Franz Mehring

On Historical Materialism

(Part II)

Let us glance once again at the accusations and objections which have been made against historical materialism: that it denies all ideal forces, that it makes humanity the helpless plaything of a mechanical development, that it rejects all moral standards.

Historical materialism is no closed system crowned by an ultimate truth; it is the scientific method for the investigation of processes of human development. It starts from the unchallengeable fact, that. human beings do not only live in nature but also in society. There have never been people in isolation; every man who accidentally loses contact with human society, quickly starves and dies. But historical materialism thus recognizes all ideal forces in the widest context. “Of everything that happens in nature, nothing happens as a desired, conscious purpose. On the other hand, in the history of society, the participants are nothing but human beings endowed with consciousness, acting with thought and passion, working for specific purposes; nothing happens without a conscious intention, without a planned goal ... Will is determined through thought or passion. But the levers which in turn determined the passion or the thought are of very different kinds. They can be outside objects or ideal motives, greed, ‘enthusiasm for truth and justice’, personal hatred or just individual peculiarities of all kinds” (Engels). This is the essential difference between the history of the development of nature on the one hand and of society on the other. But apparently all the innumerable conflicts of individual actions and wills in history only lead to the same result as the unconscious, blind agencies in nature. On the surface of history accident seems to reign as much as on the surface of nature. “Only rarely does what is desired take place; in most cases, the desired aims cut across each other, and come into conflict, or these aims are from the beginning impossible or lacking in means.” But when, through the interplay of all the blind accidents which appear to dominate in unconscious nature, a general law of movement nevertheless imposes itself – only then does the question arise whether the thoughts and desires of consciously acting human beings are also dominated by such a law.

And the law is to be found, if one searches for it, through which the ideal driving forces of human beings are set into motion. A human being can only reach consciousness in a social relationship, thinking and acting with consciousness; the social grouping of which he is part awakens and directs his spiritual forces. The basis of all social community, however, is the form of production of material life, and this determining also in the last analysis the spiritual life process, in its manifold reflections. Historical materialism, far from denying the ideal forces, studies them down to their very basis, so that it can achieve the necessary clarity about where the power of ideas is drawn from. Human beings make their own history, certainly, but how they make history, this is dependent in each case upon how clear or unclear they are in their heads about the material connections between things. Ideas do not arise out of nothing, but are the product of the social process of production, and the more accurately an idea reflects this process, the more powerful it is. The human spirit does not stand above, but within the historical development of human society; it has grown out of, in and with material production. Only since this production has begun to develop out of a highly variegated bustle into simple and great contradictions, has it been able to recognize the whole relationship; and only after these latter contradictions have died or been overcome, will it win domination over social production, and will the “prehistory of man come to an end” (Marx); and then “men will make their own history with full consciousness, and the leap of man from the realm of necessity into that of freedom” will take place (Engels). [16]

For that reason, however, the previous development of society is not a dead mechanism in which man has served as a helpless pawn. The greater part of its total life each generation had to devote to the satisfaction of all its needs, the more dependent, that is, it remained upon nature, the smaller was the scope of its spiritual development. But this scope grew in the same measure as human beings acquired skills and accumulated experience, enabling them to dominate nature. The human mind acquired more and more mastery over the dead mechanism of nature, and the progressive development of the human race proceeded and proceeds through the mastery of man’s mind over the process of production. “The whole question of the domination of men over their environment” depended on their skill in producing their livelihood. “Mankind are the only beings who may be said to have gained an absolute control over the production of food which at the outset they did not possess above other animals .... It is accordingly probable that the great epochs of human progress have been identified, more or less directly, with the enlargement of the sources of subsistence.” [17] If we follow Morgan’s classification of human pre-history, then the first step from savagery is marked by the cultivation of articulated speech, the second by the use of fire, the third by the discovery of the bow and arrow, which already forms a very complex tool, and presupposes a long accumulated experience, and sharpened powers of the mind, that is a simultaneous knowledge of a whole number of other discoveries. On this latter stage of primitive man a certain control over production through the human mind is already to be found; wooden containers and tools, baskets plaited out of bark and reeds, sharpened stone tools and so on, were known.

