Antonio Labriola

Essays on the
Materialist Conception of History

Part 2: Historical materialism cont'd


The road traversed thus far has enabled us to take exact account of the precise and relative value of the so-called doctrine of factors; we know also how its adherents come to eliminate objectively those provisional concepts, which were and are a simple expression of a thought not fully arrived at maturity.

And, nevertheless, it is necessary that we speak further of this doctrine, in order to explain better and more in detail for what reasons two of the so-called factors, the state and the law, have been and are still considered as the principal and exclusive subject of history.

Historians have indeed for centuries placed in these forms of social life the essence of development. Moreover, they have perceived this development only in the modification of these forms. History has for centuries been treated as a discipline relative to the juridico-political movement and even to the political movement principally. The substitution of society for politics is a recent thing, and much more recent still is the reduction of society to the elements of historical materialism. In other words, sociology is of quite recent invention, and the reader, I hope, will have understood for himself that I employ this term for the sake of brevity, to indicate in a general manner the science of social functions and variations, and that I do not hold to the specific sense given it by the Positivists.

It is more satisfactory to say that, up to the beginning of this century, the data bearing upon usages, customs, beliefs, etc., or even upon the natural conditions, which serve as the foundation and connection for social forms, were not mentioned in political histories unless as objects of simple curiosity, or as accessories and complements of the narration.

All this cannot be a simple accident, and indeed is not. There is, then, a double interest in taking account of the tardy appearance of social history, both because our doctrine justifies yet again by this means its reason for existence, and because we thus eliminate, in a definite manner, the so-called factors.

If we make an exception of certain critical moments in which social classes, by an extreme incapacity for adapting themselves to a condition of relative equilibrium, enter into a crisis of more or less prolonged anarchy, and if we make an exception of those catastrophes in which an entire world disappears, as at the fall of the Roman Empire of the West, or at the dissolution of the Califate, then it may be said that, ever since there has been a written history, the state appears not only as the creation of society but also as its support. The first step that child-like thought had made in this order of considerations is in this statement: That which governs is also that which creates.

If, moreover, we make an exception of certain short periods of democracy exercised with the vivid consciousness of popular sovereignty, as was the case in a few Greek cities, especially at Athens, and in a few Italian cities, and especially Florence (the former nevertheless were composed of free men were proprietors of slaves, and the latter of privileged citizens who exploited foreigners and peasants) the society organized into a state was always composed of a majority at the mercy of the minority. And thus the majority of men has appeared in history as a mass sustained, governed, guided, exploited and ill treated, or at least as a variegated conglomeration of interests, which a few had to govern, maintaining in equilibrium the divergences, either by pressure or by compensation.

Thence the necessity of an art of government, and as it is this before all else which strikes those who are studying collective life, it was natural that politics should appear as the author of the social order and as the sign of the continuity in the succession of historic forms. To say politics is to say activity, which, up to a certain point, is exercised in a desired direction, until the moment at least when calculations dash themselves against unknown or unexpected obstacles. By taking the state as an imperfect experience would suggest for the author of society, and politics for the author of the social order, it resulted that the narrators or philosophical historians were driven to place the essence of history in a succession of forms, institutions and political ideas.

Whence the state drew its origin, where the basis of its performance was found, that mattered not, as that matters not in current reasoning. The problems of the genetic order arose, as is known, rather late. The state is and it finds its reason for existence in its present necessity; that is so true that the imagination has not been able to adapt itself to the idea that it has not always existed, and so it has prolonged its conjectural existence back to the first origins of the human race. The gods or demigods and heroes were its founders, in mythology at least, just as in mediaeval theology the Pope is the first and therefore the divine and perpetual source of all authority. Even in our time, inexperienced travelers and imbecile missionaries find the state where there is, as among savages and barbarians, nothing but the gens, or the tribe of gentes, or the alliance of gentes.

Two things were necessary that these prejudices of the judgment should be overcome. In the first place, it was necessary to recognize that the functions of the state arise, increase, diminish, alter and follow each other with the variations of certain social conditions. In the second place, it was necessary to arrive at a comprehension of the fact that the state exists and maintains itself in that it is organized for the defense of certain definite interests, of one part of society against all the rest of society itself, which must be made in such a way, in its entirety, that the resistance of the subjects, of the ill-treated and the exploited, either is lost in multiple frictions, or is tempered by the partial advantages, wretched though they be, to the oppressed themselves. Politics, that art so miraculous and so admired, thus brings us back to a very simple formula; to apply a force or a system of forces to the total of resistances.

The first step, and the most difficult, is taken when the state has been reduced to the social conditions whence it draws its origin. But these social conditions themselves have been subsequently defined by the theory of classes, the genesis of which is in the manner of the different occupations, granted the distribution of labor, that is to say, granted the relations which co-ordinate and bind men together in a definite form of production.

Thenceforth the concept of the state has ceased to represent the direct cause of the historic movement as the presumed author of society, because it has been seen that in each of its forms and its variations there is nothing else than the positive and forced organization of a definite class rule, or of a definite compact between different classes. And then by an ulterior consequence from these premises, it is finally to be recognized that politics, as the art of acting in a desired direction, is a comparatively small part of the general movement of history, and that it is but a feeble part of the formation and the development of the state itself, in which many things, that is to say, many relations, arise and develop by necessary compact, by a tacit consent, or by violence endured and tolerated. The reign of the unconscious, if by that we mean what is not decreed by free choice and forethought, but what is determined and accomplished by a succession of habits, customs, compacts, etc., has become very considerable in the domain of the data which form the object of the historic sciences; and politics, which has been taken as an explanation, has itself become something to explain.

We know now in a positive way the reasons in consequence of which history had necessarily to appear under a purely political form.

But this does not mean that we ought to believe that the state is a simple excrescence, a mere accessory of the social body, or of free association, as so many Utopians and so many ultra-liberal thinkers of anarchist tendencies have imagined. If society has thus far culminated in the state, it is because it has had need of this complement of force and authority, because it is at first composed of units which are unequal by reason of economic differentiations. The state is something very real, a system of forces which maintain equilibrium and impose it through violence and repression. And to exist as a system of forces it has been compelled to develop and to establish an economic power, whether this latter rests upon robbery, the result of war, or whether it consists in direct property in the domain, or whether it is constituted little by little, thanks to the modern method of public taxes, which takes on the constitutional appearance of a self-imposed system of taxation. It is in this economic power, so considerable in modern times, that its capacity for acting is founded. It results, that by reason of a new division of labor, the functions of state give rise to special orders and conditions, that is to say, to very particular classes, without including the class of parasites.

The state, which is and which must be an economic power that in its defense of the ruling classes it may be furnished with means to repress, to govern, to administer and to make war, creates in a direct or an indirect manner an aggregation of new and particular interests, which necessarily react upon society. Thus the state, by the fact that it has arisen and that it maintains itself as a guaranty of the social antitheses, which are a consequence of economic differentiations, creates around itself a circle of persons interested directly in its existence.

Two consequences follow therefrom. As society is not a homogeneous whole, but a body of specialized articulations, or, rather, a multiform complexus of objects and interests, it happens that sometimes the directors of the state seek to isolate themselves, and by this isolation they oppose themselves to the whole of society, and then, in the second place, it happens that organs and functions, created first for the advantage of all, end by no longer serving any interest but those of groups, and permit abuses of power on the part of coteries and camorras. Thence arise aristocracies and hierarchies born from the use of the public power, thence arise dynasties; in the light of simple logic these formations appear wholly irrational.

From the first beginnings of written history the state has increased or diminished its powers, but it has never disappeared, because ever since there have been, in the society of men unequal in consequence of economic differentiation, reasons for maintaining, and for defending, through force or conquest, slavery, monopolies, or the predominance of one form of production, with the domination of man over man. The state has become, as it were, the field of an endless civil war, which is developing always, even if it does not always show itself under the startling form of Marius and Sylla, days of June and wars of Secession. Within the state, the corruption of man by man has always flourished, because, if there is no form of domination which does not meet resistance, there are no forms of resistance which, in consequence of the pressing needs of life, may not degenerate into a passive compact.

For these reasons, historic events, seen on the surface of the ordinary monotonous narrative, appear like the repetition of the same type, with few variations, like a series of kaleidoscopic pictures. We need not be astonished if the idealistic Herbart and the caustic or pessimistic Schopenhauer arrived at this conclusion, that there is no history, in the sense of any actual processus, which is to say in common language history is a tiresome song.

When political history is once reduced to its quintessence, the state remains illuminated in all its prose. Thenceforth there is no more trace either of theological divination, nor of metaphysical transubstantiation, so much in vogue among certain German philosophers – for whom the state is the Idea, the State Idea which is realized in history, the state is the full realization of the personality, and other stupidities of the same sort. The state is a real organization of defense to guarantee and perpetuate a mode of association, the foundation of which is a form of economic production, or a compact and a transaction between forms. To sum up, the state assumes either a system of property, or a compact between several systems of property. There is the foundation of all its art, the exercise of which demands that the state itself became an economic power, and that it also dispose of means and processes to make property pass from the hands of some into the hands of others. When, by the effect of an acute and violent change of the forms of production, it is necessary to resort to an unusual and extraordinary readjustment of the relations of property (for example, the abolition of mortmain and fiefs, the abolition of commercial monopolies), then the old political form is insufficient and revolution is necessary to create a new organ which may operate the new economic transformation.

