Franz Mehring

Concerning Historical Materialism


From The New International, Vol. VII No. 5 (Whole No. 54), June 1941, pp. 120–6.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following selection is taken from an essay by Franz Mehring which appeared as an introduction to the “Lessing Legend”, German edition of 1895, in the book series, International Bibliothek – Dietz Verlag. The essay treats of the philosophical disputes of the time and while parts of the writing seems obsolete in our generation, the whole of it is very timely. Additional selections from this essay, a work which has not heretofore appeared in the English language, will appear in forthcoming issues of The New International.)


THE bourgeois world today is really as much opposed to historical materialism as, a generation ago, it was opposed to Darwinism and a half generation ago to socialism. It slanders without understanding it. It has gradually and toilsomely enough admitted (kapiert) that Darwinism is something different from an “ape theory,” and that socialism wishes something different from a “division of the wealth,” or “laying a predatory hand upon the fruits of a thousand years of culture.” But historical materialism is still adequate for the purpose of being overwhelmed with foolish and cheap phrases, phrases, perhaps, of this kind: “that it is a phantasy invented by a pair of talented demagogues.”

Actually – and naturally – the materialistic investigation of history is subject to the same dynamic laws of history, which it itself erects. It is a product of historical development; it could not have been imagined by the most gifted geniuses of any earlier age. Only at a certain stage of development could the history of mankind reveal its mystery.

“While the discovery of the impelling forces of history was entirely impossible in all previous periods, because of complicated and secret interconnections with their effects, our present period has so far simplified these interrelations that the problem can be solved. Since the establishment of large-scale industry, thus at least, since the European peace of 1815, it has no longer been a mystery to anyone in England that there the entire political struggle for hegemony has revolved around two classes, the landed aristocracy and the bourgeoisie. In France the same fact has become visible with the return of the Bourbons; the historians of the Restoration, from Thierry to Guizot, Mignet and riders have declared it to be, above all, the key to an understanding of French history since the Middle Ages. And since 1830, the working class, the proletariat, has been recognized as the third competitor for hegemony in both countries. Relations have been so simplified that one would have to close his eyes, in order not to see in the struggle of the three great classes and in the conflict of their interests, the driving force of modern history, at least in the two most advanced countries.”

So speaks Engels concerning that climactic period of history which first awakened in Marx and himself an understanding of the conception of historical materialism. How this conception was further developed may be gleaned from Engels himself. (Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classic German Philosophy)

What Marx and Engels Did

The life work of Marx and Engels rests throughout upon historical materialism; upon this foundation were built all their writings. It is simply a lie of bourgeois pseudo-science to make it appear as if both men had only here and there made a little excursion into the science of history in order to establish a theory of history nursed by them since childhood. Kapital, as Kautsky has already particularly emphasized, is, in the first place, an historical work, and especially, with reference to its historical material, is it comparable to a treasure mine in great part still untouched. Likewise must one say that the works of Engels are incomparably richer in content than extent; that they contain infinitely more historical material than the academic wisdom of the school could possibly dream of, a school which discovers, perhaps, a pair of sentences, uncomprehended, or intentionally misunderstood by the superficial, and then gives itself over to wondering if it has not discovered a “contradiction” or something of the sort.

It would be a very worthwhile task systematically to gather together the totality of historical insights which are scattered through the writings of Marx and Engels. And certainly, this task ought to be once and for all discharged. But at this stage we will have to be satisfied with a general indication of what ought to be done, for here the only point is to unfold the most essential principles of historical materialism. And this must be done more negatively than positively, namely, by refuting the customary objections which have been raised against it.

In a manner as brief as it is convincing Karl Marx has extracted the substance of historical materialism in the preface to his work, Zur Kritik der Politischen Ökonomie, which appeared in 1859. There he says:

