Franz Mehring

On Historical Materialism

(Part I)

The bourgeois world today regards historical materialism as it did Darwinism a lifetime ago, and socialism half a lifetime ago. It reviles it without understanding it. Eventually, and with great difficulty, the bourgeoisie began to grasp that Darwinism was really something other than an “ape theory”, and that socialism was not a matter of “having a share-out” or “laying a thieving hand on all the fruits of a thousand years of culture”. But historical materialism still remains something upon which they pour phrases that are as foolish as they are cheap, describing it, for example, as the “fantasy” of a few “talented demagogues”.

In fact the materialist study of history is of course subject to the very laws of historical motion that it itself lays down. It is the product of historical development; it could not have been imagined in any earlier period by even the most brilliant mind. The secret of the history, of mankind could only be unveiled when a certain historical level had been reached.

But while in all earlier periods the investigation of these driving causes of history was almost impossible – on account of the complicated and concealed interconnection’s between them and their effects – our present period has so far simplified these interconnections that the riddle could be solved. Since the establishment of large-scale industry, that is, at least since the European peace of 1815, it has been no longer a secret to any man in England that the whole political struggle there turned on the claims to supremacy of two classes: the landed aristocracy and the bourgeoisie (middle class). In France, with the return of the Bourbons, the same fact was perceived; the historians of the Restoration period, from Thierry to – Guizot, Mignet and Thiers, speak of it everywhere as the key to the understanding of all French history since the Middle Ages. And since 1830 the working class, the proletariat, has been recognized in both countries as a third competitor for power. Conditions had become so simplified that one would have had to close one’s eyes deliberately not to see in the fight of these three great classes and in the conflict of their interests the driving force of modern history – at least in the two most advanced countries. [1]

Thus wrote Engels about the culminating point of historical development which first awoke an understanding of the materialist conception of history in him and Marx. How this understanding was further developed can be read in Engels’ works themselves.

The life work of Marx and Engels is based throughout on historical materialism; all their writings are founded upon this. It is simply a trick of the bourgeois pseudo-sciences to pretend that they made only occasional excursions into the science of history in order to find support for a theory of history which they had “sucked out of their thumbs”. Capital, as Kautsky has already stressed, is in the first place an historical work, and indeed, in relation to history, it is a mine of only partially explored treasures. And in just the same way one can say that the writings of Engels are incomparably richer in content than they are in scope, encompassing infinitely more historical material than is dreamt of by the academics, who take a few partially understood or deliberately misunderstood sentences at face value, and then think they have done something wonderful in discovering a “contradiction” or something of the sort in them. It would be a very worthwhile task to bring together the wealth of historical views which, are scattered in the works of Marx and Engels in a systematic fashion, and certainly this task will at some point be carried out. But for now we must content ourselves with a general indication, because my aim, here is to draw only the essential outlines of historical materialism, and to do so in a negative rather than a positive way, through the refutation of the commonest objections which are raised against it. [2]

Karl Marx himself summed up historical materialism briefly and convincingly in his foreword to the Critique of Political Economy, which was published in 1859. He says there:

The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once realised, became the guiding principle of my studies can be summarized as follows. In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense super-structure. In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The pre-history of society accordingly closes with this social formation. [3]

In these few words, the law of motion of human history is exhaustively presented with a profound clarity and lucidity unparalleled in any other writings. And it really takes a professor of philosophy from the fair lake city of Leipzig to find in them, as Mr. Paul Barth does, “vague words and images”, very vague formulations of social statics and dynamics patched together out of imagery. In so far however as human beings are the bearers of historical development, Marx and Engels had already described them as such eleven years earlier in the Communist Manifesto:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes. In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complicated arrangement of society into various orders, a manifold gradation of social rank. In ancient Rome we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guild-masters, journeymen, apprentices, serfs; in almost all of these again, subordinate gradations. The modern bourgeois society that has sprouted from the ruins of feudal society has not done away with class antagonisms. It has but established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in place of the old ones. Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinctive feature: it has simplified the class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat. [4]

This is followed by the famous description of how the bourgeoisie on the one hand, and the proletariat on the other, have to develop according to the conditions of their historical existence, a description which has stood the test of almost half a century of unprecedented upheavals brilliantly; it is followed by the proof of why and how the proletariat will be victorious over the bourgeoisie. With the overthrow of the old conditions of production, the proletariat will negate the class opposites, the classes themselves, and with them its own rule as a class. “In the place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class opposites, comes an association, in which the free development, of each will be the condition of the free development of all.”

