Paul Lafargue

The Historical Method of Karl Marx


Karl Marx’ Historischer Materialismus, Neue Zeit (Stuttgart), Vol.12 Part 1, 1903/1904.
From International Socialist Review, October 1907.
English translation by Chas. H. Kerr
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

“The mode of production of the physical means of life dominates as a rule the development of the social, political and intellectual life” (Karl Marx).

I. The Socialist Critiques.

Marx, half a century ago, proposed a new method for the interpretation of history, which he and Engels applied in their studies. It is not surprising that the historians, sociologists and philosophers, fearing lest the communist thinker corrupt their innocence and cause them to lose the favour of the bourgeoisie, should ignore this method: but it is strange that Socialists should hesitate to employ it, possibly for fear of arriving at conclusions which might rumple their bourgeois notions, to which they unconsciously remain prisoners. Instead of experimenting with it so as to judge it from its use, they prefer to discuss the question of its value and they discover innumerable defects in it; it misconceives, they say, the ideal and its operation; it brutalises eternal truths and principles; it takes no account of the individual and of his role; it leads to an economic fatalism which excuses man from all effort, etc. What would these comrades think of a carpenter who, instead of working with the hammers, saws and planes put at his disposal, should quarrel with them? Since no perfect tools exist, he would have plenty of chance to rail at them. Criticism does not begin to be fruitful instead of futile, until it comes after experience, which, better than the most subtle reasoning, makes us sensible of imperfections and teaches us to correct them. Man first used the clumsy stone hammer, and its use taught him to transform it into more than a hundred types, differing in their raw material, their weight, and their form.

Leucippus and his disciple Democritus, five centuries before the Christian Era, introduced their concept of the atom to explain the makeup of mind and matter, and during more than two thousand years, philosophers, the idea not occurring to them of resorting to experience that they might test the atomic hypothesis, indulged in discussions on the atom in itself, on the fullness of matter indefinitely continued, on emptiness, discontinuity, etc. and it is not until the end of the 18th century that Dalton utilised the conception of Democritus to explain chemical combinations. The atom, with which the philosophers had been able to do nothing, became in the hands of the chemists “one of the most powerful tools of research that human reason has succeeded in creating”. But now, after its use, the marvellous tool has been found imperfect and the radio-activity of matter obliges the physicists to pulverise the atom, that ultimate particle of matter, indivisible and impenetrable, into ultra-ultimate particles, of the same nature in all atoms, and carriers of electricity. The atomicules, a thousand times smaller than the atom of hydrogen, the smallest of atoms, are said to whirl with an extraordinary velocity around a central nucleus, as the planets and earth revolve about the sun. The atom might be a miniature solar system and the elements of the bodies which we know might differ in themselves only in number and the gyratory movements of their atomicules. The recent discoveries of radio-activity, which shake fundamental laws of mathematical physics, ruin the atomic base of the chemical structure. It is impossible to mention a more noteworthy example of the sterility of verbal discussions and the fertility of experience. Action alone in the material and intellectual world is fruitful: “In the beginning was action”.

Economic determinism is a new tool put by Marx at the disposal of Socialists to establish a little order in the disorder of historic facts, which the historians and philosophers have been incapable of classifying and explaining. Their class prejudices and their narrowness of mind give to the Socialists the monopoly of this tool; but the latter before using it wish to convince themselves that it is absolutely perfect and that it may become the key to all the problems of history; on this account it is quite possible for them to continue during the whole of their lives to discourse and to write articles and volumes on historical materialism, without adding a single idea to the subject. Men of science are less timorous. They think that “from the practical point of view it is of secondary importance that theories and hypotheses be correct provided they guide us to results in agreement with the facts”. Truth, after all, is merely the best working hypothesis; often error is the shortest road to discovery. Christopher Columbus, starting from the error in figuring made by Ptolemy, on the circumference of the earth, discovered America, when he thought he was arriving at the East Indies. Darwin recognises that the first idea of his theory of natural selection was suggested to him by the false law of Malthus on population, which he accepted with closed eyes. Physicists can today perceive that the hypothesis of Democritus is insufficient to include the phenomena recently studied, yet that does not alter the fact that it served to build up modern chemistry.

It is in fact little observed that Marx has not presented his method of historical interpretation as a body of doctrine with axioms, theorems, corollaries and lemmas; it is for him merely an instrument of research ; he formulates it in a workmanlike style and puts it to the test. It can thus be criticised only by contesting the results which it gives in his hands, for instance, by refuting his theory of the class struggle. This our historians and philosophers carefully refrain from doing. They regard it as the impure work of the demon, precisely because it has led Marx to the discovery of this powerful motive force in history.

II. Deistic and Idealistic Philosophies of History.

History is such a chaos of facts beyond man’s control, progressing and receding, clashing and interclashing, appearing and disappearing without apparent reason, that we are tempted to think it impossible to bind them and classify them into series from which can be discovered the causes of evolution and revolution.

The collapse of systems in history has given rise in the minds of thinking men like Helmholtz to the doubt whether it is possible to formulate a historical law that reality would confirm. This doubt has become so general that the intellectuals no longer venture to construct like the philosophers of the first half of the 19th century plans of universal history; it is indeed an echo of the incredulity of the economists as to the possibility of controlling economic forces. But need we conclude from the difficulties of the historic problem and the ill-success of attempts to solve it that its solution is beyond the reach of the human mind? In that case social phenomena would stand apart as the only ones which could not be logically linked to determining causes.

Commonsense has never admitted such an impossibility; on the contrary, men have always believed what came to them, fortunate or unfortunate, was part of a plan preconceived by a superior being. Man proposes and God disposes is a historical axiom of popular wisdom which carries as much truth as the axioms of geometry, on condition, however, that we interpret the meaning of the word God.

