Georgi Plekhanov

Essays on the History of Materialism



The eighteenth-century philosophers were incessantly referring to human nature, which was called upon to explain the history of mankind and specify the qualities that a “’perfect legislation” should possess. This was the idea underlying all utopias: in their ideal conceptions of a perfect society, the utopians always proceeded from argumentations regarding human nature. Augustin Thierry’s and Guizot’s “conquest” also takes us back to human nature, i.e., to the more or less well imagined, the more or less arbitrary “nature” of the conqueror. [31] But if human nature is something constant, then it is patently absurd to wish to explain, with its help, mankind’s historical fortunes, which are changeable in their essence; if human nature is given to change, then one should ask oneself the following question: why does that change take place? The German idealists, those past masters of logic, have already admitted that human nature is a piece of most egregious fiction. They have tried to establish the motivation of historical development outside of man, who, in their opinion, obeys only the irresistible urges of that cause. To them, however, that motive force was the World Spirit, i.e., one aspect of human nature that had passed through the filter of abstraction. Marx’s theory has now put an end to all such fictions, errors and contradictions. Through the impact of his labour on Nature, which exists outside of him, man changes his own nature. Consequently, human nature, in its turn, has its own history; to understand that history, one has to understand how man’s impact takes place on Nature, which exists outside of him.

Helvetius made an attempt to explain the development of human societies by basing it on men’s physical needs. This attempt was doomed to failure because, strictly speaking, what should have been examined was not man’s needs, but the ways in which they could be satisfied.

An animal has physical wants just as man has. However, animals do not produce anything; they simply gain possession of objects, whose production is, so to speak, left to Nature. To gain possession of such objects, they use their organs – teeth, tongue, limbs, and so on. That is why an animal’s adaptation to its natural environment is effected through a transformation of its organs, by changes in its anatomical structure. Matters are not so simple as that with the animal that proudly calls itself Homo sapiens. “He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his wants.” He is a producer and uses tools in the process of production. “Leaving out of consideration such ready-made moans of subsistence as fruits, in gathering which a man’s own limhs serve as the instruments of his labour, the first tiling of which the labourer possesses himself is not the subject of labour but its instrument. Thus Nature becomes one of the organs of his activity, one that he annexes to his own bodily organs, adding stature to himself in spite of the Bible.” [32] It is thus that his struggle for existence differs substantially from that waged by the oilier animals: the tool-making animal adapts himself to his natural environment by changing his artificial organs. In comparison with these changes, those in his anatomical structure have lost all significance. Thus Darwin says that Europeans who have settled in America very soon undergo physical changes. However, in the opinion of Darwin himself, these changes are “most insignificant”, they are quite negligible as compared with the innumerable changes in the Americans’ artificial organs. Thus, as soon as man becomes a toolmaking animal, lie enters a new phase of his developmeiit: his zoological development comes to an end, and his historical life road commences.

Darwin questions the view that there are no animals that make use of tools. He cites many instances to prove the reverse: in its natural state, the chimpanzee uses a stone to split hard-shelled wild fruit; in India, trained elephants break branches off trees and use them to keep flies away. All this may be perfectly true, but it should not he forgotten, in the first place, that quantitative changes turn into qualitative distinctions. With animals, the use of tools, is to bo met only in an embryonic state; their influence on animals way of life is infinitesimal; conversely, the use of tools exerts a decisive influence on man’s way of life. It is in this sense that Marx says: “The use and fabrication of instruments of labour, although existing in the germ among certain species of animals, is specifically characteristic of the human labour-process.” [33]

It is self-evident that man does not only use mechanical means of labour, but Marx considers the latter more characteristic of him: they comprise what he calls the bone and muscle structure of production. Their relics have the same significance for an appraisal of extinct economic social systems as the remains of bones have for the study of extinct species of animals. “It is not the articles made, hut how they are made, and by what instruments, that enables us to distinguish different economic epochs.” [34] Prior to Marx, the historians and “sociologists”, who were full of idealist prejudices, did not even suspect how valuable a means for most important discoveries this fossil technology could be. “Darwin has interested us in the history of Nature’s Technology, i.e., in the formation of the organs of plants and animals, which organs serve as instruments of production for sustaining life. Does not the history of the productive organs of man, of organs that are the material basis of all social organisation, deserve equal attention? And would not such a history be easier to compile, since, as Vico says, human history differs from natural history in this, that we have made the former, but not the latter.” [35]

The present-day historians of culture speak facilely of the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages, a division of pre-historic times that is based on the main materials used for the production of weapons and and utensils. These epochs are subdivided into various periods, e.g., those of chipped stone and of polished stone. Consequently, the historians do not completely close their eyes to fossil technology, but they regrettably limit themselves in this area to general remarks that can lead to nothing but the commonplace. They withdraw into this area only for want of something better, and abandon it as soon as the discovery is made in history, in the proper meaning of the term, of other facts that seem more worthy of man and his mind. In this respect, they follow in the main the example of the eighteenth century, behaving in the way Condorcet did a hundred years ago.

Condorcet’s celebrated Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain begins with a description of the development of primitive man’s productive forces from the most uncouth “arts” to the rudiments of agriculture. Condorcet goes so far as to state that “the art of making weapons, cooking food, and obtaining the utensils needed for that cooking, preserving the cooked food for a certain time for provision against the seasons when it was impossible to find fresh food ... was the first feature distinguishing human society from the societies of other species of animals”. At the same time, Condorcet was fully aware that so important an “art” as agriculture was bound to have a vast influence on the structure of society. However, his “third epoch” of the history of mankind already includes “the progress of agricultural peoples until the invention of alphabetical writing”; the fourth is that of the progress of the human spirit in Greece until the division of the sciences in the age of Alexander; the fifth is marked by the progress of the sciences, and so on. Quite unwittingly, Condorcet completely changed the principle of his division, at once revealing that he first spoke only of the development of the productive forces because he had no other choice. In exactly the same way, it emerges that the “progress” achieved in the held of production and people’s material life in general was seen by him only as a measure of the progress of the spirit, to which they owed everything, without repayment of anything of the same kind.

