Georgi Plekhanov

Essays on the History of Materialism



Holbach was a thorough-going and even pedantic theorist of the bourgeoisie. He fulminated against “the Pope and the Bishops, who have prescribed holidays and forced the people to become idle.” He was out to show that success in trade and industry was incompatible with the morals of a religion “whose founder anathematised the rich and denied them entry into the Kingdom of Heaven”. For his part, Holbach inveighed against “this innumerable multitude of priests, coenobites, friars and nuns, who have no other functions than raising their idle hands to heaven, and praying night and day to gain favours for society”. He rebelled against the Catholic fasts because “Powers that the Roman Catholics regard as heretical are almost the only ones to profit from the abstinence from meat; the English sell them cod, and the Dutch herrings.” [57] All this was only “natural”. But, when Holbach, like Voltaire and many others, missed no opportunity of referring to the story of the two thousand swine that were drowned by devils with the consent of Jesus Christ; when he reproached the mythical founder of Christianity for his lack of respect for private property; when he spoke in the same tones against the apostles, who often picked ears of corn in fields that did not belong to them; when he became briefly reconciled to Christ for the sole reason that the “Son of Man” did not keep the Sabbath holy [58] – he was being pedantic and most ridiculous, revealing a total absence of any understanding of history.

Holbach saw the bourgeoisie, whose spokesman and defender he was, as the most honest, diligent, noble and educated part of the nation. He would have been horrified by the bourgeoisie of today. “Avarice” (he is referring to “cupidity”) “is an ignoble, selfish and anti-social passion, and is therefore incompatible with genuine patriotism, love of the general weal, and even with true liberty. Everything is venal in a people infected with this iilthy epidemic; the only thing wanted is to strike the right bargain.” [59] This is highly reminiscent of Sallust but we could, at the same time, say that the scandals now following one another in rapid succession in France, Germany and Italy [17*], and generally wherever the bourgeoisie has matured for its termination, were foreseen by our philosopher. “There is nothing crueller in the world than a trader excited by rapacity, as soon as he becomes the strongest, and when he is sure that his useful crimes will be applauded by his country”. [60] Indeed, there is not! We know that far better than our worthy “philosophers” ever did!

In most cases, Holbach regarded “wealth” from the viewpoint of the declamatory reciter, who says, “Riches corrupt morals”. He, who had attacked “religious morals” on behalf of wealth, then rose up against rapacity on behalf of “virtue”.; “Only extreme vigilance”, he says, “can prevent or at least slave off the evils that this passion entails.” [61] While standing for the absolute freedom of circulation “(In a word, commerce demands the fullest liberty; the freer commerce is, the wider its spread. Government should do nothing for the merchant but abstain from interference in his action.” [62]), he tried to prove that politics should do everything possible to prevent any multiplication of its subjects’ needs (“these will end up in becoming insatiable unless prudence places limits to them” [63]). He called for State interference, and became a protectionist, almost a reactionary. “... We shall call useful that commerce which supplies the nations with the things necessary for their subsistence, their prime needs, and even for their comfort and their content; we shall call useless and dangerous that commerce which provides citizens only with things they stand in no real need of, and that are fit only to satisfy the imaginary needs of their vanity.” Holbach would have gone to any length to subdue that “vanity”, which, in his words, spreads even to the countryside, this by the agency of lackeys, and of luxury, which corrupts “morals” (mceurs) and leads to the ruin of the most flourishing nations [64]. The home market’is the most natural one for a country’s industrial products, and industry should be assured that market. Holbach could not understand the “senseless fever to discover new fields of trade”, as a result of which “the globe is no longer vast enough for the frenzied merchant”, and nations are ready to cut each other’s throats for some strips of sand where their greed makes them see treasures. [65] He couldnot find terms strong enough to admonish the “people of Albion”, who, he thought, “have set themselves the extravagant aim of encroaching upon the world’s trade and becoming owners of the seas”. [66] He was afraid of excessive inequality in the distribution of wealth, which he considerd a source of many evils in society. Ho came out in defence of small farms; he thought that British farms were too large, this often leading to the tenant farmers becoming “monopolists”. [67] The interests of the State are always linked with those of the greatest number; they demand that many citizens should be active, usefully occupied, and enjoying circumstances that permit them to supply the needs of the country without detriment to themselves. “There is no Fatherland for a man who possesses nothing ...” [68]

It will easily be seen that our philosopher could not have found to bis liking the social condition of Britain, where the bourgeoisie had already carried out its “Glorious Revolution”. He spoke of that country with the greatest, distaste. “It is not enough to be rich to be happy,” he said. “The ability is also needed to make use of riches in a way conducive to felicity. It is not enough to be free so as to be happy; freedom should not he abused ... it should not be made unjust use of.” In this sense the British left much to be desired. “A people without morals”, “a people unjust towards others”; “a people inflamed by a thirst for gold”, “a conqueror people”, “a people hostile to the freedom of others”, “a venal, vicious and corrupt nation” – that was how Holbach saw the British. It was against them that he addressed one of his capucinades on virtue: “Then, O Britons! Cultivate wisdom and reason; engage in perfecting your government and your laws ... Eschew luxury, which is fatal to morals and to liberty. Dread the effects of religious and political fanaticism,” etc., etc. [69]