If we make an exception of the very ancient times which are unknown to us, all history is developed in the contacts and the antagonisms of the different tribes and communities, and thereafter of the different nations and different states; that is to say, that the reasons for the internal antitheses in the circle of each society are always more and more complicated with frictions with the outside world. These two reasons for antagonism condition each other reciprocally, but in ways which are always varying. Often it is internal disturbance which urges a community or a city to enter into external collisions; at other times it is these collisions which alter the internal relations.

The principal motive for the different relations between the different communities has been from the beginnings, even as it is to-day, commerce in the broad sense of the word, that is to say, exchange, whether it is a matter of giving up, as in the poor tribes, merely the surplus in exchange for other things, or whether it is a matter, as to-day, of production on a large scale, which is carried on with the exclusive intention of selling so as to draw from a sum of money a larger sum of money. This enormous mass of events exterior and interior, which accumulate and pile upon each other in history, is such a trouble to the historians who content themselves with exploring it and summarizing it, that they become lost in the infinite attempts at chronological groups and bird's-eye views. Whoever, on the contrary, knows the internal development of the different social types in their economic structure, and who considers political events as the particular results of the forces acting in society, ends by triumphing over the confusion born out of the multiplicity and the uncertainty of first impressions, and instead of a chronological or synchronous series, or a view of the whole, he can arrive at the concrete series of a real processus.

In the presence of these realistic conditions all the ideologies founded on the ethical mission of the state or on any such conception, fall to the ground. The state is, so to speak, fitted into its place, and it remains encased, as it were, in the surroundings of the social development, in its capacity of a form resulting from other conditions, and in its turn, by reason of its existence, reacting naturally upon the rest.

Here arises another question.

Will this form ever be outgrown? – or can there be a society without a state? – or can there be a society without classes? – and if we must be more explicit, will there ever be a form of communist production with a distribution of labor and of tasks such that there will be no room in it for the development of inequalities, that source of domination of man over man?

It is in the affirmative answer to this question that scientific socialism consists, in so far as it affirms the coming of communistic production, not as a postulate, nor as the aim of a free volition, but as the result of the processus immanent in history.

As is well known, the premise of this prevision is in the actual conditions of present capitalist production. This, socializing continually the mode of production, has subjected living labor more and more with its regulations to the objective conditions of the technical process, it has day after day concentrated the property in the means of production more and ever more into the hands of a few, who as stockholders, or speculators, are always found to be more and more removed from immediate labor, the direction of which passes over to intelligence and science. With the increased consciousness of this situation among the proletarians, whose instruction in solidarity comes from the actual conditions of their employment, and with the decrease of the capacity of the holders of capital to preserve the private direction of productive labor, a moment will come, when in one fashion or another, with the elimination in every form of private rent, interest, profit, the production will pass over to the collectivist association, that is to say, will become communistic. Thus will disappear all inequalities, except those of sex, age, temperament and capacity, that is to say, all those inequalities will cease which engender economic classes, or which are engendered by them, and the disappearance of classes will put an end to the possibility of the state, as domination of man over man. The technical and pedagogical government of intelligence will form the only organization of society.

In this fashion, scientific socialism, in an ideal fashion at least, has triumphed over the state; and its triumph has given it a complete knowledge both of its mode of origin and the reasons for its natural disappearance. It has understood it precisely because it does not rise up against it in a one-sided and subjective fashion, as did more than once, at different epochs, the cynics, the stoics, the epicureans of all sorts, the religious sectaries, the visionary monks, the utopians and finally, in our days, the anarchists of every stripe. Still more, instead of rising up against it, scientific socialism is proposing to show how the state continually rises up of itself against itself, by creating in the means with which it cannot dispense, as, for example, a colossal system of taxation, militarism, universal suffrage, the development of education, etc., the conditions of its own ruin. The society which has produced it will reabsorb it; that is to say, that just as society in organizing a new form of production will eliminate the antagonisms between capital and labor, so, with the disappearance of proletarians and the conditions which render proletarians possible, will disappear all dependence of men upon his fellow man in any form of hierarchy, whatever it may be.

The terms in which the genesis and the development of the state evolve, from its initial point of appearance in a particular community, where economic differentiation is beginning, up to the moment where this disappearance begins to foreshadow itself, make it henceforth intelligible to us.

The State has been reduced till it is but a necessary complement of certain definite economic forms, and thus the theory which would have seen in it an independent factor in history is thenceforth forever eliminated.

It is henceforth relatively easy to take account of the fashion in which law has been raised up to the rank of a decisive factor of society, and thus of history, directly or indirectly.

Before all else, we must remember in what fashion arose this philosophic conception of justice generalized, which is the principal foundation of the theory which maintains that history is dominated by the progress of independent legislation.

With the precocious dissolution of the feudal society in certain parts of Central and Northern Italy, and with the birth of the Communes, which were republics of production grouped in trade guilds and merchant guilds, the Roman law was forced into a place of honor. This law flowered anew in the Universities. It entered into a struggle with the barbaric laws and also in part with the canon law; it was then evidently a form of thought which answered better to the needs of the bourgeoisie, which was beginning to develop.

In fact, considering the peculiarities of rival laws, which were either customs of barbarous nations, or corporation privileges, or papal or imperial concessions, this law appeared as the universality of written reason. Had it not arrived at the point of regarding human personality in its most abstract and human relations, since a certain Titius is capable of becoming debtor and creditor, of selling and buying, of making a cession, a donation, etc.? Roman law, although elaborated in its last editing at the command of emperors by servile parasites, appeared then, amid the decline of mediaeval institutions, as a revolutionary force, and as such it constituted a great step of progress. This law, so universal that it gave the means of overthrowing barbaric laws, was certainly a law which corresponded to human nature considered under its generic relations; and by its opposition to private laws and privileges it appeared as a natural law.

We know, moreover, how this ideology of natural law arose. It acquired its greatest distinction in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; but it had long been prepared for by the jurisprudence which took for its base the Roman law, whether it adopted it, revised it, or corrected it. To the formation of the ideology of natural law another element contributed, the Greek philosophy of later epochs. The Greeks, who were the inventors of those definite arts of the mind which are sciences, never, as is known, drew from their multiple local laws a discipline corresponding to that which we call the science of law. On the contrary, by the rapid progress of abstract research in the circle of their democracies, they arrived very soon at a logical, rhetorical and pedagogical discussion on the nature of justice, the state, the law, penalty; and in their philosophy we may trace the rudimentary forms of all later discussions. But it is not until later, that is to say, in the Hellenistic epoch, when the limits of Greek life were sufficiently enlarged to be mingled with those of the civilized world, that, in the cosmopolitan environment which carried with it the need of searching in each man for the generic man, the rationalism of justice arose – of justice or of natural right in the form given it by the stoic philosophy. The Greek rationalism which had already furnished a certain formal element to the logical codification of Roman law reappeared in the eighteenth century in the doctrine of natural right.

That ideology, whose criticism has served as an arm and an instrument for giving a juridical form to the economic organization of modern society, has had, consequently, various sources. Yet, in fact, this juridical ideology reflects, in the struggle for law and against law, the revolutionary period of the bourgeois spirit. And, although it takes its doctrinal point of departure in a return to the traditions of the ancient philosophy, in the generalization of Roman jurisprudence, in everything else, and in all its development, it is completely new and modern. Roman law, although it was generalized by scholasticism and by modern elaboration, still remains within itself a collection of special cases which have not been deduced according to a preconceived system, nor preordained by the systematic mind of the legislator. On the other hand, the rationalism of the stoics, their contemporaries and their disciples, was a work of pure contemplation, and it produced no revolutionary movement around it. The ideology of natural law, which finally took the name of philosophy of law, was, on the contrary, systematic, it started always from general formulae, it was aggressive and polemic, and still more, it was at war with orthodoxy, with intolerance, with privilege, with constituted bodies; in fine, it fought for the liberties which to-day constitute the formal conditions of modern society. It is with this ideology, which was a method of struggle, that arose for the first time, in a typical and decisive form, that idea that there is a law which is one and the same with reason. The laws against which the struggle was carried on appear as deviations, backward steps, errors.

From this faith in rational law arose the blind belief in the power of the legislator, which grew into fanaticism at the critical moments of the French Revolution.

Thence the belief that society as a whole is to be submitted to one single law, equal for all, systematic, logical, consistent. Thence the conviction that a law guaranteeing to all a legal equality, that is to say, the privilege of contracting, guaranteed also liberty to all.

The triumph of true law assures the triumph of reason, and the society which is regulated by a law equal for all is a perfect society!