According to Morgan, barbarism began with the introduction of pottery, which marks its lowest stage. The middle stage was brought in by the taming of livestock, the cultivation of plants for food and their irrigation, the use of stones and bricks in building. The highest stage of barbarism finally begins with the smelting of iron ore; at this stage the production of material life reaches an extraordinarily rich development; to it belong the Greeks of the age of Heroes, the Italian tribes shortly before the foundation of Rome, the Germans of Tacitus. This age saw the bellows, the clay oven, the smithy, the iron axe, the iron spade and sword, the copper-tipped spear, the embossed shield, the quern, the potter’s wheel, the cart and the chariot, the building of ships with logs and beams, cities with stone walls and gables, with gates and towers, and marble temples. An attractive picture of the progress reached by the highest stage of barbarism is given us by the Homeric poems, which themselves are a classical witness to the spiritual life which grew out of these means of production. So humanity is not the helpless plaything of a dead mechanism, but its development consists precisely in the growing power of the human mind over the dead mechanism of nature. But – and this is only said by historical materialism – the human spirit develops from, with and out of the material mode of production. The human mind is not the father of the mode of production, but the mode of production is the mother of the human mind. And this relation appears with the most striking clarity in the prehistory of mankind.

The invention of the alphabet and its use for literary purposes marks the transition from barbarism to civilization. The written history of humanity begins, and in it the spiritual life appears to separate itself completely from its economic basis. But the appearance is deceptive. With civilization, with the dissolution of the gentile system, with the rise of the family, private property and the state, with the progressive division of labour, with the division of society into rulers and ruled, into oppressed and oppressor classes, the dependence of the spiritual on the economic development becomes infinitely less transparent and more complicated, but it does not end. The “last reason by which the class differences are defended: that there must be a class which does not have to toil at the production of its daily means of living, so that it has time to take care of the spiritual work of society, has previously had its wider historical justification” (Engels) – previously, that is up to the industrial revolution of the last hundred years, which makes every ruling class a fetter on the development of the productive forces – but the division of society into classes grew solely out of economic development and thus the spiritual work of no class could separate itself from the economic basis to which it owed its origins. The depth of the fall from the simple moral heights of the old gentile society to the new society, which was dominated by the lowest interests, and was never anything other than the development of the small minority at the expense of the exploited and oppressed vast majority, was matched by the enormity of the spiritual development from the gens, which was still attached to the umbilical cord of natural social being, to modern society with its immense productive forces. [18]

As great as this progress was, as fine, precise and strong an instrument as the human mind became, being more and more able to bring nature irresistibly under control, its central motive forces still remained the economic struggle of different classes, the “existing struggles between social productive forces, and productive relationships”; and so mankind only posed for itself such tasks as it could solve. Looked at more closely, as Marx explains, it will be found that the task only arises where the material conditions for its solution are already in existence, or at least in the process of becoming.

This connection is most easily recognized, when one traces back to their origins the great discoveries and inventions which have sprung from creative human minds – according to the ideological conception of both historical idealism and the materialism of the natural sciences – like Athena from the head of Zeus, and thus are supposed to have called forth the greatest economic upheavals. Each of these discoveries and inventions has a long pre-history. [19]

If one follows the individual stages of this pre-history, so one will discover everywhere the need which brought them about. There were good reasons why the origins of some of the most important discoveries, such as the discovery of gunpowder, and the art of book printing, which have “changed the face of the earth”, are shrouded in legend. They are not the work of individuals drawing inspiration from the mysterious depths of their genius. Even if individuals have greater responsibilities for them, it was only because these individuals recognized most sharply and deeply the economic necessity and the means for its satisfaction. It is not the discovery or the invention that caused the historical upheaval, but the social upheaval that brought about the discovery or the invention, and only when social upheaval has brought about a discovery or an invention does this become a world-shaking event. America had been discovered a long time before Columbus; already in the year 1,000, Norsemen had reached the North East coast of America, and had reached as far as the area of the present-day United States, but the discovered lands were quickly forgotten and lost from memory. Only when the beginning of capitalist development called forth the need for precious metals, new labour, and new markets, did the discovery of America mean an economic revolution. And it is well known that Columbus did not want to discover a new world out of the obscure urges of his genius, but was seeking the shortest way to the legendary treasures of the ancient culture of India.