“The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, served as the leading thread in my studies, may be briefly summarized as follows: In the social production of life, men enter into definite relations which are indispensable and independent of their wills; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of the development of their material powers of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society – the real basis on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of the material life determines the general character of the social, political and spiritual processes of life. It is not the consciousness of men which determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production come into conflict with existing productive relations or – what is only the legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations, within which these forces had previously worked. From forms of development of the productive forces, these relations turn into their fetters. Then follows a period of social evolution. With the change in the economic foundation, the entire immense superstructure is transformed more or less rapidly. In considering such a transformation one must always distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be established with scientific exactness, and the juristic, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as an individual cannot be judged in terms of what he imagines himself to be, so such a period of transformation cannot be judged by its own consciousness. On the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order ever disappears before all the forces of production, for which there exist sufficient room, are developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear in its place, before the material conditions for their existence have been matured in the womb of the old society. That is why mankind always concerns itself with only those problems which it can solve, for on more careful consideration, one would always find that the problems emerge only where the material conditions of their solutions already exist, or at least are in the process of being formed. In broad outlines, the Asiatic, antique, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production, antagonistic, not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of an antagonism growing out of the social conditions of life for individuals. However, the forces of production developing in the womb of bourgeois society are creating, at the same time, the material conditions for the solution of this antagonism. The primitive history of human society will conclude with this social formation.”

The Communist Manifesto

In these few words is stated the law of motion of human history in its transparent depth and with exhaustive clarity, the equal of which must be sought through all literature. And one must really be a university lecturer in philosophy, in the excellent town of Leipzig, in order to find in them with Mr. Paul Earth “undefined terms and pictures,” formulations of social states and dynamics which are very vague and patched together with pictures. But insofar as men are the bearers of this historical development, this was already described by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 as follows:

“The history of all previous societies has been the history of class struggles.

“Freemen and slave, patrician and plebian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman; in short, oppressor and oppressed have stood in con-slant opposition to one another, carried on and uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight which has ended each time with a revolutionary transformation of all society, or with the common destruction of the contending classes.

“In the earlier epochs of history, we find almost everywhere a complete organization of society into various classes, a manifold gradation into social ranks. In ancient Rome, we have patricians, knights, plebeians, slaves; in the Middle Ages, feudal lords, vassals, guildmasters, journeymen, serfs, and within almost every one of these classes, again special gradations.

“Modern bourgeois society which has arisen from the ruins of feudal society, has not done away with class antagonisms. It has only established new classes, new conditions of oppression, new forms of struggle in the place of the old.

“Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, is distinguished, however, in this respect, that it has simplified class antagonisms. Society, as a whole, is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes confronting each other – bourgeoisie and proletariat.”

There follows the well-known description of how the bourgeoisie, on the one side, and the proletariat, on the other, must develop each according to its historical conditions of existence, a description which has brilliantly withstood in the meantime, the test of nearly a half-century, full of the most unprecedented transformations. There follows the proof why and how the proletariat will conquer the bourgeoisie. With the abolition of the old conditions of production, the proletariat puts an end to the class antagonisms, to classes in general, and thus to its own rule as a class. “In the place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms appears an association in which the free development of each one is the condition for the free development of all.”

And then there ought also to be quoted the following from the words which Engels spoke at the open grave of his friend:

“Just as Darwin discovered the law of evolution in organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history; the simple facts, hitherto concealed under ideological overgrowths that men previous to everything else must first eat, drink, have shelter and clothe themselves before they can study politics, science, art religion, etc.; that the production, therefore, of the immediate material means of life, and consequently the actual level of the economic development, at a given time of a people, constitute the basic conditions from which the organizations of the state, the ideas of justice, the art and the religious notions of the particular people have developed and in terms of which they, therefore, must be explained; not vice versa, as has hitherto been the case.”

Marxism and Historico-Romanticists

Above all, this idea is a simple fact, in the sense of Ludwig Feuerbach who remarked, “It is a specific characteristic of a philosopher that he is no professor of philosophy. The simplest truths are those which always come last to the human being.” Feuerbach was the intermediate link between Hegel and Marx; but he was halted half-way because of the poverty of German conditions. He still considered the “discovery of truths” a purely ideological process. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels did not “hit upon” historical materialism in this fash-sion. To slander them out of kindness that they had spun it out of their heads, would mean to do them as great a wrong as to represent this assertion as an insult, for it means explaining, with the kindest intentions, the materialist conception of history as an empty brain phantasy. Moreover, the real renown of Marx and Engels consists in having given, by means of historical materialism, the most striking proof of its truth. They knew not merely German philosophy, like Feuerbach, but also the French Revolution and English industry. They solved the mystery of human history, although this task had hardly been set for mankind, although the material conditions for its solution were yet in the “process of being formed.” And they proved themselves to be thinkers of the highest order, in that they recognized, nearly fifty years ago, comparatively weak traces of what the bourgeois science of all the nations has not yet been able to grasp, but, at most here and there, only to anticipate, despite an unlimited supply today of the most potent proofs.