And we should add here some of the things that Engels said at the grave of his friend:

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.; that therefore the production of the immediate material means of subsistence and consequently the degree of economic development attained by a given people or during a given epoch form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, the ideas on art, and even on religion, of the people concerned have been evolved, and in the light of which they must, therefore, be explained, instead of vice versa, as had hitherto been the case. [5]

A simple fact indeed – in the spirit of Ludwig Feuerbach, who said on this subject: “It is a specific mark of a philosopher that he is not a professor of philosophy. The simplest truths are those that men take the longest time to reach.” Feuerbach was the link between Hegel and Marx, but he was halted half way by the miserable circumstances that predominated in Germany at the time; he considered the “arrival at Truth” still as a purely ideological process. But Marx and Engels did not “arrive at” historical materialism in this way, and to say in their praise that they spun it out of their heads would be an insult to them. Because even with the best of intentions it would mean declaring the whole materialist conception of history to be an invention conjured up out of empty fantasy. Much rather, the real fame of Marx and Engels consists in having given, with historical materialism itself, the most striking proof of its correctness. They did not only, as did Feuerbach, have a knowledge of German philosophy, but also of the French Revolution and British industry. They solved the riddle of human history when this task was only just being presented to mankind, when the “material conditions” for its solution were still very much involved “in the process of their becoming”. And they proved themselves as thinkers of the first order, when they recognized almost fifty years ago, from relatively faint signs, what the bourgeois scientists of all countries, despite the immeasurable wealth of very clear evidence, are not even able to grasp today, and of which they have at the most only an occasional inkling.

I should like to give a very remarkable example of how little is achieved by hatching out any odd theoretical proposition for polemical purposes, though it may sound extraordinarily illuminating, agree perfectly in expression and content with scientific knowledge, and result from a penetrating study of historical development. We must thank the goodness of Herr Professor Lujo Brentano for the reference to the fact that the historical school of romanticism came very close to a materialist conception of history, namely in relation to a passage by Lavergne-Peguilhen, which runs as follows:

Perhaps the social sciences as such have made so little progress, because the economic forms themselves have not been sufficiently differentiated, because it has not been understood that they constitute the whole basis the social and state organizations. It is not considered that production and the distribution of products, culture and its diffusion, state legislation and the form of the state must derive their content and development entirely out of the economic forms; that these important factors in the history society stem just as unavoidably from the economic forms, and their appropriate application, as the product from the creative interaction of productive forces, and that where there are social ills, these in general have their source in the contradiction between the forms of society and the forms of the state. [6]

This was written in the year 1838, by a renowned representative this historical romantic school, the same school which Marx subjected to such annihilating criticism in his Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher. And yet, if you disregard the fact that Marx did not derive production and distribution from the economic forms, but on the contrary, he derives the economic forms from production and distribution, he appears at first glance to have copied Lavergne-Peguilhen in the materialist theory of history.

However, what counts is the “appropriate utilization”. The historical romantic school was a reaction against classical bourgeois political economy, which declared the forms of production of the bourgeois, classes as the only natural form, and the economic forms of these classes to be eternal laws of nature. Against these exaggerations historical romanticism turned, in the interests of the Junkers, to the patriarchal glorification of the dependent economic relationships of the landlords and the bondsmen; the demand of the liberal school for political freedom was opposed by the proposition that the real constitution of a people was not a few pages of laws and statutes, but the economic power relations, that is in the given case, the master-and-servant relationships which were left over from the feudal period. The theoretical struggle between bourgeois political economy and historical romanticism was the ideological reflection of the class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the Junkers. Each of the two tendencies declared that the form of production and economy which suited its own class was an eternal, natural, unchanging law; the fact that the liberal, vulgar economists used abstract illusions, that the historical romantics relied on brutal facts, that the one had a more idealistic appearance, the other a materialistic one, only came from the difference between the historical development of the classes in struggle. The bourgeoisie was still striving to become the ruling class, and thus painted its coming period of rule as the state of general happiness; the Junkers were the ruling class and had to be satisfied with romantically idealizing the relations of economic dependence on which their power rested.