Incidentally, the British social scene often impelled him towards a mode of thinking greatly more far-going than what we have just quoted. He insisted, for instance, that the heavy taxation for the benefit of the poor had not, and could not have reduced the number of the British poor. “It is only too true,” he exclaimed, “that nations where the greatest riches are to be found contain a greater number of unfortunate people than happy ones. It is only too true that commerce enriches only a few citizens, while leaving the rest in poverty!” [70]

All these thoughts might well seem muddled and contradictory, but – we shall again note this – it should not be forgotten that we are dealing with a theorist of the bourgeoisie, which was then a revolutionary class and therefore capable of harbouring noble feelings. It – or rather its finest representatives, people with hearts and minds, “thinkers”, as Holbach put it – dreamt of the rule of Reason, universal happiness, the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Could they not but feel aversion for the inescapable consequences of their own social leanings? Could not that aversion only make them fall into a contradiction with themselves? Show a beautiful young girl an ugly, untidy and disease-bent old hag. She will be horrified, yet she will be in a hurry to live, i.e., grow old, i.e., horrify others, in their turn. An old but ever new occurrence!

Anybody who wishes to gain a concrete idea of the psychology of the eighteenth-century French philosophers might do well to address himself to Russian writers of a period from the end of the reign of the Emperor Nicholas I down to our own days. He will see the same absence of any understanding of history, the same capucinades, and the same contradictions! True, there have also heen socialists among the Russian writers of this period, such as Chernyshevsky, but there have also been many who have come out against the “bourgeoisie” only by some misunderstanding, since they have been incapable of appraising the significance of their own demands. Our “legal” writers very often want exactly what Holbach and his friends did, but they are naive enough to consider it socialism. The great Frenchmen were prepared to swear that this was philosophy. For our part, we are convinced that the rose has the same scent whatever name it goes by.

While Holbach often held the economic views advanced by the Physiocrats, whom he was constantly lauding [71] he did not share their predilection for “lawful despotism”. He was a zealous supporter of representative government. To him despotism was in no way a form of rule: “Despotism can be regarded only as an unequal struggle between one or several armed brigands, and a defenceless society.” [72] Our philosopher asked himself several “natural questions”, which would have found understanding in the French Constituent Assembly. These highly characteristic questions were as follows:

“Should the whole yield to its part? Should the will of one man sway the will of all? Is there, in any society, a privileged being that can dispense with the duty of being useful? Is the Sovereign the only person free of the ties that bind all the others together? Can one man bind together all the rest, without himself being bound by them? Is thej possession of a Sovereign Power, which is unjust in origin, maintained by force and tolerated only because of weakness, a title that can never be destroyed by justice, reason and force?”

This is reminiscent of the well-known expression: “We shall ourselves become conquerors.” [18*] The following passage reminds one of another scene of the Great Revolution: “The Supreme Power is nothing more than a war of one against all as soon as the Monarch transgresses the bounds prescribed to him by the will of the people.” What could be said in objection to this in a hall for ball games? [19*] Almost all of Holbach’s writings were imbued with an inflexible hatred for despotism. It is palpable that what underlay everything he said on this matter was sad reality, not some kind of abstract theory. In just the same way, it is not abstract theory but rather the sad reality that made him appeal to liberty – that “daughter of justice and law”, “the object of love for all noble hearts”. He often seemed to sense the approach of the political storm. “The citizen,” he wrote, “cannot, without shirking his duty, refuse to side with his country against the tyrant who oppresses it.” Who can tell? Perhaps, before being committed to paper, these words were uttered and taken up at some philosophy discussion at Holbach’s home where, according to Morellet, things were said for which the house would have been struck by lightning at least a hundred times if such flashes could have followed from such causes. Diderot was probably in agreement with Holbach, and went even further. Grimm perhaps applauded in approval ... Poor man! He was to change his views when the storm burst, not in a richly appointed salon but on a vast historical arena.

Indeed, would Holbach’s behaviour have been any better after Augus 10? [20*] Would he have repeated at a Jacobin assembly “is not a tyrant the most odious creature that crime could beget?[73] Frankly speaking, we have no information on this score, but it is more than probable that he would have had no truck with the “rabid” Republicans and would have regarded them also as tyrants and foes to the Fatherland, fanatics and political frauds.

