George Novack’s Understanding History

Major Theories Of History
From The Greeks To Marxism

Historical materialists would be untrue to their own principles if they failed to regard their method of interpreting history as the result of a prolonged, complex and contradictory process. Mankind has been making history for a million years or more as it advanced from the primate condition to the atomic age. But a science of history capable of ascertaining the laws governing man’s collective activities over the ages is a relatively recent acquisition.

The first attempts to survey the long march of human history, study its causes, and set forth its successive stages along scientific lines were made only about 2500 years ago. This task, like so many others in the domain of theory, was originally undertaken by the Greeks.

The sense of history is a precondition for a science of history. This is not an inborn but a cultivated, historically generated capacity. The discrimination of the passage of time into a well-defined past, present and future is rooted in the evolution of the organisation of labour. Man’s awareness of life as made up of consecutive and changing events has acquired breadth and depth along with the development and diversification of social production. The calendar first appears, not among food gatherers, but in agricultural communities.

Primitive peoples from savagery to the upper stages of barbarism have as little concern for the past as for the future. What they experience and do forms part of an objective universal history. But they remain unaware of the particular place they occupy or the part they play in the progression of mankind.

The very idea of historical advancement from one stage to the next is unknown. They have no need to inquire into the motive forces of history or to mark off the phases of social development. Their collective consciousness has not reached the point of an historical outlook or a sociological insight.

The low level of their productive powers, the immaturity of their economic forms, the narrowness of their activities and the meagreness of their culture and connections are evidenced in their extremely restricted views of the course of events.

The amount of historical knowledge possessed by extremely primitive minds may be gauged from the following observations made by the Jesuit father Jacob Baegert in his Account of the Aboriginal Inhabitants of the California Peninsula written 200 years ago. “No Californian is acquainted with the events that occurred in the country prior to his birth, nor does he even know who his parents were if he should happen to have lost them during his infancy—The Californians—believed that California constituted the whole world, and they themselves its sole inhabitants; for they went to nobody, and nobody came to see them, each little people remaining within the limits of its small district.”

In pre-Spanish times they marked only one repetitive event, the pitahaya fruit harvest. Thus a space of three years is called three pitahayas. “Yet they seldom make use of such phrases, because they hardly ever speak among themselves of years, but merely say, ‘long ago’, or ‘not long ago’, being utterly indifferent whether two or 20 years have elapsed since the occurrence of a certain event.”

Until several thousand years ago, peoples took their own particular organisation of social relations for granted. It appeared to them as fixed and final as the heavens and earth and as natural as their eyes and ears. The earliest men did not even distinguish themselves from the rest of nature or draw a sharp line of demarcation between themselves and other living creatures in their habitat. It took a far longer time for them to learn to distinguish between what belonged to nature and what belonged to society.

So long as social relations remain simple and stable, changing extremely slowly and almost imperceptibly over vast stretches of time, society melts into the background of nature and does not stand out in sharp contrast from it. Nor do the experiences of one generation differ much from another. If the familiar organisation with its traditional routine is disrupted, it either vanishes or is rebuilt on the old pattern. Moreover, surrounding communities, so far as they are known (and acquaintance does not extend very far either in space or time), are much the same. Before the arrival of the Europeans, the North American Indian could travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific, or the Australian native thousands of miles, without encountering radically different types of human societies.

Under such circumstances, neither society in general nor one’s own special mode of living is looked upon as a peculiar object which is worth special attention and study. The need for theorising about history or the nature of society does not arise until civilisation is well advanced and sudden, violent, and far-reaching upheavals in social relations take place during the lifetime of individuals or within the memories of their elders.

When swift strides are taken from one form of social structure to another, the old days and ways stand out in startling contrast, and even conflict, with the new. Through trade, travel and war, the representatives of the expanding social system undergoing construction or reconstruction come into contact with peoples of quite different customs on lower levels of culture.

More immediately, glaring differences in the conditions of life within their own communities and bitter conflicts between antagonistic classes induce thoughtful men who have the means for such pursuits to speculate on the origins of such oppositions, to compare the various kinds of societies and governments, and to try and arrange them in an order of succession or worth.

