Georgi Plekhanov

Essays on the History of Materialism


We are going to speak of a certain materialist.

But first: what is meant by materialism?

Let us address ourselves to the greatest of modern materialists.

“The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of more recent philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being,” says Frederick Engels in his excellent book Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, (Stuttgart, 1888). “But this question could for the first time be put forward in its whole acuteness, could achieve its full significance, only after humanity in Europe had awakened from the long hibernation of the Christian Middle Ages. The question of the position of thinking in relation to being, a question which, by the way, had played a great part also in the scholasticism of the Middle Ages, the question: which is primary, spirit or nature – that question, in relation to the church, was sharpened into this: Did God create the world or has the world been in existence eternally?

“The answers which the philosophers gave to this question split them into two great camps. Those who asserted the primacy of spirit to nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other... comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to various schools of materialism.” [1*]

Holbach would have accepted this definition of materialism with the utmost readiness. He himself said nothing else. To him, what we call the mental life of animals was nothing more than a natural phenomenon, and, in his opinion, there was no need to emerge from within the borders of Nature in search of a solution to the problems she has confronted us with. [1] This is very simple, and a far cry from the dogmatic assertions so often and so groundlessly ascribed to the materialists. True, Holbach saw in Nature nothing but matter or kinds of matter, and motion or motions. [2] And it is on this that the critics, Ph. Damiron for example, are out to entrap our materialist. They foist upon him their concept of matter arid, proceeding from that concept, attempt triumphantly to prove that matter, alone, is insufficient for an explanation of all natural phenomena. [3]

This is a facile but threadbare device. Critics of this calibre do not understand, or pretend not to understand, that one may have a concept of matter different from theirs. “If, by Nature,” Holbach says, “we shall mean an accumulation of dead substances, without any properties and purely passive, then, of course, we shall be obliged to seek outside of that Nature the principle of her motions; but if, by Nature, we mean what she actually is – a whole, in which the various parts have various properties, act according to those various properties, are constantly acting and reacting upon one another, possess weight, gravitate towards a common centre, while others depart towards the circumference; attract and repel one another, unite and separate, and, in constant collisions and comings together, produce and decompose all the bodies we see – then nothing can make us appeal to supernatural forces for an explanation of how the things and phenomena that we see are formed. [4]

Locke already thought it possible that matter could possess the faculty of thinking. To Holbach, this was a most probable assumption “even in the hypothesis of theology, that is to say, in supposing that there exists an omnipotent mover of matter”. [5] The conclusion drawn by Ifolbach is very simple and really very convincing: “Since Man, who is matter and has ideas only about matter, possesses the faculty of thinking, matter can think, or is capable of that specific modification which we call thought.” [6]

What does that modification depend on? Here Holbach advances two hypotheses, which he finds equally probable. It may be presumed that the sensitivity of matter is “the result of an organisation, a link inherent in an animal, so that dead and inert matter ceases to be dead and becomes capable of sensation when it is ‘animalised’, i.e. when it unites and is identified witli an animal”. Do we not see every day that milk, bread and wine turn into the substance of man, who is a creature endowed with sensitivity? These dead substances consequently become endowed with sensitivity when they combine with a creature that is endowed with sensitivity. The other hypothesis is that dealt with by Diderot in his excellent Conversation with D’Alembert. “Some philosophers think that sensitivity is a universal quality of matter. In this case, it would be useless to seek whence that quality comes to it, which we know by its effects. If one admits that hypothesis, then it will be in the same way as one distinguishes two kinds of motion in Nature – one that is known under the name of living force and another under the name of dead force – then one will distinguish two kinds of sensitivity: one that is active or living, and another that is inert or dead, and then animalising a substance will mean nothing but destroying the obstacles that prevent it from being active and sensitive.” However that may be, and whichever of these hypotheses of sensitivity we accept, “the nonextensive being the human soul is supposed to be cannot be a subject”. [7]

The reader will perhaps claim that neither hypothesis is marked by sufficient, clarity. We are well aware of that, and Holbach realised it no less than we do. That property of matter which we call sensitivity is an enigma that is very difficult of solution. But, says Holbach, “the simplest movements of our bodies are, to any man who gives thought to them, enigmas just as difficult to solve as thought is.” [8]

During a conversation with Lessing, Jacobi once said, “Spinoza is good enough in my opinion, yet his name is a poor kind of salvation for us!” To which Lessing replied, “Yes! If you wish it so!... Yet ... do you know of anything better?” [9]

To all reproaches from their opponents, the materialists can reply in just the same way: “Do you know of anything better?” Where is that something better to be sought? In Berkeley’s subjective idealism? In Hegel’s absolute idealism? In the agnosticism or the neo-Kantianism of our times?

“Materialism,” Lange assures us, “stubbornly takes the world of sensory appearance for the world of real things.” [10]

He wrote this remark apropos of Holbach’s argument against Berkeley. It creates the impression that Holbach was ignorant of many very simple things. Our philosopher could have replied for himself, “We do not know the essence of any being, if by the word ’essence’ one understands that which constitutes the nature that is peculiar to it; we know matter only through the perceptions, the sensations, and the ideas it gives us; it is only later that we judge whether it is good or bad, in accordance with the structure of our organs.” [11]

“We know neither the essence nor the true nature of matter, although we are able to define some of its properties and qualities according to how it affects us.” [12]

“We do not know the elements of the body, but we do know some of their properties or qualities and we distinguish between their different substances according to the effects or changes they produce on our senses, that is to say, by the various changes that their presence brings forth in us.” [13]

Strange, is it not? Here we see our kindly old Holbach as an epistemologist of today. How was it that Lange failed to recognise in him a comrade-in-philosophy?

Lange saw all philosophical systems in Kant, in just the same way as Malebranche saw all things in God. He found it unimaginable that, even before the publication of Kritik der reinen Vernunft [2*], there could have been people, and even among the materialists, who had a knowledge of certain truths, which were, properly speaking, meagre and barren, but, seemed to him the greatest discoveries in contemporary philosophy. He had read Holbach with a prejudiced eye.

But that is not all. There is a vast difference between Holbach and Lange. To Lange, as to any Kantian, a “thing-in-itself” was absolutely incognisable. To Holbach, as to any materialist, our reason, i.e., science, was fully capable of discovering at least certain properties of a “thing-in-itself”. On this point, too, the author of Système de la Nature was not mistaken.