To Condorcet, the means of production were an effect, while man’s spiritual abilities, his spirit, were a cause. Since, as a metaphysician, lie remained blind to the dialectics inherent in any process in Nature or in society, according to which any cause is a cause only after it lias been an effect, and any effect, in its turn, becomes a cause; since lie noted the existence of such dialectics only when manifested in the special form of the relation of interaction, it was natural for him to prefer taking the bull by the horns and – insofar as he was able, and not obliged, to act otherwise – to address himself to cause. To him, the human spirit was the prime mover of historical development. It was to that spirit that Condorcet, like all “philosophers”, attributed a “natural” proclivity towards progress. This was of course a highly superficial point of view, but we shall be fair, and ask: have the present-day historians of culture departed very far from Condorcet’s point of view? [36]

It is as clear as day that the use of implements, however imperfect, presupposes the relatively tremendous development of the intellectual faculties. A lot of water had run under the bridge before our ape-man ancestors achieved that degree of the development of the “spirit”. How did they achieve it? Wo should put that question, not to history but to zoology. For the latter, the reply has been given by Darwin, who has at least shown how man’s zoological evolution could have reached the point that interests us. True, the ape-man “spirit” plays a fairly passive role in Darwin’s hypothesis, since that hypothesis docs not deal with its allegedly natural trend towards progress, inasmuch as the latter is effected through a conjuncture of circumstances whose nature is not very elevated. Thus, according to Darwin, “Man could not have attained his present dominant position in the world without the use of his hands, which are so admirably adapted to act in obedience to his will.” [37] This was already asserted by Helvetius: he considered the development of the limbs – horribile dictu – the cause of the brain’s development, and what is far worse, that the development of the limbs was brought about, not by the ape-mau’s spirit but by the influence of the natural environment.

However that may be, zoology passes its Homo on to history as already possessing faculties necessary for the invention and employment of the most primitive implements. That is why history should merely trace the development of artificial organs and establish their influence on the development of the spirit, as has been done by zoology in respect of the natural organs. Since the latter’s development took place under the influence of the natural environment, it can be readily understood that things were the same with artificial organs.

The inhabitants of a country that has no metals cannot invent implements that are better than stone tools. For man to have domesticated the horse, cow, sheep and other animals, which have played such an important part in the development of his productive forces, he had to live in lands in which these animals – or rather their zoological ancestors – were to be found in a wild state. It was not in the steppes, of course, that the art of navigation arose, and so on. Consequently, the natural environment, the geographical environment, its poverty or wealth, exerted an indisputable influence on the development of industry. Moreover, the character of the geographical environment played another and even more remarkable role in the history of culture.

“It is not the mere fertility of the soil”, says Marx, “but the differentiation of the soil, the variety of its natural products, the changes of the seasons, which form the physical basis for the social divisions of labour, and which, by changes in the natural surroundings, spur man on to the multiplication of his wants, his capabilities, his means and modes of labour. It is the necessity of bringing a natural force under the control of society, of economising, of appropriating or subduing it on a large scale by the work of man’s hand, that first plays the decisive part in the history of industry. Examples are, the irrigation works in Egypt, Lombardy, Holland, or in India and Persia where irrigation by means of artificial canals, not only supplies the soil with the water indispensable to it, but also carries down to it, in the shape of sediment from the hills, mineral fertilisers.” [38]

Thus, man obtains from his natural environment the material for his artificial organs, with the aid of which he wages a struggle against Nature. The kind of environment that surrounds him determines the character of his productive activities, his means of production. But the means of production just as inevitably determine the mutual relations among men in the process of production, as an army’s weapons determine all its organisation and all the mutual relations of the individuals it is made up of. But then the relations between people in the social process of production determine the entire structure of society. Consequently, the influence exerted on that structure by the natural environment is indisputable: the character of the natural environment determines the character of the social environment.

An illustration: “The necessity for predicting the rise and fall of the Nile created Egyptian astronomy, and with it the dominion of the priests, as directors of agriculture.” [39]

But this is only one aspect of the matter. To avoid arriving at quite erroneous conclusions, another aspect has to be taken into account at the same time.

Production relations are an effect; productive forces are a cause. In its turn, however, an effect turns into a cause; production relations become a new source of the development of the productive forces; this brings about a double result.

1) The interaction between production relations and productive forces is a cause of social movement, which has its own logic and laws that are independent of the natural environment.

For example: at the first stage of its development, private property is always the result of the labour of the proprietor himself, as can well be seen in the Russian countryside. But there comes, of necessity, a time when private property acquires a character opposite to what it previously possessed: it presupposes the labour of another man, and becomes capitalist private property as can also be daily observed in the Russian countryside. This phenomenon is a consequence of the inherent laws of the evolution of private property. All that the natural environment is capable of effecting in this case consists in the acceleration of that development, by favouring the development of the productive forces.

2) Since social evolution has its specific logic, which is independent of any kind of direct influence on the part of the natural environment, it may happen that one and the same people, though it lives in one and the same country and maintains its physical features with almost no change, can possess, in various periods of its history, social and political institutions that bear little resemblance to each other and may even be quite their opposites. Attempts have been made to draw the conclusion therefrom that the geographical environment exerts no influence on the history of mankind. This conclusion, however, is quite erroneous. [40] The peoples that inhabited England in the times of Julius Caesar experienced the influence of the same geographical environment as did the English in the times of Cromwell. However, Cromwell’s contemporaries possessed productive forces far more powerful than the peoples of Caesar’s time. The geographical environment exerted a different influence, since Cromwell’s contemporaries had a quite different impact on the natural environment. The productive forces in seventeenth-century England were the outcome of her history; however, throughout that history, the geographical environment never ceased from exerting an influence, though always in different ways, on the country’s economic development.

