minds of men, the nineteenth century heralded itself as the century of historic science and of sociology.

The principle of development has, indeed, since then, invaded all domains of thought. In this century, the grammar of history has been discovered, and thus the key has been found to explore the genesis of myths. The embryonic traces of prehistory have been sought out, and, for the first time, the processes of political and legal forms have been arranged into a series. The nineteenth century heralded itself as the century of sociology in the person of Saint Simon, in whom, as happens with the self-taught precursors of genius, we find confused together the germs of so many contradictory tendencies. In this aspect the materialistic conception is a result; but it is a result which is the complement of the whole process of formation; and as a result and a complement it is also the simplification of all historic science and of all sociology, because it takes us back from things derived and from complex conditions to elemental functions. And that is brought about by the direct suggestion of new dynamic experience.

The laws of economics, such as they are of themselves and their own inherent force, have triumphed over all illusions and have shown themselves to be the directing power of social life. The great industrial revolution which was produced made it clear that social classes, if they are not a fact of nature, are still less a consequence of chance and of free will; they arise historically and socially in a determined form of production. And who, in truth, has not seen the birth under his eyes of new proletarians upon the economic ruin of so many classes of small proprietors, small peasants and artisans; and who has not been in a position to discover the method of this new creation of a new social status, to which so many men were reduced and in which they were necessarily obliged to live. Who has not been in a position to discover that money, transformed into capital, had succeeded, in a few years, in becoming master by the attraction which it exercises over the labor of free men, in whom the necessity of selling themselves freely as wage workers had been prepared long before by so many ingenious legal processes and by violent or indirect expropriation? And who has not seen the new cities rise around factories and create around their circumference this desolating poverty, which is no longer the effect of individual misfortune, but the condition and the source of wealth? And in this new poverty were numerous women and children, arising for the first time from an unknown existence to take their place on the page of history as a sinister illustration of a society of equals. And who did not feel – even if that had not, been announced in the so-called doctrine of the Rev. Malthus – that the number of guests which this mode of economic organization can entertain, if it is sometimes insufficient for him who, by reason of the favorable state of production, has need of hands, is often also superabundant, and therefore finds no occupation and becomes a source of danger? It becomes evident, also, that the rapid and violent economic transformation which was accomplished openly in England had succeeded there, because that country had been able to build up for itself, as compared with the rest of Europe, a monopoly till then unknown, and because to maintain this monopoly an unscrupulous policy had been rendered necessary, and that permitted all, for one happy moment, to translate into prose the ideological myth of the state, which was to be the guardian and the preceptor of the people.

This immediate perception of these consequences of the new life was the origin of the pessimism, more or less romantic, of the laudatores temporis acti from De Maistre to Carlyle. The satire of liberalism invaded minds and literature at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Then begins that criticism of society, which is the first step in all sociology. It was necessary before all else to overthrow the ideology, which had accumulated and expressed itself in so many doctrines of the Natural Right or the Social Contract. It was necessary to get into contact with the facts which the rapid events of so intensive a processus imposed upon the attention in forms so new and startling.

Here appears Owen, incomparable at all points of view, but especially for the clearness which he displayed in the determination of the causes of the new poverty, even though he was but a child in his quest of the means for overcoming it. It was necessary to arrive at the objective criticism of economics, which appeared for the first time, in one-sided and reactionary forms, in Sismondi. In this period where the conditions of a new historic science were ripening, arose so many different forms of socialism, utopian, one-sided or completely extravagant, which never reached the proletarians, either because these had no political consciousness, or if they had any, it manifested itself in sudden starts, as in the French conspiracies and riots from 1830 to 1848, or they kept on the political ground of immediate reforms, as is the case with the Chartists. And nevertheless all this socialism, however Utopian, fantastic and ideological it may have been, was an immediate and often salutary criticism of economics – a one-sided criticism, indeed, which lacked the scientific complement of a general historical conception.

All these forms of criticism, partial, one-sided and incomplete had their culmination in scientific socialism. This is no longer subjective criticism applied to things but the discovery of the self-criticism which is in the things themselves. The real criticism of society is society, itself, which, by the antithetic conditions of the contrasts upon which it rests, engenders from itself, within itself, the contradiction, and finally triumphs over this by its passage into a new form. The solution of the existing antitheses is the proletariat, which the proletarians themselves know or do not know. Even as their misery has become the condition of present society, so in their misery is the justification of the new proletarian revolution. It is in this passage from the criticism of subjective thought, which examines things outside and imagines it can correct them at once, to the understanding of the self-criticism exercised by society over itself n the immanence of its own processus – it is in this only that the dialectic of history consists, which Marx and Engels, in so far as they were materialists, drew from the idealism of Hegel. But on the final reckoning it matters little whether the literary men, who knew no other meaning for dialectics than that of an artificial sophistry nor whether the doctors and scholars who are never apt to go beyond the knowledge of particular facts can ever account themselves for these hidden and complicated forms of thought.