Let us apply the following line of reasoning. We are building a railway. Expressed in Kantian terms, that means we are engendering certain phenomena. But what is a phenomenon? It is the result of a “thing-in-itself” acting upon us. So when we are build ing our railway, we are making a “thing-in-itself” act on us in a certain way that is desirable to us. But what is it that gives us the means of acting upon a “thing-in-itself” in such a manner? It is a knowledge of its properties, and nothing but that knowledge.

Our being able to get a sufficiently close knowledge of a “thing-in-itself” happens to be very useful to us. Otherwise, we could not exist here on Earth, and would most probably have been denied the pleasure of indulging in metaphysics.

The Kantians aver that a “thing-in-itself” is incognisable. That incognisability, in their opinion, gives Lampe, and all the worthies of philistinism, the inalienable right to their own more or less “poetical” or “ideal” God. [3*] Holbach reasoned differently.

“It is being incessantly repeated to us,” he says, “that our senses show us only the outside of things, and that our limited minds cannot conceive a God. Let us admit that is so; but those senses do not show us even the outside of the Divinity ... As we are constituted, that means that we have no ideas about what does not exist for us.” [14]

The almost complete absence of any kind of idea of evolution was undoubtedly a weak point in eighteenth-century French materialism, as it was, in general, in any kind of materialism prior to Marx. True, such people as Diderot sometimes arrived at masterly conjectures which would have done credit to the most outstanding of our present-day evolutionists; such instances of insight, however, were not connected with the essence of their doctrine, but were merely exceptions, which, as such, merely confirmed the rule. Whether they were dealing with Nature, morals or history, the “philosophers” tackled the problem with the same absence of the dialectical method, and from the same metaphysical viewpoint. It is of interest to see how indefatigably Holbach tried to find some probable hypothesis of the origin of our planet and the human race. Problems now conclusively resolved by evolutionary natural science were seen as impossible of solution by the eighteenth-century philosophers. [15]

The Earth was not always the same as it now is. Does that mean that it was formed gradually, during a lengthy process of evolution? No. It might have been as follows: “Perhaps this Earth is a mass detached at a certain moment from some other celestial body; perhaps it is the result” (!) “of the spots or crusts that astronomers observe on the Sun’s disc, whence they could spread in our planetary system; perhaps this globe is an extinct and displaced comet which once occupied a different place in the regions of space.” [16]

Primitive man perhaps differed from his counterpart of today more than a quadruped does from an insect. Like everything else that exists on our globe and on all other heavenly bodies, Man can be imagined as being in a process of constant change. “Thus there is no contradiction in thinking that the species vary incessantly.” [17] This sounds perfectly in the spirit of evolutionism. It should not be forgotten, however, that Holbach saw this hypothesis as probable given “changes in the position of our globe”. Whoever does not accept this condition can consider Man “a sudden result of Nature.” Holbach does not adhere quite firmly to the hypothesis of the evolution of the species. “If one should reject the preceding conjectures, and if one affirms that Nature acts by a certain sum of immutable and general laws; if one should believe that Man, the quadruped, the fish, the insect, the plant, etc., are of all eternity and will forever remain what they are; if one should grant that the stars have shone in the firmament since all eternity” (thus, “a certain sum of immutable and general laws” would consequently preclude any development! – G.P.); “if one should say that it should not be asked why Man is what he is, any more than why Nature is as we see it, or why the world exists – we would not object to all that. Whatever system one adopts, it will, perhaps, reply equally well to the difficulties that embarrass one – It is not given to Man to know everything; it is not given to him lo know his origin; it is not given to him to penetrate into the essence of things or to reach the prime principles.” [18]

All this seems almost unbelievable to us today, but one should not forget the history of natural science. It should be recalled that, long after the publication of Système de la Nature, the great scientist Cuvier was up in arms against any idea of evolution in the natural sciences.

Let us now consider Holbach’s moral philosophy.

In one of his comedies, Charles Palissot, an author who lias been completely forgotten, but attracted considerable attention in the last century, has one of his characters (Valere) say the following:

Du globe ou nous vivons despote universel,
Il n’est qu’un seul ressort, l’intérêt personnel

To which another character (Carondas) replies:

J’avais quelque regret à tromper Cydalise
Mais je vois clairement que la chose est permise.

Thus Palissot tried to hold up the philosophers’ ideas to scorn. “It is a question of achieving happiness, no matter how” – this aphorism of Valère expresses Palissot’s view of the “philosophers’” ethics. Palissot was merely a “miserable ink-slinger”, yet were there many writers on the history of philosophy who advanced any other judgement on the materialist ethics of the eighteenth century? Throughout the present century, this ethics has almost universally been considered something scandalous, a doctrine unbefitting a worthy scholar or self-respecting philosopher; people such as La Mettrie, Holbach and Helvetius were considered dangerous sophists who preached nothing but sensual enjoyment and selfishness. [21] Yet none of these writers ever preached anything of the kind. Any reading of their books with a modicum of attention will bear this out. “To do good, promote the happiness of others, and to come to their aid – that is virtuous. Only that can be virtuous which is conducive to the weal, happiness and security of society.”

Humaneness is the prime social virtue. It epitomises all the other virtues. Taken in its broadest aspect, it is the sense that gives all beings of our species the rights to our heart. Grounded in a cultivated sensibility, it enables us to do all the good on” faculties render us capable of. It results in love, beneficence, generosity, forbearance and compassion to our fellow-creatures.” [22]

Where does this so groundless accusation spring from? How could it have been believed almost universally?

In the first place, ignorance is to blame. The French materialists are much spoken of, but not read. It is therefore hardly surprising that, having struck deep root, the prejudice lives on.

The prejudice itself has two sources, both equally abundant.