On the day after the discovery of the first island, he wrote in his diary: “These well-behaved people would make quite useful slaves” and his daily prayer went as follows: “May the Lord in his mercy let me find the gold mines!” The “Lord of Mercy” was the ideology of the time; today it is the admittedly much more hypocritical ideology of bringing “humanity and civilization into the dark parts of the world.”

The proverbially sad fate of precisely the most inspired discoverer is not a proof of human ingratitude, as the ideological conception in its superficial manner asserts, but is rather an easily explained result of the fact that the discovery does not create the economic upheaval but rather the other way around. Sharp and farseeing minds recognize the task and its solution, where material conditions of its solution are still immature, and the existing social formation has not developed all the productive forces which are necessary for it. It is a notable fact, that precisely the discoveries which more than any previous ones have contributed towards extending human productive forces beyond all limits, have been fatal to the discoverers, and in fact disappeared more or less without a trace for centuries. In Danzig in 1529 Anton Müller discovered the so-called ribbon-loom (also called a small-wares loom), which produced from four to six pieces of cloth at the same time, but, since the City Council was afraid that this discovery could make paupers of a large number of the workers, they suppressed it, and had the inventor secretly drowned or strangled. In Leyden the same machine was used in 1629, but the lacemakers’ riots forced the authorities to ban it. In Germany, it was banned by Imperial Edicts in 1685 and in 1719. In Hamburg it was burned in public on the instructions of the magistrates. “This machine, which shook Europe to its foundations, was in fact the precursor of the mule and the power loom, and of the industrial revolution of the 18th century.” [20] Hardly less tragic than the fate of Anton Müller was that of Denis Papin, who tried to construct a steam engine for industrial purposes while Professor of Mathematics in Marburg. Discouraged by the general opposition, he abandoned his machinery and built a steam boat in, which he steamed off from Kassel to England down the Fulda in 1707. But in Minden the great wisdom of the authorities stopped his journey, and the Weser watermen smashed up the steam boat. Papin later died in England poor and deserted. Now it is clear that the discovery of the ribbon loom in the year 1529, by Anton Müller, or the discovery of the steam boat in 1707 by Denis Papin, were incomparably greater achievements of the human mind than James Hargreaves’ invention of the jenny in 1764 and Fulton’s invention of the steam boat in 1807. The fact that, despite this, the former failed and the latter was such a world-shaking success, is proof of the fact that economic development is the motive force for inventions and not vice-versa; that the human mind is not the originator but the executor of revolution in society.