How little this method of hatching a particular theoretical proposition can accomplish is illustrated by a remarkable example which sounds extraordinarily enlightening and seems to agree in thought and expression with that scientific knowledge, gained by a penetrating study of historical evolution. We are indebted to Professor Hugo Brentano for the proof of how dose the historical school of the romantic bordered upon the materialist conception of history, particularly the reference to the position of Lavergne-Peguilhen, which reads as follows:

“Perhaps the science of society as such has progressed little until now because the forms of economy have not been sufficiently distinguished; because one has not appreciated that they constitute the foundations of the organization of society and the state, as a whole. One has not noticed that production, the distribution of products, culture and the spread of culture, state legislation and the state form have derived their content and their evolution entirely from the forms of economy; that the above highly important social factors rise just as unavoidably from the forms of economy and their appropriate management as the product from the reciprocal co-operation of the generating forces and that, where social diseases are to be discovered, these find their roots, as a rule, in the contradictions between social and state forms.” (Lavergne-Peguilhen, Die Bewegungs- und Produktionsgesetze)

This was written in the year 1838 by a renowned representative of the historico-romantic school, the same school which Marx, in the Deutsch-Französischen Jahrbücher subjected to such an annihilating criticism. And yet, if one should disregard this fact that Marx does not derive the production and distribution of products from the forms of economy, but, on the contrary, the forms of economy from production and the distribution of products, then he appears, at first sight, to have plagiarized Lavergne-Peguilhen’s materialist theory of history.

Feudalism and the Historico-Romanticists

However, there is the question of “appropriate management.” The historico-romantic school was a reaction against bourgeois national economy, which explained the mode of production of the bourgeois classes as the only one in conformity with nature and the forms of economy of these classes as eternal, natural laws. Historical romanticism in the interests of the Junkers, turned against these exaggerations with the patriarchal glorification of the economic relation of dependence between the landlords and serfs; it opposed to the desires of the liberal school for political freedom the proposition that the real constitution of a people was not a pair of papers: the law and a constitution; but the economic relations of power; thus, in this particular case, the relationship of master and serf which were transmitted from feudal times. The theoretical struggle between bourgeois national economy and historical romanticism was the ideological reflection of the class struggle between bourgeois and Junker. Each of the two forces explained the modes of production and forms of economy approved by its class as eternal, unchanging natural laws. That the liberal vulgar economists, therefore, reckoned more with abstract illusions; the historical romantics, more with brutal facts; that the former had more of an idealistic, the latter more of a materialistic character, simply followed from the difference in the historical stage of development of both combating classes. The bourgeoisie wished for the first time to become the ruling class, and accordingly painted its future rule as the state of universal happiness. The Junker was the ruling class and had to remain satisfied with romantic glorification of the economic relation of dependence upon which its power rested.

At such a glorification only is this proposition of Lavergne-Perguilhen aimed. Thus he wishes simply to say the feudal forms of economy ought to be the foundation, as a whole, of the organization of the state and of society; from them must be derived the form of state and the state legislation. Should society deviate from them, then it becomes sick. Lavergne-Peguilhen makes no secret of his intentions in the further conclusions which he permits himself to draw from his proposition. He distinguished three forms of economy, which historically followed one another and are now “confused” with one another: the economy of force, the economy of interest, and the economy of money to which correspond the state-forms: despotism, aristocracy, monarchy, and the moral feelings: fear, love, self-interest. The economy of interest, the aristocracy, or to call the child by its right name, feudalism, is – love. “The material exchange of mutual services,” so Lavergne-Peguilhen literally writes, “is, above all, the source of love and attachment.” But just as history once hit upon the perverted idea of obscuring this source and of “confusing” the state forms, so also does Lavergne-Peguilhen, following her, wish to confuse the state forms, naturally in the idea of “appropriate management.” The aristocracy ought to govern in the “community” with that power which the richer and more educated members of the community ought to exercise both as law-maker and as administrator over the great crowd of comrades, enjoying citizenship in the community. “In addition there ought to remain a certain amount of despotism,” which “even in its dissolute form could hardly destroy the powers of society as much as the tyranny of law,” and equally so, a certain amount of monarchy, but without “self-interest,” moreover, “encompassing with its exalted point of view the interests of all with an equal love.”