Eighteenth-century materialist philosophy was a revolutionary philosophy. It was merely the ideological expression of the revolutionary bourgeoisie’s struggle against the clergy, the nobility, and the absolute monarchy. It goes without saying that, in its struggle against an obsolete system, the bourgeoisie could have no respect for a world-outlook that was inherited from the past and hallowed that despised system. “Different times, different circumstances, a different philosophy,” as Diderot so excellently put it in his article on Hobbes in the Encyclopédie. The philosophers of the good old days, who tried to live in peace with the Church, had no objections to a morality which claimed revealed religion as its source. The philosophers of the new times wanted morals to be free of any alliance with “superstition”. “Nothing can be more disadvantageous to human morals than having them blended with divine morals. In linking sensible morals, based on experience and reason, with a mystical religion that is opposed to reason and based on imagination and authority, one could only muddle, weaken and even destroy the former.” [23]

This divorcement of morals from religion could not have been to everybody’s liking, and it already provided grounds to revile the materialists’ ethics. But that was not all. “Religious morals” preached humility, mortification of the flesh, and quelling of the passions. To those who suffer here on Earth they promised recompense in the world to come. The new morality reinstated the flesh, reinstated the rights of the passions [[24], and made society responsible for the misfortunes of its members. [25] Like Heine, it wanted “to set up the Kingdom of Heaven here on Earth”. [5*] Therein lay its revolutionary side, but therein, too, was its wrongness in the eyes of those who stood for the then existent social structure.

In his Correspondance littéraire [6*], Grimm wrote that, following the publication of Helvetius’s De l’Esprit, a certain comic verse circulated throughout Paris, expressing the apprehension of “respectable folk”:

Admirez tous cet auteur-la
Qui de ‘l’Esprit’ intitula
Un livre qui n’est que matière.
” [[26]

Indeed, all materialist morals were merely “matter” to those who did riot understand them, and also to those who, though understanding them excellently, preferred “tippling wine in secret, while preaching water-drinking in public”. [7*]

This will be sufficient to explain how and why materialist morals, to this day, make the hair of all philistines of all “civilised” nations stand on end.

Yet there were, among the opponents of materialist morals, such men as Voltaire and Rousseau. Were they philistines too?

As for Rousseau, he was no philistine in this instance, but it must be admitted that the Patriarch of Ferney [8*] brought a substantial portion of philistinism into the discussion.

When a man comes into the world, he brings with him only the faculty of sensation, what is known as the intellectual faculties all develop from this faculty. Some of the impressions or sensations a man gets from the objects he meets please him, while others cause him suffering. He approves of some of them, which he wants to last or become renewed in him; he regards others with disapproval, and avoids them as much as he can. In other words, a man likes some sensations and the objects that produce them, and dislikes other impressions and that which evokes them. Since man lives in society, he is surrounded by creatures like himself, who feel exactly what he does. All these creatures seek enjoyment, and fear suffering. They call good whatever gives them enjoyment, and evil whatever causes them suffering. Whatever is of constant use to them they call virtue, while whatever is injurious to them in the make-up of those that surround them is called vice. One who does good to his fellow-men is good; he who causes them harm is evil. Hence it follows, in the first place, that man does not stand in need of divine aid to distinguish virtue from vice; in the second place, for men to be virtuous, the performance of virtue should give them pleasure, be pleasing to them. Man should love vice if it makes him happy. A man is evil only because it is to his advantage to be so. Evil and wicked men are so often to be met in this world of ours only because no government exists that could enable them to find advantage in justice, honesty and charity; conversely, the vested interests everywhere drive them to injustice, evil and crime. “Thus, it is not Nature that creates evil people, but our institutions that make them such.[27]

Such is the formal aspect of materialist morals, which we have conveyed almost in Holbach’s own words. His thoughts often lack clarity. Thus, it is tautological to say that if vice makes man happy, he should love vice; if vice does indeed make man happy, then he already loves vice. This absence of precision in Holbach often leads to unfortunate consequences. Thus, in one place he says that “interest is the only motivation of human acts”. Elsewhere he gives the following definition: “We call interest that object with which any man, in conformity with the temperament and ideas peculiar to him, links his well-being; in other words, interest is simply what each of us regards as necessary to his happiness”. [28] This is so broad a definition that one can no longer tell the difference between materialist and religious morals [29]; any adherent of the latter could say that his opponents had merely invented a new terminology, and preferred to call self-interested such actions that had previously been called disinterested. However that may be, one can readily understand what Holbach meant by saying that if vice makes man happy he should love vice. He makes society responsible for the vices of its members. [30]

Voltaire fulminates against Holbach for the latter’s alleged advice to people to take to vice if that proves to their advantage. This reminds one of l’abbé de l’Lignac, who made a convert to the new morality reply to the question of whether he should love the interests of his nation, as follows: in the measure in which it is to my advantage. Yet Voltaire knew more of the matter than de Lignac ever did: he knew his Locke very well, and must have seen that materialist morals were merely continuing the English philosopher’s cause. In his Traité de métaphysique, Voltaire himself said far bolder things about morals than Holbach ever did. However, the patriarch felt afraid: he was apprehensive lest the people, after turning into atheists and utilitarian moralists, should become too audacious. “All things considered,” he wrote to Madame Necker (September 20, 1770), “the age of Phaedra and le Misanthrope was a better one.” [9*] Of course it was! The people were held in curb far better then!

What is most comical is that Voltaire contraposes the following argument to Holbach’s morals: “Our society cannot exist without the ideas of the justice and injustice, he (God) has shown us the road to reach them – Thus, for all people, from Peking to Ireland, the weal of society is firmly established as an immutable rule of virtue.” What a discovery for an atheist philosopher to make!

Rousseau’s conclusions were different: he thought that utilitarian morals could not explain the most virtuous of human actions. “What is meant by offering up one’s life in one’s own interests?” he asked, adding that he found repellent that philosophy which was a source of embarrassment to virtuous actions, escaped from any difficulty only by ascribing base intentions and evil motives to virtuous actions, and “is obliged to humiliate Socrates and slander Regulus”. [10*] For an appreciation of what this reproach signifies, we have to advance the following considerations.