Holbach had a respect for liberty, but he was afraid of “ disturbances”, and was convinced that, “in politics just as in medicine, drastic remedies were always dangerous”. He would have willingly had dealings with a monarch, if only the latter were in the least “virtuous”. Though he said that such sovereigns were very rare meteors, he was constantly dreaming of a “sage on the throne”. There was a moment, during the ministry of Turgot, when he thought that his dream had come true. He dedicated his book L’Ethocratie to Louis XVI, “just, humane, and beneficent Monarch; friend of truth, virtue, and simplicity; enemy of flattery, vice, pomp, and tyranny; restorer of order and morals; father of his people”, and so on and so forth. He may have consequently changed his opinion of Louis XVI, but his fear of the “disorderly” popular movement remained with him. To Holbach, the people consisted of the “poor”, but “poverty, which so often becomes the plaything of the passions and caprices of power, blights the heart of man or rouses it to fury”. As long as the “poor man” puts up with his condition, “the activity of his soul is completely broken; he despises himself, for he sees himself as the object of general contempt and an outcast”. [74] But it is worse if he rebels. “A cursory glance at the history of ancient as well as modern democracies will show that frenzy and turbulence usually give counsel to the People.” [75] “Wherever the People are in possession of power, the State carries within itself the principle of its own destruction.” [76] If Holbach had had to choose between an absolute monarchy and democracy, he would have given the preference to absolutism. Montesquieu was badly mistaken in calling virtue the motive force in the republican form of the Slate. The republic has another idol: equality, “that equality which is to be met only in novels and is, in essence, nothing but envy”. The tyranny of democracy is “the cruellest and the least reasonable” of all tyrannies. In the class struggle in ancient Athens, Holbach saw only “mob violence”. The first English revolution aroused in him only horror of the “religious fanaticism” of the people. “The people, without any doubt, has not been made to command; it would be incapable of that; too far-going liberty would soon degenerate in it into license ...” It has been created to be “active”; “idleness would pervert it and make it insolent.”[77] The people should be kept in check and protected from its own foolishness.

A constitutional monarchy that gives complete freedom of action to an educated and “virtuous” bourgeoisie – that was our philosopher’s political ideal. A citizen-king (Holbach often makes use of the expression), who has been elected by his fellow-citizens to be the organ and executive of the will of “all”, and a class of proprietors as the interpreter of that “will” – that was what Madame “Nature” calls for through the agency of Holbach. Lange is greatly in error in ascribing a “radical” doctrine [78] to him in politics. Radicalism was something psychologically impossible in eighteenth-century philosophers. We already know what idea they had of the people (and they could have had no other idea, since the French people, like matter with the metaphysicists, was then still a dead and inert mass); consequently, there remained only a philosophising and liberal bourgeoisie. In the first place, however, a consistent and thorough-going radicalism is a doctrine unsuited to the bourgeoisie as a class, even at the most revolutionary moments of its historical life (the French revolution proved that very well). Could an aggregate of “all thinking people” have been very numerous? Could they have been regarded as a political force capable of shaking society from top to bottom? The philosophers were well aware that this was not the case, which was why they were constantly returning to their dream of a “sage on the throne”, who would set about realising their aspirations. Here is an instructive and characteristic fact! When Turgot became minister, the “radical” Holbach, that bitter enemy of despots and tyrants, wrote that absolutism was very useful if it began doing away with abuses, abolishing injustice, correcting vices, and the like. In his view, “Despotism would be the best of governmenls if one could be assured that it always be exercised by Tituses, Trajans, or Antoninuses”, but he could not forget that “it is usually wielded by those that are incapable of using it with wisdom”; at the same time, he thought that the French throne was going to a Titus, and he wanted nothing better. [79]

A social platform is needed if society is to be reformed. Where that does not exist, the “radicalism” of the dissatisfied with the existing authority is far from persistent. We saw that in Russia at the accession of Alexander II to the throne. When he took up the problem of abolishing the serf-owning system, our “radicals”, such as Herzen and Bakunin, declared themselves “conquered” by the emperor’s wisdom and toasted the Russian Titus. Even Chernyshevsky was prepared to admit that despotism was the best form of rule when it “does away with abuses, abolishes injustice, and the like.”

Belinsky, the most brilliant and boldest spokesman for the “Westernisers” [21*] in Russian literature during the reign of Nicholas I, once said, eighteen months before his death, i.e., when he was more of a radical than ever before, that all and any progress came from above in Russia. Nicholas I could resemble anyone in the world but “Titus” or “Trajan”. But what else was there for Belinsky to think? What else was there to pin his hopes on? From the Westerniser’s point of view, the Russian people were an inert and dead mass, worth nothing without guidance by a demiurge. When, several decades later, a revolutionary movement began among the student youth, our “intelligentsia”, they escaped from the quandary by breaking with the “West”, asserting that the Russians were more mature for revolution and “ socialism” than any other people. Thus, the admirers of Belinsky and Chernyshevsky had now become, in essence, contumacious Slavophiles. [22*]

“Many Sovereigns often rule so harshly only because they do not know the truth; they dislike the truth because they do not know its invaluable advantages”, said Holbach. A wise ruler “will never guard his own boundless authority; he will sacrifice part of it so as lo have better use of that which will remain with him”. The same idea was repeated several years ago by Madame Tsebrikova in her celebrated letter to Alexander III. That lady laid no claim to radicalism. [80]

When, early in 1890, the German emperor issued his edicts on the labour question [23*], the Russian liberal and “radical” pres.s was convinced that Germany was ruled by a wise monarch.