Lavergne-Peguilhen’s statement too amounts to nothing more than such a glorification. He is simply trying to say: the feudal forms of society should be the basis for the whole of the social and state organization; the form of the state and the making of laws are to be derived from them; if they depart from them, then society becomes diseased. Lavergne-Peguilhen, in the exposition he derives from his proposition, makes no secret of his intentions. He differentiates between three forms of economic organization which follow each other and from now on “intermingle”: an economy based on force, a “shared” economy, and a money economy, which correspond to the state forms of despotism, aristocracy and monarchy; and the moral feelings of fear, love and egoism. What he calls the “shared” economy, the aristocracy, or, to call the thing by its right name, feudalism – is love. “The material exchange of mutual services”, writes Lavergne-Peguilhen, word for word, “is everywhere, the source of love and devotion.” But since history had the mistaken idea of obscuring these sources and of “mixing” the economic forms, so Lavergne-Peguilhen wants to “mix” the forms of the state, of course with “appropriate utilization”. The aristocracy is to rule in the “local government system”, “with the power that the richer and better educated members of the community have to exercise both as community legislators and as administrators over the great mass of their disenfranchised protégés in the community.” Alongside this a part of despotism is to remain, which “even in its most extreme form hardly destroys the social forces as much as the ‘tyranny of law’”; and also a part of monarchy, but without “self-interest”, and instead “encompassing all interests with the same love, from its sublime standpoint”. It becomes clear after this what Lavergne-Peguilhen is aiming at: the restoration of the rule of the feudal lords, and “the King absolute, if he carries out their will”. His work is already criticized in the Communist Manifesto, in its judgment of “feudal socialism”: which “... sometimes strikes the bourgeoisie in the heart, through bitter and witty judgment, which appears funny through its complete inability to understand the course of modern history.” Only the second part of this judgment of the German romantics is even more to the point than the first. Their defeat by the bourgeoisie had already taken place, and had sharpened the wits of the feudal socialists in France and England. This had given them a dim intimation that the “old phrases of the restoration period had become impossible”; while German and particularly Prussian feudalism was still happily in power and could, in opposition to the encroachments on its preserves of the Stein-Hardenberg legislation, which was in no sense decisive, inscribe on its banner a medieval feudalism disguised: in moralistic commonplaces but otherwise undiminished.

It is just this inability to understand, even in a superficial way any; economic form other than the feudal one which characterizes the historical romantic school, but because, in their narrow class interests, they sought to permeate every legal, state, religious or other relation on heaven and earth with this one economic form, so they occasionally hit upon phrases which from a distance sound like dialectical materialism, even though they in fact stand as far from it as: selfish class interest from scientific knowledge. Lavergne-Peguilhen stood in a similar relation to Marx and Engels as Gerlach and Stahl did to Lassalle twenty years later. In the Prussian Senate (Landratskammer) Gerlach has often enough upheld, in his own peculiar manner, Lassalle’s later constitutional theory against the liberal opposition. But Lassalle himself, in his System of Acquired Rights, had delivered the scientific coup de grâce to these last offshoots of historical romanticism.

This school thus has nothing to do with historical materialism – or, to stretch a point, it might have had to the extent that its blatant class ideology was part of the ferment through which Marx and Engels came to the materialistic theory of history.

But even this was not the case. Before I had been able to see the whole of his now justifiably forgotten work, I thought Lavergne-Peguilhen’s proposition striking enough to be worth sending to Engels with a query as to whether he or Marx had known the writers of the historical romantic school – Marwitz, Adam Mueller, Haller, Lavergne-Peguilhen, etc. – and been influenced by them. Engels had the great kindness to reply on September 28 [1892 – Ed.]:

I have Marwitz’s Inheritance myself and read the book through a few years ago but I discovered nothing in it except superb things about cavalry and an unshakeable belief in the miraculous power of five blows of the whip when administered by nobleman to plebeian. Otherwise I have remained an entire stranger to this literature since 1841-42 – I pay only the most superficial attention to it – and I certainly owe absolutely nothing to it in the field in question. Marx had acquainted himself in his Bonn and Berlin days with Adam Mueller and Herr von Haller’s Restauration, etc.; he spoke only with considerable contempt of this insipid, bombastic, verbose imitation of the French romanticists Joseph de Maistre and Cardinal Bonald. But even if he had come across passages like the one cited from Lavergne-Peguilhen they could not have made the slightest impression upon him at that time if he understood at all what those people wanted to say. Marx was then a Hegelian and that passage was pure heresy to him. He knew nothing whatever about political economy and could not have had any idea about the meaning of a term like Wirtschaftsform (economic form). Hence the passage in question, even if he had known it, would have gone in one ear and come out the other without leaving a perceptible trace in his memory. But I greatly doubt whether traces of such views could have been found in the works of the romantic historians which Marx read between 1837 and 1842.