In their struggle against “religious morality”, the materialists were out, first and foremost, to prove that people were capable of knowing what “virtue” is, without any aid from Heaven. “Did men need supernatural revelation,” Holbach exclaimed, “to learn that justice is necessary for the preservation of society, or that injustice merely brings together enemies prepared to do injury to one another? Was it necessary that God should speak for them to realise that creatures who have gathered together need to love each other and render each other aid? Was aid necessary for them to discover from on high that vengeance is an evil, an outrage against one’s country’s laws, which, if they are just, see to it that citizens are avenged? ... Is not anyone who values his life aware that vice, intemperance and sensual pleasure shorten his days? Finally, has not experience proved to any thinking being that crime is an object of hatred to his” (i.e., the criminal’s. – G.P.) “fellow men; that vice is injurious to those who aru infected with it; that virtue wins respect and love for those who cultivate it? If men reflect but a little on what they do, on their true interests, and on the purpose of society, they will realise their duty to one another ... The voice of Reason is sufficient for us to learn what our duty is towards our fellow creatures.[31]

Since Reason is sufficient to teach us our duties, the mediation of Philosophy is indicated to show us that virtue lies in our own and correctly understood interest. It must, also show us that the most illustrious heroes of mankind would not have actetl otherwise if they had had only their own happiness in mind. Thus psychological analysis arises, which does, indeed, often and obviously humiliate Socrates and slander Regulus. Consequently, Rousseau’s reproach was not made without certain grounds; only the “citizen of Geneva” forgot thai the “slandered Socrates” often fell into the same error that the materialists are reproached with. [32]

Whether in Greece or in France, in Germany or in Russia (Chernyshevsky and his followers) – the Enlighteners everywhere made one and the same mistake. They were out to prove what cannot be proved but must be taught by the life of society itself. [33] Mankind’s moral development follows closely in the footsteps of economic necessity, precisely adapting itself to society’s actual needs. In this sense, it can and should he said thai interest is the foundation of morality. However, the historical process of that adaptation takes place behind people’s backs, irrespective of the will and intellect of individuals. A line of behaviour that is dictated by interest seems lo be an injunction of the “gods”, “inborn conscience”, “Reason”, or “Nature”. But what kind of interest is it that dictates one line of behaviour or another to individuals? Is it self-interest? In innumerable cases, it is. However, inasmuch as individuals listen to their voice of their personal interests, it is no longer a question of “virtuous” actions that we are called upon to explain. Such actions reflect the interest of the entity, social interest, and it is the latter that prescribe them. The dialectic of historical development leads, not only to “sense becoming nonsense, and beneficence turning into evil[12*] but also to the selfish interests of society or a class often turning, in the hearts of individuals, into impulses full of unselfishness and heroism. The secret of that conversion lies in the influence of the social environment. The French materialists were good at appraising that influence; they kept on reiterating that upbringing determines everything, that people become what they are, and are not born that way. Nevertheless, they regarded and depicted this process of moral moulding as a series of reflexions that are repeated at every instant in every individual’s mind and are directly modified according to the circumstances affecting the private interest of anybody who is motivated to action. From this viewpoint, as we have seen, the moralist’s task takes shape of itself. The thinking of individuals should be protected against errors, and the moral “truth” be pointed out to them. In that case, then, what is meant by pointing out the moral truth? It means pointing out where personal interest, as best understood, lies; it means lauding that particular disposition of heart which leads up to some praiseworthy action. It was thus that the psychological analysis which Rousseau rose up against came into being; it was thus that there appeared the interminable hymns of praise in honour of virtue that Grimm called capucinades. [13*] The latter were highly characteristic of some of the eighteenth-century French materialists, while a false analysis of behaviour motivations was a feature of the others. However, the absence of the dialectical method is conspicuous in everything they all wrote, and wreaks vengeance on all of them in equal degree.

In his polemic against materialist morals, Rousseau often appealed to the conscience, that “divine instinct”, “innate feeling”, and the like. It would have been easy for the materialists to explain that feeling as being the fruit of upbringing and habit. For their part, however, they preferred to present it as a series of reflections grounded in a thorough awareness of personal interest. According to Holbach, conscience can be defined as “knowledge of the effects that one’s actions produce on others, and, conversely, on ourselves”. “A guilty conscience is the certitude or the fear of having merited their hatred or their contempt by our conduct towards them.” [34] It is clear that Rousseau could not have been satisfied with such a “definition”; it is just as clear that the materialists could not tolerate his point of view. The least admission of “innate feeling” would have defeated all their philosophy. Today dialectical materialism can easily single out that part of the truth which is contained both in Rousseau’s statements and in those of the French materialists.

And so all moral laws originate from “Reason”. Rut what is Reason guided by in its search after these laws? By Nature, Holbach replies without the least hesitation. “Man is a feeling, intelligent and rational being.” Reason does not have to know anything more than that to endow us with “universal morality”.

The psychology of this appeal to “Nature” can easily be spelt out. Incidentally, it is explained by Holbach himself: “To impose duties on us, and to prescribe to us laws that obligate us, an authority is doubtlessly needed that has the right to command us.” But the materialists were at war with all the traditional authorities, so they appealed to Nature to find a way out of the difficulty. “Can anyone deny this right to necessity? Can one question the claims of that Nature which exercises sovereign rights over all that exists?” All this was very “natural” at the time, but it must be emphasised that, like most of his contemporaries, Holbach was referring only to the nature of “Man”, which is something quite different from the Nature we have to struggle against for our existence.

Montesquieu was convinced that differences in climate produced “variety in laws”. He adduced most inconclusive proof to bear out this relationship, while the materialist philosophers demonstrated it with no great difficulty. “Will one say,” Holbach asked, “that the Sun which shone down on the Greeks and the Romans, who were so jealous of their liberties, does not send the same rays upon their effete descendants?” [35] Basically speaking, however, Montesquieu’s line of thought was not quite erroneous. Today we know the significance the geographical environment has had for the history of mankind, and if Montesquieu was mistaken, that does not at all mean that those who attacked him on this score had a better understanding of what Hegel was later to call the “geographical foundation of world history”. They had not the least knowledge of the matter, neither right nor wrong knowledge. Human nature was the key they expected to use to open all doors in the edifice of morals, politics and history. It is often difficult for us today to have a clear realisation of a point of view so commonly held by eighteenth-century writers.

“The development of the arts,” it was said by Suard, for example, “is subject to the same gradations that one observes in the development of mankind.” We seize eagerly upon this idea, thinking that the author is about to reveal the hidden causes of human development, which, while independent of the human will, give direction to their spirit and enlightenment (“lumières”). There are some who think that, thanks to Suard, they are escaping from the circulus vitiosus the philosophy oE history was revolving in so hopelessly in the eighteenth century. They are, however, too precipitant, and deeply mistaken. The causes that the development of the “arts” is subordinate to are dependent only on the nature of – “man” ... “In childhood man has nothing but his senses, his imagination and his memory; he needs nothing but songs and tales. Then follows the age of passions, and the soul wants to be stirred and agitated; next the mind expands and reason becomes fortified; these two faculties, in their turn, have to be exercised, their activities extending to everything affecting man’s curiosity, tastes, feelings and needs.” [36]

It is now recognised by all natural scientists that the sequence of forms the individual organism passes through, from the embryo to its full development is a repetition of !ho form-changes gone through by the ancestors of the genus the organism belongs to. Embryogenetic development epitomises the genealogical. In the same way, one can regard the sequence of forms that each man’s mind goes through from infancy to full development as a kind of synopsis of the lengthy and slow changes each man’s ancestors underwent in the course of history. Highly interesting research can, in our opinion, be carried out in this field. [37] But what would be said of the natural scientist who would see, in the embryogenetic history of an individual organism, sufficient grounds for changes in a genus? But that is exactly the mode of thinking of Suard and, together with him, of all eighteenthcentury “philosophers”, who had a vague idea of the pattern of mankind’s development.