It is useless to say that there were illusions at the bottom of these tendencies. We all know to what this universal liberation of men was to lead. But what is most important here is the fact that these persuasions arose from a conception of law, which considered it as detached from the social causes which produced it. Likewise that reason, to which these ideologies appealed, reduced itself to relieving labor, association, traffic, commerce, political forms and conscience from all limits and all obstacles which prevented free competition. I have already shown in another chapter how the great Revolution of the eighteenth century may serve us for experience. And if there is still some one to-day who insists on speaking of a rational law which dominates history, of a law, in short, which would be a factor, instead of being a simple fact in historic revolution, that means that he is living out of our time and that he has not understood that our liberal and equalitarian codification has already, in fact, marked the end and the term of that whole school of natural law.

By different ways we have arrived in this century at reducing law, considered previously as a rational thing, into a material thing, and thus into a thing corresponding to definite social conditions.

In the first place, the interest in history gained in extent and in depth, and it led students to recognize that to understand the origins of law, it was not sufficient to stop at the data of pure reason, nor at the study of Roman law alone. Barbaric laws, the usages and customs of nations and societies, so despised by the rationalists, have been theoretically restored to honor. That was the only way to arrive, through the study of the most ancient forms, at an understanding of how the most recent forms could have been successively produced.

Codified Roman law is a very modern form; that personality, which it assumes as a universal subject, is an elaboration of a very advanced epoch, in which the cosmopolitanism of social relations was dominated by a military-bureaucratic constitution. In this environment, in which a written code of reason had been built up, there was no longer any trace of spontaneity or popular life, there was no more democracy. This same law, before arriving at this crystallization, had arisen and had developed; and if we study it in its origins and in its developments, and especially if, in this study, we employ the comparative method, we recognize that, upon many points, it is analogous to the institutions of inferior societies and nations. It therefore becomes evident that the true science of law can be nothing less than the genetic history of the law itself.

But, while the European continent had created in the codification of civil law the type and the textbook of practical bourgeois judgment, was there not in England another self- originating form of law, which arose and developed in a purely practical manner, from the very conditions of the society which produced it without system, and without the action of methodical rationalism having any part in it. The law, which actually exists and is applied, is therefore a much simpler and much more modest thing than was imagined by the enthusiasts who sing the praises of written judgment, of the empire of reason. For their defense, it must not be forgotten that they were the ideal precursors of the great Revolution. For ideology it was necessary to substitute the history of legal institutions. The philosophy of law ended with Hegel; and if objectors mention the books published since, I reply that the works published by professors are not always the index of the progress of thought. The philosophy of law thus became the philosophical study of the history of law. And it is not necessary to repeat here again how historic philosophy ended in economic materialism and in what sense critical communism is the reversal of Hegel.

This revolution, apparently a revolution in ideas alone, is merely an intellectual reflection of the revolutions which have been produced in practical life.

In our century, legislating has become an epidemic; and reason enthroned in legal ideology has been dethroned by parliaments. In these the antitheses of class interests have taken on the form of parties; and the parties struggle for or against definite laws; and all law appears as a simple fact, or as a thing which it is useful or not useful to do.

The proletariat has arisen; and wherever the struggle of the laborers has taken definite form, the bourgeois codes have been convicted of falsehood. Written judgment has shown itself powerless to save the wage-workers from the oscillations of the market, to guarantee women and children against the oppressive hours of the factories, or to find an expedient to solve the problem of forced idleness. The partial limitation of the hours of labor has, itself alone, been the subject and the occasion of a gigantic struggle. The small and the large bourgeoisie, agrarians and manufacturers, advocates of the poor and defenders of accumulated wealth, monarchists and democrats, socialists and reactionaries, have bitterly contended over extracting profit from the action of the public authorities and over exploiting the contingencies of politics and parliamentary intrigue, to find the guaranty and the defense of certain definite interests in the interpretation of existing law, or in the creation of a new law. This new legislation has more than once been revised, and the strangest oscillations may be observed in it; extending from the humanitarianism which defends the poor and even animals, to the promulgation of martial law. Justice has been stripped of its mask and has become merely a profane thing.

The consciousness of experience has come to us and has given us a formula as precise as it is modest; every rule of law has been and is the customary, authoritative, or judicial defense of a definite interest; the reduction of law to economics is then almost immediately accomplished.

If the materialistic conception finally came to furnish to these tendencies an explicit and systematic view, it is because its orientation has been determined by the visual angle of the proletariat. This last is the necessary product and the indispensable condition of a society in which all the persons are, from an abstract point of view, equal before the law, but where the material conditions of development and the liberties of each are unequal. The proletarians are the forces through which the accumulated means of production reproduce themselves and reconstitute themselves into new wealth; but they themselves live only by enrolling themselves under the authority of capital; and from one day to the next they find themselves out of work, impoverished and exiles. They are the army of social labor, but their chiefs are their masters. They are the negation of justice in the empire of law, that is to say, that they are the irrational element in the pretended domain of reason.

History then has not been a processus for arriving at the empire of reason in law; it has thus far been nothing else than a series of changes in the form of subjection and servitude. History then consists entirely in the struggle of interests, and law is but the authoritative expression of the interests which have triumphed.

These formulae indeed do not permit us to explain, by the immediate examination of the various interests which are at its base, every particular law which has appeared in history. The facts of history are very complicated; but these general formula suffice to indicate the style and the method of research which has been substituted for legal ideology.


Here I must give certain formulae.

Granted the conditions of the development of labor and the instruments appropriated to it, the economic structure of society, that is to say, the form of production of the immediate means of life, determines, on an artificial field, in the first place and directly, all the rest of the practical activity of those associated, and the variation of this activity in the processus which we call history, that is to say – the formation, the frictions, the struggles and the erosions of the classes; the corresponding regulations relative to law and morality; and the reasons and modes of subordination and subjection of men toward men and the corresponding exercise of dominion and authority, in fine, that which gives birth to the State and that which constitutes it. It determines, in the second place, the tendency and in great part, in an indirect fashion, the objects of imagination and of thought in the production of art, religion and science.

The products of the first and of the second stage, in consequence of the interests which they create, the habits which they engender, the persons whom they group and whose spirit and inclinations they specify, tend to fix themselves and isolate themselves as independent entities; and thence comes that empirical view, according to which different independent factors, having an efficacy and a rhythmic movement of their own, contribute to form the historic processus and the social configurations which successively result from it. It is the social classes, in so far as they consist in differentiations of interests, which unfold in definite ways and in forms of opposition (whence come the friction, the movement, the process and the progress), which have been the factors – if it was ever necessary to employ this expression – the real, proper and positive factors of history, from the disappearance of primitive communism until to-day.

The variations of the underlying (economic) structure of society which, at first sight, show themselves intuitively in the agitation of the passions, develop consciously in the struggles against law and for law, and become realized in the shaking and in the ruin of a definite political organization, have in reality their adequate expression only in the change in the relations which exist between the different social classes. And these relations change with the change of the relations which previously existed between the productivity of labor and the (legal-political) conditions of co-ordination of those who co-operate in production.

And finally, these connections between the productivity of labor and the co-ordination of those who co-operate in it are changed with the changing of the instruments – in the broad sense of the word – necessary to production. The processus and the progress of technique, as they are the index, are also the condition of all the other processus and of all progress.

Society is for us a fact, which we cannot solve, unless it be by that analysis which reduces the complex forms to the simpler forms, the modern forms to the older forms: but that is to remain always, nevertheless, in a society which exists. History is but the history of society – that is to say, the history of the variations of human co-operation, from the primitive horde down to the modern State, from the immediate struggle against nature, by the means of a few very simple tools, down to the present economic structure, which reduces itself to these two poles; accumulated labor (capital) and living labor (proletarians). To resolve the social complexus into simple individuals, and to reconstruct it afterwards by the acts of free and voluntary thought; to construct, in fine, society with its reasons, is to misunderstand the objective nature and the immanence of the historic processus.

Revolutions, in the broadest sense of the word, and in the specific sense of the destruction of a political organization, mark the real and proper dates of historic epochs. Seen from afar, in their elements, in their preparation and their effects, at long range, they may appear to us as moments of a constant evolution, with minute variations; but considered in themselves, they are definite and precise catastrophes, and it is only as catastrophes that they are historic events.


Ethics, art, religion, science, are they then but products of economic conditions – expositions of the categories of these very conditions? – efluvia, ornaments, emanations and mirages of material interests?

Affirmations of this sort, announced with this nudity and crudity, have already for some time passed from mouth to mouth, and they are a convenient assistance to the adversaries of materialism, who use them as a bugbear. The slothful, whose number is great even among the intellectuals, willingly fit themselves to this clumsy acceptance of such declarations. What a delight for all careless persons to possess, once for all, summed up in a few propositions, the whole of knowledge, and to be able with one single key to penetrate all the secrets of life! All the problems of ethics, esthetics, philology, critical history and philosophy reduced to one single problem and freed thus from all difficulties!