The interrelation between social man and the geographical environment is greatly subject to change. It is affected by each new step made in the development of man’s productive forces. In consequence, the influence of the geographical environment on social man leads to differing results at different phases of the development of those forces. Yet there is nothing fortuitous in the changing interrelations between man and his habitat: in their succession, those relations form a law-governed pattern. To understand that process, one should not forget that the natural environment becomes an important factor in mankind’s historical development, not as a result of its influence on human nature but because of its influence on the development of the productive forces.

“The temperature of this land” (the reference is to the temperate zone of Asia. – G.P.), “in respect of the seasons of the year, which do not show any intemperate variations, mostly approaches the temperature of spring. But it is impossible for men in such a country to he courageous and vigorous, to stand up to labour and fatigue ... If the Asians are timid, without courage, less warlike and of a milder disposition than Europeans are, it is again in the nature of the seasons that the main cause should be sought. With the former, far from experiencing any great changes, they are very much alike, and pass from heat to cold in an imperceptible manner. Now in such a temperature, the spirit does not experience the powerful impacts, or the body the violent changes that naturally impress on man a sterner, more inflexible and more mettlesome character than when he has to live in a temperature that is always equable, because it is rapid changes from one extreme to another that arouse man’s spirit and wrest it out of a state of complacency and lassitude.”

These lines were written very long ago, for they belong to Hippocrates. [41] But even today there are quite a number of writers who have made no further advance in their appraisal of the influence of the geographical environment on mankind: it is the habitat that determines race, morals, science, philosophy, religion and, as an inevitable consequence, the social and political institutions. [42]

This may sound like the truth, but is in reality just as superficial as are all other attempts to explain the phenomena of social evolution with the aid of some concept of human nature.

As Buckle has very well put it, the influence of climate and soil on man is indirect; “... they have ... originated the most important consequences in regard to the general organisations of society, and from them there have followed many of those large and conspicuous differences between nations, which are often ascribed to some fundamental difference in the various races into which mankind is divided.” [43] Buckle willingly subscribed to a remark made by John Stuart Mill that “... of all vulgar modes of escaping from the consideration of the effect of social and moral influences on the human mind, the most vulgar is that of attributing the diversities of conduct and character to inherent natural differences”. However, in speaking of Nature’s influence on mankind’s historical development, the selfsame Buckle commits the same errors with which he has reproached others so strongly and with full justification.

“Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are more frequent and more destructive in Italy, and in the Spanish and Portuguese peninsula, than in any other of the great countries” (of Europe – G.P.), “and it is precisely there that superstition is most rife, and the superstitious classes most powerful. Those were the countries where the clergy first established their authority, where the worst corruptions of Christianity took place, and where superstition has during the longest period retained the firmest hold.” [44]

Thus, as Buckle sees it, the habitat influences, not only the intensity of the inhabitants’ religious sentiments but also the clergy’s social standing, i.e., the entire social structure of society. But that is not all.

“Now it is remarkable that all the greatest painters, and nearly all the greatest sculptors, modern Europe has possessed, have been produced by the Italian and Spanish peninsulas. In regard to science, Italy has no doubt had several men of conspicuous ability; but their numbers are out of all proportion small when compared with her artists and poets.” [45]

Thus, a country’s physical features are of decisive importance to the development of the sciences and arts in it. Have any of the most ardent supporters of the “vulgar” theory of races said anything more bold and less grounded?

The scientific history of mankind’s spiritual development has yet to be written; for the time being, we have to be content with more or less ingenious hypotheses. However, there are different kinds of hypotheses. Buckle’s hypothesis on the influence of Nature does not hold water.

Indeed, ancient Greece was famed for her thinkers just as much as for her artists, yet Nature in Greece is hardly less majestic than in Italy or Spain. Even if we assume that her influence on the human imagination was stronger in Italy than in the homeland of Pericles, it will suffice to recall that “Greater Greece” included Southern Italy and the neighbouring islands, which did not prevent her from “producing” many thinkers.

Just as anywhere else, the fine arts in present-day Italy and Spain have their history. Italian painting flourished over a very short period of not more than fifty or sixty years. [46] In Spain, too, painting flourished for a brief period. We are quite unable to indicate the causes for Italian painting having flourished just during that period (from the last quarter of the fifteenth century until the first third of the sixteenth century) and not in any other epoch, for instance, fifty years earlier or later: what we do know very well is that Nature in the Italian peninsula has nothing to do with the matter, for it was the same in the fifteenth century as it was in the thirteenth or seventeenth. If a variable magnitude changes, that does not happen because a constant remains unchanged.