In this, Grimm is in full accord with Suard. “What people has not started by being a poet, and ended by being a philosopher?” he asks. [38] Helvetius alone understood that this fact could spring from other and deeper causes than Suard thought. But we have not yet come to Helvetius.

Man is a sentient, thinking and rational creature. He is created thus, has always been and will always remain that way, despite all his errors. In this sense, man’s nature is immutable. What, then, is there surprising in the moral and political laws dictated by that nature being, in their turn, of universal significance, unchanging, and constant? These laws have not yet been proclaimed, and it must be admitted that “nothing is more common than to see civil laws in contradiction with those of Nature”. These corrupt civil laws are due to the “perversity of morals, the errors of societies, or tyranny which forces nature to bow to its authority”. [39] Let Nature have its say, you will learn the truth once and for all. Errors arc without number, but there is only one truth. “Morals do not exist for the monster or the madman; universal morals can be established only for rational and normally organised creatures; in them Nature does not change; observation alone is needed to infer the immutable rules that they must follow.” [40]

But how is one to explain that the same Holbach could have written the following lines: “Like all natural bodies, societies undergo transformations, changes, and revolutions; they are formed, grow and disintegrate just like all beings. One and the same laws cannot suit them in different circumstances of development: useful in one period, they become useless and harmful in another.”

It is all very simple. Holbach draws a single conclusion from the above argumentation, namely that obsolete and outmoded laws (the reference is to the laws of France at the time) should be abolished. The entrenchedness of a law speaks rather against it than for it. The example of our forebears is no evidence in its favour. Holbach could have proved this in theory, but only by appealing to “reason”, but, in view of his readers’ prejudices, he pretended to adhere to the historical point of view. The same is true of the history of religions. The “philosophers” have devoted a great deal of attention to this subject, their purpose being to prove that the Christian religion, which claims to be based on revelation, fully resembles all profane religions. This was a blow aimed against the odious Christian faith; when it had been dealt, none of the “philosophers” felt concerned with a study of the comparative history of religions. The times were revolutionary, and all “truths” proclaimed by the philosophers (which very often contradicted one other) had immediately practical aims in view.

We shall remark at this point that “human nature” often led the materialist philosophers much farther than they had expected. “The distinction that was often drawn between physical and moral man was excessively abused.” Man is a purely physical being. Moral man is the selfsame physical creature, only considered from a definite angle, i.e., in respect of some of his faculties as conditioned by his organisation. Hence, “All of men’s errors are physical errors”. [41] Thus, what devolves on medicine, or rather on physiology, is the task of providing us with a key to the human heart. The same science should also explain to us the historical changes that have taken place in mankind. “In Nature, in which everything is interlinked, everything acts and interacts, everything moves and changes, composes and decomposes, forms and is destroyed, there is not a single atom that does not play an important and necessary role; there is not a single imperceptible molecule which, if placed in suitable circumstances, does not lead to tremendous effects ... An excess of acridity in a fanatic’s bile, excessively inflamed blood in a conqueror’s heart, troublesome digestion in a monarch’s stomach, a whim that passes through some woman’s mind” (also a molecule? – G.P.) “are sufficient causes to start wars, send millions of men into the slaughter, destroy fortresses, reduce cities to rubble... and spread desolation and calamity for a long succession of centuries ...” [42]

There is a well-known aphorism about the speck of sand that found its way into Cromwell’s bladder, thus leading to the entire picture of the world being reshaped. There is neither more nor less content in this aphorism than in Holbach’s ideas about “atoms” and “molecules” as the causes of historical events, the only difference being that we owe the aphorism to a pious man. In the latter’s opinion, it was God who introduced the fatal speck of sand into the Protector’s body. Holbach already would have nothing of God, but in everything else he could produce no objection to this aphorism.

Aphorisms of this kind contain a “grain” of the truth, but that truth also relates to the entire truth in just the same way as a “grain” or a molecule does towards all matter in the Universe. Since it is infinitesimal, that truth does not take us a single step forward in our study of social phenomena. And if we did nothing else in historical science but await the advent of the genius that Laplace dreamt of – a genius who, with the aid of molecular mechanics, will reveal to us all the secrets of mankind’s past, present and future – we could indulge in long and calm slumber, for that marvellous genius’s coming will not take place so soon.

“If, aided by experience, we knew the elements underlying the temperament of a man or of most of the individuals a people is made up of, we would know what is to their liking, what laws they need, and what institutions are useful to them.” [43] In that case, however, what would become of “universal morals” and “ policies that are in accord with Nature”? Holbach has nothing to say on that score but comments with ever greater zeal on all the moral, political and social laws which, of necessity, derive from man’s nature as considered in the capacity of a sentient, etc., creature.

It was highly “natural” that, in Holbach’s times, Mother Nature was politically and morally on the side of the very laws that the French bourgeoisie needed at the moment when it was prepared to become “everything”. [15*]

A tacit agreement, a social pact, exists between society and its members. That contract is renewed at every moment, and is designed to ensure the mutual guarantees of citizens’ rights, of which liberty, property and security are the most sacred. Moreover: “Liberty, property and security are Ihe only bonds that attach people to the land they live in. No homeland exists if these advantages have disappeared.” [44] Property is the sonl of this holy trinity. Security and liberty are necessary in society. “But it is impossible for man to keep or make his existence happy if he cannot enjoy the advantages his exertions and his personality (!) have provided him with. Therefore the laws of Nature have granted every man a right which is called property”. Society cannot deprive a man of his property “because it is created to assure that property”. Thus, property is the aim, and liberty and security are the means. Let us examine this sacred right in this light and in greater detail.