A “sage on the throne” was the deus ex machina [24*] of eighteenth century French philosophy, for he could at once solve all the theoretical difficulties and all the contradictions springing from the metaphysical standpoint from which the “philosophers” viewed all social phenomena. How did the French Enlightener see the course of history? He saw it as an endless succession of events, most of them sad, without any inner nexus, and subordinate to no pattern. “You will sometimes see happy times,” Condillac instructed his pupil, “when knowledge, laws and morals have made States prosperous; but you will more often see unhappy times, when ignorance, prejudices, errors and vice have prepared calamities for peoples, and have ruined the most flourishing empires.” [81] Why has that been so? Because “enlightenment” has been lacking. “Born in the bosom of barbarism, the arts and sciences have successively enlightened a small number of privileged nations. This is a luminary which conceals itself from some in the measure that it reveals itself to others, and it always lights up only a limited area.” [82] Voltaire expressed the same ideas more tersely and forcibly in his Essai sur les mœurs. “Reason,” he wrote, “is only beginning to arise.” Thus, the past could witness only unreason and folly, and unreason and folly obey no laws, and are, in general, unworthy of study; it is sufficient to establish their existence. “Their antiquities,” Voltaire wrote of the barbarians of Asia, “merit an historical description no more than the wolves and the tigers of their countries do.” [83] Yet Voltaire was one of the finest students of history, which he gave much time to. He vigorously called in question the opinion held by his “divine Emilie”, who was never able to go through any serious book on the history of modern peoples. [84] Very few people knew history as Voltaire did.

“Man”, said Holbach, “begins by eating acorns and contesting with the beasts for his food; he ends by measuring the heavens. Having tilled the soil and sown it, he invents geometry. To protect himself from the cold, he first covers himself with the skins of animals he has overcome, but at the end of several centuries you see him adding gold to silk. A cave or a tree-trunk was his first dwelling, but he ends up by becoming an architect and building palaces.” [85] In our times, we can, without making mention here of Marx and Engels, refer to Morgan, who has taken as his point of departure the development of mankind’s productive forces, this enabling him to successfully penetrate into the secret of its historical advance. Holbach never even realised that he had set forth the fundamental facts of human history. He had done so only to show the victories scored by “Reason” and to prove, against Rousseau, that civilised life was preferable to the savage state. “When it fell into error, mankind became unfortunate” – this is Holbach’s philosophy of history in a nutshell. [86] If he had had to go into detail, he would have added that the civilisation of antiquity had fallen owing to “luxury”, that feudalism had sprung from “rapine, disturbances and wars”, that “Charles I had to be beheaded because of the religious dissensions and his lack of tolerance”, and that Jesus was an imposter, etc.; he would have been greatly surprised to learn that he saw only the “outside of phenomena”.

The “philosophers” saw in history nothing but the conscious activities of people (more or less “wise”, but very often much the opposite, as we have already seen); however, to discern in history nothing but the conscious activities of people means greatly limiting one’s horizon and being surprisingly superficial. In each great historical movement we see, standing at the head of their contemporaries, men who give expression to their trends and formulate their aspirations. In just the same way, there may appear others who ride the crest of political reaction, struggle against innovative trends, and disapprove of the innovators’ strivings. If history is made up of nothing but humanity’s conscious activities, then it is only “great men” that are, of necessity, the cause of the historical movement. It will then follow that religion, morals and manners, customs and the entire nature of a people are the creation of one or several great men, who have acted with definite aims in view. Let us see what Holbach has to say of the Jewish people.

Moses led the Israelites into the wilderness, he “accustomed them to the blindest obedience; he taught them the will of Heaven, the marvellous fable about their forefathers, and bizarre ceremonies with which the Almighty linked His favours; above all, he inspired in them a most venomous hatred for the gods of other nations, and the most elaborate cruelty against their worshippers. By dint of carnage and harshness, he turned them into compliant slaves to his will, ready to back his passions and to sacrifice themselves to satisfy his ambitious designs. In a word, he turned the Hebrews into monsters of frenzy and ferocity. After having thus instilled in them this spirit of destruction, he showed them their neighbours’ lands and possessions, which God Himself had allotted to them.” [87]

From this point of view, the history of the Jewish people is nothing out of the ordinary. All peoples have had their Moses, although such Moseses have never been as cruel as the Jewish one, since, according to Holbach as well as Voltaire, history never knew so evil a people as the people of Israel. “It was usually from the midst of civilised nations that there emerged personages who brought social habits, agriculture, the arts, laws, gods, creeds and religious opinions to families or hordes that were still scattered and not yet united in national bodies. They tempered their morals, gathered them together, and taught them to turn their forces to account and help one another to satisfy their wants with greater ease. Having thus made their existence more happy, they won their love and veneration, acquired the right to prescribe opinions” (!) “and made them adopt those which they had themselves invented or borrowed from the civilised countries they had come from. History shows us that the most famous lawgivers were men who, enriched with useful knowledge to be found in the midst of refined nations, brought to ignorant and helpless savages arts that the latter had not yet known. Such were the Bacchuses, the Orpheuses, the Triptolemuses,” etc. [88]

Did all the civilised peoples of today pass through the state of savagery in the beginning of their development? This question which can so easily be answered today, disturbed our philosopher not a little. He had no firmly established opinion on the origin of the human race; how, then, could he have given a description of its primitive social condition? It is highly probable that all civilised peoples began from savagery. But how is that condition of savagery itself to be described? At this point there appears a new deus ex machina – the frightful upheavals that took place on our globe. It may be that such upheavals more than once destroyed the greater part of mankind. Those that did not perish were unable to pass on to following generations the knowledge and the arts that had existed prior to such catastrophes. It is thus possible that people were again thrown into backwardness on many an occasion after they had reached a certain level of civilisation. “It was perhaps these periodical renewals of mankind that brought about the profound ignorance in which we see it plunged in matters of the greatest moment to it. That may be the true source of the imperfections of our knowledge and of the shortcomings in political and religious institutions.” [89] We have already seen that it was not given to men to know what came first – the egg or the animal. We know now that it was not given to Holbach to know whether civilisation preceded the savage state, or vice versa.