The English historian M.I. Finley makes a similar point in reviewing three recent books on the ancient East in the August 20, 1965, New Statesman : “The presence or absence of a ‘historical sense’ is nothing less than an intellectual reflection of the very wide differences in the historical process itself.”

He cites the Marxist scholar, Professor D.D. Kosambi, who attributes “the total lack of historical sense” in ancient India to the narrow outlook of village life bound up with its mode of agricultural production. “The succession of seasons is all important, while there is little cumulative change to be noted in the village from year to year. This gives the general feeling of ‘the Timeless East’ to foreign observers.”

The other civilised peoples of the ancient Near and Middle East likewise lacked a sense of history. There is nothing, notes Professor Leo Oppenhelm, “that would attest the awareness of the scribes of the existence of a historical continuum in the Mesopotamian civilisation”. This is confirmed by the fact that “the longest and most explicit Assyrian royal inscriptions—were embedded in the substructure of a temple or a palace, safe from human eyes and only to be read by the deity to whom they were addressed”.

The main preconditions for an historical outlook upon history in the West were brought into being from about 1100 to 700 BC by the transition from the Bronze to the Iron Age in the Middle East and Aegean civilisations. The comparatively self-sufficient agricultural kingdoms and settlements were supplemented or supplanted by bustling commercial centres, especially in the Phoenician and Ionian ports of Asia Minor. There new classes—merchants, shipowners, manufacturers, artisans, seafarers—came to the fore and challenged the institutions, ideas and power of the old landed gentry. Patriarchal slavery became transformed into chattel slavery. Commodity relations, metal money, mortgage debt corroded the archaic social structures. The first democratic revolutions and oligarchic counterrevolutions were hatched in the city states.

The Ionian Greeks, who set down the first true written histories, were associates of traders, engineers, craftsmen and voyagers. The pioneer of Western historians, Hecaeteus, lived in the same commercial city of Miletus as the first philosophers and scientists and belonged to the same materialist trend of thought.

The writing of history soon engendered interest in the science of history. Once the habit of viewing events in their sequence of change was established, the questions arose: How did history unfold? Was there any discernible pattern in its flux? If so, what was it? And what were its causes?

The first really rational explanation of the historical process as a whole was given by the outstanding Greek historians from Herodotus to Polybius. This was the cyclical conception of historical movement. According to this view, society, like nature, passed through identical patterns of development in periodically repeated rounds.

Thucydides, the pre-eminent Greek historian, declared that he had written his record of the Peloponnesian wars to teach men its lessons since identical events were bound to happen again. Plato taught the doctrine of the Great Year at the end of which the planets would occupy the same positions as before and all sublunary events would be reduplicated. This conception was expressed as a popular axiom in Ecclesiastes: “There is no new thing under the sun.”

The cyclical character of human affairs was closely affiliated with the conception of an all-powerful, inscrutable, inflexible Destiny which came to replace the gods as the sovereign of history. This was mythologised in the persons of the Three Fates and further rationalised by learned men as the ultimate law of life. This notion of cosmic tragic fate from which human appeal or escape is impossible not only became the major theme of the classic Greek dramatists but is also embedded in the historical work of Herodotus.

Comparisons with other peoples, or between Greek states in different stages of social, economic, and political development, produced a comparative history along with the first inklings of historical progression. As early as the eighth century BC the poet Hesiod talked about the copper age that had preceded the iron one. Several centuries later Herodotus, the first anthropologist as well as the father of history, gathered valuable information on the customs of the Mediterranean peoples living in savagery, barbarism and civilisation. Thucydides pointed out that the Greeks once lived as the barbarians did in his own time. Plato in his Republic , Laws and other writings, and Aristotle in his Politics , collected specimens of different forms of state rule. They named, classified and criticised them. They sought to ascertain not only the best mode of government for the city state but also the order of their forms of development and the causes of political variation and revolution.