One easily sees what it is Lavergne-Peguilhen wants: the restoration of the feudal rule and “of the absolute king, if he will do its will.” His work has already been criticized by the Communist Manifesto in its judgment concerning feudal socialism: “at times striking the bourgeoisie to the heart’s core, by its bitter, witty criticism, but always ludicrous in its effect because of a total inability to grasp the candle of modern history.” The second part of this criticism is more applicable to German romanticism than the first. The overthrow of feudalism by the bourgeoisie considerably sharpened the wits of the feudal socialists in France and England and thus insinuated in them the pale foreboding that the “old expectation of a future restoration had become impossible.” But German and particularly Prussian feudalism which was still alive, kept copybook in hand and was able to inscribe within its confines, with a clumsy vulgarity, the banner of mediaeval feudalism, clothed throughout in moralistic commonplaces, but still healthy, against the invasion of the by no means sweeping Stein-Hardenbergian legislation.

Unrelated to Marx and Engels

The romantic school is characterized by its inability to understand any other form of economy than the feudal, which it understands only superficially; yet just because it sought, in its narrow class interest, to force all heaven and earth, all moral, political, religious, etc., relations within this economic form, so it arrived naturally at propositions which, from a distance, sound very much like historical materialism from which it is actually as far removed as it is from the class interests of science. Similar to the relations in which Lavergne-Peguilhen stood to Marx and Engels, so twenty years later, stood Gerlach and Stahl to Lassalle. Gerlach, in the Prussian district presidential chamber, had often enough upheld in his own particular ways the future constitutional theory of Lassalle before the liberal position in the Prussian district presidential chamber; and yet Lassalle in his System of Acquired Rights gave these last outpourings of historical romanticism their scientific death-blow. Thus this school has nothing to do with historical materialism, or, only, in the remotest sense, insofar as its unpainted class ideology has been one of the ferments by means of which Marx and Engels arrived at the materialist conception of history.

Only this last statement is also not true. This proposition from Lavergne-Peguihen appeared suffiiciently striking to us – this was before we were able to see the entire work which rightly enough is forgotten today – to send it to Engels with the question, whether he or Marx had known and been influenced by the authors of the romantic school, Marwits, Adam Miiller, Haller, Lavergne-Peguilhen, etc. Engels had the great kindness to answer us on September 28 from J.:

I myself have a copy of the Memoirs of Marwits and I looked through the book several years ago, but I never discovered more in it than some excellent things concerning Cavalry and a stubborn belief in the wonderful powers of five lashes, when employed – by a noble upon a plebeian. In particular, the literature has remained absolutely alien to me since 1841 and 1842. I concerned myself only very superficially with it; and I certainly have nothing to be indebted to it. Marx became acquainted with Adam Miiller and Mr. von Haller’s Restoration, etc., during his stay in Bonn and Berlin. But he spoke with a natural repulsion of these empty, feeble phrase-swollen imitations of the French romantics, Joseph de Maistre and Cardinal Boland. And if he should have met up, at that time, with quotations like the ones cited from Lavergne-Peguilhen, they could not have made any impression upon him, even if he had understood, in general, what such people wished to say. At that time, Marx was an Hegelian for which such a position was absolute heresy; he knew absolutely nothing about economics. Thus he could make nothing out of a phrase like “Forms of economy,” and so the particular passage, if he knew it, would have gone in one ear and out the other, without leaving behind a perceptible trace. But I hardly believe that one would find in the historical romantic writings read by Marx between 1837 and 1841 any suggestions of a similar kind. The passage is in every way very remarkable, though I should like to verify the quotation.