In this way the simpletons might reduce the whole of history to commercial arithmetic; and finally a new and authentic interpretation of Dante might give us the Divine Comedy illustrated with the process of manufacturing pieces of cloth which the wily Florentine merchants sold for their greater profit!

The truth is that the declarations which involve problems are converted very easily into vulgar paradoxes in the heads of those who are not accustomed to triumph over the difficulties of thought by the methodical use of appropriate means. I shall speak here, in general terms, of these problems, but, as it were, by aphorisms; and certainly I do not propose to write an encyclopedia in this short essay.

And first of all, ethics.

I do not mean systems and catechisms, religious or philosophic. Both of these have been and are above the ordinary and profane course of human events in most cases, as Utopias are above things. Neither do I speak of those formal analyses of ethical relations, which have been elaborated from the Sophists down to Herbart. This is science and not life. And it is formal science, like logic, geometry and grammar. The one who latest and with so much profundity defined these ethical relations (Herbart), knew well that ideas, that is to say, the formal points of view of the moral judgment, are in themselves powerless. Therefore he put into the circumstances of life and into the pedagogic formation of character the reality of ethics. He might have been taken for Owen if he had not been a retrograde.

I am speaking of that ethics which exists prosaically and in an empirical and current fashion, in the inclinations, the habits, the customs, the counsels, the judgments and the appreciations of ordinary mortals. I am speaking of that ethics which as suggestion, as impulse and as bridle, appears in different degrees of development, and more or less unmistakably, although in a fragmentary fashion, among all men; but the very fact of association because each occupies a definite position in the association, they naturally and necessarily reflect upon their own works and the works of others, and they conceive obligations and appreciations and all the first elements of general precepts.

There is the factum; and what is most important is that this factum appears to us varied and multiple in the different conditions of life, and variable through history. This factum is the datum of research. Facts are neither true nor false, as Aristotle already knew. Systems, on the contrary, theologic or rational, may be true or false because they aim to comprehend, explain and complete the fact, by bringing that fact to another fact, or integrating it with another.

Some points of preliminary theory are henceforth settled, in all that concerns the interpretation of this factum.

The will does not choose of itself, as was supposed by the inventors of free will, that product of the impotency of the psychological analysis not yet arrived at maturity. Volitions, in so far as they are facts of consciousness, are particular expressions of the psychic mechanism. They are a result, first of necessities, and then, of all that precedes them up to the very elementary organic impulse.

Ethics does not place itself nor does it engender itself. There is no such universal foundation of the ethical relations varied and variable, as that spiritual entity which has been called the moral conscience, one and unique for all men. This abstract entity has been eliminated by criticism like all other such entities, that is to say, like all the faculties of the soul. What a beautiful explanation of the fact, in truth, to assume the generalization of the fact itself as a means of explanation. People reasoned thus: the sensations, the perceptions, the intuitions at a certain moment are found imagined, that is to say, changed in their form, therefore the imagination has transformed them. To this class of inventions belongs the moral conscience, which was accepted as a postulate of the ethical estimates, which are always conditioned. The moral conscience which really exists is an empirical fact; it is an index or a summary of the relative ethical formation of each individual. If there can be in it material for science, this cannot explain the ethical relations by means of the conscience, but the very thing it needs is to understand how that conscience is formed.

If volitions are derived, and if morality results from the conditions of life, ethics, in its completeness, is but a formation; its problem is altogether pedagogic.

There is a pedagogy which I will call individualistic and subjective, which, granted the generic conditions of human perfectibility, constructs abstract rules by which men, who are still in a period of formation, may be led to be strong, courageous, truthful, just, benevolent, and so on through the entire extent of the cardinal or secondary virtues. But again, can subjective pedagogy construct of itself a social background upon which all these beautiful things ought to be realized? If it constructs it, it simply elaborates a Utopia.

And, in truth, the human race, in the rigid course of its development, never had time nor occasion to go to the school of Plato or of Owen, of Pestalozzi or Herbart. It has done as it has been forced to do. Considered in an abstract manner, all men can be educated and all are perfectible; as a matter of fact, they have always been perfected and instructed as much as and in the measure that they could, granted the conditions of life in which they were obliged to develop. It is here precisely that the word environment is not a metaphor, and that the use of the word compact is not metaphorical. Real morality always presents itself as something conditioned and limited, which the imagination has sought to outgrow, by constructing Utopias, and by creating a supernatural pedagogue, or a miraculous redemption.

Why should the slave have had the ways of seeing and the passions and the sentiments of the master whom he feared? How could the peasant relieve himself of his invincible superstitions, to which he was condemned by his immediate dependence upon nature and his mediate dependence upon a social mechanism unknown to him, and by his blind faith in the priest, who stands to him as a magician and sorcerer. In what fashion could the modern proletarian of the great industrial cities, exposed continuously to the alternatives of misery or subjection, how could he realize that way of living, regulated and monotonous, which was the one suited to the members of the trade guilds, whose existence seemed imbedded in a providential plan? From what intuitive elements of experience could the hog merchant of Chicago, who furnishes Europe with so many products at a cheap rate, extract the conditions of serenity and intellectual elevation which gave to the Athenian the qualities of the noble and good man, and to the Roman citizen, the dignity of heroism? What power of docile Christian persuasion will extract from the souls of the modern proletarians their natural reasons of hate against their determined or undetermined oppressors? If they wish that justice be done, they must appeal to violence; and before the love of one's neighbor as a universal law can appear possible to them, they must imagine a life very different from the present life which makes a necessity of hatred. In this society of differentiations, hatred, pride, hypocrisy, falsehood, baseness, injustice and all the catechism of the cardinal vices and their accessories make a sad appendage to the morality, equal for all, upon which they constitute the satire.

Ethics then reduces itself for us to the historical study of the subjective and objective conditions of how morality develops or meets obstacles to its development. In this only, that is to say, within these limits, we can recognize some value in the affirmation that morality corresponds to the social situations, and, in the last analysis, to the economic conditions. Only an idiot could believe that the individual morality of each one is proportionate to his individual economic situation. That is not only empirically false, but intrinsically irrational. Granted the natural elasticity of the psychic mechanism, and also the fact that no one lives so shut up in his own class that he does not undergo the influence of other classes, of the common environment and of the interlacing traditions, it is never possible to reduce the development of each individual to the abstract and generic type of his class and his social status. We are dealing there with the phenomena of the mass, of those phenomena which form, or should form, the objects of moral statistics: the discipline which has thus far remained incomplete, because it has taken for the objects of its combinations groups which it creates of itself by the addition of numbers of cases (for example, adulteries, thefts, homicides) and not the groups which, as classes, conditions, or situations exist really, that is to say, socially.

To recommend morality to men while assuming or ignoring their conditions, this was hitherto the object and the class of argument of all the catechists. To recognize that these are given by the social environment, that is what the communists oppose to the utopia and the hypocrisy of the preachers of morality. And as they see in morality not a privilege of the elect, nor a gift of nature, but a result of experience and education, they admit human perfectibility through reasons and arguments which are, in my opinion, more moral and more ideal than those which have been given by the ideologists.

In other words, man develops, or produces himself, not as an entity generically provided with certain attributes, which repeat themselves, or develop themselves, according to a rational rhythm, but he produces and develops himself as at once cause and effect, as author and consequence, of certain definite conditions, in which are engendered also definite currents of ideas, of opinions, of beliefs, of imaginations, of expectations, of maxims. Thence arise ideologies of every sort, as also the generalization of morality in catechisms, in canons and in systems. We must not be surprised if these ideologies, once arisen, are afterwards cultivated alone by themselves, if they finally appear, as it were, detached from the living field whence they took their birth, nor if they hold themselves above man as imperative rules and models.

The priests and the doctrinaires of every sort have given themselves for centuries to this labor of abstraction, and have forced themselves to maintain the resulting illusions. Now that the positive sources of all ideologies have been found in the mechanism of life itself, we must explain realistically their mode of generation. And as that is true of all ideologies, it is true also and, in particular of those which consist in projecting ethical estimates beyond their natural and direct limits, making of them anticipations of divine announcements or presuppositions of universal suggestions of conscience.

Therein lies the object of the special historic problems. We cannot always find the tie which unites certain ethical ideas to practical definite conditions. The concrete social psychology of past times often remains impenetrable to us. Often the commonest things remain for us unintelligible, for example, the animals considered as unclean, or the origin for the repugnance at marriage between persons of remote degrees of relationship. A prudent course of study leads us to conclude that the motives of many details will remain always concealed. Ignorance, superstition, singular illusions, symbolisms, these with many others are causes of that unconscious element, often found in customs, which now constitutes for us the unknown and the unknowable.

The principal cause of all difficulty is precisely in the tardy appearance of what we call reason, so that the traces of the proximate motives of ideas have been lost or have remained enveloped in the ideas themselves.

On the subject of science we can be much more brief.

For a long time history has been made in an artless fashion. Granted and admitted that the different sciences have their statements in manuals and encyclopedias, it seemed sufficient to work out chronologically the appearance of the different formulas, resolving the total of the systematic summary into the elements which have successively served to compose it. The general presupposition was simple enough; underneath this chronology is the rational conception which develops and progresses.