To what Buckle has to say on the influence and power of the clergy in Italy, we can object that it would be hard to find an instance more contradictory in essence to the proposition it is called upon to reinforce. In the first place, the role of the clergy in Catholic Italy in no way resembled the role of the priests in ancient Rome, though the country’s physical features underwent no appreciable changes in the interim. In the second place, the Catholic Church being an international body, it is obvious that the Pope, that head of a “superstitious class”, owed the greater part of his power in Italy to causes that had nothing in common either with the physical features of the country or with its own social structure. [47] Often expelled by the inhabitants of Rome, the “Holy Father” was able to return to the Eternal City only thanks to help from the transalpine states. Though Rome’s quite exclusive position as the abode of the head of the Church exerted a powerful influence on the role of the clergy in all Italy, it should not be thought that the Italian clergy were always more powerful than their counterparts in the other European countries, in Germany, for example. That would be a gross error. [48]

Students of the history of religions have been prone, right down to our days, to clutch at racial features each time they have come up against any peculiarity in the religious doctrine of some people, the origins of which are difficult to establish. Nevertheless, they have to admit, since it is obvious, the initial similarity of the religions of savages and barbarians inhabiting areas that are quite different in character. [49] In the same way, they have been forced to acknowledge the tremendous influence that any people’s way of life and means of production have on the nature of their religious doctrines. [50] That is why science would only stand to gain by abandoning all kinds of vague and “hypothetical” reasoning on the direct influence of the geographical environment on any property of the “human spirit”, and by trying, first and foremost, to determine the role played by that environment in the development of the productive forces and, through those forces, in the entire social and spiritual – in a word, the historical – development of peoples.

But let us go further:

“At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. In studying such transformations, it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what lie thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production.” [51]

Everything finite is that which cancels itself, goes over into its opposite. The reader will see that, according to Marx, the same holds true of both social and political institutions. Any social institution is, first and foremost, a “form of development” of the productive forces. It is, so to speak, the finest period in its life. It gains strength, develops and flourishes. People instinctively become attached to it, and declare it “divine” or “natural”. But old age gradually draws closer and decrepitude sets in. People begin to notice that not everything in a particular institution is as splendid as was previously thought; they engage in a struggle against it, declare it “born of the devil” or “contrary to Nature”, and ultimately abolish it. This takes place because society’s productive forces are no longer the same, because they have taken a new step forward, as a result of which changes have taken place in human relations and in the social process of production. Gradual quantitative changes turn into qualitative distinctions. The limes of such changes are marked by leaps, a break in continuity. That is the same dialectics that we know from Hegel but yet it is not the same. In Marx’s philosophy, it turned into the complete opposite of what it had been with Hegel. To Hegel, the dialectics of social life, like any dialectics of the finite in general, ultimately had a mystical cause, the nature of the Infinite, Ahsolute Spirit. With Marx, it depends on absolutely real causes: the development of the means of production at the disposal of society. Mutatis mutandis. Darwin took up the same stand to explain the “origin of species”. Just in the same way as, since Darwin’s times, there has been no more need to appeal to trends towards “progress” as “inborn” in organisms (trends whose existence was considered possible by Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin) for an explanation of the development of species, we today no longer need to appeal, in the field of social science, to mystical “trends” in the “human spirit” so as to understand its “progress”. Men’s way of life is sufficient for us to find an explanation of their sentiments and thoughts.

Fichte complained bitterly that “it is easier to drive most people to consider themselves pieces of lava on the Moon than their own selves”. Any good philistine of today will also sooner admit that he is a “piece of lava on the Moon” than accept a theory according to which all his ideas, views and customs owe their origin to the economic relations of his time. He would appeal to human freedom, to reason and innumerable other no less excellent and estimable things. The good philistines do not even suspect, when they wax indignant with Marx, that it was this “narrow-minded” man who alone solved the contradictions that had tormented science for at least a whole century.

Let us consider an example. What is literature? Literature, the good philistines reply in chorus, is an expression of society. This is an excellent definition, but it has a shortcoming: it is so vague tliat it says absolutely nothing. In what measure does literature express society? And since society itself develops, how is social development reflected in literature? What literary forms correspond to each phase of mankind’s historical development? These inevitable and perfectly legitimate questions, however, remain unanswered in the definition just mentioned. Besides, since literature is an expression of society, it is evident that, before speaking of the development of literature, one must gain an understanding of the laws of social development and the hidden forces whose consequence that development is. The reader will see that the given definition has some value only because it presents us with a problem to which the “philosophers” of the times of Voltaire, as well as nineteenth-century historians and philosophers, already approached, namely: what does social development ultimately depend on?

The ancients knew very well that, for instance, eloquence depends in considerable measure on society’s mores and political structure (cf. Dialogue de oratoribus, which is attributed to Tacitus). Writers of the last century knew that just as well. As we have shown in our preceding essay, Helvetius often addressed himself to the condition of society for an explanation of the origin of trends in aesthetic taste. In 1800 there appeared a book by Mme. do Stael-Holstein: De la littérature considerée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales. During the Restoration and under Louis Philippe, Villemain Sainte-Beuve and many others declared for all to hear that literary revolutions arose only as a consequence of social evolution. On the other side of the Rhine, great philosophers, who regarded literature and the fine arts, like everything else, in the process of becoming, already held firm views – this despite all their idealism on the close link between any art and the social milieu that brings forth the artist. [52] Finally, to avoid an excess of examples, we shall only point out that Hippolyte Taine, that outstanding critic and historian of literature, advanced the following rule as the basic principle of his scientific aesthetics: “The major changes that take place in the relations between people gradually produce the corresponding changes in people’s thoughts”. It might have been thought that this statement provided a complete solution of the question and clearly indicated the road of a scientific history of literature and the fine arts. Yet, strangely enough, we see that our present-day historians of literature do not have a clearer picture of mankind’s spiritual development than was the case a hundred years ago. How is one to explain this amazing philosophical sterility in people who lack neither diligence nor, and especially, learning?

One does not have to seek far afield to discover the reason. However, to understand that reason, one must first establish wherein lie the merits and demerits of contemporary scientific aesthetics.

According to Taine, “it differs from the old aesthetics in its being of an historical, not dogmatic nature, i.e., in its stating laws, and not issuing instructions”. That is excellent, but how can such aesthetics give us guidance for a study of literature and various arts? How does it operate in the study of laws? How does it consider a work of art?

Here, we shall quote from the same writer and, to preclude any misunderstanding, we shall let him speak forth in detail.