I do not know the book, and the author is known to me only as an adherent of the “historical school.” The most extraordinary things is that the same people, who have abused history in the concrete, theoretically as well as practically, should have found in the abstract the concrete conception of history. People may have been able to see under Feudalism how the state form develops out of the economic form, because the thing was, so tb say, so clear and concentrated at hand. I say, they may have, for apart from the above passage, I have never been able to discover any reason why the theoreticians of Feudalism should be less abstract than the bourgeois liberals. If one of them further generalized this conception of the connection of the spread of culture and the form of the state, with the form of economy within the feudal society – that it applies to all forms of economy and state – how then explain the total blindness of the same romantics as soon as it concerned the other forms of economy, the bourgeois form of economy and the state form corresponding to its levels of development – the medieval guild commune, absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, the Republic? This, however, is difficult to harmonize consistently? And the same man, who saw in the form of economy, the basis of the entire organization of society and the state, belonged to a school, for whom the absolute monarchy of the seventeenth and eighteenth century already means the fall of men and a transgression from the true doctrine of the state.

However, it is still true that the form of the state results unavoidably from the form of economy and its “appropriate organization” just as the child results from the cohabitation of man and wife. Considering the world-famous doctrine of the author, I can only explain it in this way: the true form of economy is the feudal. Insofar as the evil in men conspires against this form, it has to be organized accordingly so that it is able under such circumstances to protect and perpetuate itself against these attacks; and that the “form of the state,” etc., might appropriately correspond to them, would bring us back to the 13th and 14th centuries. Then were the best of world and the most beautiful historical theories equally realized. And the Lavergne-Peguilhenian generalization is once more reduced tb its real meaning: that feudal society produces a feudal order of state.”

Thus Engels. Since we have now verified, according to his wish, this quotation and discovered in the exhumed work of Lavergne-Peguilhen the connections expressed above, we can only answer him with sincere thanks for his remarkable interpretation in which he correctly constructed the entire feudal mastodon from a single bone.

* * *

Objections to Historical Materialism

Of the customary objections against historical materialism besides the two already dispatched, is one which is connected with its name. Idealism and materialism are the opposing answers to the great philosophical problem concerning the relation of thought to being, the question whether spirit or nature is fundamental. In and of themselves, they have not the slightest to do with moral ideals. Such ideals can be had by the philosophical materialist in the highest and purest sense, while the philosophical idealist does not need to possess them remotely. But because of the many years of slander by the priesthood, there has come to adhere to the word materialism an immorally oblique and additional idea which, in multifarious ways, has known how to creep into the works of bourgeois science. “The philistine understands by materialism, gluttony, boozing, sensuality, sexual lust, and high living, money greediness, avarice, covetousness, profiteering, swindling, speculation; in short, all the sordid vices to which he is himself secretly addicted; and by idealism (he understands) the belief in virtue, the universal love of mankind and in general, a ‘better world,’ of which he boasts before others, but in which he himself believes, at most, so long as he is in the habit of enduring the hangovers and breakdowns necessarily following from his customary ‘materialistic’ excesses; therefore he sings his favorite song: ‘What is man – half beast, half angel.’” (Engels). If one uses the words in this translated sense, then must one say that today the creed of historical materialism demands a high moral idealism for it brings with it, unfailingly, poverty, persecution, and slander; while historical idealism is the affair of every panting careerist, for it offers the richest prospect for all earthly good fortunes, of fat sinecures, of all possible ranks, titles, and offices. We do not thereby assert, by any means, that all idealistic historians are impelled by impure motives, but we ought outright to reject every immoral stain which may have been attached to historical materialism as a foolish and shameless insinuation.

The Nature of the Theory

Something which is understandable, although it is just as much gross error, is the confusion of the materialism of history with that of nature. This confusion overlooks the fact that man lives not only in nature, but also in society, that there is not only a science of nature, but also a science of society. Of course, historical materialism includes natural science, but natural science does not include the historical. Scientific naturalism sees in man a creature of nature endowed with consciousness, but it does not investigate in what way the consciousness of men within human society is determined. Thus, when it ventures into the historical field, it changes into its opposite, into the most extreme idealism. It believes in the magical, spiritual power of great men who make history. Let us recall Buchner’s enthusiasm for Frederick II, and Haeckel’s idolatrous adoration of Bismarck coupled with his most ridiculous hatred of socialists. It recognizes, in general, only ideal impulses in this human society.