All people have thought that a god directed their history. The cities of antiquity each possessed a State divinity or poliad as the Greeks called it, watching over their destinies and dwelling in the temple consecrated to him. The Jehovah of the Old Testament was a divinity of this kind; he was lodged in a wooden box, called “Ark of the Covenant”, which was transported when the tribes of Israel changed their location, and which was placed at the front of the armies in order that he might fight for his people. He took his quarrels so much to heart, according to the Bible, that he exterminated his enemies – men, women, children and beasts. The Romans, during the Second Punic War, thought it useful as a means of resistance to Hannibal to couple up their State divinity with that of Pessinus, namely Cybele, the mother of gods; they brought over from Asia Minor her statue, a big shapeless stone, and introduced into Rome her orgiastic worship: as they were at once superstitious and astute politicians, they annexed the State divinity of each conquered city, sending its statue to the capitol; they reasoned that, no longer dwelling among the conquered people, it would cease to protect them.

The Christians had no other idea of divinity when, to drive out the Pagan gods, they broke their statues and burned their temples, and when they called on Jesus and his eternal Father to battle with the demons who stirred up the heresies of Allah which opposed the crescent to the cross. The cities of the Middle Ages put themselves under the protection of municipal divinities; St. Genevieve was that of Paris. The republic of Venice, that it might have an abundance of these protecting divinities, brought over from Alexandria the skeleton of St. Mark and stole at Montpellier that of St. Roques. Civilised nations have never denied the Pagan belief: each monopolises for its use the only and universal God of the Christians, and makes therefrom its State divinity. Thus there are as many only and universal Gods as there are Christian nations, and the former fight among themselves as soon as the latter declare war; each nation prays its only and universal God to exterminate its rival and sings Te Deums in His honour if it is victorious, convinced that it owes its triumph only to His all-powerful intervention. The belief in the intrusion of God into human quarrels is not simulated by statesmen to please the coarse superstition of ignorant crowds; they share it. The private letters recently published, which Bismarck wrote to his wife during the war of 1870-71, show him believing that God passed His time in occupying Himself with him, his son and the Prussian armies.

The philosophers who have taken God for the directing guide of history share this infatuation; they imagine that this God, creator of the universe and humanity, can be interested in nothing else than their country, religion and politics. Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History is one of the most successful specimens of this kind: the Pagan nations exterminate each other to prepare for the coming of Christianity, his religion, and the Christian nations slaughter each other to assure the greatness of France, his country, and the glory of Louis XIV, his master. The historic movement, guided by God, culminated in the Sun King; when he was extinguished, shadows invaded the world, and the Revolution, which Joseph de Maistre calls “the work of Satan” burst forth.

Satan triumphed over God, the State divinity of the aristocracy and the Bourbons. The bourgeoisie, the class which God held in small regard, possessed itself of power and guillotined the king He had anointed: natural sciences, which He had cursed, triumphed and engendered for the bourgeoisie more riches than He had been able to give to His favourites, the nobles and the legitimate kings; Reason, which he had bound, broke her chains and dragged Him before her tribunal. The reign of Satan had begun. The romantic poets of the first half of the nineteenth century composed hymns in his honour; he was the unconquerable vanquished, the great martyr, the consoler and hope of the oppressed; he symbolised the bourgeoisie in perpetual revolt against nobles, priests and tyrants. But the victorious bourgeoisie had not the courage to take him for its State divinity; it patched up God, whom Reason had slightly disfigured, and restored him to honour; nevertheless, not having entire faith in His omnipotence, it added to Him a troop of demigods: Progress, Justice, Liberty, Civilisation, Humanity, Fatherland, etc. who were chosen to preside over the destinies of the nations who had shaken off the yoke of the aristocracy.

These new gods are “Ideas”, “Spiritual Forces”, “imponderable Forces”. Hegel undertook to bring back this polytheism of Ideas into the monotheism of the Idea, which, born of itself, creates the world and history by its own unfolding. The God of historic philosophy is a mechanic who, for His amusement constructs the universe, whose movements he regulates, and manufactures man, whose destinies He directs after a plan known to Himself alone, but the philosophic historians have not perceived that this eternal God is not the creator but the creature of man, who, in proportion to his own development, remodels Him, and that, far from being the director, He is the plaything of historic events.

The philosophy of the idealists, in appearance less childish than that of the deists, is an unfortunate application to history of the deductive method of the abstract sciences, whose propositions, logically linked, flow from certain undemonstrable axioms which impose themselves by the principle of evidence. The mathematicians are wrong in not troubling themselves regarding the fashion in which the ideas slipped into the human mind. The idealists disdain to inquire into the origin of their Ideas, coming no one knows whence; they confine themselves to affirming that they exist of themselves, that they are perfectible, and that in proportion as they become perfect they modify men and social phenomena, placed under their control; thus it is only necessary to know the evolution of Ideas to acquire the laws of history. In this way Pythagoras thought that the knowledge of the properties of numbers would give knowledge of the properties of bodies.

But because the axioms of mathematics cannot be demonstrated by reasoning, that does not prove that they are not properties of bodies, just like colour, form, weight and warmth, which experience alone reveals, and the idea of which exists in the brain only because man has come into contact with the bodies of nature. It is, in fact, as impossible to prove by reasoning that a body is square, coloured, heavy or warm as to demonstrate that the part is smaller than the whole, that two and two make four, etc.: all we can do is to state the experimental fact and draw its logical conclusions.

The Ideas of Progress, Justice, Liberty, Fatherland, etc., like the axioms of mathematics, do not exist outside of themselves and outside the spiritual domain; they do not precede experience but follow it; they do not engender the events of history, but they are the consequence of the social phenomena which in evolving create them, transform them, and suppress them; they do not become active forces save as they emanate directly from the social streams. One of the tasks of history unnoticed by the philosophers is the discovery of the social causes, of which they themselves are a product, and which give them the power acting upon the brains of the men of a given epoch.