The passage is of course exceedingly noteworthy but I would like to have the quotation verified. I do not know the book, but its author is familiar to me as an adherent of the “historical school”. The passage deviates in two points from the modern conception: 1) in deducing production and distribution from the form of economy instead of conversely deducing the form of economy from production; and 2) in the role which it assigns to the “appropriate utilization” of the form of economy, which one may take to mean anything conceivable until one learns from the book itself what the author has in mind.

However the most peculiar thing is that the correct conception of history is to be found in abstracto among the very people who have been distorting history most in concreto, theoretically as well as practically. These people might have seen in the case of feudalism how here the form of state evolves from the form of economy because things are clear and unconcealed here, as if so to speak lying on the palm of your hand. I say they “might have” because apart from the above unverified passage – you say yourself it was given to you – I have never been able to discover more about it than that evidently the theoreticians of feudalism are less abstract than the bourgeois liberals. If now one of these goes further and generalizes this conception of the interconnection between the spread of culture and the form of state on the one hand and the form of economy within feudal society on the other by extending it to all forms of economy and state, how explain after that s the total blindness of the same romanticist as soon as other forms of economy are at issue, for instance, the bourgeois form of economy and the forms of state corresponding to its various stages of development: medieval guild commune, absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, republic? It is hard to make this hang together. And the man who considers the form of economy to be the basis of the entire social and governmental organization belongs to a school to which the absolute monarchy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries already signifies the fall of man, a betrayal of the true doctrine of the state.

True it says moreover that the form of state is brought forth just as; inevitably by the form of economy and its appropriate utilization as the child is brought forth by the sexual union of man and woman. In consideration of the world-famed doctrine of the school to which the author belongs I can explain this only as follows: The true form of economy is the feudal one. But inasmuch as the malice of man conspires against it it must be “appropriately utilized” in such a way that its existence may be safe against these attacks and preserved for all eternity and that the “form of state”, etc.; may forever correspond to it, i.e., should be retrojected if at all possible to the thirteenth or fourteenth century. Then the best of worlds and the finest of historical theories would equally be realized and the Lavergne-Perguilhenian generalization would be reduced again to its true content: that feudal society begets a feudal political system. [7]

Thus wrote Engels. And as we verified the quotation according to his wishes, and dug up Lavergne-Peguilhen’s book to find the relationship explained above, we could only thank him for his informative explanation, that out of a single bone, he had correctly reconstructed the whole feudal mastodon.

We should now deal with two of the commonest objections that are associated with the name of historical materialism. Idealism and materialism are the opposing replies to the great basic philosophical question as to the relationship between thinking and being, the question whether mind or nature came first.

In and for themselves they have nothing at all to do with moral ideals. Such ideals can be cherished by the philosophical materialist to the highest and purest degree, while the philosophical idealist does not need to possess them in the least. But after the long years of anti-clericalism, the word materialism has had another meaning attached to it, insinuating immorality, arid frequently tending to creep into the works of bourgeois science.

By the word materialism, the philistine understands gluttony, drunkenness, lust of the eye, lust of the flesh, arrogance, cupidity, avarice, covetousness, profit hunting and stock exchange swindling- in short, all the filthy vices in which he himself indulges in private. By the word idealism, he understands the belief in virtue, universal philanthropy, and in general, a “better world” of which he boasts before others but in which he himself at the utmost believes only as long as he is undergoing the hangover or bankruptcy consequent upon his customary “materialist” excesses. It is then that he sings his favourite song, “What is man? – Half beast, half angel”. [8]