Where does it spring from? It is based on the necessary relation that arises between man and the product of his labour. Thus, a field becomes, in a certain way, a part of him who cultivates it, because it is his will, his arms, his strength, his industry, in a word, “his inherent individual qualities, those belonging to his person”, that have made that field what it is. “That field, irrigated with his sweat, becomes, so to speak, identified with him; its yield belongs to him in just the same way as his limbs and his faculties do, for, without his labour, that produce would never have existed or, at least, would not have existed in the way it does.” [45]

Thus Holbach saw bourgeois property in the form of the product of the proprietor’s own labour. This, however, did not preclude his high regard for merchants and manufacturers, those “benefactors, who, in enriching themselves, give occupations and life to all society”. [46] He seems to have had a correct, though not quite clear, understanding of the origins of the manufacturers’ wealth. “... While the labourer” he says, “gains his livelihood by his labour, he is constantly increasing the wealth of those who give him employment.” Now, is that wealth produced only by “inherent individual qualities, those belonging to his person” (“What a multitude of artisans of all kinds turn the wheels of manufactures!”)? [47] Of course, not! But what of that? Manufacturers and merchants are very useful people, so should not a grateful society award wealth and honours to those that serve it, so well? The trouble lies, not in the indisputable fact that the “artisan” promotes the manufacturer’s wealth but in “Gothic and barbarous prejudices” leading to the manufacturer and merchant being held in lower esteem than they deserve. “The peaceable tradesman seems a contemptible object to the stupid soldier, who does not see that this man, whom he looks down on, clothes him, feeds him, and keeps his army supplied.” (Sic!) [48]

Holbach has a different kind of language for feudal property. He regards such proprietors – “the Rich and the Grand” – as “useless and harmful members of Society” and attacks them indefatigably, for it is they who threaten “the fruits of the labours of others”, destroy the liberty of their fellow citizens, and insult their persons. “That is how property is incessantly violated.” [49]

We know that society has been created to preserve property, but the tacit social pact does and should refer to bourgeois property alone. In respect of feudal property, society has but a single duty – -its complete and absolute abolition. Holbach stands for abolition of the nobility’s privileges, obligations to them, taxes, the corvée, feudal rights, and the like. [50] “If the Nobles, whose harmful rights the Sovereign would take away, should make reference to the sacred rights of property, the reply might be given that property is nothing but the right to possession with justice; whatever runs counter to the national weal can never be marked by justice; whatever is injurious to the property of the husbandman can never be regarded as a right, for it is nothing but usurpation, a violation of his rights, whose maintenance is of far greater benefit to the nation than the pretensions of a small number of Seigneurs, who, not content with doing nothing, are opposed to works that are of the utmost importance both to themselves and to Society.” [51]

The nobles “prefer to do nothing”; they perform no useful function in society, this condemning them in the eyes of our philosopher. There was a time when the nobles had to go to the wars at their own expense, and then enjoyed certain privileges on a fair basis of law. But on what legal foundation should they enjoy the same privileges in a society in which the army is maintained by the sovereign, and the nobles are no longer under any obligation to serve? [52]

A time has now arrived when the proletariat is using the same yardstick for the capitalists’ rights as was used over a hundred years ago by representatives of the bourgeoisie in respect of the privileges of the nobility.

It should not be thought that the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the nobility was reflected in Holbach’s mind as one between landowners and urban proprietors of various kinds. Nothing of the kind! Holbach was in no way biased in favour of movable property. On the contrary, it was landed property that he considered as the real thing, property par excellence. “Ownership of land forms the genuine citizen,” he said. The condition of agriculture is the indicator of a country’s economic situation in general. The “poor” are, first and foremost, “husbandmen”; defending them is tantamount to defending the country folk who are oppressed by the “Grand of this world”, i.e., the nobility. Holbach went so far as to say, together with the Physiocrats [16*], that, directly or indirectly, all taxes fall on the land, just like everything else, whether good or bad, that happens to the nation. “It is to defend the possession of land that warfare is designed; it is to keep the fruits of the land in circulation that trade is necessary; it is by assuring lands to their owners that jurisprudence is useful.” [53] The land is the source of a nation’s entire wealth, and it is for that reason that it should be released as soon as possible from the feudal yoke, which is pressing down so heavily on it. Another argument in favour of the bourgeoisie’s revolutionary trends!

“Equality” could contain nothing tempting to a man like Holbach. On the contrary, he thought it an extremely obnoxious chimera. Not all people have the same kind of organisation. They have always been unequal in their physical, moral and intellectual forces. “A man who is feeble in body or mind has always been forced to recognise the superiority of those who are stronger, more industrious, and more intelligent. One who is more industrious cultivates a larger lot and makes it more fertile than can be done by another who has received a weaker body from Nature. Thus, inequality in property and in possessions has existed from the outset.” [54]

To such arguments the l’abbé Mably could well object that they patently contradicted the point of departure of recent political philosophy, to wit, absolutely equal rights for all people, both strong and weak. [55] The time was not yet ripe for “equality”, and Mably himself had to admit that “no human force could today attempt to re-establish equality without causing greater disorder than one would wish to avoid.” [56] The objective logic of social evolution proved to be on the side of the bourgeois theorists.


1. Cf. Le bon sens puisé dans la nature, suivi du testament du curé Meslier, à Paris, l’an Ier de la République, I, p.175.

2. “Nature, understood in the broadest sense of the word, is a vast whole resultant from a compound of different substances, their different combinations and different motions, as observed by us in the Universe.” (Système de la Nature ou, des Loix du Monde Physique et du Monde Moral, Londres 1781, I, p.3). Holbach also recognised four elements, which the ancient philosophy recognised before him: air, fire, earth and water.

3. Thus, according to Damiron, matter cannot possess the faculty of thinking. Why? Because “matter does not think, does not cognise, does not act” (Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la philosophie au XVIIIe siècle, Paris 1858, p.409).

What, amazing logic! Incidentally, in their struggle against the materialists, Voltaire and Rousseau were also in error in this question. Thus, for instance, Voltaire assured the reader that “any active matter reveals its non-material essence, which acts upon it”. To Rousseau matter was “dead”; he could never “imagine a live molecule”.

4. Système de la Nature, I, p.21. The quotation is from the 1781 edition.

5. Le bon sens, I, p.170.

6. Système de la Nature, I, p.81. Note 26.

7. Système de la Nature, I, pp.90-91. La Mcttrie also considers the two hypotheses almost equally probable. Lange has been totally wrong in ascribing a different opinion to him. This will be seen from a perusal of Chapter VI of Traité de l’âme. La Mettrie even supposes that “the philosophers of all ages” (with the exception of the Cartesians, of course) “recognised that matter had the faculty of sensation” (Cf. Œuvres, Amsterdam 1764, I, pp.97-100).