Polybius, the Greek historian of the rise of the Roman empire, viewed it as the prize example of the natural laws which regulated the cyclical transformation of one governmental form into another. He believed, like Plato, that all states inevitably passed through the phases of kingship, aristocracy and democracy which degenerated into their allied forms of despotism, oligarchy and mob rule. The generation and degeneration of these successive stages of rulership was due to natural causes. “This is the regular cycle of constitutional revolutions, and the natural order in which institutions change, are transformed, and return to their original stage”, he wrote.

Just as they knew and named the major kinds of political organisation from monarchy to democracy, so did the Greek thinkers of both the idealist and materialist schools originate the basic types of historical interpretation which have endured to the present day.

They were the first to try to explain the evolution of society along materialist lines, however crude and awkward were their initial efforts. The Atomists, the Sophists and the Hippocratic school of medicine put forward the idea that the natural environment was the decisive factor in the moulding of mankind. In its extreme expressions this trend of thought reduced social-historical changes to the effects of the geographical theatre and its climatic conditioning. Thus Polybius wrote: “We mortals have an irresistible tendency to yield to climatic influences; and to this cause, and no other, may be traced the great distinctions which prevail among us in character, physical formation and complexion, as well as in most of our habits, varying with nationality and wide local separation.”

These earliest sociologists taught that mankind had climbed from savagery to civilisation by imitating nature and improving upon her operations. The finest exponent of this materialist view in Graeco-Roman culture was Lucretius who gave a brilliant sketch of the steps in the development of society in his poem On The Nature of Things .

Predominant among the Greek thinkers, however, were the sorts of explanation which have ever since been the stock in trade of the historical idealists. There were five of these.

1. The Great God Theory. The most primitive attempts to explain the origin and development of the world and man are the creation myths to be found among preliterate peoples. We are best acquainted with the one in Genesis which ascribes the making of heaven and earth with all its features and creatures to a Lord God who worked on a six-day schedule. These fanciful stories do not have any scientific validity.

The raw materials for genuine history-writing were first collected in the annals of the reigns and chronicles of kings in the river valley civilisations of the Near East, India and China. The first synthetic conception of history arose from the fusion of elements taken over from the old creation myths with a review of these records. This was the Great God, or theological version of history which asserted that divine beings directed human affairs together with the rest of the cosmos.

Just as the royal despots dominated the city states and their empires, so the will, passions, plans and needs of the gods were the ultimate causes of events. The king is the agent who maintains the world in being by means of an annual contest with the powers of chaos. This theological theory was elaborated by the Sumerians, Babylonians and Egyptians before it came down to the Greeks and Romans. It was expounded in the Israelite scriptures whence it was taken over and reshaped by the Christian and Mohammedan religions and their states.

Under the theocratic monarchies of the East the divine guidance of human affairs was wrapped up with the godlike nature of the priest-king. In Babylon, Egypt, the Alexandrian Empire and Rome the supreme ruling force of the universe and the forceful ruler of the realm were regarded as equally divine. The Great God and the Great Man were one and the same.

2. The Great Man Theory. The straightforward theological view of history is too crude and naive, too close to primitive animism, too much in conflict with civilised enlightenment to persist without criticism or change except among the most ignorant and devout. It has been supplanted by more refined versions of the same type of thinking.

The Great Man theory emerged from a dissociation of the dual components of the Great God theory. The immense powers attributed to the gods become transferred to and concentrated in some figure at the head of the state, the church or other key institution or movement. This exceptionally placed personage was supposedly endowed with the capacity for moulding events as he willed. This is the pristine source of the tenacious belief that unusually influential and able individuals determine the main direction of history.

Fetishistic worship of the Great Man has come down through the ages from the god-kings of Mesopotamia to the adoration of a Hitler. It has had numerous incarnations according to the values attached at different times by different people to the various domains of social activity. In antiquity these ranged from the divine monarch, the tyrant, the lawgiver (Solon), the military conqueror (Alexander), the dictator (Caesar), the hero-emancipator (David), and the religious leader (Christ, Buddha, Mohammed). All these were put in the place of the Almighty as the prime mover and shaper of human history.