If one wants to use the words in this metaphorical sense, then it must be said that today the profession of historical materialism demands a high moral idealism, since it invariably brings with it poverty, persecution and slander, whereas every careerist makes historical idealism his cause, since it offers the richest expectations of all earthly goods, of happiness, of fat sinecures, of all possible decorations of merit, titles and honours. We are in no way saying that all idealist historians are motivated by sordid reasons, but we should be allowed to reject every immoral blemish which is attached to historical materialism, as a foolish and impudent aspersion

More easily understood, although equally a gross mistake, is the confusion between historical materialism and the materialism of the natural sciences. The latter overlooks the fact that man does not only live in nature, but also in society, that there is not only natural but also social science. Historical materialism encompasses the materialism of the natural sciences, but not the other way around. The materialism of the natural sciences sees man as a consciously acting creation of nature, but does not study how the consciousness of man is determined within human society. So when it ventures into the field of history, it turns into its sharpest opposite, into the most extreme idealism. It believes in the spiritual magic force of great men, who make history; we remember Buechner’s adulation of Friedrich II, and Haeckel’s idolizing of Bismarck, which was coupled with the most absurd hatred for socialists. It knows only about ideal driving forces within human society. A real pattern for this species is Hellwald’s History of Culture. Its author does not see that the religious reformation of the sixteenth century was only the ideological reflection of an economic movement, but rather: “The reformation had an extraordinary influence on the economic changes.” He does not notice that the requirements of trade led to standing armies and trade wars, but rather: “The growing search for peace was the cause of the standing armies and later indirectly caused new wars.” He does not understand the economic necessity for an absolute monarchy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but rather: “It must be stated that the despotism of Louis XIV, the regime of court minions and mistresses would never have been possible, if the people had used their veto against it, because in the last instance all the power lies with them.” [9]

And so on indefinitely. On almost every one of its 800 pages, Hellwald makes similar or even worse blunders. Faced with this kind; of “materialist” writing of history, the idealist historians have, of course, easy game. But they should not make historical materialism responsible for Hellwald and his comrades. The materialism of the natural sciences then arrives at the greatest illogicality through what appears to be the greatest logical consistency. In that it sees man only a consciously acting animal, it makes history into a senseless patchwork, of ideal motives and purposes; because it wrongly assumes consciously acting man to be an isolated creation of nature, it reaches the idealistic spectre of a history of humanity which rushes like a mad shadow dance through the material relations of eternal nature. Historical materialism instead starts from the scientific fact that man is not simply an isolated animal, but rather a social animal, that he reaches consciousness only in the community of social groupings (tribe, gens, class) and can live in it only as a conscious human being, so that the material basis of these groupings determines his ideal consciousness and their progressive development represents the driving forces of human history. [10]

So much for what has been grafted onto historical materialism, abusing its good name. This exhausts a large part of the objections which have been raised. As for an objective critique of the materialist conception of history – apart from an attempt which I am about to mention – bourgeois science has never carried this out. With what foolish talk the most “exemplary” representatives of this science seek to clamber over the uncomfortable impediment formed by their own idealizations and embellishments, intended to reassure bourgeois class consciousness! One can be convinced of this many times over in the lecture in which Mr. Adolf Wagner, the “foremost teacher of social economy at the best of the German universities”, further illumined the already enlightened men of the Protestant Social Congress in the year 1892. [11]

Although we do not in any way place all the representatives of bourgeois science on the same level as this professional sophist and sycophant, we have, despite years of observation of the criticism of historical materialism, discovered nothing in them apart from general phrases, which are less objective criticisms than moral reproaches. They say, more or less, that historical materialism is an arbitrary construction of history which squeezes the uncommonly manifold life of humanity into a bare formula: that it denies all ideal forces, that it makes humanity into a helpless plaything of a mechanical development, and that it rejects all moral standards.

Of all this precisely the opposite is true. Historical materialism finishes off every arbitrary construction of history; it eliminates all bare formulas, that try to treat the varied life of humanity all alike. “The materialist method turns into its opposite, if it is not used as the guide in historical studies, but rather as a finished pattern, to which one cuts historical events”. [12]

Thus Engels, and similarly Kautsky, protested against every attempt to make historical materialism superficial as if there were only ever two camps, two classes in mutual conflict, homogeneous masses, the revolutionary and the reactionary mass. “If this was in fact the case, then the writing of history would be quite an easy thing. But in reality, the relations are not so easy. Society is and will become even more, an incredibly complicated organism, with the most different classes and the most different class interests, which according to the form of things, can group themselves in the most different of parties.” [13]

Historical materialism approaches every section of history without any preconceptions; it simply examines it from its basis to its highest point, starting from its economic structure, rising to its spiritual conceptions.