8. Le bon sens, I, p.177.

9. Jacobi’s Werke, IV, S.54.

10. Geschichte des Materialismus, 2. Aufl., Iserlohn 1873, I, S.378.

11. Système de la Nature, II, pp.91-92.

12. ibid., p.116.

13. ibid., I, p.28.

14. Système de la Nature, II, pp.109-13. Feuerbach said the same thing. In general, his critique of religion contains much that resembles Holbach’s. As for the conversion of a “thing-in-itself” into God, it is noteworthy that the Fathers of the Church denned their God in exactly the same way as the Kantians define their “thing-in-itself”. Thus, according to St. Augustine, God does not fit into any category: “ut sic intelligamus Deum, si possumus, quantum possumus, sine qualitate bonum, sine quantitate magnum, sine indigentia creatorem, sine situ praesidentem, sine loco ubique totum, sine tempore sempiternum”. “So this may be our notion of God, if and so far as it be within our powers, a creator wanting in nothing, good without quality, great without quantity, present without abode, whole everywhere without location, everlasting without time.” (Cf. Ueberweg’s Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, Berlin 1881, II.) We shall refer to Hegel those readers who would like to get an idea of all the contradictions of a “thing-in-itself”. [4*]

15. It is really surprising that Diderot admires the moral doctrine of Heraclitus, hut says nothing of his dialectics, or, if you wish, merely a few insignificant words, in considering his physics. Œuvres de Diderot, Paris 1818, II, pp.625–26 (Encyclopédie).

16. Système de la Nature, I, p.70.

17. ibid., p.73.

18. Système de la Nature, I, p.75. Among the problems whose solution is not given to Man, Holbach also includes the question, “What came first: the animal before the egg, or the egg before the animal?” This is a caution to scholars who like to expatiate on the uncrossablc borderlines of science!

19. [Universal despot of the world we live in and sole motive of everything – personal Interest.]

20. [I have some regret at deceiving Cydalise, But I see clearly that the thing is permitted.]

21. “De La Mettrie and Helvetius are sophists of materialistic ethics” (Hettner, Literaturgeschichte des 18. Jahrhunderts, Braunschweig 1881, II, S.388). “What is fatal to materialism is that it indulges, nourishes and encourages man’s lowest instincts, the baseness out of which he was created” (Fritz Schultze, Die Grundgedanken des Materialismus und die Kritik derselben, Leipzig 1887, S.50).

22. La Politique naturelle ou discours sur les vrais principes du gouvernement, par un ancient magistra (Holbach), 1773, pp.45-46.

23. Système social ou Principes naturels de la morale et de la politique. Avec un examen de l’influence du gouvernement sur les mœurs. Par l’auteur du Système de la Nature, Londres, 1773, I, p.36. Cf. with the Preface to Morale universelle by the same author: “We shall not deal here with religious morals, which do not recognise the rights of reason, since they pursue the aim of leading people along supernatural roads.”

24. “Passions are true counterweights to passions; let us not seek to destroy them but try to give them direction; let us balance those that are detrimental with those that are useful to society. Reason, the fruit of experience, is merely the art of choosing, for our own happiness, the passions we should listen to” (Système de la Nature, I, p.304).

25. “Let them not tell us that no government can make all its subjects happy; no doubt, it cannot please the whims of a few idle citizens who do not know what to think up to dispel their ennui; it can and must, however, engage in satisfying the real needs of the multitude. A society enjoys all the happiness it is capable of when the greatest number of its members are fed, clothed and housed – in a word, can, without excessive labour, satisfy the needs that Nature has made necessary to them.... As a consequence of human follies, entire nations are obliged to toil, sweat, and water the soil with their tears so as to provide for the luxury, whims and corruption of a small number of madmen, a handful of useless people, for whom happiness has become impossible because their unbridled imagination knows no bounds” (ibid., p.298).

26. [Admire this author, all of you, who has entitled his book On the Spirit, though it contains nothing but matter.]

27. Système de la Nature, I, p.306.

28. ibid., p.268.

29. It is not only too broad but also tautological since it says nothing except that man wants only what he wants. This was noted by Turgot in ins analysis of Helvetius’s theory of morality.

30. “In depraved societies one should oneself be depraved to be happy” (Système de la Nature, II, p.237).

31. Le Christianisme dévoilé ou examen des principes et des effets de la religion chrétienne, à Londres 1757, pp.120-28. This book was called “the most horrible that could have appeared on Earth”. It was actually brought out in Nancy, not in London.

32. “And yet, – what Possession (sic!) shall; be placed in Competition with a Friend? What Slave so affectionate to our Persons, or studious of our Interest? What Horse able to render us such Service? From whence, or from whom, can we at all Times and on every Occasion receive so many and such essential Benefits?” (Xenophon’s Memoirs of Socrates, II, Ch.IV). Nothing more “cynical” was ever said by the French materialists. Does that mean that Socrates “slandered” himself?

33. Incidentally, in the eighteenth century this was fully in keeping with the spirit of the times, and the adherents of “religious morality” in no way lagged behind the materialists in this respect, sometimes producing quite amusing “proofs”. Hero is a splendid example. According to Helvetius, the Jesuits initialed the performance of a ballet in Rouen, in the year 1750, “the object of which was to show that ‘pleasure prepares the youth for the true virtues, that is to say, the first act is on the civic virtues, the second – on the military virtues, while the third is on the virtues proper to religion’. In the ballet they tried to prove that truth through the dances. Personified Religion performed a pas de deux with Pleasure and, to give the latter more piquancy, as the Jansenists [11*] said at the time, the Jesuits clad him in trousers. But if, in their opinion, pleasure can do anything with man, what is it that interest cannot do with him? Is not all interest reduced in us to a search after pleasure?” (De l’Homme, I, section II, chap.16.)

34. Système social, I, p.56; cf. also La Morale universelle, I, pp.4-5.

35. Politique naturelle, II, p.10; Système social, III, pp.6-8. For his part, Voltaire never tired of warring against this opinion of Montesquieu, who, incidentally, had said nothing new on this question, but had merely repeated the views of certain Greek and Roman writers. To be fair, we shall add that Holbach often spoke of the influence of climate far more superficially than Montesquieu did. “In its essence, a definite climate organises and modifies people in such a way that they become either very useful or harmful to their race” (!), says Holbach in Système de la Nature.