After stating that a work of art is determined by the general state of minds and the predominant morals, and citing historical examples, he goes on to say:

“In the various cases we have examined, you have noticed, first of all, a general situation, that is to say, the universal presence of certain boons and certain evils, a condition of servitude or of freedom, a state of poverty or wealth, a definite form of society, a definite brand of religion; in Greece, free cities, warlike and well provided with slaves; in the Middle Ages, oppression, incursions, feudal plunder, and an exalted Christianity; in the seventeenth century, life at court; the industrial and learned democracy of the nineteenth; in short, a sum of circumstances that men have to how to, and obey ... This situation develops in them corresponding requirements, distinct aptitudes and particular sentiments ... Then this group of sentiments, requirements and aptitudes, when it manifests itself in its entirety and with brilliance in one and the same soul, produces a predominant type, i.e., a model that contemporaries admire and like: in Greece, this was the handsome and nude young man of fine race, accomplished in all bodily exercises; in the Middle Ages, the ecstatic monk and the enamoured knight; in the sixteenth century, the perfect courtier; in our days, a Faust or a Werther, insatiable and sad. But since this type is the most interesting, the most important and the most outstanding, as compared with all others, it is him that artists present to the public, now concentrating him in a single image when their art – as in painting, sculpture, the novel, the epic or the theatre – is imitative, now splitting him up into components when their art – such as architecture and music – evokes emotions without creating images. Therefore all their work can be expressed in saying that they either depict this predominant type or address themselves to him, as in the symphonies of Beethoven and in the rose-windows of cathedrals; they represent him in the Meleager and the antique Niobides, and in Racine’s Agamemnon and Achilles. It follows that all art depends upon him, because art applies itself entirely to pleasing him or giving him expression. A general situation, which gives rise to distinct propensities and faculties; a predominant type created by the power of those propensities and faculties; sounds, forms, colours and words which make that type alive or are in accord with the propensities and faculties that go to make it up – such are the four terms of the series. The first brings in its train the second, which brings up the third, and the latter, the fourth, so that the least change in any of the terms of the series leads up to a corresponding alteration in those that follow and reveals a corresponding change in the preceding, permits a descent or an ascent, through pure reasoning, from one to the other. As far as I can judge, this formula leaves nothing beyond the confines of its hold.” [53]

Actually, this “formula” does not cover very many important things. Certain remarks might be made on the arguments that accompany it. Thus, one might claim with good reason that the Middle Ages did not have only ecstatic monks and enamoured knights [54] in the capacity of “predominant types”. It might also be affirmed, with great probability, that “in our days”, it is not only Faust and Werther that inspire our artists. But, however that may be, it is obvious that Taine’s “formula” advances us considerably along the road towards an understanding of the history of art, and tells us far more than the vague definition that “ literature is an expression of society”. In using this formula,Taine made an important contribution to the study of the history of the fine arts and literature. But, when reading his finest writings, such as his Philosophie de l’art, from which we have just quoted, his essay on Racine, and his Histoire de la littérature anglaise, one asks oneself: does all this satisfy? Of course, it does not! Despite all his talent and all the indisputable advantages of his method, the author gives us nothing but an outline, which, taken even as such, leaves much to be desired. His Histoire de la littérature anglaise is more of a series of brilliant characterisations than a history. What Taine tells us about ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy or the Netherlands acquaints us with the main features in the art of each of these countries, but explains nothing of their historical origins, or does so in a most inconsiderable degree. It should be noted, that, in this case, it is not the author who is at fault hut his point of view, his understanding of the history of literature.

Inasmuch as it is claimed that the history of art is closely linked with that of the social milieu, and inasmuch as the opinion is expressed that any major change in men’s relations engenders a corresponding change in their ideas, the necessity is recognised of the need to first establish the laws of the evolution of the social milieu and gain a clear understanding of the causes of major changes in men’s relations, so as then to correctly establish the laws of the evolution of art. In short, “historical aesthetics” should he based on a scientific understanding of the history of societies. Has Taine done that in any satisfactory manner? No, he has not. A materialist in the field of the philosophy of art, he is an idealist in his understanding of history. “Just as astronomy is ultimately a problem of mechanics, and physiology a problem of chemistry, history is ultimately a problem of psychology”, [55] he asserts. He regards the social milieu he is constantly appealing to as a product of the human spirit. Consequently, we find in him the same contradiction as we have met in the French eighteenth-century materialists: man’s ideas owe their origin to man’s condition; man’s condition ultimately owes its origin to man’s ideas. At this point, we shall ask the reader: can one use the historical method in aesthetics if one has such a confused and contradictory understanding of history in general? Of course not. One may possess extraordinary ability and yet be very far from accomplishing a task one has set oneself, if one makes do with an aesthetics which is only semi-historical.

The French eighteenth-century philosophers wanted to provide an explanation of the history of the arts and literature by addressing themselves to the properties of human nature. Mankind goes through the same phases of life as does the individual: childhood, youth, maturity and so on; the epic corresponds to childhood; eloquence and the drama to youth; philosophy to maturity, and so on. [56] In one of our preceding essays, we pointed out that such a comparison is quite groundless. It may also be added here that Taine’s “historical” aesthetics in no way prevented him from making use of “human nature” as a key to all doors that failed to open for analysis at the first attempt. With Taine, however, the reference to human nature took another form. He did not speak of the phases in the evolution of the human individual; instead, he often – regrettably, only too often – spoke of race. “What is called race,” he said, “is the inborn and hereditary dispositions that man brings into the world with himself.” [57] Nothing is easier, in shrugging off all difficulties, than to ascribe pnenomena just a little more complex to the operation of such inborn and inherited dispositions. However historical aesthetics can only suffer great detriment therefrom.