Bossuet and the deist philosophers, who promoted God to the dignity of a conscious director of the historic movement, have after all merely conformed to the popular opinion of the historic role played by the divinity: the idealists who substitute for Him the Idea-Forces merely utilise in historic fashion the vulgar bourgeois opinion. Every bourgeois proclaims that his private and public acts are inspired by Progress, Justice, Patriotism, Humanity, etc. To be convinced of this we need only go through the advertisements of the manufacturers and merchants, the prospectuses of the financiers, and the electoral programmes of the politicians.

The ideas of Progress and of evolution are modern in their origin; they are a transportation into history of that human perfectibility which became fashionable with the eighteenth century. It was inevitable that the bourgeoisie should regard its entrance into power as an immense step of social progress, while the aristocracy looked upon it as a disastrous setback. The French revolution, because it occurred a century after the English revolution, and consequently in conditions more fully ripe, substituted so suddenly and completely the bourgeoisie for the nobility that from that time the idea of Progress took firm root in the public opinion of Europe. The European capitalists believed themselves founded on the power of Progress. They affirmed in good faith that their habits, manners, virtues, private and public morality, social and family organisation, industry and commerce were an advance over everything which had existed. The past was only ignorance, barbarity, injustice and unreason: “Finally, for the first time”, cried Hegel, “Reason was to govern the world.” The bourgeois of 1793 deified her; already in the beginning of the bourgeois period in the ancient world Plato (in the Timaeus) declared her superior to Necessity, and Socrates reproached Anaxagoras with having, in his cosmogony, explained everything by material causes without having made any use of Reason, from whom everything could be hoped (Phaedo). The social dominance of the bourgeoisie is the reign of Reason.

But a historical event, even so considerable a one as the grasping of power by the bourgeoisie, does not alone suffice to prove Progress. The deists had made God the sole author of history; the idealists, not wishing it to be said that Progress in the past had deported itself as a do-nothing Idea, discovered that during the Middle Ages it had prepared for the triumph of the bourgeois class by organising it, by giving it intellectual culture, and by enriching it, while it wore out the offensive and defensive fortress of the Church. The idea of evolution was thus to introduce itself naturally in the train of the idea of Progress.

But for the bourgeoisie there is no progressive evolution save that which prepares for its own triumph, and as it is only for some ten centuries that its historians can find definite traces of its organic development, they lose their Ariadne’s thread as soon as they venture into the labyrinth of earlier history, whose facts they are satisfied to narrate without attempting to marshal them into progressive series. Sine the goal of progressive evolution is the establishment of the social dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, that end once attained Progress must cease to progress. In fact, the bourgeois who proclaim that their capture of power is a social progress unique in history, declare that it would be a return to barbarism, “to slavery”, as Herbert Spencer says, if they were dislodged from power by the proletariat. The vanquished aristocracy looked upon its defeat in no other light. Belief in the decree of Progress, instinctive and unconscious in the bourgeois masses, shows itself conscious and reasoned in certain bourgeois thinkers. Hegel and Comte, to cite merely two of the most famous, affirm squarely that their philosophic system closes the series, that it is the crowning and the end of the progressive evolution of thought. So, then, philosophy and social and political institutions progress only to arrive at their bourgeois form, then Progress progresses no more.

The bourgeoisie and its more intelligent intellectuals, who fix insurmountable limits to their progressive Progress, do better still; they withdraw from its influence certain social organisations of prime importance. The economists, historians, and moralists, to demonstrate in an irrefutable fashion that the paternal form of the family and the individual form of property will not be transformed, assure us that they have existed from all time. They put forth these impudent assertions at the moment when researches which have been carried on for half a century are bringing into clear light the primitive forms of the family and of property. These bourgeois scientists are ignorant of them, or reason as if they were ignorant of them.

The ideas of Progress and of evolution were especially fashionable during the first years of the nineteenth century, when the bourgeoisie was still intoxicated with its political victory, and with the prodigious development of its economic riches; the philosophers, historians, moralists, politicians, romancers, and poets fitted their writings and their teachings to the sauce of progressive Progress, which Fourier was alone or almost alone in reviling. But toward the middle of the century they were obliged to calm their immoderate enthusiasm: the apparition of the proletariat on the political stage in England and in France awoke in the mind of the bourgeoisie certain disquieting reflections on the eternal duration of its social dominance. Progressive Progress lost its charms. The ideas of Progress and of evolution would finally have ceased to be current in bourgeois phraseology had not the men of science, who from the end of the eighteenth century had grasped the idea of evolution circulating in the social environment, utilised it to explain the formation of worlds and the organisation of vegetables and animals. They gave it such a scientific value and such a popularity that it was impossible to sidetrack it.

But to show the progressive development of the bourgeoisie for a certain number of centuries back does not explain that historic movement any more than to trace the curve described in falling by a stone thrown into the air teaches us the causes of its fall. The philosophic historians attribute this evolution to the ceaseless action of the Spiritual Forces, particularly Justice, the strongest of all, which according to an idealistic and academic philosopher, “is always present even though it arrives only by degrees into human thought and into social facts.” Bourgeois society and its way of thinking are thus the last and highest manifestations of this immanent Justice, and it is to obtain these fine results that this fine lady has toiled in the mines of history.

Let us consult the judicial records of the lady aforesaid for information on her character and manners.