This method, if so it could be called, had within itself a certain disadvantage; it permitted us at best to understand how, one stage of science being granted, another stage of science may be derived from it by reason, but it did not permit us to discern by what condition of facts men were driven to discover science for the first time, that is to say, to reduce considered experience into a new and definite form. The question was, then, to find why there is an actual history of science, to find the origin of the scientific necessity, and what unites in a genetic fashion that necessity to our necessities in the continuity of the social processus.

The great progress of modern technique, which really constitutes the intellectual substance of the bourgeois epoch, has worked, among other miracles, this one also, of revealing to us for the first time the practical origin of the scientific attitude. (We can never forget the Florentine Academy, which produced this phrase, when Italy was in the twilight of its past grandeur and when modern society was in the dawn of the great industry.) Henceforth we are in a position to take up the guiding thread of what, by abstraction, is called the scientific spirit; and no one is any longer astonished at finding that everything in scientific discoveries has come about, as was the case in other primitive times, when the clumsy elementary geometry of the Egyptians arose from the necessity of measuring the fields exposed to the annual inundations of the Nile, and when the periodicity of these inundations suggested, in Egypt and in Babylon, the discovery of the rudiments of the astronomical movements.

It is certainly true that when science is once created and partially ripened, as had already happened in the Hellenic period, the work of abstraction, of deduction and of combination continues among scientists in such a way that it possibly obliterates the consciousness of the social causes of the first production of science itself. But if we examine in their main features the epochs of the development of science, and if we confront the periods which the ideologists would characterize as periods of progress and of retrogression of intelligence, we perceive clearly the social reason for the impulses, sometimes increasing, sometimes decreasing, toward scientific activity. What need had the feudal society of Western Europe for this ancient science, which the Byzantines preserved, at least materially, while the Arabs, free agriculturists, industrious artisans, or skillful merchants, had succeeded in increasing it a little? What is the Renaissance, if not the joining of the initiatory movement of the bourgeoisie to the traditions of ancient learning, which had become usable? What is all the accelerated movement of scientific knowledge, since the seventeenth century, but the series of acts accomplished by intelligence, refilled by experience, to assure human labor, in the forms of an improved technique, the dominion over natural forces and conditions? Thence arises the war against darkness, superstition, the Church, religion; thence arise naturalism, atheism, materialism; thence the installation of the domain of reason. The bourgeois epoch is the epoch of minds in full play. (Vico) It is worth remembering that this government of the Directory, which was the prototype and the compendium of all liberal corruption, was the first to introduce in the University and at the Academy in a formal and solemn fashion the science of free inquiry with Lamark! This science, which the bourgeois epoch has, through its inherent conditions, stimulated and made to grow like a giant, is the only heritage of past centuries which communism accepts and adopts without reserve.

It would not be useful to stop here for the discussion of the so-called antithesis between science and philosophy. If we accept those fashions of philosophizing which are confounded with mysticism and theology, philosophy never means a science or doctrine separate from its appropriate and particular things, but it is simply a degree, a form, a stage of thought with relation to the things which enter into the domain of experience. Philosophy is, then, either a generic anticipation of the problems which science has still to elaborate specifically, or a summary and a conceptual elaboration of the results at which the sciences have already arrived. As for those who, that they may not appear behind the times, talk now of scientific philosophy, if we do not wish to stop over the humorous element that there is in that expression, it will suffice to say that they are simply fools.

I said some pages back, in my statement of formulas, that the economic structure determines in the second place the direction, and in great part and indirectly, the objects of imagination and of thought in the production of art, of religion and of science. To express this otherwise, or to go further, would be to put one's self voluntarily on the road toward the absurd.

Before all else, in this formula, we are opposing the fantastic opinion, that art, religion and science are subjective developments and historical developments of a pretended artistic, religious or scientific spirit, which would go on manifesting itself successively through its own rhythm of evolution, favored or retarded on this side or that by material conditions. By this formula, it is desired to assert, moreover, the necessary connection, through which every fact of art and of religion is the exponent, sentimental, fantastic and thus derived, of definite social conditions. If I say in the second place, it is to distinguish these products from the facts of legal-political order which are a true and proper projection of economic conditions. And if I say in great part and indirectly the objects of these activities, it is to indicate two things: that in artistic or religious production the mediation from the conditions to the products is very complicated, and again that men, while living in society, do not thereby cease to live alone by themselves in nature, and to receive from it occasion and material for curiosity and for imagination.

After all, this is all reduced to a more general formula; man does not make several histories at the same time, but all these alleged different histories (art, religion, etc.) make up one alone. And it is not possible to take account of that clearly except at the characteristic and significant moment of the production of new things, that is to say in the periods which I will call revolutionary. Later, the acceptance of the things that have been produced, and the traditional repetition of a definite type, obliterated the sense of the origins of things.

Try, if you will, to detach the ideology of the fables, which are at the foundation of the Homeric poems, from that moment of historic evolution where we find the dawn of Aryan civilization in the basin of the Mediterranean, that is to say, from that phase of the higher barbarism in which arises, in Greece and elsewhere, the epic. Or try to imagine the birth and the development of Christianity elsewhere than in Roman cosmopolitanism, and otherwise than by the work of those proletarians, those slaves, those unfortunates those desperate ones, who had need of the redemption of the Apocalypse and of the promise of the Kingdom of God. Find, if you will, the ground for supposing that in the beautiful environment of the Renaissance the romanticism should begin to appear, which scarcely appeared in the decadent Torquato Tasso; or that one might attribute to Richardson or to Diderot the novels of Balzac, in whom appears, as a contemporary of the first generation of socialism and sociology, the psychology of classes. Far back, farther, farther, at the first origins of the mythical conceptions, it is evident that Zeus did not assume the characters of father of gods and men until the power of the patria potestas was already established, and that series of processus began which culminated in the State. Zeus thus ceases to be what was at first the simple divus (brilliant) or the Thunderer. And it is to be observed that at an opposite point of historic evolution, a great number of thinkers of the past century reduced to a single abstract God, who is a simple regent of the world, all that variegated image of the unknown and transcendental type, developed in so great a wealth of mythological, Christian or pagan creations. Man felt himself more at home in nature, thanks to experience, but felt himself better able to penetrate the gearing of society, the knowledge of which he possessed in part. The miraculous dissolved in his mind, to the point where materialism and criticism could afterwards eliminate that poor remnant of transcendentalism, without taking up war against the gods.

There is certainly a history of ideas; but this does not consist in the vicious circle of ideas that explain themselves. It lies in rising from things to the idea. There is a problem; still more, there is a multitude of problems, so varied, multiple, multiform and mingled are the projections which men have made of themselves and of their economic-social conditions, and thus of their hopes and their fears, of their desires and their deceptions, in their artistic and religious concepts. The method is found, but the particular execution is not easy. We must above all guard against the scholastic temptation of arriving by deduction at the products of historic activity which are displayed in art and in religion. We must hope that philosophers like Krug, who explained the pen with which he wrote by a process of dialectic deduction, have remained forever buried in the notes of Hegel's logic.

Here I must state certain difficulties.

Before attempting to reduce secondary products (for example, art and religion) to the social conditions which they idealize, one must first acquire a long experience of specified social psychology, in which the transformation is realized. Therein consists the justification of that sum of relations, which is designated in another form of language, under the name of Egyptian world, Greek consciousness, spirit of the Renaissance, dominant ideas, psychology of nations, of society or of classes. When these relations are established, and men have become accustomed to certain conceptions and certain modes of belief or of imagination, the ideas transmitted by tradition tend to become crystallized. Thus they appear as a force which resists new formations; and as this resistance shows itself through the spoken word, through writing, through intolerance, through polemics, through persecution, so the struggle between the new and the old social conditions takes on the form of a struggle between ideas.

In the second place, through the centuries of history properly so-called, and as a consequence of the heredity of the pre-history of savagery and of the conditions of subjection and those of inferiority in which the majority of men were and are placed, resulted acquiescence in what is traditional, and the ancient tendencies are perpetuated as obstinate survivals.

In the third place, as I have said, men living socially, do not cease to live also in nature. They are not, of course, bound to nature as animals are, because they live on an artificial groundwork. Every one understands, moreover, that a house is not a cave, that agriculture is not natural pasturage, and that pharmacy is not exorcism. But nature is always the immediate subsoil of the artificial groundwork, and it is the environment which contains us. The industrial arts have put between us social animals, and nature, certain intermediaries which modify, set aside or remove the natural influences; but it has not for all that destroyed the efficacy of these, and we continually feel their effects. And even as we are born men or women, as we die almost always in spite of ourselves, and as we are dominated by the instinct of generation, so we also bear in our temperament certain special conditions which education in the broad sense of the word, or social compact, can modify, it is true, within certain limits, but which they can never suppress. These conditions of temperament, repeated in infinite cases throughout the centuries, constitute what is called the race. For all these reasons, our dependence upon nature, although it has diminished since prehistoric times, continues in our social life, just as the food which the sight of nature affords to the curiosity and the imagination continues also in our social life. Now these effects of nature, and the sentiments immediate or mediate which result from it, although they have been perceived, since history began, only on the visual angle which is given us by the conditions of society, never fail to reflect themselves in the products of art and of religion, and that adds to the difficulties of a realistic and complete interpretation of both.