Henry Sumner Maine was firmly convinced of the profound difference existing between the Aryan race and races of “other origins”, in everything bearing upon social evolution. less, he expressed a noteworthy wish: “It is to be hoped that contemporary thought will before long make an effort to emancipate itself from those habits of levity in adopting theories of race which it seems to have contracted. Many of these theories appear to have little merit except the facility which they give for building on them inferences tremendously out of proportion to the mental labour which they cost the builder ...” [58] One can only hope that this wish will be achieved as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that is not as simple as might seem at first glance. “Many,” says Maine, “perhaps most, of the differences in kind alleged to exist between Aryan sub-races are really differences merely in degree of development ...” This is beyond dispute. However, to no longer need the main key in the theory of race, one should evidently have a correct understanding of the features of the various stages of development. That is impossible without a contradiction-free understanding of history, an understanding Taine did not possess. But then, do many historians and critics possess it?

Lying before us is Geschichte der deutschen Nationalliteratur by Dr. Hermann Kluge, a book which seems to be read fairly extensively in Germany, but presents nothing out of the ordinary as use-value. What is deserving of our attention therein is the periods into which the author divides the history of German literature. We find seven periods given in this book (pp.7-8, 14th edition):

  1. from the most ancient times down to Charlemagne (800 AD). In the main, this was an epoch of the ancient pagan folksongs, a period which saw the appearance of the ancient paladin legends;
  2. from Charlemagne till the early twelfth century (800-1100 AD), a period in which the ancient national paganism yielded place to Christianity, this after a fierce struggle. Literature came mostly under the influence of the clergy;
  3. the first outpouring of German literature (1100-1300 AD), when poetry was mostly cultivated by the knights;
  4. the development of poetry by the estate of burghers and craftsmen (1300-1500 AD);
  5. German literature during the Reformation (1500-1624 AD);
  6. poetry under the control of the scholars; an epoch of imitation (1624-1748);
  7. the second outpouring of German literature, commencing with 1748.

More competent than we are, the German reader can judge for himself as to the details of this division. To us it seems absolutely eclectic, i.e., based, not on a single principle, which is an essential condition of any scientific classification and division, but on several principles that are incommensurable with one another. In the first periods, literature, it is asserted, developed under the exclusive influence of religious ideas. Then came the third and the fourth periods, in which its development was determined by the .social structure, the condition of the classes that “cultivated” it. From 1500, religious ideas returned as the main factor of literary evolution; the reformation set in. However, this hegemony of religious ideas lasted only 150 years: in 1624, the scholars took over the role of creators of German literature, etc. This division into periods is, to say the least, just as unsatisfactory as that used by Condorcet in his Esquisse d’un tableau des progrès de l’esprit humain. The reason is the same. Like Condorcet, Kluge does not know what social evolution and its effect – mankind’s spiritual evolution – depend on. Thus, we were right in saying that our century has seen very modest progress in this field.

But let us return to Hippolyte Taine. To him, the “general situation” under whose influence a work of art arises means the general existence of certain boons and certain evils, a condition of freedom or servitude, a state of poverty or wealth, a definite form of society, and the definite brand of religion. But a condition of freedom or servitude, of wealth or poverty, and, finally, the form of society are all features denoting the actual position of men in “the social production of their existence”. Religion is the fantastic form in which men’s actual condition is reflected in their minds. The latter is a cause, and the former an effect. If one adheres to idealism, one may, of course, affirm the opposite, namely that men owe their actual condition to religious ideas, in which case what we accept only as an effect should be considered a cause. At all events, I hope, it will be agreed that cause and effect cannot be equated in characterising the “general situation” in any given epoch, since that would lead to utter confusion: men’s actual condition would be constantly confounded with the general state of their morals and their spirit, or, in other words, an understanding of the expression “general situation” would be lost. This is exactly what happened with Taine as well as with a large number of historians of art. [59]

The materialist understanding of history finally relieves us of all these contradictions. True, it provides us with no magic formula, but it would be ridiculous to demand one to enable us at a moment’s notice to solve all the problems in mankind’s spiritual history; yet it leads us out of the vicious circle by indicating the correct road of scientific study for us to follow.

We are sure that many of our readers will be sincerely amazed to learn from us that, to Marx, the problem of history was, in a certain sense, a psychological problem, as well. Yet that is beyond dispute. Marx wrote as far back as 1845: “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as human sensuous activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence it happened that the active side, in contradistinction to materialism, was developed by idealism – but only abstractly, since, of course, idealism does not know real, sensuous activity as such.” [60]

What is the meaning of these words, which, in certain measure, contain the programme of present-day materialism? It is that, if materialism does not wish to remain one-sided, as it has been till now; if it does not wish to eschew its own principle by constantly returning to the idealistic views; if it does not wish thereby to recognise that idealism is stronger in a definite area, it must provide a materialist explanation of all aspects of human life. The subjective aspect of that life means that very psychological aspect, “the human spirit”, men’s sentiments and ideas. To examine this aspect from the materialist point of view means, inasmuch as the reference is to a definite species, explaining the history of ideas through material conditions of the existence of people through economic history. Marx had to speak of a solution of a “psychological problem” all the more for his clearly seeing the vicious circle from which idealism, which was studying the problem, could not escape.

Thus Marx said almost the same as Taine did, only in somewhat different words. Let us see how Taine’s “formula” should be modified in accordance with those different words.

A given degree of the development of the productive forces; men’s relations in the process of social production, as determined by that degree of development; the form of society that expresses those relations; a definite state of the spirit and morals corresponding to that form of society; religion, philosophy, literature and art in accordance irith the abilities, directions of taste, and the propensities engendered by that state – we do not wish to say that this “formula” embraces everything – not at all! – but we would say that it has the unquestionable advantage of being a better expression of the causal link between the various “terms of the series”. As for the “ narrowness” and “one-sidedness” that the materialist understanding of history is usually reproached with, the reader will not find any trace of them here.