A ruling class always considers that what serves its economic and political interests is just and that what disserves them is unjust. The Justice which it conceives is realised when its class interests are satisfied. The interests of the bourgeoisie are thus the guides of bourgeois justice, as the interests of the aristocracy were those of feudal justice. Thus, through unconscious irony, Justice is pictured blindfolded that she may not see the mean and sordid interests which she protects with her aegis.

The feudal and guild organisation, injuring the bourgeoisie, was in its eyes so unjust that the immanent Justice resolved to destroy it. The bourgeois historians relate that it could not tolerate the forcible robberies of the feudal barons, who knew no other means of rounding out their fields and filling their purses. All of which does not prevent their honest immanent Justice from encouraging the forcible robberies which, without risking their skins, the pacific capitalists have committed by proletarians disguised as soldiers in the barbarous countries of the old and the new world. It is not that this sort of theft pleases the virtuous lady; she solemnly approves and authorises, with all legal sanctions, only the economic theft which, without clamorous violence, the bourgeoisie daily commits on the wage worker. Economic theft is so perfectly suited to the temperament and character of Justice that she metamorphoses herself into a watchdog over bourgeois wealth because it is an accumulation of thefts as legal as they are just.

Justice, who, as the philosophers say, has done marvellously in the past, who reigns in bourgeois society and who leads men toward a future of peace and happiness, is on the contrary the fertile mother of social iniquities. It is Justice who gave the slaveholder the right to possess man like a chattel; it is she again who gives the capitalist the right to exploit the children, women and men of the proletariat worse than beasts of burden. It is Justice who permitted the slaveholder to chastise the slave, who hardened his heart when he lacerated him with blows. It is she again who authorises the capitalist to grasp the surplus value created by the wage worker, and who puts his conscience at rest when he rewards with starvation wages the labour which enriches him. I stand on my right, said the slaveholder when he lashed the slave; I stand on my right, says the capitalist when he steals from the wage worker the fruits of his labour.

The capitalist class, measuring everything by its own standards, decorates with the name of Civilisation and Humanity its social order and manner of treating human beings. It is only to export civilisation to the barbarous nations, only to rescue them from their gross immorality, only to ameliorate their miserable conditions of existence that it undertakes its colonial expeditions, and its Civilisation and its Humanity manifest themselves under the specific form of stupefaction through Christianity, poisoning with alcohol, pillage and extermination of the natives. But we should be doing an injustice if we thought that it favours the barbarians and that it does not diffuse the benefits of its Humanity over the labouring classes of the nations which it rules. Its Civilisation and its Humanity may there be counted up by the mass of men, women and children dispossessed of all property, condemned to compulsory labour day and night, to periodic vacations at their own expense, to alcoholism, consumption, rickets; by the increasing number of misdemeanours and crimes, by the multiplication of insane asylums and by the development and improvement of the penitentiary system.

Never has ruling class so loudly clamoured for the Ideal, because never had a ruling class had such need for obscuring its actions with idealistic chatter. This ideological charlatanism is its surest and most efficacious method for political and economic trickery. The startling contradiction between its words and its acts has not prevented the historians and philosophers from taking the eternal Ideas and Principles for the sole motive forces of the history of the capitalised nations. Their monumental error, which passes all bounds even for the intellectuals, is an incontestable proof of the power wielded by Ideas, and of the adroitness with which the bourgeoisie has succeeded in cultivating and exploiting this force so as to derive an income from it. The financiers pad their prospectuses with patriotic principles, with ideas of civilisation, humanitarian sentiments, and six-per-cent. investments for fathers of families. These are infallible baits when fishing for suckers. De Lesseps could never have inflated his magnificent bubble at Panama, raking in the savings of eight hundred thousand little people, had not that “great Frenchman” promised to add another glory to the halo of his Fatherland, to broaden civilised humanity and to enrich the subscribers.

Eternal Ideas and Principles are such irresistible attractions that there is no financial, industrial or commercial prospectus, nor even an advertisement of alcoholic drink or patent medicine, but is spiced with it; political treasons and economic frauds hoist the standard of Ideas and Principles.

The historic philosophy of the idealists could not be other than a war of words, equally insipid and indigestible, since they have not perceived that the capitalist parades the eternal principles for no other purpose than to mask the egoistic motives of his actions, and since they have not arrived at the point of recognising the humbug of the bourgeois ideology. But the lamentable abortions of the idealist philosophy do not prove that it is impossible to arrive at the determining causes of the organisation and evolution of human societies as the chemists have succeeded in doing with those which regulate the agglomeration of molecules into complex bodies.

“The social world,” says Vico, the father of the philosophy of history, “is undeniably the work of man, whence it results that we may and must find its principles nowhere else than in the modification of human intelligence. Is it not surprising to every thinking man that the philosophers have seriously undertaken to know the world of nature, which God made and the knowledge of which He has reserved for Himself, and that they have neglected to meditate over that social world, the knowledge of which men may have, since men have made it?”

The numerous failures of the deistic and idealistic methods compel the trial of a new method of interpreting history.

III. Vico’s “Historical Laws”

Vico, scarcely ever read by the philosophical historians, although they play with a few of his phrases, which they interpret badly as often as they repeat them, formulated in his Scienza nuova certain fundamental laws of history.

He lays down as a general law of the development of societies that all nations, whatever their ethnic origin and their geographical habitat, traverse the same historic roads; thus, the history of any nation whatever is a repetition of the history of another nation which has attained a higher degree of development.