A true example of this species is Hellwald’s History of Culture. Its author does not see that the religious reformation of the sixteenth century was the ideological reflection of an economic movement; instead the “Reformation exercised an extraordinary influence upon the economic movement.” He does not notice that the needs of Swiss commerce led to standing armies and commercial wars; instead “it was the growing love of freedom which created the standing armies and, immediately, new wars.” He does not understand the economic necessity for the absolute monarchy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; instead “it can be proven that the despotism of a Ludwig XIV, the regiment of favorites and of courtesans of the court would never have been possible, if the people had placed their veto against it, for, in the last instance, all power still remains with them.” And so on endlessly!

On nearly every one of his 800 pages, Hellwald commits similar or even worse blunders. Against such “materialistic” historical writing, the idealistic historians naturally have an easy victory. But they, nevertheless, ought not to make historical materialism responsible for Hellwald and Co. Scientific materialism attains by means of the greatest relevancy, actually, the greatest irrelevancy. Insofar as it comprehends man simply as an animal endowed with consciousness, it reduces the history of mankind to a variegated and meaningless play of ideal impulses and ends; by means of the false supposition of men endowed with consciousness as an isolated creation of nature, it arrives at the idealistic phantom of a human history which rushes by like a mad dance of shadows, because of the materialistic connections of the external totality of nature. Historical materialism, on the contrary, begins from the scientific fact that no man is simply an animal, but a social animal, that he obtains he consciousness only in the community of social ties (the horde, gens, the class); and only in it can he live as a conscious creature; that, therefore the material conditions of these ties determine his ideal consciousness; and their progressive evolution represents the predominating law of motion of mankind.

Bourgeois Objections

So much, then, concerning the attacks upon historical materialism which have brought it such ill repute. They already exhaust the great part of the objections directed against it, for bourgeois science has not yet yielded a substantial criticism of the materialistic interpretation of history – with the exception of an investigation to be mentioned shortly. With what foolish talk the “most eminent” representatives of this science attempt unsuccessfully to hurdle this inconvenient obstacle which mars those rosy hopes, intended to lull bourgeois class consciousness. Of this, anyone can convince himself by the speeches by means of which Mr. Adolph Wagner, “the great teacher of political economy at the first German university,” had, in particular, enlightened the enlightened gentlemen of the evangelical social congresses in the year 1892 (Adolph Wagner, Das Neue Sozialdemokratische Programm). Now, though we are far removed from placing all representatives of bourgeois science on the same level with this accomplished sophist and sycophant, yet we have been able to discover, after long years of observation of their criticism of historical materialism, nothing more than some common modes of expression which are not so much actual objections as moral reproaches.

In content, historical materialism seems to be an arbitrary construction of history, which compresses the extraordinary, manifold life of mankind in a barren form. It appears to deny all ideal forces; it seems to turn into a non-contradictory playball of mechanical development; it seems to reject all moral standards.

Now the opposite is the truth. Historical materialism dispenses with every arbitrary historical construction; it puts aside every barren formula, which wishes to treat the changing life of mankind in exactly the same fashion. “The materialistic method is transformed into its opposite, when it is employed not as a guide to the study of history, but as a finished stencil in accordance with which one accurately cuts the historical facts.” (Vorwärts, Oct. 5, 1890.)

Thus Engels protested, and similarly Kautsky protested against every “superficial interpretation” of historical materialism; as if in society, there were merely two estates, two classes which struggle against each other, two solid, homogeneous masses, the revolutionary and the reactionary masses. “If this were actually true, then the writing of history would be very easy. But in reality, relationships are not so simple. Society is and becomes ever more a uniquely complicated organism with the greatest differentiation of classes and of interests, which can group themselves, corresponding to the structure of things, into the greatest variety of parties.” (Kautsky, Class Antagonisms of 1879)

The Methodology

Historical materialism approaches every portion of history without any prepossessions; it investigates it simply from its foundation to its roof, ascending from its economic structure to its spiritual conceptions.