But the great economic transformation, which has furnished the materials composing modern society, in which the empire of capitalism has arrived at the limit of its complete development, would not have been so immediately and so suggestively instructive, if it had not been luminously illustrated by the bewildering and catastrophic movement of the French Revolution. This put in evidence, like a tragedy on the stage, all the antagonistic forces of modern society, because this society has developed on the ruins of previous forms, and because, in so short a time and with so hasty a march, it has traversed the phases of its birth and its establishment.

The revolution ensued from the obstacles which the bourgeoisie had to overcome by violence, since it appeared from evidence that the passage from the old forms to the new forms of production – or of property, if we borrow the language of jurists - could not be realized by the quieter ways of successive and gradual reforms. It brought in its train the upheaval, the friction and the intermingling of all the old classes of the Ancient Regime, and the rapid and bewildering formation at the same time of new classes, in the very rapid but very intensive period of ten years, which, compared with the ordinary history of other times and other countries, seems to us like centuries. This rapid succession of monumental events brought to light the most characteristic moments and aspects of the new or modern society, and that so much the more clearly since the militant bourgeoisie had already created for itself intellectual means and organs which had given it with the theory of its own work the reflex consciousness of its movement.

The violent expropriation of the great part of the old property, that is to say, of the property crystallized in fiefs, in royal and princely domains and in mortmain, with the real and personal rights derived therefrom, put at the disposal of the state, which by the necessity of things had become an exceptional, terrible and all-powerful government, an extraordinary mass of economic resources; thus, there were, on the one side, the singular policy of the assignats which finally annulled themselves, and on the other side, the formation of the new proprietors who owed their fortune to the chances of gambling, to intrigue and to speculation. And who again would have dared thereafter to swear upon the ancient, sacred altar of property, when his recent and authentic title rested in so evident a manner upon the knowledge of fortunate circumstances? If it had ever passed through the head of so many troublesome philosophers, beginning with the Sophists, that law is a creation of man, useful and convenient, this heretical proposition might seem thenceforth a simple and intuitive truth to the meanest of the beggars in Paris. Had not the proletarians with all the common people given the impulse to the revolution in general by the expected movements of April, I789, and did they not afterwards find themselves, as it were, driven anew from the stage of history after the failure of the revolt of Prairial in 1795? Had they not carried on their shoulders all the ardent defenders of liberty and equality? Had they not held in their hands the Paris Commune, which was, for a time, the impulsive organ of the Assembly and of all France; had they not finally the bitter disillusion of having created new masters for themselves with their own hands? The bewildering consciousness of this disillusion constitutes the psychological motive, rapid and immediate, of the conspiracy of Babeuf, which, for that very reason, is a great fact in history, and bears in itself all the elements of objective tragedy.

The land which fief and mortmain had, as it were, bound to a body, to a family, to a title, now, delivered from its bonds, had become a commodity, to serve as a basis and instrument for the production of merchandise; so docile a commodity, that it was put into circulation in the form of morsels of paper. And around these symbols, multiplied to such a degree over the things that they were to represent that they finished by no longer having any value, Business came forth, a giant, arising, from all sides, on the shoulders of those most wretched in their poverty, and through all the devious ways of politics; it was especially shameless in its way of taking part in war and its glorious successes. Even the rapid progress of technique, hastened by the urgency of circumstances, gave material and occasion to the prosperity of business.

The laws of bourgeois economics, which are those of individual production in the antagonistic field of competition, revolted furiously, through violence and ruse, against the idealistic efforts of a revolutionary government which, strong in its certainty of saving its country, and stronger still in its illusion of founding for eternity the liberty of equals, believed it was possible to suppress gambling by the guillotine, to eliminate Business by closing the Stock Exchange and to assure existence to the common people by fixing the maximum of prices for objects of prime necessity. Commodities, prices and Business reasserted with violence their own liberty against those who wished to preach to them and impose ethics upon them.

Thermidor, whatever may have been the original intentions of the Thermidorians, whether vile, cowardly, or misguided, was, in its hidden causes as in its apparent effects, the triumph of Business over democratic idealism. The constitution of 1793, which marks the extreme limit that can be reached by the democratic ideal, was never put into practice. The grave pressure of circumstances, the menace of the foreigner, the different forms of internal rebellion, from the Girondists to the Vendée, rendered necessary an exceptional government, which was the Terror, born of fear. In proportion as dangers ceased, the need of the terror ceased. But the democracy shattered itself against the Business which was bringing into existence the property of new proprietors. The constitution of the year III consecrated the principle of moderate liberalism, whence proceeds all the constitutionalism of the European continent; but it was, before all else, the road leading to the guaranty of property. To change the proprietors while preserving property – that is the banner, the watchword, the ensign which defied through the years from Aug. 10, 1792, the violent tumults as well as the bold designs of those who attempted to found society upon virtue, equality and Spartan abnegation. But the Directory was the footpath by which the revolution arrived at the downfall of itself as an idealistic effort; and with the Directory, which was open and professed corruption, this banner became a reality; the proprietors are changed, but property is saved. And, indeed, to raise upon so many ruins a stable edifice, there was need of real force; and this was found in that strange adventurer of incomparable genius, upon whom fortune had imperially smiled, and he was the only one who possessed the virtue of putting an end to this gigantic fable, because there was in him neither shadow nor trace of moral scruples.