But, it is said, this is precisely the “arbitrary historical construction”. How do you know that economics is the basis of historical development, instead of philosophy? Now, we know it from this, that men must be able to eat, drink, live and must clothe themselves first before they can think and write poetry, that man only reaches consciousness through his social relations with other men, and that accordingly, his consciousness is determined through his social being, and not the reverse, his social being through his consciousness. Precisely the assumption that men only come to eat, drink and live from thought, that they only come to economics from philosophy, is precisely the most obviously “arbitrary” assumption, and accordingly historical idealism leads to the most astounding “historical constructions”. Even stranger – or perhaps not so strange – the modern epigones of historical idealism admit this in a certain sense in that they never tire of making fun of the “historical constructions” of its greatest representative, that is Hegel. But it is not the “historical construction” of Hegel, in which they outdo him a thousand times, that annoys them, but rather Hegel’s scientific conception of history as a process of human development, whose gradual climb through all detours and confused paths must be followed, and whose inner laws must be proved through all apparent contingencies. This great thought, the most mature fruit of our classical philosophy, the rebirth of the old Greek dialectic, was taken over by Marx and Engels from Hegel: “We German socialists are proud of the fact that we come from not only Saint Simon, Fourier and Owen, but also from Kant and Hegel.” [14] But they recognized that Hegel, despite many brilliant glimpses into the course of historical development, arrived only at “arbitrary constructions of history”, because he took the effect to be the cause, things, to be the reflections of ideas, and not, as it really is, ideas the reflections of things.

For Hegel, this conception was very natural, since the bourgeois classes in Germany had in no way achieved a real life of their own; they, had to flee into the ethereal heights of ideas, in order to secure an independent existence, and here they fought out their revolutionary battles in forms which were unobjectionable to the absolutist-feudal reaction, or only as slightly irritating as possible. Hegel’s dialectical method, which presents the whole natural, historical and spiritual world as a process, caught in constant movement and development, and attempts to prove the inner relations of this movement and development, finishes nevertheless with a system, which discovered the absolute idea in the estate monarchy, an idealism in the blue Hussars, a necessary condition in the feudal lords, a deep meaning in original sin, a category in the crown princes, and so on.

But as soon as a new class arose out of the German bourgeoisie in the course of economic development and entered into the class struggle, that is the proletariat, then it was natural that this new class tried to fight once again with its feet on the ground, and that it accordingly approached its maternal inheritance with some reservation, taking the revolutionary content from bourgeois philosophy, but discarding its reactionary form. We have already seen that the spiritual pioneers of the proletariat placed Hegel’s dialectic on its feet, instead of leaving it standing on its head. “To Hegel, the thought process of the human brain:, which under the name of ‘The Idea’ he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demi-urge of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ‘The Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and translated into forms of thought.” [15] But in this Hegel was also finished as far as the bourgeois world was concerned which had been able to happily forget the revolutionary content of his dialectic thanks to its reactionary form. “In its mystified form the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and an abomination to bourgeoisdom and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature no less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose on it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.” And Hegel has in fact become a vexation and abomination for the German bourgeoisie not because of his weakness, but rather because of his strength, not because of his “arbitrary historical constructions”, but because of his dialectical method. Because only the latter dances the dance of death for the bourgeoisie, but not the former.

Consequently, they had to make a clean sweep with all of Hegel, and the foremost philosopher of the German petty-bourgeoisie also drew this conclusion. Schopenhauer rejected the whole of the “charlatan” Hegel; above all he rejected Hegel’s philosophy of history. He did not see any progressive process of development in the history of humanity; he only saw in it a history of individuals; the German petty-bourgeois, whose prophet he was, is the same person he was from the very beginning and will be in the future. Schopenhauer’s philosophy reached its highest point in the “insight, that at all times, the same was, is and will be.” He writes: “History shows on all sides, only the same thing, except in different forms: the chapters of the history of humanity are basically only different in name and the dates; the really essential content is the same everywhere ... the material of history is the individual in his solitude and fortuitousness, what always is, and then is not, forevermore, the fleeting intertwining like clouds in the wind of moving humanity, which so often can be transformed completely, through the slightest chance.” So closely comes Schopenhauer’s philosophical idealism to mechanical materialism in its conception of history. In fact they are opposite poles of the same narrow outlook. And when Schopenhauer said grimly of the materialism of the natural sciences: “These gentlemen of the crucible must be taught that simple chemistry makes one capable of being a chemist but not a philosopher”, so he should be taught that, simple philosophizing makes one capable of sneaking about, but not of historical investigation. However Schopenhauer was consistent in his own fashion, and as soon as he had thrown away Hegel’s dialectical method, then he had to throw away Hegel’s historical constructions with it.

