Franz Mehring

Concerning Historical Materialism


From The New International, Vol. VII No. 8 (Whole No. 57), September 1941, pp. 221–3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

(Editor’s Note: This is the third and final installment of Mehring’s essay, Concerning Historical Materialism.)

IT IS ONE of the unsolvable contradictions in which scientific materialism operates within the province of history that it entirely denies that principle of evolution according to which the characteristics of a particular animal race is explained through adaptation to its environment in the struggle for existence at the level of human society. Here it asserts a permanency of human races, which has never existed and cannot exist. In frantically clinging to this nonsensical idea, in the effort to make it consistent with obviously contradictory facts, the concept of race has, in general, become so vague that Gumplowicz correctly says: “Here everything is arbitrary and subjective in appearance and meaning: nowhere is there solid ground, nowhere a sure point of meaning, and nowhere a positive result.”

Actually, the crossing and mixing of the various races and stems began in pre-historical time. And Metchnikov, the Russian investigator, demonstrates concerning the first civilizations of antiquity that they were the result of a great deal of heterogeneous mixing of different ethnic elements, of intermarriages in which one cannot discover approximately, even today, the proportionate significance of their isolated constituents. Thus, for example, it is hard to say which of the three races, the black, the yellow or the white, has done most for the civilization of ancient Egypt. The history of Chaldea shows, so far, that the black race, the so-called Kushites, were in the forefront of that civilization. Even less is discoverable when one assumes language as the distinguishing mark of race instead of blood or color.

In every one of the great language groups, the Aryan, the Semitic and the Mongolian, are found people of the most diverse descent. And if Mr. Barth thinks the assertion of some statesman of “genius” that race is everything, a little too inclusive, but nevertheless, still says, race means a great deal; and wants to prove this assertion by admitting the Aryan race to be superior to the Semitic in “political abilities,” then must one say in this connection: race is not only altogether unimportant, but a complete zero.

It is a little remarkable that Mr. Barth refers to the saying of some unknown English statesman, when he has read the world renowned English philosopher, his contemporary, John Stuart Mill, concerning the assumption of racial differences: “Of all the kinds of vulgar evasions by which one deprived oneself of thought, whose effect has social and moral influences on the spirit of men, the most vulgar is that which ascribes the differences in conduct and character to innate, natural differences.”

Races and History

Historical materialism has not in the least neglected race. But first it seeks to clarify, in general, its meaning. Just as little as there are unchanging animal races, are there unchanging human races. Only the laws of development in nature underlie the animal races, the laws of development of society, the human races. The more a man resolves his immediate connection with nature, the more the natural races fuse and intermingle. The greater men’s control grows over nature, the more completely are the natural races transformed into social classes. The wider the capitalist modes of production spread, the more have the distinctions between the races disappeared or, more and more daily do they dissolve themselves in the oppositions of the classes. Within human society, race is not at all a natural but an historical concept which is determined in the last instance by the material modes of production and is altered by the laws of their development, as Kautsky has proved in the most convincing fashion for the concept of nationality. [1]

But just as the natural conditions of labor have then-sources in the nature of men, so have they their embodiment in the process of social production. When Mr. Barth speaks particularly of climate, it is well to remember that Montesquieu wanted to make climate the lever of political history; that Winckelmann employed the same principle in the history of art; Herder in the history of culture, regardless of particular modifications, limitations and extensions; and that, Buckle, in our century, allowed human history to be the result of the interaction of the human spirit, on the one hand, and of climate, nutrition, soil and of particular natural appearances, on the other. And certainly were this theory a significant step forward in contrast to the theological or rationalistic conceptions of history, then Hegel might also have said: “Do not speak to me of heaven, for now the Turks live where once lived the Greeks,” and Gobineau could have denied the influence of climate on historical development.

If, nevertheless, Hegel made the absolute idea and Gobineau the mixing of the blood of various races the levers of historical development, these were certainly not steps forward in comparison with the historical conception espoused first by Montesquieu and later by Buckle. However, Buckle, to concern ourselves with the most important author of this entire school, overlooked, above all, the most decisive point, the binding member which makes out of his two halves a whole, out of his dualistic world view a monistic one: the means of production of our material life, which unite spirit and nature, which first of all activizes the human spirit, to win control over nature, and which breaks down the mysteries of nature in order to turn theory into productive forces in the hand of men.