But just that, one may say, is an “arbitrary construction of history.” How otherwise would you know that economics is the foundation of historical development and not philosophy? Now, we know it simply for this reason; that men must first eat, drink, shelter and clothe themselves before they can think and write, that man only attains consciousness through social unity with other men; consequently that his consciousness is determined through his social existence and not, vice versa, through his consciousness. The assumption that men first come to drink and shelter by means of thought, to economics by means of philosophy, is the obviously “arbitrary” presupposition of historical idealism and leads it, consequently, to the most remarkable “constructions of history.” In remarkable – and also in unremarkable – ways, this is admitted, in a certain sense, by its epigonian disciples, in that they do not know sufficient ways to make fun of the “historical constructions” of their great representative, namely, Hegel. Not only the “historical constructions” of Hegel, in which they outdo him a thousand fold, irritate them, but Hegel’s scientific understanding of history as a process of human development whose graduated evolution is to be pursued through all its mistaken roads and whose inner conformity to law must be demonstrated through all apparent accidents. These great ideas, a rebirth of ancient Greek dialectic and the ripest fruit of our classical philosophy, were taken over from Hegel by Marx and Engels. “We German socialists are proud in this, that we stem not only from Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen, but also from Kant and Hegel.” (Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific)

But they acknowledged that Hegel in spite of many profound insights into the process of development had only arrived at an “arbitrary construction,” because he took the effect for the cause, things for copies of ideas, not, as is, in actuality, ideas for the copies of things. For Hegel, this conception was very natural, for the bourgeois classes in Germany had not, in general, really come to life. They had to take flight in the empyrean of the idea, in order to be able to save their independent existence. And here they fought their battles in forms which to the reigning absolutistic-feudal reaction were inoffensive or the least offensive possible. Hegel’s dialectic method, which conceives the natural, historical and spiritual world, taken as a whole, as a process, as in constant movement and development, and seeks to trace the inner connection in this movement and development, ended, nevertheless, in a system which knew how to discover the absolute idea in the permanent monarchy, idealism in the blue Hussars, a necessary estate in the feudal lords, a deep meaning in “original sin,” a category in the crown prince, etc.

As soon as a new class, however, arose in the course of the economic development out of the German bourgeoisie and entered the class struggle, namely, the proletariat, then it was natural that this new class should seek to bring the struggle to earth again, so that it might take possession of its material inheritance not without preparation, taking from bourgeois philosophy its revolutionary content but breaking with its reactionary form.

Marx, Hegel, and Schopenhauer

We have already seen that the spiritual pioneers of the proletariat placed the dialectic of Hegel which had stood upon its head, once more upon its feet. “For Hegel, the thought process, which he transforms under the name, idea, into a self-existent subject, is the demiurgos of the real, which is only its external appearance. For me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing more than the material world, translated and transplanted into the minds of men” (Marx). But so Hegel was able to supply the bourgeois world which had fortunately been asleep, with a revolutionary content under the reactionary form of his dialectic.

“In its mystical form, dialectic became the German fashion, because it seemed to explain the extant. In its rational form, it is a scandal and an abomination to the bourgeoisie and its doctrinal spokesmen, because it includes, at the same time, in its positive comprehension of existence, also the understanding of its negation, of its necessary disappearance. It grasps every form which has come into existence in the flow of movement, thus, in terms of its transitions. It allows itself to be imposed upon by nothing. By its very nature, it is critical and revolutionary.” (Marx, Karl, Kapital, I, 822. Second ed. German.)

And a scandal and an abomination did Hegel, in fact, become to the German bourgeoisie, not because of his weakness, but because of his strength; not because of his “arbitrary historical constructions,” but because of his dialectical method. For only according to the latter, but not according to the former, does bourgeois science dance to its extinction.

As a consequence, Hegel had to be gotten rid of in toto; and this conclusion also was drawn by the most important philosopher of the German petty bourgeoisie. Schopenhauer rejected Hegel’s philosophy. He saw in the history of mankind no ascending process of development; the German petty bourgeois, whose prophet he was, is Man as he was from the beginning and as he will be in the future. Schopenhauer’s philosophy culminates in the “insight” that “at all times, it was, is, and will be the same.” He writes:

“History shows itself, from every side, to be the same, only under different forms; the chapters of the history of peoples are distinguished basically only in the names and number of years; the really essential content is in everything the same ... The stuff of history is the only thing in its singleness and contingency, which always is and afterwards always is no more, the transitory interweavings of a world of men moving like clouds in the wind, often transformed by the most trivial accidents.”

Thus Schopenhauer’s philosophic idealism remains very close to scientific materialism. In fact, both are the opposite poles of the same limitation. And if Schopenhauer fiercely asserted concerning the scientific materialists: “These gentlemen of the crucible must be taught that mere chemistry is very useful to the apothecary but not to the philosopher” – then he ought to be taught that mere philosophizing is very useful to the hypocrites, but not to the investigator of history. But Schopenhauer was effective in his way, for when he rejected Hegel’s dialectical method, he also had to throw away Hegel’s historical construction.