In employing this doctrine as a new principle of research, as a precise means of defining our position, and as a visual angle, will it really be possible finally to arrive at a new narrative history? It is not possible to make an affirmative answer in general to this generic demand. Because, in fact, if we assume that the critical communist, the sociologist of economic materialism, or as he is commonly called, the Marxist, has the necessary critical preparation, the habit of historical study, and also the gift required for an orderly and vivacious narration, there is no reason for affirming that he cannot write history, as heretofore the partisans of all other political schools have written it.

We have the example of Marx, and there is an argument from fact which admits of no reply. But he was the first and the principal author of the decisive concepts of this doctrine, reducing it at once into an instrument of political orientation, in his character of an incomparable publicist, during the revolutionary period of 1848 to 1850. And then he applied it with the greatest precision in that essay entitled Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, of which it may be said today, at a great distance, and after so many publications, if we except certain infinitesimal details and certain false forecasts, that it would be possible to make neither corrections nor important complements. I will not repeat, since I am not writing a bibliography, the list of the different writings of Marx or Engels – of which we have so many attempts from the Peasants' War (1850) down to his posthumous writings on The Present Unity of Germany – which are an application of the doctrine, nor those of their successors and of the popularizers of scientific socialism. Even in the socialist press we may read, from time to time, valuable attempts at explanation of certain political events, in which is found, precisely by reason of historic materialism, a clearness of vision which would be sought in vain among the writers and the disputants who have not yet torn away the fantastic veils and ideological envelopes of history.

Here is not the place to take up the defense of an abstract thesis, as an advocate would do. It is evident, nevertheless, in all the histories which have been written up to the present time, that there is always at bottom, if not in the explicit intentions of the writers, certainly in their spirit, a tendency, a principle, a general view of life; and so this doctrine, which has enabled us to study the social structure in an objective manner, must finally direct with precision the researches of history, and must end in a narrative complete, transparent and integral.

Helps are not lacking.

Economics, which, as everyone sees it today, had its birth and development as the science of bourgeois production, after being puffed up with the illusion of representing the absolute laws of all forms of production, has through the dear school of experience entered since, as everyone knows, upon a period of self-criticism. Just as this self- criticism gave birth, on one side, to critical communism, so on the other side it has given birth, through the labor of the calmest, the wisest and the most prudent of the academic tradition, to the historical school of economic phenomena. Thanks to this school, and through the effect of the application of the descriptive and comparative methods, we are henceforth in possession of a vast sum of knowledge on the different historical forms of economics, from the most complex facts and those best specified through essential differences of types, down to the special domain of a cloister or a trade guild of the Middle Ages. The same thing has taken place with statistics, which, by the indefinite combination of its sources, succeeds now in throwing light, with a sufficient approximation, upon the movement of population in past centuries.

These studies, certainly, are not made in the interest of our doctrine, and oftener than not they are made in a spirit hostile to socialism; something not observed, we may say in passing, by those foolish readers of printed papers who so often confuse economic history, historical economics, and historical materialism. But these studies, apart from the materials which they gather, are remarkable in that they witness the progress which is in course of making the internal history which, little by little, is taking the place of the external history with which, for centuries, the men of letters and artists were occupied.

A good part of these materials that have been gathered must always be submitted to new corrections, as for that matter happens in every domain of empirical knowledge, which oscillates continually between what is held for certain and what is simply probable, and what must, later, be integrated or eliminated.

The deductions and the combinations of the historians of economics, or of those who relate history in general, availing themselves of the guiding thread of economic phenomena, are not always so plausible or so conclusive, that one does not feel the need of saying to them: All this must be taken back and worked over. But that which is undoubted is the fact that in this present time all writing of history tends to become a science, or, better, a social discipline; and when that movement, now uncertain and multiform, shall be accomplished, the efforts of the scholars and inquirers will lead inevitably to the acceptance of economic materialism. By this incidence of efforts and of scientific labors, which start from points so opposite, the materialistic conception of all history will end by penetrating men's minds as a definite conquest of thought; and this will finally take away from partisans and adversaries the attempt to speak pro and con as for partisan theses.

Apart from the direct helps just enumerated, our doctrine has many indirect helps, so that it can probably employ the results of many disciplines, in which by reason of the greater simplicity of the relations, it has been possible more easily to make the application of the genetic method. The typical case is furnished by glottology, and in a more special fashion by the study which has for its object the ancient languages.

The application of historical materialism is certainly, hitherto, very far from that evidence and that clearness of processus of analysis and of reconstruction. It would be consequently a vain attempt to try, at this moment, to write a summary of universal history, which should propose to develop all the varied forms of production in order to deduce from them afterwards all the rest of human activity, in a particular and circumstantial fashion. In the present state of knowledge, he who should try to give this compendium of a new Kulturgeschichte would do nothing but translate into economic phraseology the points of general orientation which, in other books, for example, in Hellwald, give it in Darwinian phraseology.

It is a long step from the acceptance of the principle to its complete and particular application to the whole of a vast province of facts, or to a great succession of phenomena.

So the application of our doctrine must be kept for a moment to the exposition and the study of definite parts of history. The modern forms are clear to all. The economic developments of the bourgeoisie, the manifest knowledge of the different obstacles which it has had to overcome in the different countries, and, consequently, the development of the different revolutions, taking this word in its broadest sense, contribute to make our understanding of it easy. To our eyes the pre-history of the bourgeoisie, at the moment of the decline of the Middle Ages, is equally clear, and it would not be difficult to find, for example, in the development of the city of Florence, an attested series of developments, in which the economic and statistical movement finds a perfect correspondence in the political relations and a sufficient illustration in the contemporary development of intelligence already reduced into prose and stripped, in great part, of ideological illusions. Nor would it be impossible to reduce, now, under the definite visual angle of materialism, the whole of ancient Roman history. But for that, and particularly for the primitive period, there are no direct sources; they are, on the contrary, abundant in Greece, from popular tradition, the epic, and the authentic juridical inscriptions, down to the pragmatic studies of the historical social relations. At Rome, on the other hand, the struggles for political rights carry with them almost always the economic reasons upon which they rest. Thus, the decline of definite classes, the formation of new classes, the movement of conquest, the change of the laws and of the forms of political array, appear to us with perfect clearness. This Roman history is hard and prosaic; it was never clad with these ideological complements which were suited to Greek life. The rigid prose of conquest, of planned colonization, of institutions and of the forms of law, conquered and devised for solving the problems arising from definite frictions and contrasts, makes all Roman history a chain of events which follow each other in a sequence which is grossly evident.

The true problem consists, indeed, not in substituting sociology for history, as if the latter had been an appearance which conceals behind it a secret reality, but in understanding history as a whole, in all its intuitive manifestations, and in understanding it through the aid of economic sociology. It is not a question of separating the accident from the substance, the appearance from the reality, the phenomenon from the intrinsic kernel, or applying any other formula used by the partisans of any species of scholasticism, but of explaining the connection and the complexus precisely in so far as it is a connection and a complexus. It is not merely a question of discovering and determining the social groundwork, and then of making men appear upon it like so many marionettes, whose threads are held and moved, no longer by Providence but by economic categories. These categories have themselves developed and are developing, like all the rest – because men change as to the capacity and the art of vanquishing, subduing, transforming and utilizing natural conditions; because men change in spirit and attitude through the reaction of their tools upon themselves; because men change in their respective and co-associated relations; and therefore as individuals depending in various degrees upon one another. We have, in fine, to do with history, and not with its skeleton. We are dealing with narration and not with abstraction, with the explaining and treating of the whole, and not merely with resolving and analyzing it; we have to do, in a word, now, as always, with an art.

It may be that the sociologist who follows the principles of economic materialism proposes to keep himself simply to the analysis, for example, of what the classes were at the moment when the French Revolution broke out, and to pass then to the classes that result from the Revolution and survive it. In that case the titles, the indications and the classifications of the materials to analyze are definite; they are, for example, the city and the country, the artisan and the laborer, the nobles and the serfs, the land which is freed from feudal charges, and the small proprietors who came into being, commerce which frees itself from so many restrictions, money which accumulates, industry which prospers, etc. There is nothing to object to in the choice of this method, which, because it follows the track of embryonic origins, was indispensable to the preparation of historical research according to the direction of the new doctrine.[1]

But we know that the study of embryonic origins does not suffice to make us understand animal life, which is not a scheme, but is composed of living beings which struggle, and in their struggle employ forces, instincts and passions. And it is the same, mutatis mutandis, with men also, in so far as they live historically. These particular men, moved by certain passions, urged by certain circumstances, with such and such designs, such intentions, acting in such an attempt with such an illusion of their own, or with such a deception, of another, who, martyrs of themselves or of others, enter on harsh contests and reciprocal suppressions of each other – there is the real history of the French Revolution. If, however, it is true that all history is but the unfolding of definite economic conditions, it is equally true that it develops only in definite forms of human activity – whether the latter be passionate or reflective, fortunate or unsuccessful, blindly instinctive or deliberately heroic.