36. Du progrès des lettres et de la philosophie dans le dix-huitième siècle. In Mélange de litterature, Paris, l’an XII, t.III, p.383.

37. It goes without saying that the closest attention should be paid to the tremendous influence that adaptation to the social environment exerts on the individual’s spiritual and moral development.

38. Correspondance littéraire, août 1774.

39. Politique naturelle, I, p.52.

40. Condorcet, who rebelled against Voltaire’s views on this particular matter, which were diametrically opposite to his own, asserted (Le Philosophe ignorant [14*]; the Patriarch often changed his views) that the ideas of justice and right developed “without fail in one and the same way with all beings endowed with the ability to feel” and acquire ideas. “Therefore they will be the same.” Of course, it is true that people “often change them . but any creature that reasons correctly will arrive at the same ideas in morals as in geometry. Such ideas are the necessary conclusion from the indisputaDle truth that “people are feeling and thinking creatures”. (In a Note to Philosophe ignorant of the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s works.)

41. Système de la Nature, I, p.5.

42. ibid., I, p.214.

43. Système de la Nature, I, p.106.

M. Jules Soury naively remarks about those words: “This idea of Baron d’Holbach’s has in part become a fact.” (!) “Nevertheless, it is moral statistics rather than physiology ttiat seems bound to render the greatest services to the physics o[ morals” (Bréviaire de l’histoire du materialisme, Paris 1881, p.653).

44. Politique naturelle, I, pp.13-14, 38, 125.

“The great and chief end, therefore, of men uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property, to which in tbe state of Nature there are many things wanting ...” (John Locke, Two Treatises on Civil Government, [London 1884, Book II], Ch.IX, Of the Ends of Political Society and Government, p.256).

45. Politique naturelle, I, p.39.

46. Morale universelle, II, p.249.

47. ibid.

48. ibid., II, p.240.

49. Politique naturelle, I, p.42.

50. Of course, he makes no exceptions either for guild and other such “privileges”, or for the “wealth of the clergy”.

51. L’Ethocratie ou le Gouvernement fondé sur la morale, Amsterdam 1776, pp.50-51.

52. ibid., p.52.

53. Politique naturelle, I, p.179.

54. ibid., p.20.

55. “If my physical or moral qualities give me no right over a man less endowed than I am with the gifts of Nature; if I cannot demand of him that he should not demand of me – then tell me, I ask you, on what grounds I can claim that our conditions are unequal ... It should he demonstrated to me by virtue of what title I can establish my superiority” (Doutes proposés aux philosophes économistes sur l’ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques, à la Haye 1708, p.21).

56. Politique naturelle, I, p.15.


1*. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in three volumes, Vol. 3, Moscow, 1973, pp.345, 346. Plekhanov cites this passage in his own translation.

2*. Kant’s Kritik der reinen Vernunft (Critique of Pure Reason) appeared in 1781.

3*. Lampe – Kant’s servant; here an embodiment of German petty-bourgeois Philistinism. Plekhanov had in mind the ironical criticism to which Heine subjected the contradictions in Kant’s theory explaining them by the spirit of philistinism which permeated Kant’s philosophy too. After refuting the possibility to prove God’s existence (in his Critique ot Pure Reason), Kant, Heine believed, felt sorry for his poor Lampe and, to make the latter happy, returned to proving the existence of God (in his Critique of Practical Reason).

4*. For Hegel’s criticism of Kant’s teaching on the “thing-in-itself” see his work Science of Logic. The criticism is incomplete, as it is given from an idealist point of view.

5*. Heinrich Heine, Deutschland. Ein Winter Märchen.

6*. Correspondance littéraire, philosophique et critique (Literary, Philosophical and Critical Correspondence) – a magazine circulated in Paris in manuscript form (15 or 16 copies) from 1753 to 1792. It was issued by Friedrich Grimm, a prominent Encyclopedist, man of letters and diplomat. The magazine was sent to outstanding personalities and the authorities of the time. Scientific, literary and other problems were discussed in its pages. Correspondance appeared in book form in 1812.

7*. From Heinrich Heine’s poem, Deutschland. Ein Winter Märchen.

8*. Patriarch of Ferney – Voltaire. The epithet was derived from the name of his estate near Geneva, where Voltaire spent more than twenty years of his life.

9*. The age of Phaedra and Misanthrope – the seventeenth century, the age of great French dramatists Jean Racine, the author of the tragedy Phaedra (1677) and Jean-Baptiste Molière, the author of Le Misanthrope (1666).

10*. Socrates, who was imprisoned and sentenced to death for his struggle against the Athenean democracy, made no attempt to escape from prison, despite his friends’ entreaties, and took poison.

The Roman general Marcus Atilius Regulus (3rd cent. BC), captured by the Carthaginians in the 1st Punic War, was said to have been sent to Rome to negotiate peace and an exchange of prisoners of war. But on arriving in Rome, he ardently advised the Senate against accepting the Carthaginian terms. Then, as he did not want to break his word, he returned to Carthage, where he was tortured to death.

11*. The Jansenists, named after the Dutch Roman Catholic theologian Jansenius – represented the oppositional trend among the French Catholics in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, expressing discontent in part of the French bourgeoisie with the feudal ideology of official Catholicism.

12*. Words by Mephistopheles from Goethe’s Faust.

13*. Capucinades – commonplace and banal moral admonitions, derived from the name of the order of Capuchines.

14*. Le philosophe ignorant – a philosophical treatise by Voltaire (1766) devoted to the problem of knowledge. It was Condorcet who wrote notes to the Kehl edition of Voltaire’s Works.

15*. The reference is to the following passage in Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès’s Quest-ce que le tiers état? published on the eve of the French Revolution in 1789: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. – What was it until now in the political respect? Nothing. – What is it striving for? To be something.”

16*. Physiocrats – a trend in bourgeois classical political economy which arose in the 1750s in France. The Physiocrats were staunch advocates of large-scale capitalist agriculture, and the abolition of class privileges and protectionism. They realised the necessity of doing away with the feudal system but wanted to bring this about through peaceful reforms, without any detriment to the ruling classes and absolutism. In their philosophical views they were close to the French eighteenth-century bourgeois Enlighteners.

Last updated on 9.10.2007