Geography and Climatic Influences

What Buckle did not understand, historical materialism emphasizes as the most important point. And if we have already seen that it never denies at all the laws of the spirit, so just as little, we understand, can it deny the laws of nature, or only the climatic laws. When has it been asserted that one could have agriculture on the North Pole’s icebergs or drive boats upon the sand dunes of the Sahara Desert? On the contrary, Marx certainly gave the most careful attention to the significance of natural forces in human production. Thus, he writes, in order to quote one more example:

“Once capitalist production is presupposed, the quantity of surplus labor will vary as the natural conditions of work, namely, also of the fruitfulness of the soil, even under identical circumstances and with given lengths of the work day. Nevertheless, the converse does not follow that the most fruitful soil is the most essential for the growth of capitalist production. It presupposes the control of nature by man. A nature which is too prodigal holds him in its hand like a child in leading strings. She does not make his own development a natural necessity. Not the tropical climate with its exuberant vegetation, but the temperate zone is the mother of capitalism. It is not the absolute fruitfulness of the soil, but its differentiation, the multiplicity of its natural products, which creates the natural basis for the social division of labor and spurs men because of a change in natural conditions, within which he lives, to diversify his particular needs, activities, means and modes of work.”

However, where nature permits the existence of men and the development of a process of social production, there the natural conditions of labor which enter into this process are seized, transformed and subordinated by it; and they lose their significance in the same measure as man’s control over nature grows. They play their part in the history of human society only through the process of production. Accordingly, it is entirely sufficient when Marx says that the modes of production of the material life, in general, condition the social, political and spiritual process of life.

In the changing modes of production is contained the changing physical factors of labor and therefore outside of them nature plays no rôle in the history of human society. In other words, this means: the same modes of production determine the process of social living in the same way, although climate, race and all particular natural conditions may be as varied as they please; and different modes of production determine the process of social life in different ways though climate, race and all particular natural conditions be most completely alike. It might be still permissible to confirm these two propositions by means of one historical example. And indeed in order to strengthen their demonstrative power, we shall choose these examples not from civilized conditions where man’s control over nature has more or less gone quite far, but from the conditions of barbarism, where man is still almost completely controlled by an incomprehensible nature which is in unfriendly opposition to him.

“One finds in all peoples with collective forms of property, altogether the same vices, passions and virtues, approximately similar customs and modes of thought, despite differences of race and climate. The conditions of art call forth the same appearances in races formed differently by natural relations.” So says Lafargue, who understands by the conditions of art in their connection, social conditions. [2]

Historical Materialism and the Future

If one says that historical materialism has already a firm and unshatterable foundation, that does not mean either that all of its conquests are incontestable or that nothing more remains to be done. Where the materialist historical method – and this is admitted – is abused, as by Schablone, it leads to the same kind of perversions in historical thought as by every Schablone. Even where, as a method, it is handled properly, the difference in talents and learning of those who employ it, or the difference in the kind of compass of the source materials at its disposal, lead to a multitude of differences in conception. Indeed, this is easily understandable, for in the field of the historical sciences, a mathematically exact proof is in general impossible. And whoever believes he can disprove the materialist method of investigating history by such “contradictions,” ought not to be disturbed in these sparrow-like enjoyments. To rational people, “contradictions” of this sort only serve as the occasion to look for a more exact and basic proof than those of the contradictory investigators. Thus from such “contradictions,” the method itself gains clarity and certainty concerning its use and results.

Nevertheless, for historical materialism, there remains infinitely much to be done until the history of mankind has been illuminated in all its numberless anastromatizations. Within the soil of bourgeois society, it can never develop its greatest power, just because its growing power is being used above all to destroy this society. It is certainly recognizable where the scientific historians of the bourgeoisie show to a certain degree the influences of historical materialism; and we have repeatedly recognized it in these sketches. Still this influence has very definite limitations. As long as there is a bourgeois class, it cannot put aside its bourgeois ideology; and Lamprecht himself, the most famous representative of the so-called “economic-historical” school, begins his History of Germany with a fundamental sketch, not of German economy, but of “German national consciousness.”

Historical idealism in its various theological, rationalistic and even naturalistic radiations, is the historical conception of the bourgeois class, as historical materialism is the historical conception of the working class. Only with the emancipation of the proletariat will historical materialism attain its fullest bloom; will history become a science in the exact sense of the word; will history become what it always should be, but has not yet ever been: a leader and teacher of mankind.


1. Kautsky, Modern Nationalism, in the Neue Zeit, V, 392ff. See also Ibid., 187ff., the essay of Guido Hammer concerning the dissolution of modern nationalities.

2. Lafargue, Economic Materialism According to the Ideas of Marx.

Last updated on 25 October 2014