The most celebrated latter-day expounder of this viewpoint was Carlyle who wrote: “Universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at bottom the history of the great men who have worked here.”

3. The Great Mind Theory. A more sophisticated and philosophical variant of the Great God-Man line of thought is the notion that history is drawn forward or driven ahead by some ideal force in order to realise its preconceived ends. The Greek Anaxagoras said: “Reason (Nous ) governs the world.” Aristotle held that the prime mover of the universe and thereby the ultimate animator of everything within it was God, who was defined as pure mind engaged in thinking about itself.

Hegel was the foremost modern exponent of this theory that the progress of mankind consisted in the working out and consummation of an idea. He wrote: “Spirit, or Mind, is the only motive principle of history.” The underlying goal of the World Spirit and the outcome of its laborious development was the realisation of the idea of freedom.

The Great Mind Theory easily slides into the notion that some set of brilliant intellects, or even one mental genius, supplies the mainspring of human advancement. Plato taught that there are “some natures who ought to study philosophy and to be leaders in the state; and others who are not born to be philosophers, and are meant to be followers rather than leaders”.

Thus some 18th century rationalists who believed that “opinion governs mankind” looked toward an enlightened monarch to introduce the necessary progressive reconstruction of the state and society. A more widespread manifestation of this approach contrasts to the unthinking mob some upper stratum of the population as the exemplar of reason which alone can be entrusted with political leadership and power.

4. The Best People Theory. All such interpretations contain infusions of the prejudice that some elite, the Best Race, the favoured nation, the ruling class alone make history. The Old Testament assumed that the Israelites were God’s chosen people. The Greeks regarded themselves as the acme of culture, better in all respects than the barbarians. Plato and Aristotle looked upon the slave-holding aristocracy as naturally superior to the lower orders.

5. The Human Nature Theory. Most persistent is the view that history in the last analysis has been determined by the qualities of human nature, good or bad. Human nature, like nature itself, was regarded as rigid and unchanging from one generation to another. The historian’s task was to demonstrate what these invariant traits of the human constitution and character were, how the course of history exemplified them, and how the social structure was moulded or had to be remodelled in accordance with them. Such a definition of essential human nature was the starting point for the social theorising of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle and other great idealists.

But it will also be found at the bottom of the social and political philosophy of the most diverse schools. Thus the empiricist David Hume flatly asserts in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding : “Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature.”

Many of the 19th century pathfinders in the social sciences clung to this old standby of “the constant and universal principles of human nature”. For example, E.B. Tylor, the founder of British anthropology, wrote in 1889: “Human institutions, like stratified rocks, succeed each other in series substantially uniform over the globe, independent of what seems the comparatively superficial differences of race and language, but shaped by similar human nature.”

Although they may have held different opinions of what the essential qualities of humanity were, idealist and materialist thinkers alike have appealed in the last resort to permanent principles of human nature to explain social and historical phenomena. Thus the materialist-minded Thucydides, as M.I Finley tells us in his introduction to The Greek Historians , believed that “human nature and human behaviour were—essentially fixed qualities, the same in one century as another”.

For many centuries after the Greeks, scientific insight into the workings of history made little progress. Under Christianity and feudalism the theological conception that history was the manifestation of God’s plan monopolised social philosophy. In contrast to the stagnation of science in Western Europe, the Moslems and Jews carried forward the social as well as the natural sciences. The most original and unsurpassed student of social processes between the ancients and moderns was the 14th century thinker of the Maghreb, Ibn Khaldun who analysed the stages of development of the Mohammedan countries and cultures and the causes of their typical institutions and features in the most materialist manner of his epoch.

This eminent Moslem statesman was very likely the first scholar to formulate a clear conception of sociology, the science of social development. He did so under the name of the study of culture.

He wrote: “History is the record of human society, or world civilisation; of the changes that take place in the nature of that society, such as savagery, sociability, and group solidarity; of revolutions and uprisings by one set of people against another with the resulting kingdoms and states, with their various ranks; of the different activities and occupations of men, whether for gaining their livelihood or in the various sciences and crafts; and, in general, of all the transformations that society undergoes by its very nature.”