Holbach was satisfied with the knowledge that “mankind has become unfortunate in consequence of error”, from which it had to be delivered. He grudged neither time nor money to accomplish this noble task, dedicating all his life to a struggle against “prejudices”, of which religion was the most tenacious and pernicious. Our philosopher waged an incessant struggle against it. In his struggle against “l’infâme”, Voltaire spared the “Supreme Being”, and merely tried to call Him to reason. In matters of religion, he was a constitutionalist. What he wanted was to weaken God’s omnipotence through the eternal laws of Nature as interpreted by the “philosophers”. However, in heavenly matters, the French materialists were out-and-out republicans: they guillotined God long before the good Dr. Guillotin. They hated Him as though He were their personal enemy: this wilful, vengeful and cruel despot aroused their noble ire as men and citizens. “It is impossible to love a Being, the idea of whom can arouse nothing but fear,” Holbach exclaimed. “... How can one look without fear, in the face of a God whom one considers barbarous enough to damn us? No man on Earth can have the least spark of love for a God who holds in readiness punishment infinite in duration and severity for ninety-nine-hundredths of his children ... Then, draw your conclusions, O theologians, that, according to your own principles, your God is infinitely more malicious than the most malicious of men.” [90]

Holbach’s English materialist contemporaries were far better disposed towards the God of the ancient Jews, for whom they harboured only a “feeling of love” and “deference”. The social conditions they lived in were quite different. Two bodies that are made up of one and the same elements, only in different proportions, do not possess one and the same chemical properties. Moreover: yellow phosphorus differs considerably from the red variety. That does not surprise any of the chemists, who say that it depends on the molecular structure of one and the same elements. However, surprise is constantly expressed at one and the same ideas not having the same colouring and leading up to dissimilar practical conclusions in different countries which are, on the whole, fairly similar in social structure. The movement of ideas is only a reflection of social movement: the various roads that ideas follow and their constantly changing hues correspond precisely to the various groupings of forces in the social movement. The forms of thinking always depend on the forms of being. [91]

“That the general interests of virtue will be effectually secured by the belief of a sufficient recompense in a future life, for all that has been well or ill done in this, will hardly be denied,” said the English materialist Priestley. [92] The French deist Voltaire held the same opinion. The Patriarch of Ferney wrote a good deal of rubbish on this subject. As for the French materialist Holbach, he reasoned as follows:

“Almost all men believe in a God Who punishes and rewards; yet we find, in all lands, that the wicked are far greater in number than the good. If we would trace the real cause of such widespread corruption, we shall discover it in the religious ideas themselves, and not in the imaginary sources that the different religions of the world have invented so as to explain human depravation. Men are corrupt because they are almost everywhere ill-governed; they are vilely governed because religion has deified Sovereigns; the latter, assured of impunity and themselves perverted, have of necessity made their peoples miserable and wicked. Subdued to irrational masters, the peoples have never been guided by reason. Blinded by priestly imposters, their reason became useless to them ...” [93]

Thus religion is seen as the main driving force in history. What we have before us is Bossuet in reverse! The author of Discours sur l’histoire universelle was convinced that religion arranged all things in the best of fashions while Holbach thought that it brought all things down to the worst of conditions. This difference was the only step forward made by the philosophy of history in the course of an entire century. The practical consequences of this step were tremendous, but it did not in the least help in an understanding of the historical facts. The “philosophers” were unable to escape from a vicious circle: on the one hand, man is a product of his social environment: “It is in education that we must seek the main source of men’s vices and virtues, the errors and the truths that their heads are filled with, the praiseworthy or blamable habits they contract, and the qualities and talents they acquire ...” [94] On the other hand, all the derangements of society spring from an “ignorance of the most obvious principles of politics”. The social environment is created by “public opinion”, i.e., by man. This fundamental contradiction appears time and again, in various forms, in the writings of Holbach, as it does, incidentally, in those of all the other “philosophers”.