Let us dwell for a moment on the invention of the art of printing and gunpowder, which have been the most exploited for strange mental gymnastics of historical idealism. As the trade in goods and the production of commodities developed in the Middle Ages, an infinite acceleration took place in the trade in ideas, which for its satisfaction required the mass production of literature. Thus it led to wood block prints, the production of books which were reproduced by printing off engraved plates. This so-called “block” print had already increased so much at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it was the occasion for the formation of regular guilds, the most important of which were in Cologne, Augsburg, Nuremburg, Mainz and Lübeck. But the wooden block printers generally entered into a guild with the painters, not with the book-printers who followed, alongside whom they co-existed for a whole period for the reproduction of shorter writings. The printing of books did not arise out of letter printing, but out of metal handicrafts. It was a small step to cut up the wooden printing plates into separate letters and through any composition one desired to make the reproduction of books enormously quicker. But all these attempts failed through the technical impossibility of achieving even lines with wooden letter-types. The next step was to cut the letters in metal, but even this did not meet with any decisive success both because the cutting of the metal types by hand required too much time, and because the unevenness of the letters was reduced but by no means ended. Both difficult conditions were solved only through the casting of metal type; and the use of hot lead is in fact the discovery of the art of book printing, the art of forming words, lines, sentences, and pages out of single moveable letters, and then their reproduction through printing. Gutenberg was a goldsmith, and so was Bernardo Gennini, who is said to have discovered the art of printing in Florence at the same time. The bitter and wearisome fight over the real discoverer of printing will never be decided, because everywhere that economic development posed the problem, the attempt to solve it was made with greater or less success. If one can assume that Gutenberg made the last, most decisive step with the greatest definitiveness and clarity, that is with the greatest success, so that the new art spread the quickest from Mainz, it was because he was the one who best understood how to draw the results of a host of experiences out of the partial or total failure of his predecessors. His contribution remains immortal and his invention an admirable achievement of the human mind, but he planted no new root in the earth; rather he plucked a slowly ripened fruit.

The proverb that makes the invention of gunpowder the touchstone of human inventiveness is not so wrong after all; but it was precisely in relation to this discovery that the historical conceptions of both philosophical idealism and mechanical materialism suffered the most lamentable shipwrecks. Professor Kraus thinks that gunpowder did away with brute force and bondage, that it broke the power of the individual in favour of the general being, and that “the immense majority of us” owe it to this invention that we all act and move as free men and not as bondsmen of the soil. And Professor Dubois-Reymond explains, in detail, that the Romans would have repelled all attacks from the Germani, from the Cimbri and the Teutones and even the Goths and Vandals with ease, if they had known about flintlocks. As usual, mechanical materialism goes even beyond philosophical idealism in its conceited schoolmaster’s outlook. “The backwardness of the ancients in science was disastrous for all mankind”, writes Dubois-Reymond. “This is one of the most important reasons for the failure of the old culture. The greatest misfortune which ever hit mankind, the invasion of the Mediterranean by the barbarians, probably could have been avoided, if the ancients had assessed the scientific knowledge we do today.” It is a pity M. Dubois-Reymond was not an ancient Roman, but then again perhaps it is as well. Because his very own philosophy of history proves that if, instead of being commander of the regiment of the Hohenzollerns’ spiritual body-guards in the year 1870, he had been commander of a Roman legion at the time of the Punic wars, he would have been no more likely to have discovered gunpowder. In fact a bourgeois historian, Professor Delbrück, has opposed the fantastic hypothesis of Kraus and Dubois-Reymond. Delbrück is far from being a historical materialist, but he realizes that, for something to be invented, a continuous need has to be felt throughout several generations, indeed centuries; that one discovery is no more to be separated from the requirements of its time than a human being can be born without a mother; and that the assumption that any discovery could have been made at another time and caused another development of history is an empty fantasy game. In this respect, he has every right to consider his own conception scientific as opposed to the “intellectual” games of Kraus and Dubois-Reymond. And he is especially right that the discovery, or rather the use of gunpowder, was not the cause but rather the lever of the fall of feudalism – moreover, a weak and basically non-essential lever; whether Delbrück goes too far in this direction in our opinion is not so important in this context. [21]

An economic upheaval brought about the dissolution of feudalism and no part of the political superstructure of the material mode of production changes so clearly and quickly as the army. Bourgeois history has become quite clear about this, particularly as regards the Prussian military state. Gustav Freytag, who would like to spin out German history from the “German soul”, but who, through his special subject, the social life of ordinary people, is forced continually to admit historical materialism, writes as follows:

The Frankish territorial forces of the Merovingians, the army of the age of lance-bearing knights, the Swiss and the hired lansquenets of the Reformation, the mercenaries of the Thirty Years War, were each the most characteristic formations of their time, growing out of the social conditions and changing with them. Thus the yeomanry of the landowners was rooted in the ancient order of parish and district; the huge armies of knights in the feudal order, and the hired lansquenets in the rise to prosperity of the burgesses, while the companies of travelling mercenaries were based on the growth of the territorial domination of the princes. They were followed by the standing armies of the despotic states of the eighteenth century with their trained mercenaries. [22]