The next big advance in scientific understanding of history came with the rise of bourgeois society and the discovery of other regions of the globe associated with its commercial and naval expansion. In their conflicts with the ruling feudal hierarchy and the Church the intellectual spokesmen for progressive bourgeois forces rediscovered and reasserted the ideas of class struggle first noted by the Greeks and instituted historical comparisons with antiquity to bolster their claims. Their new revolutionary views demanded not only a wider outlook upon the world but a deeper probing into the mechanism of social change.

Such bold representatives of bourgeois thought as Machiavelli and Vico in Italy, Hobbes, Harrington, Locke and the classical economists in England, the Scottish school of Adam Ferguson, Voltaire, Rousseau, Montesquieu, D’Holbach and others in France helped accumulate the materials and clear the site for a more realistic picture of society and a more rigorous understanding of its modes and stages of development.

On a much higher level of social and scientific development, historical thought from the 17th to the 19th centuries tended to become polarised, as in Greece, between idealist and materialist modes of explanation. Both schools of thought were animated by a common aim. They believed that history had an intelligible character and that the nature and sources of its laws could be ascertained.

Theological interpreters like Bishop Bossuet continued to see God as the director of the historical procession. While most other thinkers did not dispute that divine providence ultimately shaped the course of events, they were far more concerned with the mundane ways and means through which history operated.

Giambattista Vico of Naples was the great pioneer among these thinkers. He asserted at the beginning of the 18th century that since history, or “the world of nations”, had been created by men, it could be understood by its makers. He emphasised that social and cultural phenomena passed through a regular sequence of stages which was cyclical in character.

He insisted that “the order of ideas must follow the order of things” and that the “order of human things” was “first the forests, after that the huts, thence the village, next the cities and finally the academies”. His “new science” of history sought to discover and apply “the universal and eternal principles—on which all nations were founded, and still preserve themselves”. Vico brings forward the class struggle in his interpretation of history, especially in the heroic age represented by the conflict between the plebeians and patricians of ancient Rome.

The materialistic theorists who came after Vico in Western Europe looked for these “universal and eternal principles” which determined history in very different quarters than the idealists. But neither school doubted that history, like nature, was subject to general laws which the philosopher of history was obligated to find.

The key thought of the English and French materialists of the 17th and 18th centuries was that men were the products of their natural and social environments. As Charles Brockden Brown, an American novelist of the early 19th century, put it: “Human beings are moulded by the circumstances in which they are placed.” In accord with this principle, they turned to the objective realities of nature and society to explain the historical process.

Montesquieu, for example, regarded geography and government as the twin principal determinants of history and society. The physical factor was most influential in the earlier and more primitive stages of human existence, although its operation never ceased; the political factor became more dominant as civilisation advanced.

He and his contemporary materialists largely ignored the economic conditions which stood between nature and the political institutions. The economic basis and background of political systems and the struggles of contending classes which issued from economic contradictions were beyond their field of vision.

The French historians of the early 19th century acquired a deeper insight into the economic conditioning of the historical process through their studies of the English and French revolutions. They had watched the French revolution go through a complete cycle. This started with the overthrow of the absolute monarchy, passed through the revolutionary regime of Robespierre and the bourgeois-military dictatorship of Napoleon and ended in the Bourbon Restoration. In the light of these vicissitudes they learned the crucial role of class struggles in pushing history forward and pointed to sweeping shifts in property ownership as the prime cause of social overturns. But they remained unable to uncover the fundamental determinants which led to the reconstruction and replacement of property relations as well as political forms.

Many leading philosophers of the bourgeois era had a materialist view of nature and man’s relations with the world around him. But none of them succeeded in working out a consistent or comprehensive conception of society and history along materialist lines. At a certain point in their analyses they departed from materialist premises and procedures, attributing the ultimate causal agencies of human affairs to an invariant human nature, a farseeing human reason, or a great individual.