31. In his above-cited Essais, Guizot often makes direct reference to tho “needs of human nature”. In the second chapter of his hook De la proprieté, Thiers attempts to prove that “... observation of human nature is the true method to be followed to demonstrate man’s rights in society”. None of the eighteenth-century “philosophers” would have raised the least objections to this kind of “method”. Moreover, the communist and socialist utopians Thiers was opposed to would have had nothing against it either. Their arguments on social organisation were always based on one understanding or other of human nature. In this respect, the utopians’ point of view in noway differed from those of their opponents. It goes without saying that this did not at all prevent them from “deducing” human rights that were different from those “deduced” by Thiers, for instance.

32. Das Kapital, 3. Aufl., S.157. [9*]

33. ibid., S.158 [10*]

34. Das Kapital, 3. Aufl., S.158. [11*]

35. ibid., S. 374–75, Anmerkung 89. [12*]

36. Incidentally, the economists do not lag hehind the historians of culture in this respect. An instance is provided by what Michel Chevalier has to say about the progress achieved in labour productivity: “Man’s productive force develops constantly in the succession of epochs of civilisation. That development is one of the numerous and most attractive forms taken by the progress of society itself” (Weltausstellung von 1867. Berichte des internationalen Jury. Einleitung von Michel Chevalier, S.21-22). Thus, it is progress that takes mankind forward, a certain metaphysical entity which, among its numerous forms, also adopts the form of the development of the productive forces. This is the same old story of the idealist embodiment of the objects of thought, of the products of abstraction, the same old story of the shadows cast by moving bodies and called upon to explain to us the mystery of the latter’s movements.

37. The Descent of Man, etc., Part I, Ch.II.

38. Das Kapital, S.525, 526. [13*] “Consequently, while lands in the tropical zone possess natural wealth, lands in the temperate zone are most favourable for the development oi man” (Géographie physique comparée considerée dans ses rapports avec l’histoire de l’humanité, par Arnold Guyot, Nouvelle edition, Paris 1888, p.256).

39. Das Kapital, I, S.525. [14*] In Asia, as in Egypt, “civilisation develops in easily cultivated plains with alluvial soil ... and equally tends to develop along big rivers” (Guyot, op. cit., p.277. Cf. Metschnikoff, La civilisation et les grands fleuves historiques, Paris 1889).

40. Voltaire also superficially rejected the influence of the geographical environment on human societies as accepted by Montesquieu. We have seen that Holbach, entangled in contradictions stemming from his metaphysical inethod, now accepted, now denied that influence. In general, the confusion brought into this question by metaphysicians of all shades is doubtlessly one of the most striking illustrations of the untenability of this method.

41. Des airs, des eaux et des lieux, trad., avec texte en regard, de Coray, Paris 1800, pp.76-85.

42. Just as East Asia has its own characteristic physical nature, it possesses its own characteristic race – the Mongolian ... “This race seems to be, in the main, of a melancholy temperament; its mediocre intellectual capacities are exercised on details, and never rise either to general ideas or to profound speculation in the area of the natural sciences or philosophy. Skilled, inventive and ingenious in the practical arts that create the comforts of daily life, the Mongol is quite unable, however, to generalise their application. For him, who is totally absorbed in earthly matters, the world of great thoughts ami lofty visions is sealed off. All his philosophy and religion boil down to a code of social morals, which is nothing but an expression of the principles of immediate experience, without the observance of which society cannot exist” (Arnold Guyot, op. cit., p.269).

43. History of Civilisation in England, Leipzig (Brockhaus) 1865, Vol.1, pp.36-37. Incidentally Buckle has said nothing new here, just as anywhere’ else. Long before him and far better than he has done, the absolute idealist Hegel was able to appraise Nature’s int’luence on man through the productive forces and, in particular, through the social organisation (cf., for example, his Vorlesungen über die Philosopliie der Geschichte, hrsg. von Gans, S.99, 100). To acknowledge the direct influence of the geographical environment on “human nature” or, which is the same thing, on the nature of race, is so groundless, that those writers who have acknowledged that influence are dhliged at every step to reject that point of view. For instance, here is what Guyot has added to the lines quoted in the previous footnote: “The main habitat of the Mongolian race is the central Asiatic plateau. The nomadic way of life and the patriarchal form of these societies” (created by the Mongols. – G.P.) “are a necessary consequence of the barren and arid nature of the localities they inhabit.” In just the same way, Hippocrates considered that the Mongols’ lack of courage was, at least in part, a “consequence of the laws they obey” (op. cit., p.86). The Asian peoples’ form of rule is monarchical, he says, but “of necessity, people are very cowardly where they are ruled by kings” (op. cit., p.117). “Convincing proof of what I say is to be seen in the fact that in that same Asia, all Greeks and Barbarians, who are governed by their own laws, without obedience to tyrants, and who therefore work for themselves, are most warlike people” (op. cit., p.88). This is not yet the full truth but nevertheless an approximation to it.

44. ibid., p.113.

45. ibid., p.114.

46. “Within these narrow confines there flourished such accomplished artists as Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, Andrea del Sarto, Fra Bartolomeo, Giorgione, Titian, Sebastiano del Piombo, and Correggio. These confines were very narrow; if you depart from them in either direction you will find incomplete art, on one side, and on the other, decadent art” (Hippolyte Taine, Philosophie de l’art, 5e édition, t.I, Paris 1893, p.126).

47. Regarding the social causes that have produced this international organisation of the clergy, see the first part of the excellent book by Karl Kautsky, Thomas More and His Utopia.