Meanwhile, the more the German petty bourgeoisie developed into large industrial bourgeoisie, the more this bourgeoisie abjured its own ideals in the class struggle and plunged back into the shadows of feudal absolutism; the more powerful grew its need to demonstrate the historical “rationality” of this peculiar retrogression. And since Hegel’s dialectic, upon the ground cited by Marx, was a scandal and an abomination, there therefore remained for it only Hegel’s historical constructions. Its historians discovered the absolute idea in the German Reich, idealism in militarism, a deep meaning in the exploitation of the proletariat by the bourgeoisie, a necessary condition in the snobbishness of money, a category in the Hohenzollern dynasty, etc. And in its stupidly cunning business way, the bourgeoisie thought that thus they had preserved bourgeois idealism. While attacking the “arbitrary construction of history,” it was the real saviour of what was significant and great in this idealism. Thus once more the Gracchii wept over the turmoil and wept even more for the Gracchii themselves!

Let us glance at the other objections and reproaches which have been made against historical materialism: that it denies all ideal forces; that it reduces mankind to a non-contradictory playball of mechanical evolution; that it rejects all moral criteria.

A Means of Investigation

Historical materialism is no closed system crowned with an ultimate truth; it is a scientific method for the investigation of human development. It begins from the indisputable fact that men live not only in nature, but also in society. There are no such things as isolated men; every man, who by accident is left outside of human society, quickly starves and dies. Thus for this reason, historical materialism acknowledges all ideal forces in their widest compass.

“Of everything which occurs in nature, nothing occurs as an end wished-for, known. On the other hand, in the history of society, transactions between men are genuinely endowed with consciousness, burdened with reflection or passion, sought for certain purposes; nothing happens without conscious desire, without willed end ... The will is determined by reflection or passion, but the lever which again determine the passion or reflection, are of various sorts. In part they may be external objects; in part, ideal motives, ambition ‘yearning for truth and justice,’ personal hatred, or even purely individual whims of all sorts.” (Engels)

This is the essential point of difference between the history of the development of nature, on the one side, and of society on the other. But apparently the numberless collisions of single transactions and single volitions in history only lead to the same result as the unconscious, blind forces in nature. On the surface of history, just as upon the surface of nature, accident appears to be the rule. “Seldom do things turn out as willed; in most cases the willed ends cross and conflict with each other or these ends are from the beginning unachievable or the means insufficient.” Only when a universal law of motion can be asserted successfully of the conflicting play of all the blind accidents which seem to rule unconscious nature – only then is it justified to ask the question whether the thought and will of mankind acting consciously is not also ruled by such a law.

The Character of History

This law is found, when we search for that which sets in motion the ideal impulses of men. Man can come to consciousness, act and think consciously, only within social bounds. The social community of which he is member awakens and directs his spiritual powers. But the foundation of every society is the mode of producing the material life.

In this way it determines, in the last instance, the spiritual process of life in all its manifold radiations. Historical materialism denies so little ideal forces that it investigates them to their roots, so that it can provide the necessary insight into how ideas develop their power. Certainly men make their history, but how they make their history depends, in every case, upon how clearly or obscurely is imaged in their heads the material connection of things. For ideas do not arise out of nothing; they are products of social processes of production; and the more exactly an idea reflects this process, the more powerful it is. The human spirit does not exist outside but within the historical evolution of human society. It has sprung from, grown up in and with, material production. Only from the time when production begins to develop from an extremely multiform machine to simple and great antagonisms has man been able to understand its entire organization, and only after these last antagonisms have been pushed aside or destroyed, will he seize control of social production, “will the primitive history of mankind come to an end” (Marx), “will men with full consciousness make their own history; will the leap of mankind from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom be accomplished” (Engels).

Nevertheless, the previous development of society has been no dead mechanism, in which mankind served as a will-less plaything. The greater the portion of the entire lifetime of a generation which must be spent in the satisfaction of its total needs, the greater remains its dependence upon nature, and the smaller is its scope for spiritual development. But this scope grows in the same proportion in which acquired skill and assimilated experience teaches men how to master nature.

Last updated on 25 October 2014