  1. Man is a product of the social environment. Hence it follows with all logic that it is not public opinion that governs the world. “Men are merely what they are made by their organisation, as modified by habits, education, the example of others, government, and circumstances, whether lasting or momentary. Their religious ideas and their imaginary systems are forced to yield or to accommodate themselves to their temperament, their propensities, and their interests.” [95] “... if one vouchsafes to examine things coolly, one will find that the name of God has always and only served on Earth as a pretext for human passions.” [96] “Objects about us, fleeting interests, ingrained habits and public opinion have a far greater impact than imaginary beings or speculation, which itself depends on that organisation.[97] The force of “speculation” and of “imaginary beings” is the more negligible because one could scarcely find two men out of a hundred thousand who would ask themselves what is to be understood by the word “God”, and because people are induced to action, not by the general considerations of reason but by passions, as was already noted by Bayle and, before him, by Seneca. [98]
  2. Man is a product of the social environment. As for the gods, man has created them in his own image. “When he worships God, it is himself that man worships.” [99] (Cf. Feuerbach.) Is it not obvious that a wilful God, susceptible to praise and eager for constant asseverations of devotion from his subjects, has been created in the image of earthly sovereigns? [100]
  3. Man is a product of the social environment. “If we give but a little thought to what passes before our eyes, we shall discern the imprint of administration” (i.e., of “government”; we shall now see why and how, to the “philosophers”, the influence of the social environment was nothing but that of government) “on the character, opinions, laws, customs, education and morals of peoples.” [101] “It is therefore the vices of Society that make its memhers bad.... Man becomes a wolf to his fellows.” [102]

The other side of the antinomy:

  1. The social environment is engendered by “public opinion”, i.e., by men. Hence it follows quite logically that public opinion governs the world, and that mankind has become unfortunate in consequence of error (see above).

“If we consult experience, we shall see that it is in religious illusions and opinions that we should seek for the real source of the host of evils that we everywhere see overwhelming mankind. Ignorance of natural causes has led it to create its Gods; deception has made the latter terrible; a baneful concept of them has pursued man without making him any better, made him tremble uselessly, filled his mind with chimeras, opposing the progress of reason, and hindering the search for happiness. These fears have made him the slave of those who deceived him under the pretext of caring for his good; he did evil when he was told that his Gods called for crimes; he lived in adversity because he was made to hear that his Gods had condemned him to misery; he never dared to resist his Gods or to cast off his fetters, because it was drummed into him that stupidity, the renunciation of reason, spiritual torpor and abasement of the soul were the best means of winning eternal bliss.” [103]

  1. The social environment is engendered by public opinion, i.e., by men. “Nothing less than a Heaven-hallowed frenzy was needed to make beings that loved freedom and were constantly seeking for happiness believe that the depositaries of Public Authority had received from the Gods the right to enslave them and make them miserable. Religions were necessary to endow the Divinity with the traits of a Tyrant so as to make men believe that unjust Tyrants were the earthly representatives of that Divinity.” [104]
  2. The social environment is engendered by public opinion, i.e., by men. “Why do we see Nations that were once noble by nature crushed by the shameful yoke of an oppressive Despotism? It is because public opinion has changed... because superstition, that accomplice of Tyranny, has succeeded in degrading souls and making them cowardly, fearful and unfeeling.... Why do we see Nations intoxicated with the commercial urge and a passion for riches?... It is because public opinion has persuaded them that money alone brings true happiness, though it is nothing but a deceptive substitute arid contributes nothing to the public weal”, etc., etc. [105] “The nations have never known of the true foundations of authority; they have not dared demand happiness of their kings, who are charged with providing them with it; they have thought their sovereigns, wearing the guise of Gods, are entitled by birth to command the rest of mortals ... As a consequence of such views, politics has degenerated into the deadly art of sacrificing the happiness of all to the whims of one man or of several privileged evildoers.” [106]

It is not given to man to know whether the egg came before the animal, or vice versa; it was not given to the eighteenth-century materialists to know whether it is “public opinion” that creates the social environment, or vice versa. Indeed, nothing is harder for one who cannot abandon the metaphysical point of view than to reply to this question.

If, as Locke showed, inherited ideas do not exist; if man is nothing but “sensation”, as the eighteenth-century materialists claimed; if our mental representations, i.e., “the images, the impressions received by our senses” arise thanks to our sensations; if “man is no more free in his thinking than he is in his actions”, then it is very strange to seek in “public opinion” the secret of any action by man. Our mental representations are what they are made by the impressions we perceive. However, it is not Nature alone – in the proper sense of the term – that engenders those impressions in us. From birth, man comes under the power of the social environment, which moulds his brain, the latter being “soft wax adapted to receive all the impressions made on it. [107] Consequently, he who would understand the history of “public opinion” must try to realise clearly what is meant by the history of the social environment, by the development of society. Such was the inescapable conclusion finally arrived at by sensualist materialism. Condillac’s celebrated staluo could calm down only when it had been able to attribute the shifts in its “opinions” to changes in its social relations, the relations with “its like”. [25*]

So it was history that had to be appealed to. However, the “philosophers”, who saw in history only mankind’s conscious activities, could discern nothing in it but human “opinions”. Consequently, they were bound to come up against the antinomy: opinions are consequences of the social environment; opinions are the causes of the various properties of that environment. That antinomy was bound more to confuse the “philosophers’” ideas because they held, as did all the metaphysicians, that effect and cause – at least in respect of social life – were immutable, immobile, and, so to say, petrified notions. It was only in the capacity of a metaphysician that Grimm could say that the influence of opinions is equal to naught.

The interaction between the various aspects of social lifesuch was the highest and “most philosophical” viewpoint that the “philosophers” could achieve. It was Montesquieu’s point of view. However, interaction, that closest truth of the relation between cause and effect, as Hegel called it, explains nothing in the process of historical movements. “If one does not go beyond a consideration of content only from the viewpoint of interaction, then that is, in fact, a mode of consideration that contains’” absolutely no notion; we are then dealing with a dry fact, and the demand for mediation, which is the main motive for the application of the relation of causality, again remains unmet.” [108]

However, things even more unpleasant than this may occur.