The spear was only finally replaced by firearms in this “standing army of trained mercenaries” in the days of Louis XIV and Prince Eugene, in an infantry which was more or less forcefully press-ganged out of the dregs of the nation, and which had to be held together by force. It was thus deprived of any aggressive initiative and could only be used as a shooting machine. Such a mercenary infantry was in every way the exact opposite of the yeomanry which had brought about the first decisive defeats of the feudal knights’ armies in the fourteenth century at Morgarten and Sempach. This yeomanry fought with spears, and even with the most primitive weapons of the forest, such as catapults, but it drew its terrible striking power, which was unbeaten by the knights, from its old mark brotherhood principle, all for one and one for all. [23] This simple contrast alone gives the lie to the assumption that the discovery of gunpowder caused the fall of feudalism. Feudalism fell through the growth of the cities, and the monarchy which was based the cities.

The agricultural economy succumbed to the money and industrial economy, and so the feudal lords had to subordinate themselves to the cities and the princes. The new economic powers created the forms of war which corresponded to their economic forms; with their money they recruited armies from the proletariat, which were thrown onto the roads by the dissolution of feudalism; with their industry they made weapons, which were as superior to the feudal weapons as the capitalist form of production was to the feudal. Then they discovered – not gunpowder, since this reached Western Europe from the Arabs at the beginning of the fourteenth century – but gunpowder-firing. With firearms the superiority of the bourgeois over the feudal weapons was definitively established. The castle walls could no more withstand cannon balls than the armour of the knights could withstand musket bullets. But the art of shooting was not discovered in a day either. As always, here economic necessity was the mother of invention and the break-up of feudalism was so swift, the power of the towns, cities and princes grew so swiftly, that the inventive power of the human mind was not much aroused to improve the, at first, very awkward firearms, which were hardly an improvement over the crossbow and longbow. And why should it when the knights’ armies were beaten even in places where they had superior firepower, as with grandson and Murten? And so the development of these weapons succeeded very slowly. We have already seen how late a suitable weapon was developed – with the flintlock – for the arming of the entire infantry. And this gun was possible only at a certain stage of capitalist development; it was the only weapon with which princely absolutism could fight out its trade wars on the basis of the standing army, with strategy and tactics dictated by the economic foundations. But if anyone were to lament the slow development of this spirit of discovery in previous centuries, then they should comfort themselves with a glance at our century, and derive the pleasing certainty that the human mind in reality is infinitely creative in the invention of lethal weapons, with economic development, in this case the uncontrolled movement of competition under monopoly capitalism, whipping it on, so to speak, from behind.

Historical materialism does not then claim that humanity is a helpless plaything of a dead mechanism; it does not deny the power of the idea. On the contrary, it is in agreement with Schiller, from whom the German cultural philistine chiefly draws his “idealism”, that the higher the human spirit develops,

The more beautiful the riddles emerging from the night
The richer is the world that it contains
And broader streams the sea with which it flows
And weaker yet the sightless power of fate.

Only historical materialism demonstrates the law of this development of thought, and finds the root of this law in that which first made man into man, the production and reproduction of immediate life. That beggarly pride which once decried Darwinism as the “theory of the apes” may struggle against this, and find solace in the thought that the human spirit flickers like an unfathomable will-o’-the-wisp, and with Godlike creative powers fashions a new world out of nothing. This superstition was dealt with by Lessing, both in his mockery of the “bald ability to act now in one way, now in another, under exactly the same circumstances”, and also through his wise words:

The pot of iron
Likes to be lifted with silver tongs
From the flame, the easier to think itself
A pot of silver.