“There exists”, he says, “an eternal ideal history traversed on earth by the histories of all nations, from whatever status of savagery, barbarism and ferocity men set out to civilise themselves”, to domesticate themselves, according to his expression. (Scienza nuova, libr.II, §5)

Morgan, who probably had no knowledge of Vico, arrived at a conception of the same law which he formulates in a more positive and complete fashion. The historic uniformity which the Neopolitan philosopher attributed to their development according to a pre-established plan the American anthropologist assigns to two causes, to the intellectual resemblance of men and to the similarity of the obstacles which they have had to surmount in order to develop their societies. Vico also believed in their intellectual resemblance. “There necessarily exists”, he said, “in the nature of human affairs, a universal mental language, common to all nations, which designs uniformly the substance of the things playing an active part in the social life of men and expresses it with as many modifications as there are different aspects which these things can take on. We recognise its existence in proverbs, those maxims of popular wisdom, which are of the same substance in all nations, ancient and modern, although they are expressed in so many different ways.” (Ib. Degli Elem. XXII.)

“The human mind”, says Morgan, “specifically the same in all the tribes and nations of mankind, and limited in the range of its powers, works and must work, in the same uniform channels, and within narrow limits of variation. Its results in disconnected regions of space, and in widely separated ages of time, articulate in a logically connected chain of common experiences”. Elsewhere in this book Morgan shows that, like successive geological formations, the tribes of humanity may be superimposed in successive layers according to their development: classed in this way, they reveal with a certain degree of exactness the complete march of human progress from savagery to civilisation; for the paths of human experiences in the several nations have been almost parallel. Marx, who studied the path of economic “experiences”, confirms Morgan’s idea. The country most developed industrially, he says in the preface to Capital, shows those who follow it on the industrial ladder the image of their own future.

Thus, then, the “ideal eternal history” which according to Vico the different people of humanity must traverse each in their turn, is not a historic plan pre-established by a divine intelligence, but an historic plan of human progress conceived by the historian who, after having studied the stages traversed by every people, compares them in progressive series according to their degrees of complexity.

Researches, continued for a century on the savage tribes and ancient and modern peoples, have triumphantly proved the exactness of Vico’s law. They have established the fact that all men, whatever their ethnic origin or their geographical habitat, had in their development gone through the same forms of family, property, and production, as well as the social and political institutions. The Danish anthropologists were the first to recognise the fact and to divide the prehistoric period into successive ages of stone, bronze, and iron, characterised by the raw material of the tools manufactured and consequently of the mode of production. The general histories of the different nations, whether they belong to the white, black, yellow or red race, and whether they inhabit the temperate zone, the equator or the poles, are distinguished from each other only by Vico’s stage of ideal history, only by Morgan’s historic stratum, only by Marx’s round of the economic ladder to which they have attained. Thus the most developed people shows to those which are less developed the image of their own future.

The productions of intelligence do not escape Vico’s law. The philologists and grammarians have found that for the creation of words and languages men of all races have followed the same rules. Folklorists have gathered the same tales among savage and civilised peoples. Vico had already recognised among them the same proverbs. Many of the folklorists instead of considering the similar tales as the productions of nations which preserve them only through oral tradition think that they were conceived in only one centre, from which they were scattered over the earth. This is inadmissible and contradicts what has been observed in the social institutions and other productions, intellectual as well as material.

The history of the idea of the soul and the ideas to which it has given birth is one of the most curious examples of the remarkable uniformity of the development of thought. The idea of the soul, which is found in savages, even the lowest, is one of the first intellectual inventions. The soul once invented, it was necessary to fit it out with a dwelling place, under the earth or in the sky, to lodge after death, in order to prevent it from wandering without domicile and pestering the living. The idea of the soul, very vivid in savage and barbarous nations, after having contributed to the manufacture of the Great Spirit and of God, vanishes among nations arrived at a higher degree of development, to be reborn with a new life and force when they arrive at another stage of evolution. The historians, after having pointed out in the historic nations of the Mediterranean basin the absence of the idea of the soul, which nevertheless had existed among them during the preceding savage period, recognise its rebirth some centuries before the Christian era, as well as its persistence until our own days. They content themselves with mentioning those extraordinary phenomena of the disappearance and reappearance of so fundamental an idea without attaching importance to them and without thinking of looking for the explanation which, however, they would not have found in the field of their investigations, and which we can only hope to discover by applying Marx’s historical method, by seeking it in the transformations of the economic world.

The scientists who have brought to light the primitive forms of the family, property, and political institutions, have been too much absorbed by the labour of research to have time to enquire into the causes of their transformations: they have only made descriptive history, and the science of the social world must be explanatory as well as descriptive.

Vico thinks that man is the unconscious motive power of history and that it is not his virtues but his vices which are the active forces. It is not “disinterestedness, generosity, and humanity, but ferocity, avarice, and ambition” which create and develop societies; “these three vices which lead the human race astray, produce the army, commerce, and political power, and consequently the courage, wealth, and wisdom of republics: so that these vices, which are capable of destroying the human race on earth, produce civil felicity.”

This unexpected result furnished to Vico the proof of “the existence of a divine providence, a divine intelligence, which, out of the passions of men, absorbed entirely by their private interests, which might make them live in solitudes like fierce beasts, organise civil order, thus permitting us to live in a human society.”

The divine providence which directs the evil passions of men is a second edition of the popular axiom: “man proposes and God disposes”. This divine providence of the Neapolitan philosopher and this God of popular wisdom who leads man by the aid of his vices and his passions, what are they?

The mode of production, says Marx.

Vico, in accordance with the popular judgment, affirms that man alone furnishes the motive power of history. But his passions, bad and good, and his needs are not invariable quantities as the idealists suppose, for whom man has always remained the same. For example, maternal love, that heritage from the animals, without which man in the savage state could not have lived and perpetuated himself, diminishes in civilisation to the point of disappearing in the mothers of the rich class, who from its birth relieve themselves of the child and entrust it to the care of hirelings; – other civilised women feel so little the need of maternity that they make vows of virginity [1]; paternal love and sexual jealousy, which cannot show themselves in savage and barbarous tribes during the polyandrous period, are on the contrary highly developed among civilised people; – the sentiment of equality, vivid and imperious in savages and barbarians, who live in communities, to the point of forbidding any one the possession of an object which the others could not possess, has become so fully obliterated since man has lived under the system of individual property, that the poor and the wage workers of civilisation accept resignedly and as a divine and natural destiny their social inferiority.

