Franz Mehring

Concerning Historical Materialism


From The New International, Vol. VII No. 6 (Whole No. 55), July 1941, pp. 152–4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

MORE AND MORE has the human spirit become master over the dead mechanism of nature; and in the spiritual mastery of the process of production has the progressive development of the human race been completed and is completing itself.

“Upon skill in the production of the necessities of life depends the entire question of the mastery of mankind over the earth. Man is the only being of whom one can say that he has obtained a complete mastery over the production of the means of nourishment, in which he had no superiority over other animals at the beginning ... Thus it is highly probable that the great epochs of human progress are more or less directly correlated with the extension of the sources of subsistence.” (Morgan, Primitive Society)

If we should follow Morgan’s division of human prehistory, then the first stage of savagery is marked by the creation of articulate speech, the second by the use of fire, the third by the discovery of the bow and arrow, which is a very complex tool and which to build presupposes long, accumulated experience and sharpened mental powers, thus also knowledge, at the same time of a number of other discoveries. On this last level of savagery, there is already established a certain mastery of production by the human spirit; it is acquainted with wooden vessels and implements, plaited baskets of bast and reeds, polished stone tools, etc.

Morgan dates the passage to barbarism from the introduction of pottery, which marks the lowest stage. Its middle stage is reached with the taming of domestic animals, the cultivation of food plants by means of irrigation, the use of stones and bricks for buildings.

Finally the highest stage of barbarism begins with the smelting of iron ore. With it the production of the material life already attains an extraordinary rich development. The Greeks of the heroic age; the Italian tribes shortly before the founding of Rome; the Germans of Tacitus belong to it. This age is acquainted with the bellows, the kilns (Erdofen), and the forge, the iron axe, the iron spade, and the iron sword, the spear with copperpoints and embossed shield, the hand mill and the potter’s wheel, the cart and the war chariot, ships built of beams and planks, towns with walls and battlements, with gates and towers and marble temples. A visual (anschauliche) picture of the progress in the production attained at the highest stage of barbarism is given in the Homeric poems, which are themselves classical products of the spiritual life arising from this mode of production. Thus mankind is not the will-less plaything of a dead mechanism but its progressive development is rooted in the growing mastery of the human spirit over the dead mechanism of nature. But the human spirit – and this is asserted only by historical materialism – evolves through, with, and out of the material modes of production. The spirit is not their father, but the modes of production are its mother. This relation appears most strikingly and significantly obvious in the primitive societies of mankind.

The transition from barbarism to civilization is brought about by the discovery of the alphabet and its employment for literary records. The written history of mankind begins, and at this stage the spiritual life appears as if it were completely severed from its economic foundations. But this appearance is misleading. With civilization, with the dissolution of the organization of the gentes, with the creation of the family, of private property, of the state, with the progressive division of labor, the splitting of society into ruling and ruled, into oppressing and oppressed classes, the dependence of the spiritual development upon the economic becomes endlessly more obscure and complicated, but it does not cease. “The fundamental ground upon which the distinction of classes has been defended: that there must exist a class which does not have to wear itself out producing its daily livelihood, so that it will have time to take care of the spiritual work of society, has had, until now, great historic justification” (Engels). Until now, i.e., until the industrial revolution of the last hundred years, which has turned every ruling class into an obstacle for the development of the industrial forces of production.

“But the splitting of society into classes rose only out of the economic development. Thus the spiritual labor of no class can be separated from the economic foundation to which it owes its origin. Deep as was the sinful fall of man from the simple, moral heights of the old gentile society to those of the new society governed by the most depraved interests, which was never anything more than the development of the small minority at the expense of the exploited and oppressed great majority, yet the spiritual development was tremendous from the gentes, still attached by the umbilical cord to the natural society, to the appearance of modern society with its enormous productive powers.” (Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State)

But great as was this progress of the human spirit in becoming a fine, supple, strong, instrument with which irresistibly to subdue nature, yet its springs and driving forces remain always the economic conflict of the particular classes, the “existing conflict between the social forces of production and the relations of production”; yet mankind has posed for itself only such tasks as it could solve, or more exactly, thought continually finds, as Marx declares, that the task only arises where the material conditions for its solution already exists, or at least are in the process of being created. One recognizes most easily this relationship when one investigates to their source the great discoveries and inventions, which according to the ideological conception both of historical idealism and scientific materialism have sprung from the creative, human spirit like Athena from the brow of Zeus, and thereby brought about the most tremendous economic transformations. Every one of these discoveries and inventions has had a long previous history. [1]