Man is a product of the social environment. The nature of the social environment is determined by the actions of “government”. The actions of government and legislative activities pertain already to the field of the conscious activities of men. Such activities, in their turn, hinge on the “opinions” of those who act. One term of the antinomy (the thesis) has imperceptibly changed: it has become fully identical with its old opponent – the antithesis. It will seem that the difficulty has vanished, and the “philosopher” is continuing on the road of his “investigations” with an easy conscience. No sooner reached, the viewpoint of interaction has been rejected.

But that is not all. This seeming resolution of the antinomy is nothing but a complete break with materialism. The human brain, that “soft wax” shaped by the impressions produced by man’s social environment, ultimately turns into the demiurge of the environment to which it owes its impressions. Incapable of any further advance, sensualist materialism retraces its steps along the selfsame road.

In the second place, the author of Système de la Nature would assure us that the influence of government on character, opinions. laws, customs, etc., is easily discernible. Consequently, government exerts an influence on laws. This seems very simple and perfectly obvious, but it means only that any people’s civil law originates in its public law. One law hinges on another; “laws” on other “laws”. The antinomy vanishes, but only because one of its terms, viz., that which was to have formulated the ultimate conclusion to be drawn by materialist sensualism, has proved in fact to be merely trivial tautology.

To end with all these difficulties, the following should have been done:

  1. The metaphysical point of view should have been discarded, which precluded any idea of evolution and helplessly muddled the “philosophers’” logical concepts. Only then would it have been given “to know whether the egg preceded the animal, or the animal the egg, both in the natural and the historical sciences”.
  2. The essential conviction had to be arrived at that the “man’s nature”, which the eighteenth-century materialists operated with, provided no explanation at all of mankind’s historical development. It was necessary to reach a stage above the viewpoint of natural science, i.e., the viewpoint of social science. It had to be realised that the social environment has its own laws of development, which are not dependent on man considered as a “sentient, thinking and rational creature”, and, in their turn, exert a decisive influence on his senses, mental images and thoughts.

That task, as we shall see, was accomplished by nineteenth-century dialectical materialism. However, before speaking of its outstanding discoveries, we would like to review the views of a man whose example and dauntless logic did so much to reveal the insufficiency and paucity of metaphysical materialism. That man was Helvetius.


57. Cf. Le Christianisme dévoilé ou Examen des principes et des effets de la Religion Chrétienne, 1757, pp.176, 179, 196, 198, 199, 203.

58. “Perhaps He felt, just as we do, how useful the abolition of a large number of holidays would be to the people” (Histoire critique de Jésus Christ ou Analyse raisonnée des Évangiles, [without a date and place of publication], p.157).

59. L’Ethocratie, p.124.

60. Politique naturelle, II, p.148.

61. Politique naturelle, p.145.

62. ibid., p.150.

63. ibid., p.151.

64. L’Ethocratie, chap.VIII, Système social, III, p.73.

65. Politique naturelle, II, p.154.

66. ibid., p.155.

67. L’Ethocratie, p.122, Note.

68. ibid., p.117.

69. Cf. Système social, t.II, chap.VI.

70. L’Ethocratie, pp.146-47.

71. “Zealous and virtuous writers”, “honest citizens”; “nothing can lie added to the useful views dictated to them by their concern for the public weal” (L’Ethocratie, pp.144-45).

72. Politique naturelle, p.44.

73. ibid., I, p.144. We shall he constantly quoting from this book in setting forth Holbach’s political views. Other sources will be referred to whenever necessary.

74. L’Ethocratie, pp.119-20. “A people, obliged to work for its subsistence, is usually incapable of reflection” (Système de la Nature, II, p.248).

75. Politiqne naturelle, II, p.238.

76. ibid., p.240.

77. ibid., I , p.185; Système sociale, III, p.85.

78. l.c., p.380. Incidentally, Lange refers only to Système de la Nature. He evidently had no knowledge of Politique naturelle, L’Ethocratie, Système social, or Morale universelle.

79. L’Ethocratie, p.6.

80. Mme. Tsebrikova asked the emperor what history would have to say of him if he continued to rule in the same way as before. “What business is that of yours?” was what the tsar wrote in the margin of this woman’s letter.

81. Cours d’études pour I’instruction du prince de Parme, Genève 1779, IV, pp.1-2.

82. ibid., p.2.

83. Essai sur les mœurs, ch.53.

84. See the Preface to Essai sur les mœurs.

85. Système social, I, p.191.

86. Système de la Nature, I, p.32. See also the Introduction to Système social.

87. Le Christianisme devoilé, p.35.

88. Système de la Nature, II, pp.24-25.

90. ibid., pp.25–26.

90. Le bon sens puisé dans la nature, I, pp.89-93.

91. One and the same idea expressed by two men who are pursuing different practical ends often has two quite different meanings. Genuine religion in any country is, according to Holbach, the religion of the hangman. In essence, Hobbes says the same thing. How different is the meaning of these thoughts in the philosophies of these two men!