Thus, then, in the course of human development, fundamental passions are transformed, reduced, and extinguished, while others arise and grow. To seek only in man the determining causes of their production and evolution would be to admit that although living in nature and society, he does not submit to the influence of the surrounding reality. Such a supposition cannot arise even in the brain of the most extreme idealist, for he would not dare to assume that we should meet the same sentiment of modesty in the respectable mother of the household and the unfortunate earning her living with her sex; the same swiftness of calculation in the bank clerk and the philosopher; the same agility of the fingers of the professional pianist and the ditch digger. It is thus undeniable that man on the physical, intellectual, and moral sides is subject unconsciously, but profoundly, to the action of the environment in which he moves.

IV. The Natural Environment and the Artificial or Social Environment

The action of the environment is not merely direct, it is exercised not merely upon the organ which functions, upon the hand in the case of the pianist and the ditch digger, upon the moral sense in that of the honest woman and prostitute; it is again indirect and reacts upon all the organs. This generalisation of the action of the environment which Geoffrey Saint-Hillaire designated under the characteristic name of subordination of the organs and which modern naturalists call law of correlation, Cuvier explains thus: “Every organised being forms a whole, a unique and closed system, whose parts correspond to each other and contribute to the same definite action by a reciprocal action. None of these parts can change without the other parts also changing.” For example, the form of the teeth of an animal cannot be modified from any cause whatever without involving modifications in the jaws, the muscles which move them, the bones of the skull to which they are attached, the brain which the skull encases, the bones and muscles which support the head, the form and length of the intestines, indeed in all parts of the body. The modifications which are produced in the fore limbs as soon as they have ceased to serve for walking have led to organic transformations which have definitely separated man from the anthropoid apes.

It is not always possible to foresee and understand the modifications involved by the change which has occurred in any certain organ: for example, why the breaking of a leg or the removal of a testicle in the stag family causes the atrophy of the horn on the opposite side; why white cats are deaf; why mammals with hooves are herbivorous and those with five toes armed with claws are carnivorous.

A simple change in the habits, by subjecting one or more organs to an unaccustomed use, sometimes results in radical modifications in the whole organism. Darwin says that the mere fact of constantly browsing on steep slopes has occasioned variations in the skeletons of certain breeds of Scottish cows. Naturalists agree in regarding the cetacean – whales, cachalots and dolphins – as former terrestrial mammals which, finding in the sea food more abundant and easier to procure, became swimmers and divers: this new sort of life transformed their organs, reducing to a rudimentary state those no longer used, developing the others and adapting them to the needs of the aquatic environment. The plants of the Sahara Desert, to adapt themselves to the arid environment, have been obliged to dwarf themselves, to reduce the number of their leaves to two or four, to take on a layer of wax to prevent evaporation, and to prolong their roots enormously in search of moisture: their periodic changes come counter to the ordinary seasons; they are dormant in summer during the hot season and vegetate in the winter, in the season relatively cold and moist. Plants in other deserts present analogous characteristics: a given environment implies the existence of beings showing a combination of definite characteristics.

The cosmic or natural environments, to which vegetables and animals must adapt themselves under pain of death, constitute, like the organised being of which Cuvier speaks, combinations, complex systems without precise limits in space, the parts of which are: the geologic formation and composition of the soil, nearness to the equator, elevation above the sea level, courses of rivers which irrigate it, quantity of rain which it receives and the solar heat which it stores up, etc., and plants and animals which live in it. These parts correspond to each other in such a way that one of them cannot change without involving change in the other parts: the changes in the natural environment, although less rapid than those produced in organised beings, are nevertheless appreciable. The forests, for example, have an influence on the temperature and the rains, consequently on the humidity and the physical composition of the soil. Darwin has shown that animals apparently insignificant, like the worm, have played a considerable part in the formation of vegetable mold; Berthelot and the agricultural experts Hellriegal and Willfarth have proved that the bacteria which swarm in the protuberances of the roots of the leguminosae are active in fertilising the soil. Man by tillage and cultivation exercises a marked influence over the natural environment; forest clearings begun by the Romans have transformed fertile countries in Asia and Africa into uninhabitable deserts.

Vegetables, animals and man in a state of nature, all of which are subject to the action of the natural environment, without other means of resistance than the faculty of adaptation of their organs, must end by differentiating themselves, even though they might have a common origin, if, during hundreds and thousands of generations they live in different natural environments. The unlike natural environments thus tend to diversify men as well as plants and animals. It is, in fact, during the savage period that the different human races were formed.

Man does not merely modify by his industry the environment in which he lives, but he creates out of whole cloth an artificial or social environment, which permits him, if not to remove his organism from the natural environment, at least to reduce this action considerably. But this artificial environment in its turn operates upon man as he comes to it from his natural environment. Man, like the domesticated plant and animal, thus undergoes the action of two environments.

The artificial or social environments which men have successively created differ among themselves in their degree of elaboration and complexity, but environments of the same degree of elaboration and complexity offer great resemblances among themselves, whatever may be the human races which have created them, and whatever may be their geographical habitats: so that if men continue to undergo the diversifying action of unlike natural environments, they are equally subject to the action of similar artificial environments which operate to diminish the differences of races and to develop in them the same needs, the same interests, the same passions and the same mentality. Moreover, the same natural environments, as for example, those situated at the same latitude and altitude, exercise an equal unifying action on the vegetables and animals which live in them; they have an analogous flora and fauna. Like artificial environments thus tend to unify the human species, which unlike natural environments, have diversified into races and sub-races.