In the meantime, the more the German petty bourgeoisie developed: into a large industrial bourgeoisie, the more this bourgeoisie in the class struggle abjured its own ideals, and plunged back into the; shadows of feudal absolutism, the more grew their need to prove the historical reason for this peculiar crablike progress. And since Hegel’s dialectic had to be a vexation and an abomination to them for the reasons that Marx mentions, so they were left only with Hegel’s historical constructions. Their historians discovered the absolute idea in the German Reich, an ideal in militarism, a deep significance in the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, a necessary condition in the bank rate, a category in the Hohenzollern dynasty and so on. And in its stupid crafty shopkeepers’ way, the bourgeoisie claims to realize bourgeois idealism, while they throw accusations, of “arbitrary historical construction” at the real saviour of what was meaningful and great in their idealism. So the Gracchi bewail the tumult once again, and what kind of Gracchi they are!




1. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of the Classical German Philosophy, Marx/Engels: Selected Works, p.614 [One-volume edition, Lawrence and Wishart, 1968, hereafter MESW]

2. To be just we must point out explicitly that a few bourgeois historical researchers are trying to adopt a less biased attitude towards the materialist theory of history. Thus the Jahresberichte der Geschichtswissenschaft (Annals of Historical Science) published by Jastrow register the second volume of Capital as a very important work particularly for the historical science, and in the Historische Zeitschrift, No. 68, p.450, Paul Hinneberg says in a critique “that works like Morgan’s Ancient Society and Bachofen’s Mutterrecht are audibly knocking at the gates of science”. To this, however, the editor, Herr Max Lehmann, Professor of History at Leipzig, adds the witty note: “We regret that here and there a colleague is listening to this knocking; we, that is to say, leave Herr Morgan outside. Let him provide Herren Engels and Bebel with the portion of alleged knowledge they think indispensable to give their theories some foundation”. That is, as far as we can see, the only mention of historical materialism in the more than seventy volumes of the Historische Zeitschrift, the chief organ of bourgeois historical science! [Note by Mehring]

3. Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, MESW, p.182.

4. Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto, MESW, pp.35-36.

5. MESW, p.429.

6. Lavergne-Peghuilen, Die Bewegungs- und Produktionsgesetze, p.225

7. Engels to Mehring, September 1892. Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence, pp.449-450.

8. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, MESW, pp.600-601.

9. Hellwald, Kulturgeschichte in ihrer natürlichen Entwicklung, p.688, 689f.

10. Bourgeois sociologists such as Herbert Spencer claim in all seriousness, as we know, that man is indeed an isolated creation of nature. They speak of his “individual activity in his primitive condition”. But what we have here is only a Darwinistically embellished re-issue of the doctrine of the Social Contract, which in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the ideologists of the rising bourgeoisie from Hobbes to Rousseau transferred from the rise of the modern state out of the treaties concluded between the Princes and the towns to subdue feudal anarchy, to the rise of human society. On this see Kautsky, Die sozialen Triebe in der Menschenwelt, Neue Zeit, 2nd Year, p.13ff. [Note by Mehring].

11. Adolf Wagner, Das neue sozialdemokratische Programm, p.9f. We have taken the liberty of dissecting Herr Wagner’s nonsense a little in Neue Zeit, 10th Year, vol. 2, p.577ff. [Note by Mehring].

12. Vorwärts, October 5, 1890.

13. Kautsky, Die Klassengegensätze von 1789.

14. Engels, Preface to the German Edition of Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.

15. Marx, Capital, Afterword to the Second German Edition, Moscow, 1961, p.29.


Last updated on 15.2.2004