92. A Free Discussion of the Doctrine of Materialism and Philosophical Necessity, in a Correspondence Between Dr. Price and Dr. Priestley, London 1778, Introduction, pp.VIII-IX.

93. Système de la Nature, II, p.219.

94. Système social, I, p.15.

95. Système de la Nature, II, p.298.

96. ibid., p.294.

97. ibid., p.292.

98. ibid., pp.248 and 295.

99. Le bon sens, I, p.57.

100. Le Christianisme devoilé, p.176.

101. Système social, III, p.5. Grimm went even further in this direction. “The impact of the most bold opinions is usually equal to naught,” he wrote. “Not a single book, however inspired, is capable of corrupting morals, in the same way as, unfortunately, it does not depend on any philosopher ... to perfect morals. Only government and legislation have that power, and it is after action by them that public morality finds its correct level of goodness or curruption; books have nothing to do with the matter” (Correspondance littéraire, Janvier 1772).

102. Politique naturelle, I, pp.11-12.

103. Système de la Nature, I, pp.290-91. Here is how Suard defined public opinion: “By public opinion I mean the result of the truths and errors widespread in a nation, a result that determines its judgements on dignity or contempt, love or hate, a result that makes up its inclinations and habits, its shortcomings and merits – in a word, its morals and manners. It should lie said that it is this public opinion that governs the world” (l.c., p.400).

104. Politique naturelle, II, p.11.

105. Système social, III, pp.9-10.

106. Système de la Nature, I, p.291.

107. Le bon sens, I, p.82.

108. Encyklopädie, erster Theil, herausgegeben von Leopold von Henning, §§ 155-56 und Zusatz.


17*. Plekhanov has in mind a series of scandalous exposures of large-scale swindling and shady transactions on the part of bourgeois businessmen, bribed members of parliament and the venal press.

In France it was the bankruptcy (1888) of a company that started to build the Panama canal that led to “Panama” trial, which disclosed venality of a number of ministers, senators, deputies, the press and so on. The term “Panama” became a common word denoting large-scale swindling and shady transactions.

In Germany it was the “affair” of the “railway king” Strussberg which ended in a bankruptcy of a number of banks in various countries (1875).

In Italy it was the shady transactions of the owners of the Bank of Rome, who together with a group of ministers and other statesmen made profits at the expense of their clients, the latter becoming utterly ruined after the bank had collapsed (1893).

18*. When, at one of the first sessions of the States General, representatives of the nobility and clergy alluded to the historical right of conquest being the basis of their privileges, the bourgeois theorist abbe Emmanuel Sieyès proudly answered them:

“Rien que cela, Messieurs? Nous serons conquérants à nôtre tour.” (And is that all, gentlemen? We shall become conquerors in our turn.)

19*. On June 20, 1789, representatives of the third estate gathered in a hall for ball games in one of the palaces of Versailles, proclaimed themselves the French National Assembly and swore not to leave the hall until a Constitution was drawn up.

20*. On August 10, 1792 the French monarchy was abolished as a result of a popular uprising. The masses took the royal Tuileries palace by assault and compelled the Legislative Assembly to abolish the royal authority. The king was arrested and imprisoned.

21*. Westernisers and Slavophiles – two trends in Russian social thought of the mid-nineteenth century.

The Westernisers held that Russia would follow the same way of development as Western Europe (hence the name) and would go through the capitalist stage. They stressed the progressive role of the bourgeoisie, their political ideal being the constitutional-monarchical, bourgeois-parliamentary states of Western Europe, in particular, Britain and France. Their attitude towards serfdom was negative, their Left wing (Herzen, Ogaryov, partially Belinsky) sharing the views of utopian socialists.

The Slavophiles put forward the “theory” of the special and exceptional road of Russia’s historical development on the basis of the communal system and Orthodoxy as inherent only in the Slavs. They were radically opposed to the revolutionary movement in Russia and in the West as well, as they maintained that Russia’s historical development precluded any possibility of revolutionary upheavals. While advocating the perpetuation of the autocracy, the Slavophiles thought that a monarch should not ignore public opinion, and proposed the convening of a Zemsky Sobor consisting of elected representatives of all sections of society. However, they were against any constitution and formal restriction of the autocracy. By the end of the fifties and the early sixties, both trends drew closer together on the ground of a common liberal bourgeois ideology.

22*. By contumacious Slavophiles Plekhanov meant the Populists (Narodniks), who maintained that Russia could attain socialism, by-passing the capitalist way of development. They considered the peasant commune an embryo of socialism.

23*. Trying to win popularity, William II declared shortly before the Reichstag elections in February 1890 that he stood for legislative limitation of working hours; he issued edicts on preparations for a state conference on the labour question and for an international conference on labour legislation.

24*. In the theatre of antiquity the tragic denouément was sometimes achieved by the interference of God who made an appearance with the aid of stage machinery (deus ex machina).

25*. To illustrate his theory, Condillac in his main work Traité des sensations (1754) used the image of a statue. Endowing it consecutively with sensations, the philosopher showed that the statue, together with these sensations, acquired all mental and intellectual functions.

Last updated on 9.10.2007