What was generally responsible for their inability to reach bedrock and their deviation into nonmaterialist types of explanation in the fundamental areas of historical and social determination? As bourgeois thinkers, they were hemmed in and held back by the inescapable restrictions of the capitalist horizon. So long as the ascending bourgeoisie was on its way to supremacy, its most enlightened ideologists had a passionate and persistent interest in boring deeply into economic, social and political realities. After the bourgeoisie had consolidated its position as the ruling class, its thinkers shrank from probing to the bottom of social and political processes. They became more and more sluggish and shortsighted in the fields of sociology and history because discovery of the underlying causes of change in these fields could only threaten the continuance of capitalist domination.

One big barrier to the deepening of social science was their tacit assumption that bourgeois society and its main institutions embodied the highest attainable form of social organisation. All previous societies led up to that point and stopped there. There was apparently no progressive exit from the capitalist system. That is why the ideologists of the English bourgeoisie from Locke to Ricardo and Spencer tried to fit their conceptions of the meaning of all social phenomena into the categories and relations of that transitory order. This narrowness made it equally difficult for them to decipher the past, get to the bottom of their present, and foresee the future.

Idealistic interpretations of history were promulgated and promoted by numerous theorists from Leibnitz to Fichte. Their work was consummated by Hegel. In the early decades of the 19th century Hegel revolutionised the understanding of world history, placing it at the widest vantage point of the bourgeois era. His contributions may be summed up in thirteen points.

1. Hegel approached all historical phenomena from the standpoint of their evolution, seeing them as moments, elements, phases in a single creative, cumulative, progressive and ceaseless process of becoming.

2. Since the world about him, which he called “objective mind”, was the work of man, he, like Vico, was convinced that it was intelligible and could be explicated by the inquiring mind.

3. He conceived history as a universal process in which all social formations, nations and persons had their appropriate but subordinate place. No single state or people dominated world history; each was to be judged by its role in the development of the totality.

4. He asserted that the historical process was essentially rational. It had an immanent logic which unfolded in a law-governed manner defined by the dialectical process. Each stage of the whole was a necessary product of the circumstances of its time and place.

5. Every essential element of each stage hung together as components of a unified whole which expressed the dominant principle of its age. Each stage makes its own unique contribution to the advancement of mankind.

6. The truth about history is concrete. As the Russian thinker Chernyshevsky wrote: “Every object, every phenomenon has its own significance, and it must be judged according to the circumstances, the environment, in which it exists—A definite judgment can be pronounced only about a definite fact, after examining all the circumstances on which it depends.”

7. History changes in a dialectical manner. Each stage of social development has had sufficient reasons for coming into existence. It has a contradictory constitution, arising from three different elements. These are the durable achievements inherited from its predecessors, the special conditions required for its own maintenance, and the opposing forces at work within itself. The development of its internal antagonisms supplies its dynamism and generates its growth. The sharpening of its contradictions leads to its disintegration and eventual dispossession by a higher and antithetical form which grows out of it by way of a revolutionary leap.

8. Thus all grades of social organisation are interlinked in a dialectically determined series from lower to higher.

9. Hegel brought forward the profound truth later developed by historical materialism that labour is imposed upon man as the consequence of his needs and that man is the historical product of his own labour.

10. History is full of irony. It has an overall objective logic which confounds its most powerful participants and organisations. Although the heads of states apply definite policies, and peoples and individuals consciously pursue their own aims, historical actuality does not fall into line or accord with their plans. The course and outcome of history is determined by overriding internal necessities which are independent of the will and consciousness of any of its institutional or personal agencies. Man proposes—the historical necessity of the Idea disposes.

11. The outcome of history, the result of its agonising labour, is the growth of rational freedom. Man’s freedom comes not from arbitrary, wilful intervention in events, but from growing insight into the necessities of the objective, universal, contradictory processes of becoming.

12. The necessities of history are not always the same; they change into their opposites as one stage succeeds another. In fact, this conflict of lower and higher necessities is the generator of progress. A greater and growing necessity is at work within the existing order negating the conditions which sustain it. This necessity keeps depriving the present necessity of its reasons for existence, expands at its expense, renders it obsolete and eventually displaces it.