To understand the interlacings and the complexus in its inner connection and its outer manifestations; to descend from the surface to the foundation, and then to return from the foundation to the surface; to analyze the passions and the intentions, in their motives, from the closest to the most remote, and then to bring back the data of the passions and of the intentions and of their causes to the most remote elements of a definite economic situation; there is the difficult art which the materialistic conception must realize.

And as we must not imitate that teacher who on the bank taught his pupils to swim by the definition of swimming, I beg the reader to await the examples which I shall give in other essays in a real historical narration, working over into a book which for some time I have already been doing in my teaching.

In this way certain secondary and derivative questions are once for all cleared up.

What, for example, is the meaning of the lives of the great men?

In these later times, answers have been given, which, in one sense or another, have an extreme character. On the one side, there are the extreme sociologists, on the other side the individualists who, after the fashion of Carlyle, put the heroes into the first rank of their history. According to some it is sufficient to show what were the reasons, for example, of Caesarism, and Caesar matters little. According to others, there are no objective reasons of classes and social interests which suffice to explain anything; it is the great minds which give the impulse to the whole historic movement; and history has, so to speak, its lords and its monarchs. The empiricists of narration extract themselves from embarrassment in a very simple fashion, putting together at hazard men and things, objective necessities of fact and subjective influences.

Historical materialism goes beyond the antithetical views of the sociologists and the individualists, and at the same time it eliminates the eclecticism of the empirical narrators.

First of all the factum.

Let this particular Caesar, as Napoleon was, be born in such a year, let him follow such a career, and find himself ready for the Eighteenth Brumaire. All this is completely accidental with relation to the general course of things which was pushing the new class, mistress of the field, to save from the Revolution that which appeared to it necessary to save, and that necessitated the creation of a bureaucratico-military government. It was, however, necessary to find the man, or the men. But what actually happened came about in the fashion that we know. It depended on this fact, that it was Napoleon who directed the enterprise and not a pitiable Monk, or a ridiculous Boulanger. And from that moment the accident ceases to be accident, precisely because it is this definite person who gives his imprint and physiognomy to the events, determining the fashion or the manner in which they have unfolded.

The very fact that all history rests upon antitheses, contrasts, struggles and wars, explains the decisive influence of certain men in definite occasions. These men are neither a negligible accident of the social mechanism, nor miraculous creators of what society, without them, could have made in no other fashion. It is the very interlacings of the antithetic conditions, which causes the fact that definite individuals, generous, heroic, fortunate, mischievous, are called at critical moments to say the decisive word. As long as the particular interests of the different social groups are in such a state of tension, that all the parties in the struggle reciprocally paralyze each other, then to make the political gearing move, there is need of the individual consciousness of a definite individual.

The social antitheses, which make of every human community an unstable organization, give to history, especially when it is seen and examined rapidly and in its main features, the character of a drama. This drama in all its relations is repeated from community to community, from nation to nation, from state to state, because the inner inequalities concurring with the external differentiations, have produced and produce the whole movement of wars, conquests, treaties, colonizations, etc. In this drama have always appeared, in the role of leaders of society, the men who are characterized as eminent, as great, and empiricism has concluded from their presence that they were the principal authors of history. To carry back the explanation of their appearance to the general causes and the common conditions of the social structure, is a thing which harmonizes perfectly with the data of our doctrine; but to try to eliminate them, as certain affected objectivists of sociology would willingly do, is pure capriciousness.

And to conclude, the partisan of historical materialism who sets himself the task of explaining, or relating, cannot do it through schemes.

History has always received a definite form, with an infinite number of accidents and variations. It has a certain grouping, it has a certain perspective.

It is not enough to have eliminated preventively the hypothesis of factors, because the narrator constantly finds himself in the presence of things which seem incongruous, independent, and sell-directing. To present the whole as a whole, and to discover in it the continuous relations of the events which border on each other, there is the difficulty.

The sum of events narrowly consecutive and precise gives the whole of history; and this is equivalent to saying that it is all that we know of our being, in so far as we are social beings and not simply natural beings.


In the successive whole, and in the continuous necessity of all historical events, is there, then, some ask, any meaning, any significance? This question, whether it comes from the camp of the idealists, or whether it comes to us from the mouth of the most circumspect critics, certainly, and in all cases, demands our attention, and requires an adequate answer.

In fact, if we stop at the premises, intuitive or intellectual, from which is derived the conception of progress as an idea which incloses and embraces the total of the human processus, it is seen that these presumptions all rest upon the mental need, which is in us, of attributing to one or more series of events a certain sense and a certain signification. The conception of progress, for whoever examines it carefully in its specific nature, always implies judgements of estimation, and therefore, there is no one who can confuse it with the crude and bare notion of simple development, which does not contain that increment of value which makes us say of a thing that it is progressing.

I have already said, and, it seems to me, at sufficient length, how it is that progress does not exist as something imperative or regulative over the natural and immediate succession of the generations of men. That is as intuitive as is the actual coexistence of peoples, of nations and of states, which find themselves, at the same time, in a different stage of development; so undeniable is the actual condition of relative superiority and inferiority of nation as compared with nation; and again so certain is the partial and relative retrogression which has been produced several times in history, as Italy has exemplified for centuries. Still more, if there is a convincing proof of how progress must be understood in the sense of immediate law, and, to use a strong expression, of a physical and inevitable law, it is precisely this fact – that social development by the very reasons of the processus which are inherent in it, often leads to retrogression. It is evident, on the other hand, that the faculty of progressing, like the possibility of retrogressing, does not constitute, to begin with, an immediate privilege, or an innate defect of a race, nor is either one the direct consequence of geographical conditions. And, in fact, the primitive centers of civilization were multiple, those centers have been removed in the course of centuries, and finally the means, the discoveries, the results and the impulses of a definite civilization, already developed, are within certain limits, communicable, to all men indefinitely. In a word, progress and retrogression are inherent in the conditions and the rhythm of social development.

Now then, the faith in the universality of progress, which appeared with so much violence in the eighteenth century, rests upon this first positive fact, that men, when they do not find obstacles in external conditions, or do not find them in those which result. from their own work in their social environment, are all capable of progress.

Moreover, at the bottom of this supposed or imagined unity of history, in consequence of which the processus of the different societies would form one single series of progress, there is another fact, which has offered motive and occasion for so many fantastic ideologies. If all nations have not progressed equally, still more, if some have stopped and have followed a backward route, if the processus of social development has not always, in every place and in all times, the same rhythm and the same intensity, it is nevertheless certain that, with the passage of the decisive activity from one people to another people in the course of history, the useful products, already acquired by those who were in decadence, have been transmitted to those who were growing and rising. That is not so true of the products of sentiment and imagination, which nevertheless are themselves preserved and perpetuated in literary tradition, as of the results of thought, and especially of the discovery and of the production of technical means, which, once found, are communicated and transmitted directly.

Need we remind the reader that writing was never lost, although the peoples who invented it have disappeared from historic continuity? Need we recall again that we all have in our pockets, engraved on our watches, the Babylonian dial, and that we make use of algebra, which was introduced by those Arabs, whose historical activity has since been dispersed like the sands of the desert? It is useless to multiply these examples, because it is sufficient to think of technology and the history of discoveries in the broad sense of the word, for which the almost continuous transmission of the instruments of labor and production is evident.

And after all, the provisional summaries which are called universal histories, although they always reveal, in their aim and in their execution, something forced and artificial, would never have been attempted if human events had not offered to the empiricism of the narrators a certain thread, even though subtle, of continuity.

Take for example the Italy of the sixteenth century, which is evidently in decadence; but while it is declining, it transmits to the rest of Europe its intellectual weapons. These are not all that pass to the civilization which continues, but even the world market establishes itself upon the foundation of those geographical discoveries, and those discoveries in the naval art, which were the work of Italian merchants, travelers and sailors. It is not only the methods of the art of war and the refinements of political diplomacy which passed outside of Italy (though it is only with these that men of letters ordinarily concerned themselves), but even the art of making money, which had acquired all the evidence of an elaborate commercial discipline, and one after the other the rudiments of the science, upon which is founded modern technique, and to begin with all the methodical irrigation of fields and the general laws of hydraulics. All that is so precisely true, that an amateur in conjectural theses might come to the point of asking himself this question: what would have become of Italy, in this modern bourgeois epoch, if, executing the project of the Venetian Senate (1504) of making something which would have resembled in its effects a piercing of the Isthmus of Suez, the Italian navy had found itself in a direct struggle with the Portuguese in the Indian Ocean, at the very moment when the shifting of historical activity from the Mediterranean to the ocean prepared the decadence of Italy? But enough of fantasy!