The natural environment evolves with such extreme slowness that the vegetable and animal species which adapt themselves to it seem immutable. The artificial environment, on the contrary, evolves with an increasing rapidity, thus the history of man and of his societies compared with that of animals and vegetables is extraordinarily mobile.

The artificial environments, like organised being and the natural environment, form combinations, complex systems without precise limits in space and time, the parts of which correspond to each other and are so closely bound together that one alone cannot be modified without all the others being shaken and being compelled to undergo retouchings in their turn. The artificial or social environment, of an extreme simplicity and consisting of a small number of parts in savage peoples, becomes complicated in proportion as man progresses by the addition of new parts and by the development of those already existing. It has been formed, since the historic period by economic, social, political and legal institutions, by traditions, customs, manners and morals, by common sense and public opinion, by religious literatures, arts, philosophies, sciences, modes of production and exchange, etc., and by the men who live in it. These parts, by transforming themselves and by reacting on each other, have given birth to a series of social environments more and more complex and extended, which, in proportion to the extension, have modified men; for, like the natural environment, a given social environment implies the existence of men presenting a certain combination of analogous characteristics, physical and moral. If all these corresponding parts were stable or varied only with excessive slowness, like those of the natural environment, the artificial environment would remain in equilibrium and there would be no history; its equilibrium, on the contrary, is extremely and increasingly unstable, constantly put out of balance by the changes working in one or another of the parts, which then reacts on all the others.

The parts of an organised being, like those of a natural environment, react upon each other directly, mechanically, so to speak: when in the course of animal evolution the upright posture was definitely acquired by man, it became the point of departure for transformation of all the organs: when the head, instead of being carried by the powerful muscles at the back of the neck, as in the other animals, was supported by the spinal column, these muscles and the bones to which they are attached became modified, and with their modifications modified the skull, the brain, etc. When the layer of vegetable soil in a locality increases through any cause whatever, instead of bearing stunted plants it nourishes a forest, which increases the rainfall, which again increases the volume of the water courses, etc. But the parts of an artificial environment can react on each other only through the intermediary of man. The part modified must begin by transforming physically and mentally the men whom it causes to function, and must suggest to them the modifications which they must bring to the other parts to put them on the level of the progress realised in it, in order that they may not hinder it in its development, and in order that they may again correspond to it. The parts not modified manifest their inconvenience precisely by the useful qualities which formerly constituted their “good side”, which by becoming superannuated are hurtful and then constitute so many “bad sides”. They are the more insupportable according as the modifications which they should have undergone are more important. The re-establishment of the equilibrium in the parts of the artificial environment is often accomplished only after struggles between the men particularly interested in the part in course of transformation and the men concerned in the other parts.

A few historical facts, too recent to be forgotten, will illustrate the interplay of the various parts of the artificial environment through the medium of man.

When industry had utilised the elasticity of steam as a motor power, it demanded new means of transportation to carry its fuel, its raw material and its products. It suggested to the interested manufacturers the idea of steam traction on iron rails which began to be practised in the coal fields of Gard in 1830 and in those of the Loire in 1832; it was in 1829 that Stephenson’s first locomotive drew a train in England. But when it was desired to extend this mode of locomotion, active and various opposition was encountered, which delayed its development for years. M. Thiers, one of the political leaders of official capitalism, and one of the authorised representatives of its common sense and public opinion, opposed it energetically, because, he declared, “a railroad cannot work”. Railroads, indeed, upset the most reasonable and established ideas: they required, along with other impossible things, grave changes in the mode of property – serving as a basis for the social edifice of the bourgeoisie then in power. Till then a capitalist created an industry or a mercantile establishment with his own money, increased, at the most, by that of one or two friends and acquaintances who had confidence in his honesty and skill; he directed the use of the funds and was the real and nominal proprietor of the factory or the commercial house. But the railroads were obliged to amass such enormous capitals that it was therefore necessary to induce a great number of capitalists to confide their money, which they had never left out of their sight, to people whose names they scarcely knew, still less their ability or morality. When they let go of the money they lost all control over its use; they had no personal proprietorship in the stations, cars, locomotives, etc., which it served to create; instead of pieces of gold or silver, having volume, weight and other solid qualities, they received back a narrow, light sheet of paper, representing fictitiously, an intangible morsel of the collective property, the name of which it bore, printed in big letters. Never in bourgeois memory had property taken on such a metaphysical form. This new form, which depersonalised property, was in such violent contradiction with that which summed up the joys of the capitalists, that which they had known and handed down for generations, that to defend it and propagate it no one could be found but the men charged with all the crimes and denounced as the worst disturbers of social order, – the Socialists. Fourier and St. Simon welcomed the mobilisation of property in paper stock-certificates. We find in the ranks of their disciples the manufacturers, engineers and financiers who prepared the revolution of 1848 and were the plotters of December 2: they profited by the political revolution to revolutionise the economic environment by centralising the nine provincial banks into the Bank of France, by legalising the new form of property and causing it to be accepted by public opinion, and by creating the network of French railways.

The great mechanical industry, which must draw its fuel and its raw material from a distance, and which must scatter its products widely, cannot tolerate the parcelling of a nation into little autonomous States, with tariffs, laws, weights and measures, coins, paper currencies, etc., of their own; it requires, on the contrary, the development of unified and centralised nations. Italy and Germany have met these requirements of the great industry, but only at the cost of bloody wars. MM. Thiers and Proudhon, who had numerous points of resemblance, and who represented the political interests of the little industry, became ardent defenders of the independence of the States of the Church and the Italian princes.