13. Not only do social formations and their specific dominant principles change from one stage to the next but so do the specific laws of development.

This method of interpreting history was far more correct, all-encompassing and profound than any of its predecessors. Yet it suffered from two ineradicable flaws. First, it was incurably idealistic. Hegel pictured history as the product of abstract principles which represented differing degrees of the ceaseless contest between servitude and freedom. Man’s freedom was gradually realised through this dialectical development of the Absolute Idea.

Such a logic of history was an intellectualised version of the notion that God directs the universe and history is the fulfilment of His design, which in this case is the freedom of humanity. As envisaged by Hegel, this freedom was not realised through the emancipation of mankind from oppressive and servile social conditions but from the overcoming of false, inadequate ideas.

Second, Hegel closed the gates on the further development of history by having it culminate in fact with the German kingdom and the bourgeois society of his own era. The exponent of a universal and never-ending history concluded that its ultimate agent was the national state, a characteristic product of its bourgeois phase. And in its monarchical form, modified by a constitution! He mistook a transient creation of history for its final and perfected embodiment. By thus setting limits upon the process of becoming, he violated the fundamental tenet of his own dialectic.

These defects prevented Hegel from arriving at the true nature of social relations and the principal causes of social change. However, his epoch-making insights have influenced all subsequent thought and writing about history. With the indispensable revisions, they have all been incorporated into the structure of historical materialism.

Hegel, the idealist dialectician, was the foremost theorist of the evolutionary process as a whole. The French social thinkers and historians carried the materialist understanding of history and society as far as it could go in their day. But even within their own provinces both fell short. Hegel could not provide a satisfactory theory of social evolution and the materialists did not penetrate to the most basic moving forces of history.

Not until the truthful elements in these two contrary lines of thought converged and combined in the minds of Marx and Engels in the middle of the 19th century was a rounded conception of history produced that was solidly anchored in the dialectical development of the material conditions of social existence from the emergence of early man to contemporary life.

All the different types of historical explanation cast up in the evolution of man’s thought survive today. Not one has been permanently buried, no matter how outmoded, inadequate or scientifically incorrect it is. The oldest interpretations can be revived and reappear in modern dress to serve some social need or stratum.

What bourgeois nation has not proclaimed in time of war that “God is on our side”, guiding its destiny? The Great Man theory strutted about under the swastika in the homage paid to Hitler. Spengler in Germany and Toynbee in England offer their re-editions of the cyclical round of history. The school of geopolitics makes geographical conditions in the shape of the heartland and the outlying regions into the paramount determinant of modern history.

Nazi Germany, Verwoerd’s South Africa and the Southern white supremacists exalt the master race into the dictator of history in its crudest form. The conception that human nature must be the basis of social structure is the last-ditch defence of the opponents of socialism as well as the point of departure for the utopian socialism of the American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and others.

Finally, the notion that reason is the motive force in history is shared by all sorts of savants. The American anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser stated in Early Civilisation : “Thus the whole of civilisation, if followed backward step by step, would ultimately be found resolvable, without residue, into bits of ideas in the minds of individuals.” Here ideas and individuals are the creative factors of history.

In describing his philosophy, the Italian thinker Croce wrote: “History is the record of the creations of the human spirit in every field, theoretical as well as practical. And these spiritual creations are always born in the hearts and minds of men of genius, artists, thinkers, men of action, moral and religious reformers.” This position combines idealism with elitism, the spirit using geniuses, or the creative minority, as the agency which redeems the masses.

These diverse elements of historical interpretation can appear in the most incongruous combinations in a given country, school of thought or individual mind. Stalinism has provided the most striking example of such an illogical synthesis. The votaries of “the personality cult” sought to fuse the traditions and views of Marxism, the most modern and scientific philosophy, with the archaic Great Man version of the contemporary historical process.