A certain historical continuity, in the empirical and circumstantial sense of the transmission and the successive increase of the means of civilization, is then an incontestable fact. And, although this fact excludes all idea of preconceived design, of intentional or hidden finality, or pre-established harmony and all the other whimsicalities in regard to which there has been such a deal of speculation, it does not exclude, for all that, the idea of progress, which we can utilize as an estimation of the course human development. It is undeniable that progress does not embrace materially the succession of generations, and that its conception implies nothing categorical, considering that societies have also been in retrogression, but that does not prevent this idea from serving as a guiding thread and a measure to give a meaning to the historical processus. There is no common ground for critics who are prudent, in the use of specific concepts as in the method or their application, and those poor extreme evolutionists, who are scientists without the grammar and the principle of science, that is to say, without logic.

As I have said several times, ideas do not fall from heaven, and even those which, at a given moment arise from definite situations with the impetuosity of faith and with a metaphysical garb, carry always within themselves the index of their correspondence with the order of the facts, of which the explanation is sought or attempted. The idea of progress, as the unifier of history, appears with violence and becomes a giant in the eighteenth century, that is to say, in the heroic period of the intellectual and political life of the revolutionary bourgeoisie. Just as this engendered, in the order of its works, the most intensive period of history that is known, it also produced its own ideology in the notion of progress. This ideology in its substance means that capitalism is the only form of production which is capable of extending all over the earth and of reducing the whole human race to conditions which resemble each other everywhere. If modern technique can be transported everywhere, if all the human race appear on a single field of competition and all the world as a single market, what is there astonishing in the ideology which, reflecting intellectually these conditions of fact, reaches the affirmation that the present historical unity has been prepared by everything which precedes it? Translating this concept of pretended preparation into the altogether natural concept of successive condition, and there is opened before us the road by which the passage is made from the ideology of progress to historical materialism; and now we arrive at the affirmation of Marx, that this form of bourgeois production is the last antagonistic form of the processus of society.

The miracles of the bourgeois epoch, in the unification of the social processus, find no parallel in the past. Here are the whole New World, Australia, Northern Africa, and New Zealand! And they all resemble us! And the rebound in the extreme East is made through imitation, and in Africa through conquest! In the presence of this universality and this cosmopolitanism, the acquisition of the Celts and the Iberians to Roman civilization, and of the Germans and that the Slavs to the cycle of Roman Byzantine Christian civilization shrink into insignificance. This ever-growing unification is reflected more every day in the political mechanism of Europe; this mechanism, because founded on the economic conquest of the other parts of the world, oscillates henceforth with the flux and reflux which come from the most distant regions. In this most complicated mingling of action and reactions the war between Japan and China, made with methods imitated, or directly borrowed, from European technique, leaves its traces, deep and far-reaching, in the diplomatic relations of Europe, and still clearer traces in the stock exchange, which is the faithful interpreter of the consciousness of our time. This Europe, mistress of all the rest of the world, has recently seen the relations of the politics of the states of which it is composed oscillate in consequence of a revolt in the Transvaal, and in consequence of the ill success of the Italian armies in Abyssinia in these last days.[2]

The centuries which have prepared and carried to its present form the economic domination of bourgeois production have also developed the tendency to a unification of history under a general view: and in this fashion we find explained and justified the ideology of progress, which fills so many books of the philosophy of history and of Kulturgeschichte. The unity of social form, that is to say, the unity of the capitalistic form of production, to which the bourgeoisie has tended for centuries, is reflected in the conception of the unity of history in more suggestive forms than the mind could ever have received from the narrow cosmopolitanism of the Roman empire or the one-sided cosmopolitanism of the Catholic Church.

But this unification of the social life, by the working of the capitalist form of production, developed itself from the beginning, and continues to develop itself, not according to preconceived rules, plans and designs, but, on the contrary, by reason of frictions and struggles, which in their sum form a colossal complication of antitheses. War without and war within. Struggle incessant among the nations, and struggles incessant between the members of each nation. And the interlacings of the deeds and the action of so many emulators, competitors and adversaries is so complicated, that the co-ordination of events very often escapes the attention, and it is a very difficult thing to discover their intimate connection. The struggle which actually exists among men, the struggles which now, with various methods, are unfolding among nations and within nations, have come to make us understand better in the midst of what difficulties the history of the past has unfolded. If the bourgeois ideology, reflecting the tendency to capitalist unification, has proclaimed the progress of the human race, historical materialism, on the contrary, and without proclamation, has discovered that these are the antitheses which have thus far been the cause and the motive of all historical events.

Thus the movement of history, taken in general, appears to us as it were oscillating – or rather, to use a more appropriate image, it seems that it is unfolding on a line often interrupted, and at certain moments it seems to return upon itself, sometimes it stretches out, removing itself far from the point of departure – in an actual zigzag.

Granted the internal complication of every society, and granted the meeting of several societies on the field of competition (from the ingenuous forms of robbery, rapine and piracy to the refined methods of the elegant sport of the stock exchange) it is natural that every historical result, when it is measured in the one measure of individual expectation, appears very often like chance, and afterwards, considered theoretically, becomes for the mind more inextricable than the track of meteors.

Speaking of the irony which sits as a sovereign above history is not a simple phrase; because, in truth, if there is no god of Epicurus laughing above over human affairs, here below human affairs are of themselves playing a divine comedy.

Will this irony of human destinies ever cease? Will that form of association ever be possible which gives room for the possible complete development of all aptitudes, in such a way that the ulterior processus of history may become a real and true evolution? And, to speak like the amateurs of high-sounding phrases, will there ever be a humanization of all men? When once in the communism of production the antitheses which are now the cause and the effect of economic differentiations are eliminated, will not all human energies acquire a very high degree of efficacy and intensity in co- operative effects, and at the same time will they not develop with a greater liberty of self- expression among all individuals?

It is in the affirmative answers to these questions that consists what critical communism says, that is to say, foresees, of the future. But it does not say it and it does not foretell it as if it were discussing an abstract possibility, or like him who wishes, by his will, to give life to a state of things which he desires and which he dreams. But it says and predicts because what it announces must inevitably happen by the immanent necessity of history, seen and studied henceforth in the foundation of its economic substructure.

"It is only in an order of things where there will no longer be classes and class antagonisms that social revolutions will cease to be political revolutions."[3]

"To the old bourgeois society with its classes and class antagonisms will succeed an association in which the free development of each is the condition of the free development of all."

"The relations of bourgeois production are the last antagonistic form of the social processus of production – a form antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of the antagonism which proceeds from the conditions of the social life of individuals; but the productive forces which are developing in the lap of bourgeois society are creating at the same time the material conditions to terminate that antagonism. With this social organization ends the prehistory of the human race." [4]

"With the taking possession of the means of production on the part of society, is excluded the production of commodities, and with it the dominance of the product over the producer. The anarchy which dominates in social production will be succeeded by conscious organization. The struggle for individual existence will cease. Only in this way man will detach himself, in a certain sense, from the animal world in a definite fashion, and will pass from a condition of animal existence to conditions of human existence. The entire sum of the conditions of life which has thus far dominated men will pass under the rule and the examination of men themselves, who will thus for the first time become the real masters of nature, because they will be the masters of their own association. The laws of their own social activity, which had been outside of them like foreign laws imposed upon them, will be applied and mastered by the men themselves, with full knowledge of their cause. Their very association, which appeared to men as if imposed by nature and history, will become their own and their free work.

"The foreign and objective forces, which till then dominated history, will pass under the care of men. Only from that moment will men make their own history with full understanding; only from that moment will the social causes which they put in motion, be able to arrive, in great part and in a proportion ever increasing, at the desired effects. It is the leap of the human race from the reign of necessity into that of liberty. To accomplish this action emancipating the world, such is the historic mission of the modern proletariat."

If Marx and Engels had been phrasemakers, if their spirit had not been made prudent, even scrupulous, by the daily and minute use and application of scientific methods, if the permanent contact with so many conspirators and visionaries had not given them a horror of every Utopia, opposing it indeed up to the point of pedantry, these formulas might pass for good-natured paradoxes, which criticism need not examine. But these formulas are, as it were, the close, the effective conclusion of the doctrine of historic materialism. They are the direct result of the criticism of economies and of historical dialectics.

In these formulas, which may be developed, as I have had occasion to show elsewhere, is summed up every forecast of the future, which is not and is not intended for a romance or a Utopia. And in these very formulas there is an adequate and conclusive response to the question with which this chapter began: Is there in the series of historic events a meaning and a significance?

1. I allude to the excellent work of Karl Kautsky, Die Klassengensaetze von 1789. [RETURN TO TEXT]

2. Marx, Misere de la Philosophie, Paris, 1847, p. 178. [RETURN TO TEXT]

3. Communist Manifesto, p. 16. [RETURN TO TEXT]

4. Marx, Zur Kritik der ppoltisichen ökonomie, Berlin, 1859, p. 6 Pref. Compare my first Essay, pp. 48-50. [RETURN TO TEXT]


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