48. It was St. Bernard who advised Pope Eugene III to abandon the Romans and exchange Rome for the entire world (urbem pro orbe mutatam).

49. “We could quote a countless number of examples ol distinctions created by habitat and racial features. However, no distinction of principle can be drawn from that. Uncivilised man’s religion is the same everywhere, no matter whether it develops into forms that are absurdly crude or poetically beautiful. We everywhere find naturism, animism, sorcery, fetishism or idolatry, food offerings, anticipation of a life after death” (the author we are quoting from is a Christian – G.P.), “the perpetuation of the forms and conditions of actual life, a cult of the dead and their burial in keeping with that belief” (Les réligions des peuples non-civilises, par A. Reville, Paris 1883, t.II, pp.221-22).

50. “... On the lowest rung stands the religion of the Australian root-eaters, who engage in hunting in which they show little skill, and the religion of the Bushmen who live mainly by plunder. Mild with the Khoi-Khoin or Hottentots, and with the Kaffirs, who are mostly pastoralists, religion has shown itself bloody and cruel among certain warlike Negro tribes, while with those Negroes engaged mostly in industry and trade without, however, neglecting cattle raising and tilling the soil, the divinity cult is far more humane and civilised, the spirit of trade usually finding expression in certain ruses in respect of the spirits. The Polynesian myths immediately reveal a people of land cultivators and fishermen... (Tiele, Manuel de l’histoire des réligions, traduit du hollandais par Maurice Vernes, Paris 1880, pp.17-18). “In a word, it is indisputable that the cycle of holidays setup both by the law of Jehovah and by the book of Deuteronomy was determined by agriculture – that overall foundation of life and religion” (Revue du l’histoire des réligions, t.II, p.43). We could cite any number of similar quotations, one more characteristic than the other.

51. Zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, Vorwort, S.V-VI. [15*]

52. Pertinent in this respect, for example, is what Hegel says ahout Dutch painting: “Satisfaction with the existing way of life, which is also expressed even in the most ordinary and petty things, stems, with the Dutch, from their having been obliged to achieve, through great efforts that which other peoples receive from Nature directly and gratis ... On the other hand, they are a people of fishermen, sailors, townsmen and peasants; in consequence, they have known from the very outset the value of that which is necessary and useful in the biggest and smallest things, and have managed to achieve it through their zealous and diligent efforts”, etc. (Vorlesungen über die Aestherik, hrsg. von H.G. Hotho, II, S.222; cf. I, S.217).

53. Philosophie de l’art, 5e édition, Paris 1890, t.I, pp.110-19.

54. Even if no mention is made hero of folk art, the poetry of the peasants and petty burghers, it may well be said that the medieval warriors were not always “enamoured knights”. Thus the paladin in the celebrated song of Roland was “enamoured” only of his sword Durandal.

55. Histoire de la litérature anglaise, 8e edition, Introduction, p.XLV.

56. This analogy was frequently used by Mme. de Staël: “In examining the three different epochs of Greek literature, one perceives very distinctly the natural advance of the human spirit. It was in the remote period of their history that the Greeks were above all illustrious for their poets. Homer characterises the first epoch of Greek literature; during the age of Pericles one sees the rapid progress of dramatic art, eloquence, morals and the beginnings of philosophy; in the times of Alexander, a deep study of the philosophical sciences became the main occupation of outstanding men of letters”, etc. (op. cit. I, pp.7-8). All this is true, but the “natural advance of the human spirit” in no way explains the causes of that advance.

57. ibid., p.XXIII.

58. Henry Sumner Maine, Lectures on the Early History of Institutions, 6th ed., pp.96-97.

59. Here, for instance, is what Charles Blanc says about Dutch painting: “To sum up, three major causes: national independence, democracy and Protestantism made their mark on the Dutch school. Once free of the Spanish yoke, the Seven Provinces now had their painting, which, in its turn, cast off the alien style ... the republican form, once recognised, liberated them from the purely decorative art, prescribed at the courts and by princes, from what one calls the painting of ostentation” (“peinture d’apparat”) ... “Finally, the family life which was fostered by Protestantism ... gave rise to innumerable and charming tableaux de genre, which made Batavian painting illustrious for all time, this because it was necessary to adorn the walls of their intimate dwellings, which had become sanctuaries of rarities.” (Histoire des peintres de toutes les écoles, Paris 1861, t.I, pp.19-20). Hegel said something very similar: “In religion, the Dutch – and this is very important – were Protestants, and only Protestantism has the faculty of wholly invading the prose of life and endowing it, taken in itself, and irrespective of religious relations, with full significance, and allowing it to develop with unrestricted freedom.” (Aesthetik, II, S.222.) It would be simple to quote from Hegel himself to show that it would be far more logical to consider that it was not Protestantism that elevated the “prose of life” but, on the contrary, that it was the “prose of bourgeois life”, after reaching a definite degree of development and strength, that engendered Protestantism in the process of its struggle against the “prose” or, if you please, the poetry of the feudal regime. If that is so, one should not see in Protestantism sufficient cause for the development of Dutch painting. One should go further, to something “ tertiary” and “higher”, which gave rise both to the Protestantism of the Dutch and their government (the “democracy” Charles Blanc speaks of), and also to their art, etc.

60. See the Supplement to Ludwig Feuerbach, by F. Engels, Marx on Feuerbach. [16*]


9*. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Moscow 1974, pp.173, 175.

10*. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Moscow 1974, p.175.

11*. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Moscow 1974, p.175.

12*. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Moscow 1974, p.352. p. 144

13*. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Moscow 1974, p.481.

14*. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Moscow 1974, p.481.

15*. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Moscow 1970, p.21.

16*. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in three volumes, Vol.1, Moscow 1973, p.13.

Last updated on 9.10.2007