Except in Maoist China, this odd and untenable amalgam of ideas has already crumbled. Yet it demonstrates how generalised thought about the historical process can retrogress after making an immense leap forward. The history of historical science proves in its own way that progress is not even or persistent throughout history. Thucydides, the narrator of the Peloponnesian Wars in the fourth century BC, had a far more realistic view of history than did St. Augustine, the celebrator of the City of God, in the fourth century AD.

Marxism has incorporated into its theory of social development not only the verified findings of modern scientific research but all the insights into history of its philosophical predecessors, whether materialist, idealist or eclectic, which have proved valid and viable. To do otherwise would flout the mandate of its own method which teaches that every school of thought, every stage of scientific knowledge, is an outgrowth of the past work of men modified and sometimes revolutionised by the prevailing conditions and concepts of their existence. Scientific inquiry into history and society, like the process of history itself, has given positive, permanent and progressive results.

At the same time Marxism rejects all versions of antiquated theories which have failed to provide an adequate or correct explanation of the origins and evolution of society. It does not deny that historical idealisms contain significant ingredients of truth and can even exhibit a forward march. The main trend of their progression since the Greeks has been from heaven to earth, from God to man, from the imaginary to the real. Individuals, influential or insignificant, and ideas, innovating or traditional, are essential parts of society; their roles in the making of history have to be taken into account.

The idealists rightly pay attention to these factors. Where they go wrong is in claiming decisive importance for them in the total process of historical determination. Their method confines their analyses to the outer layers of the social structure so that they remain on the surface of events. Science has to delve into the nuclear core of society where the real forces which determine the direction of history are at work.

Historical materialism turns away from the Divine Director, the Great Man, the Universal Mind, the Intellectual Genius, the Elite, and an unchanging and uniformly acting Human Nature for its explanation of history. The formation, reformation and transformation of social structures over the past million years cannot be understood by recourse to any supernatural beings, ideal agencies, petty personal or invariant causes.

God didn’t create the world and hasn’t superintended the development of mankind. On the contrary, man created the idea of the gods as a fantasy to compensate for lack of real control over the forces of nature and of society.

Man made himself by acting upon nature and changing its elements to satisfy his needs through the labour process. Man has worked his way up in the world. The further development and diversification of the labour process from savagery to our present civilisation has continued to transform his capacities and characteristics.

History is not the achievement of outstanding individuals, no matter how powerful, gifted or strategically placed. As early as the French Revolution Condorcet protested against this narrow elitist view which disregarded both what moves the mass of the human race and how the masses rather than the masters make history. “Up to now, the history of politics, like that of philosophy or of science, has been the history of only a few individuals: That which really constitutes the human race, the vast mass of families living for the most part on the fruits of their labour, has been forgotten, and even of those who follow public professions, and work not for themselves but for society, who are engaged in teaching, ruling, protecting or healing others, it is only the leaders who have held the eye of the historian”, he wrote.

Marxism builds on this insight that history is the result of the collective actions of multitudes, of mass effort extending over prolonged periods within the framework of the powers of production they have received and extended and the modes of production they have created, built up and revolutionised.

It is not elites but the many-membered body of the people who have sustained history, switched it in new directions at critical turning points, and lifted humanity upward step by step.

History has not been generated nor has its course been guided by preconceived ideas in any mind. Social systems have not been constructed by architects with blueprints in hand. History has not proceeded in accord with any prior plan. Socio-economic formations have grown out of the productive forces at hand; its members have fashioned their relations, customs, institutions and ideas in accordance with their organisation of labour.

Human nature cannot explain the course of events or the characteristics of social life. It is the changes in the conditions of life and labour which underlie the making and remaking of our human nature.

In the introduction to the English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific Engels defined historical materialism as “that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes, and in the struggles of these classes against one another”.

These are the prime principles from which the rest of Marxist theory about the historical process is derived. They have come from two and half millennia of inquiry into the laws of human activity and social development. They represent its most valid conclusions. Historical materialism is itself the synthetic product of historically elaborated facts and ideas which are rooted in the economy and come to fruition in the science of society taken in the full span of its development.