We can deal more briefly with the accusation that historical materialism denies all moral standards. It is certainly not the task of the history researcher to use moral standards. He should tell us how things were on the basis of an objective scientific investigation. We do not demand to know what he thinks about them according to his subjective moral outlook. “Moral standards” are caught up, involved in a continuous transformation, and for the living generation to impose on former generations its changing standards of today, is like measuring the geological strata against the flying sand of the dunes. Schlosser, Gervinus and Ranke, and Janssen – each of them has a different moral standard, each has his own class morals, and even more faithfully than the times they depict, they reflect in their works the classes they speak for. And it goes without saying that it would be no different if a proletarian writer of history were to make rash criticisms of former times from the moral standpoint of his class today.

In this respect historical materialism denies all moral standards – but in this respect alone. It bans them from the study of history because they make all scientific study of history impossible.

But if the accusation means that historical materialism denies the role of moral driving forces in history, then let us repeat: the, precise opposite is true. It does not deny them at all, but rather for the first time makes it possible to recognize them. In the “material, scientifically determinable upheaval of the economic conditions of production” it has the only certain yardstick for investigating the sometimes slower, sometimes faster changes in moral outlook. These too are in the last analysis the product of the form of production, and thus Marx opposed the Nibelungen tales of Richard Wagner, who tried in the modern manner to make his love stories more piquant by means of a little incest, with the fitting words: “In remote antiquity the sister was the wife and that was moral.” Just as thoroughly as it clears up the question of the great men who are supposed to have made history, historical materialism also deals with the images of historical characters that come and go in history according to their favour and disfavour in the eyes of different parties. It is able to do every historical personality justice, because it knows how to recognize the driving forces which have determined their deeds and omissions, and it can sketch in the fine shadings which cannot be attained by the coarser “moral standards” of the ideological writing of history.

Take Kautsky’s excellent writings on Thomas More. Thomas More is a real thorn in the flesh for the ideological historians. He was an early fighter for the bourgeois class, a well educated and free thinking man, learned humanist, and the first pioneer of modern socialism. But he was also the minister of a tyrannical prince, an opponent of Luther, and a persecutor of heretics; he was a martyr on behalf of the Papacy, and he is today a semi-official saint of the Catholic Church, and may yet be canonized. What can ideological writers of history do with a character such as this, whether they derive their “moral standards” from Rome or Berlin? They can idealize him or run him down, or half idealize him, half run him down, but for all their “moral yardsticks” they can never find the key to the historical understanding of the man. Kautsky, on the other hand, has performed this task brilliantly on behalf of historical materialism. He has shown that Thomas More was a whole man and that all the apparent contradictions of his character were indissolubly connected. There is infinitely more to be learned about the moral forces of the Reformation period from Kautsky’s thin volume than from everything that Ranke wrote in five volumes or Janssen wrote in six thick ones, with their diametrically opposed “moral standards” about the same period of history. That is why Kautsky’s writings have been surrounded by a veil of silence. For this is what the “moral standards” of the bourgeois historical science of today demand.




16. Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, MESW, p.182, and Engels, Socialism Utopian and Scientific, MESW, p.426.

17. Lewis H. Morgan, Ancient Society, Part 1 Chapter 2.

18. Engels, The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State, IX. Barbarism and Civilization, MESW, pp.566-83.

19. Morgan writes: “The phonetic alphabet came, like other great inventions, at the end of successive efforts”. (Note to Part 1, Chapter 3 of Ancient Society.). See also Karl Marx, Capital, note on p.372: “A critical history of technology would show how little any of the inventions of the eighteenth century are the work of a single individual”. [Note by Mehring].

20. Marx, Capital, vol.1, p.428.

21. Delbrück, Historische und politische Aufsätze, p.339ff.

22. Gustav Freytag, Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit.

23. On this see the splendid books by Karl Bürkli, Der Wahre Winkelried, die Taktik der Urschweizer, and Der Ursprung der Eidgenossenschaft aus der Markgenossenschaft and die Schlacht am Morgarten. [Note by Mehring).


Last updated on 16.8.2004