And if the simple stages of this pre-history is traced, it would be to recognize above all the necessity which called them forth. There already exists good evidence for this, because many of the most significant inventions, like the discovery of gunpowder and the art of printing, which “have altered the face of the earth,” are hidden in a mist of legends. They are not the work of single individuals, who created them out of the mysterious depths of their genius. If some have rendered, by their inventions, a great service, this was so only because these individuals recognized most sharply and deeply the economic need and the means to satisfy it. The discovery or invention does not call forth the economic transformation, but the social transformation, the discovery or invention; and only in this fashion, when a social transformation brings about a discovery or invention does it become a world-shaking event. America was discovered long before Columbus; already Norsemen had, in the year 1000, been along the northeast coast of America, even as far as the territory belonging to the United States today, but the discovered lands were immediately forgotten and not heard of. As soon as the capitalist development, in its beginnings, called up a need for rare metals, for new labor power, and for new markets, then did the discovery of America signify an economic revolution. It is well enough known that Columbus did not discover a new world out of a dark impulse of his genius, but that he was searching after the fabulous treasures of the ancient civilized land of the Indies. The day after the discovery of the first island, he wrote in his day book: “These good-natured people ought to serve as very useful slaves,” and his daily prayer ran: “May the Lord in his goodness let me find the gold mines.” The “Lord of Goodness” was the ideology of that time, as the even more hypocritical ideology of today is to bring “humanity and civilization to the darkest corners of the world.”

The proverbial tragic fate of the inventor of great genius is not a result of human ingratitude, as the ideological conception implies in its superficial way, but an easily understood consequence of the fact that the discovery does not make the economic transformation but the economic transformation the discovery. Sharp and deeply-sighted spirits recognize the task and its solution, even before the material conditions of this solution are yet ripe and the extant social formation has developed all its productive forces for which it would be sufficient. It is a remarkable fact that the inventions which more than any of the earlier ones contributed most in extending human productive power brought their inventors misfortune and, in fact, disappeared more or less without a trace for hundreds of years (Müller ribbon-loom, 1529; Denis Papin, steam engine and boat, 1707).

* * *

An economic transformation brought about the disintegration of feudalism and nowhere was the political superstructure of the material modes of production so clearly and quickly transformed than in the military. Concerning this, bourgeois historical writing, particularly in the Prussian military state, has been especially clear. Thus, writes Gustav Frey-tag, who, if possible, prefers to spin German history out of the “German soul,” but because of his particular interest in the life of the masses of little folk, he is driven by progressive compromises toward historical materialism:

“The Frankish military force of the Merovingians, the lord of the knightly lancers, the Swiss, and mercenaries of the Reformation, and again the army of mercenaries of the thirty years’ war, were all highly characteristic growths of their time. They arose out of these social conditions and changed as these changed. Thus the oldest foot soldier of the propertied classes is rooted in the old municipalities and shires, the mounted knight in the feudal life of luxury, the groups of mercenaries in the growing power of the bourgeoisie, the companies of wandering mercenaries in the growth of the territorial power of the prince. The permanent army of well-drilled mercenary soldiers appears afterward in the despotic states of the eighteenth century.”

And only with the appearance of these “permanent armies of well drilled mercenary soldiers” in the days of Ludwig XIV and Prince Eugene was the spear finally displaced by the firearm, for the infantry, drafted more or less forcibly from the lowest ranks of the nations, could only be held together by the cane and, since it lacked individual initiative or push, could only be used as shooting machines. Such an infantry of mercenaries was each and every one of them, the very opposite of the foot-soldiers who were responsible at Morgan and at Sampach in the 14th century for the first smashing defeats of the feudal knights. This foot-soldiery fought with spears and even with such primitive weapons, as the throwing of stones, but their ferocious power, irresistible for the knights, was created from their old municipal associations, which bound them together one for all and all for one. [2]

From these simple contrasts, the weakness of the assumption already follows, that the invention of powder was the cause of the breakdown of feudalism. Feudalism fell because of the growth of cities and of the monarchy supported by the cities. A barter economy underlaid the financial and industrial economy. Thus the feudal nobility had to be the foundation of the cities and the princes. The new economic powers created for themselves the military forms corresponding to the economic forms. With money, they raised men from the proletariat, thrown upon the highways by the disintegration of feudalism; with their industry, they produced weapons which were as superior in their strength over feudal weapons as the capitalist modes of production over the feudal. They did not discover powder – for this was handed down by the Arabs to the west Europeans in the 14th century – but shooting with powder. Basically the firearm established the unconditional superiority of bourgeois over feudal arms.

The town walls could as little withstand the cannon balls of the artillery as the armor of the knight could withstand the bullets of the blunderbuss. But the art of shooting was not invented in a single day. As always, economic necessity was here too the mother of invention. The conquest of feudalism was completed so impetuously, the power of the cities and the princes grew so quickly that the inventive power of the human mind was little stimulated to better the firearms which at the beginning were very poor and hardly superior to the crossbow and arrow. How could it be otherwise when an army of nobles are defeated, as at Granson and Murten, although they happened to have the superiority in firearms! Thus the improvement of these weapons went very slowly; we see how late the flintlock, a very useful weapon, was employed as equipment for an entire infantry. This weapon was only possible at a certain level of capitalist development. With the weapon monarchial absolutism was able to wage its commercial wars with a military organization, strategy and tactics demanded by its basic economic structure. But should anyone lament the slow development of firearms in the earlier centuries as a stupid misfortune, then a glance directed at our century ought to comfort and give him the pleasant certainty that the human spirit is truly inexhaustible in the invention of lethal weapons, provided that the economic development, in this case, the frantically savage, competitive struggle between big capitalists, drives it with a hunting whip.