Since man successively creates and modifies the parts of the social environment, therefore, in him reside the motive forces of history, – so Vico and popular wisdom hold, rather than in Justice, Progress, Liberty, and other metaphysical entities, as the most philosophical historians stupidly repeat. These confused and inexact ideas vary according to the historical epochs and according to the groups or even the individuals of the same epoch; for they are the mental reflections of the phenomena produced in the different parts of the artificial environment; for example, the capitalist, the magistrate, and the wage-worker have different ideas of Justice. The Socialist understands by justice the restitution to the wage-working producers of the wealth which has been stolen from them, while to the capitalist justice is the conservation of this stolen wealth, and as the latter possesses the economic and political power, his notion predominates and makes the law, which, for the magistrate, becomes justice. Precisely because the same word covers contradictory notions, the capitalist class has made of these ideas an instrument of deceit and of domination.

That portion of the artificial or social environment in which a man functions gives him a physical, intellectual, and moral education. This education by things, which engenders ideas in him and excites his passions, is unconscious; so when he acts, he imagines he is following freely the impulses of his passions and ideas, while he is only yielding to the influences exercised on him by one of the parts of the artificial environment, which can react on the other parts only through the intermediary of his ideas and passions. Obeying instinctively the indirect pressure of the environment, he attributes the direction of his actions and emotions to a God, a divine intelligence, or to ideas of Justice, Progress, Humanity, etc. If the march of history is unconscious, since as Hegel says, man always finishes with a result other than that which he sought, it is because thus far he has been unconscious of the cause which makes him act and directs his actions.

What is the most unstable part of the social environment, that which is changed oftenest in quantity and quality, that which is most apt to disturb the whole?

The mode of production; answers Marx.

By mode of production Marx means not what is produced but the way of producing it; thus there has been weaving from prehistoric times, but it is only for about a century that there has been machine weaving. Machine production is the essential characteristic of modern industry. We have under our eyes an unparalleled example of its terrible and irresistible power to transform the social, economic, political and legal institutions of a nation. Its introduction into Japan has lifted that country in one generation from the feudal state of the middle ages into the constitutional state of the capitalist world, and has placed it in the front rank of world powers.

Multiple causes unite in assuring to the mode of production this omnipotence of action. Production absorbs, directly or indirectly, the energy of an immense majority of the individuals of a nation, while in the other parts constituting the social environment (politics, religion, literature, etc.) a slender minority is occupied, and even this minority can not but be interested in procuring the means of existence, material and intellectual. Consequently all men undergo mentally and physically, more or less, the modifying influence of the mode of production, while but a very small number of men are subjected to that of the other portions; now, as it is through the intermediary of men that the different parts of the social environment act on each other, that which modifies the most men possesses of necessity the most energy for moving the whole mass.

The mode of production, relatively unimportant in the social environment of the savage, takes on a preponderant and ever-growing importance through the incessant incorporation into production of the forces of nature, in proportion as man learns to know them: prehistoric man began this incorporation by using stones for weapons and tools.

Progress in the mode of production is relatively rapid, not only because production occupies an enormous mass of men, but again because, by enkindling “three furies of private interest”, it puts into play the three vices which, for Vico, are the moving forces of history, – hardheartedness, avarice and ambition.

Progress in the mode of production has become so headlong for the last two centuries that the men interested in production must constantly remodel the corresponding parts of the social environment to keep them on the level; the resistances which they encounter give rise to incessant conflicts, economic and political. Thus, to discover the first causes of historic movements, we must seek them in the mode of production of material life, which, as Marx says, dominates in general the development of the social, political and intellectual life.

Marx’s economic determinism takes away from Vico’s law of the unity of historical development its character of predetermination, which would carry the idea that the historic phases through which a nation passes, like the embryonic phases of an animal, are, as Geoffrey Saint-Hillaire thought, indissolubly linked to its very nature and determined by the inevitable action of an inner force, an “evolutionary force”, which would conduct it along pre-established paths toward ends marked out in advance; whence it would follow that all nations must progress, always and whether-or-no, at an equal pace and along one and the same path. The law of the unity of development, thus conceived, would be verified by the development of not one nation.

History, on the contrary, shows nations as they are, some limping through certain stages of evolution, which others traverse like race-horses, while others again go back from stages already reached. These delays, progressions, and recessions are explained only when we examine the social, political and intellectual history of the several nations in the light of the history of the artificial environments in which they have evolved, the changes in these environments, determined by the mode of production, determine in their turn historic events.

Since artificial environments are transformed only at the cost of national and international struggles, the historic events of a nation are thus subjected to relations which arise between the artificial environment to be transformed and the nation, fashioned as it has been by its natural environment and its hereditary and acquired characteristics. The natural environment and the historic past have impressed upon each nation certain original characteristics; so it follows that the same mode of production does not produce, with mathematical exactness, the same artificial or social environments, and consequently does not occasion historical events absolutely alike in different nations and at all moments in history, since vital international competition increases and intensifies in proportion to the growth in the number of nations arriving at the higher stages of civilisation. The historic evolution of nations, then, is not predetermined, any more than the embryonic evolution of individuals: if it passes through similar organisations of family, property, law, and politics, and through analogous forms of thought in philosophy, religion, art, and literature, it is because nations, whatever their race and geographical habitat, experience in their development material and intellectual wants which are substantially alike and must inevitably resort, for the satisfaction of these wants, to the same methods of production.



1. The same phenomenon is observed in the insects which have succeeded in creating for themselves a social environment: the queen bee, who is the mother of the hive, does not concern herself with her progeny, and kills her daughters provided with sexual organs, whom the neutral workers are obliged to protect from her maternal fury. Certain breeds of domestic fowls have lost the instinct of maternity; although excellent layers, they never sit.


Last updated on 7.4.2004