In this furor of events strange things happened. The citizens armed for the defense of their country, victorious beyond its frontiers over surrounding Europe, into which with their conquest they carried the revolution, transformed themselves into a soldiery to oppress the liberty of their country. The peasants who, at a moment of imperious suggestion, produced over the feudal estates the anarchy of 1789, now having become soldiers, or small proprietors, or small farmers, and having remained for a moment the advance sentinels of the revolution, fell back into the silent and stolid calm of their traditional life, which, without risks and without movements, served as a sure basis for the so-called social order. The petty bourgeois of the cities, and the former members of the guilds rapidly developed, in the camp of economic struggle, into free traffickers in manual labor. The freedom of trade required that every product become easily merchantable, and thus it triumphed over the last obstacle, by enforcing the demand that labor also become for it a free commodity.

All changed at this moment. The state, which for centuries so many million deluded ones had regarded as a sacred institution or a divine mandate, allowed its sovereign to be beheaded by the prosaic means of a technical machine, and thereby lost its sacred character. The state, also, was becoming a technical appliance, which substituted bureaucracy for hierarchy. And as the ancient titles no longer assured their possessors the privilege of exercising diverse functions, this new state could become the prey of all those who wished to seize upon it; it found itself, in a word, put up at auction, with the provision that the successful aspirants must be the solid guarantors of the property of the new and the old proprietors. The new state, which had need of its Eighteenth Brumaire to become an orderly bureaucracy, supported upon victorious militarism, this state which completed the revolution in the act which denied it, could not dispense with its scripture, and it found it in the Civil Code, which is the golden book for a society which produces and sells commodities. It is not in vain that generalized jurisprudence had preserved and annotated for centuries, in the form of a scientific discipline, this Roman law, which was, which is and ever shall be, the tqpical and classical form of the law of every shopkeeping society, until communism puts an end to the possibility of buying and selling.

The bourgeoisie, which, by the concurrence of so many singular circumstances effected the revolution with the concurrence of so many other classes and semi-classes which after a short lapse of time almost all disappeared from the political stage, seemed, in the moments of the most violent shocks, as if moved by motives inspired by an ideology, which would have absolutely no relation with the effects which actually supervene and perpetuated themselves. The meaning of that is that in the heat of struggle the bewildering change of the economic substructure appeared, as it were, disguised by ideals and obscured by the interlacings of so many intentions and designs, whence sprung so many acts of cruelty and of unparalleled heroism, so many currents of illusion and hard facts of disenchantment. Never had so powerful a faith in the ideal of progress sprung from human breasts. To deliver the human race from superstitution, and even from religion, to make of each individual a citizen, or of every private man a public man; those are its beginnings – and then on the line of this programme to sum up, in the short activity of a few years, an evolution which appears to the most idealistic of today as the work of several centuries to come– that is the idealism of that time! And why should it revolt at the pedagogy of the guillotine?

That poetry, grand certainly, if not joyous, left behind it a prose that was severe enough. And it was the prose of the proprietors who owned their property to chance, it was that of the high finance and the newly rich purveyors, marshals, prefects, journalists and mercenary men of letters; it was the prose of the court of that strange man to whom the qualities of military genius grafted upon the soul of a brigand, had, without any doubt, conferred the right of treating as an ideologist whoever did not admire the bare fact which, in life, as it was with him, can be nothing else than the simple brutality of success.

The French Revolution hastened the course of history in a large part of Europe. To it attaches, on the Continent, all that we call liberalism and modern democracy, except in the case of the false imitation of England, and up to the establishment of Italian unity, which was and will remain perhaps the last act of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. This revolution was the most vivid and most instructive example of the fashion in which a society transforms itself and how new economic conditions develop, and in developing co-ordinate the members of society into groups and classes. It was the palpable proof of the fashion in which law is found, when it is necessary for the expression and the defense of definite relations, and how the state is created, and how disposal is made of its means, its forces and its organs. Here is seen how ideas arise from the fields of social institutions, and how characters, tendencies, sentiments, volitions, that is to say, in a word, moral forces, are produced and develop into conditions governed by circumstances. In a word, the data of social science were, so to speak, prepared by society itself, and it is no wonder if the revolution, which was preceded ideologically by the most acute form of rationalistic doctrinairism ever known, ended finally by leaving behind it the intellectual need of an anti-doctrinaire historical and sociological science, like that which our own century has attempted to construct.

And here, both by what we have seen and by what is known generally, it is useless to recall anew, how Owen forms one of the same group with Saint Simon and Fourier, and to repeat through what ways scientific socialism took its birth. The important thing is in these two points: that historical materialism could not arise but from the theoretical consciousness of socialism; and that it can henceforth explain its own origin with its own principles, which is the greatest proof of its maturity.

Thus I have justified the phrase at the beginning of this chapter: ideas do not descend from heaven.

1. This genetic study forms the subject of my first essay, In Memory of the Communist Manifesto, which is the indispensable preamble to an understanding of all the rest. [RETURN TO TEXT]


Transcribed for the Marx / Engels Internet Archive in 1997 by Rob Ryan.