Thus, historical materialism does not assert that mankind is a will-less plaything of a dead mechanism; nor does it deny the power of the mind. On the contrary, it entirely agrees with Schiller from whom the Philistine aspiring for culture preferably takes his idealism:

The higher the human spirit develops,
The finer sphinx arises in the night,
The richer is the world which it embraces,
The wider streams the sea with which it flows,
The weaker is the sightless power of Fate.

Only historical materialism understands the law of this spiritual development. And it finds the root of this law in that which first makes humans into humans, the production and reproduction of life. That beggarly pride which once scoffed at Darwinism as an ape-theory may struggle against it and find its satisfaction in the belief that the human spirit flutters about like an incalculable goblin forming with divine creative power a new world out of nothing. Lessing has already completely dismissed this supernatural belief both in his satire concerning the “empty possibility which can be handled under certain conditions in this or in that way,” and in his wise saying:

The iron pot
Would rather be upraised with a silver tongs
That it might think itself a pot of silver.

In short, we can meet the objection that historical materialism denies all ethical standards of measurement. It is not at all the task of the historical investigator to employ ethical norms. He ought to tell us what has happened upon the basis of an objective scientific investigation. What he thinks concerning this, in terms of our own subjective, ethical point of view, we do not demand to know. The “ethical standards or norms” are continually undergoing a transformation and if any living generation with its changing ethical norms would criticize past generations, that is like measuring solidified geologic strata with the drifting sands of the dunes. Schlosser, Gervinus, Route, Janssen – each has a different ethical measuring rod, each has his particular class morality, and more faithfully than the times which they evaluate, they reflect the classes in their works, of whom they were the spokesmen. And it is obvious that this would not be otherwise for a proletarian historian if he were to pass judgment upon earlier times from the present ethical standpoint of his class.

So far historical materialism denies in every way all ethical mores, but only “insofar”; it bans them from historical investigation, in general, because they make impossible any scientific historiography. But if the same objection means that historical materialism fundamentally denies the power of ethical drives in history, then the opposite is true. It so little denies them, that it, in general, has made possible the first understanding of them. In the “material transformations of the economic relations of production which can be truly scientific,” it possesses the only true norm with which to investigate sometimes more slowly, sometimes more quickly, the resulting transformation of ethical points of view. They are, in every instance, the product of the mode of production. Therefore, Marx attacked the Nibelungen text of Richard Wagner, who seeks to make his love situation more piquant by bringing in, in an entirely modern way, a little incest. He asserted: “In primitive times, the sister was the wife; and this was moral.” Just as historical materialism put in their proper place the great men who make history, so it properly places the portraits of historical characters who, enmeshed in the hate and favor of parties, have dropped in and out of history. It is just to every historical personality because it knows how to consider all the driving forces which have determined his activity or inactivity, and it is able, therefore, to define the morality of this activity and inactivity with a fineness of distinction of which the gross “ethical norms” of ideological historiography are one and all incapable.

One takes in hand once again Kautsky’s remarkable book on Thomas More: “For the ideological historians, Thomas More is a true cross. He was a pioneer fighter for the bourgeois class a well educated and free-thinking man, a learned humorist and the first pioneer of socialism. But he was also the minister of a tyrannical principality, an enemy of Luther and a heresy hunter; he was a martyr of the papacy, and he is today a saint of the Catholic Church, if not yet officially, which he may yet become, still unofficially.” What now can ideological historiography do with such a character, even though it may derive its “ethical norms” from Berlin or Rome or wherever it wills? It can glorify or defame him, or half glorify and half defame him, but with all its “ethical norms” it can never disclose an historical understanding of the man. On the other hand, Kautsky has brilliantly solved this problem with the aid of historical materialism. He has shown that Thomas More was a complete man and that all of the apparent contradictions of his life indissolubly hang together. One learns to know infinitely better the ethical powers of the medieval Reformation from Kautsky’s thin little book than from what Darke with his five and Janssen with his six thick volumes have brought to the surface by means of diametrically opposed “ethical standards of measurement.” That is why Kautsky’s book was so completely hushed up. Today, the “ethical standards” of bourgeois historiography demand it.


1. Morgan writes: “The phonetic alphabet was, like other great inventions, the final result of manifold, successive efforts.” See also Marx, Kapital, I, 285: “A critical history of technology would show how little of any particular invention of the 18th century belongs to any one individual.”

2. Concerning the above see the splendid writings of Karl Burkli: Die wahre Winkelried, die Taktik der Urschweiger, Der Ursprung der Eidgenossenschaft aus der Markgenossenschaft and Die Schlacht am Morgarten.

Last updated on 25 October 2014