Georgi Plekhanov

Essays on the History of Materialism



In their time, the great German idealists, those sworn enemies of any eclecticism, considered that all aspects of a people’s life are determined by a single principle. To Hegel, that principle was the definiteness of the people’s spirit, “the overall imprint of its religion, the political system, its morality, its system of law, its morals, science, art, and also technical abilities”. The materialists of today regard that people’s spirit as an abstraction, a product of thought, which explains absolutely nothing. Marx overthrew the idealist understanding of history but that does not mean that he returned to the viewpoint of simple interaction, which explains still less than the viewpoint of the people’s spirit does. His philosophy of history is also monist, but in a sense that is the diametrical opposite of Hegel’s. It is as a consequence of its monist nature that eclectic minds see nothing but narrowness and one-sidedness in it.

The reader may have noticed that, in modifying Taine’s formula according to the Marxist understanding of history, we have excluded what the French author has called the “predominant type”. We have done that on purpose. The structure of civilised societies is so complex that, in the strict sense, one cannot even speak of a state of the spirit and morals that is in keeping with a given form of society. The state of the spirit and the morals of town-dwellers is often quite distinct from that of peasants, while the state of the spirit and morals of the nobility bears very little resemblance to that of the proletariat. That is why a “type” that is “predominant” in the perception of some particular class is in no way predominant as seen by another class: could a courtier of the times of Le Roi-Soleil have served as an ideal for the French peasant of the same times? To this, Taine would no doubl have objected that it was not the peasants but rather aristocratic society that left an impress on eighteenth-century French literature and art. lie would have been quite right. The historian of French literature of that century can regard the stale of the peasants’ spirit and morals une quantite negligeable. But let us take another epoch, for example, that of the Restoration. Was one and the same type “predominant” in the minds of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie of that period? Of course not. Out of contradiction to the adherents of the aucien regime, the bourgeoisie not only rejected the ideals of (lie aristocracy, but also idealised the spirit and the morals of the Empire, the epoch of the Napoleon it had utterly rejected only several years earlier. [61] Even before 1789, the bourgeoisie’s opposition to the spirit and morals of the aristocracy manifested itself in the line arts by the writing of domestic dramas. “What do the revolutions in Athens and Rome mean to me, a peaceable subject of a monarchist state in the eighteenth century? Can I find any true interest in the death of some Peloponnesian tyrant or the sacrifice of a young princess at Aulis? All this has nothing to do with me; no morals can move me,” said Beaumarchais in his Essais sur le genre dramatique sérieux. What he says is so true that one asks oneself in surprise: how could the adherents of pseudoclassical tragedy have failed to see it? What “did they see in all this”? What moral did they find here? Yet the explanation is very simple. It was only for the sake of appearance that pseudo-classical tragedy depicted “Peloponnesian tyrants” and “Aulis princesses”. In reality, it was, to quote from Taine, merely a refined depiction of the aristocratic world, whose admiration it evoked. The imminent world, that of the bourgeoisie, esteemed such tragedy only by tradition, or else rose up openly against il since it was also up in arms against the “aristocratic world” itself. The champions of the bourgeoisie saw in the rules of the old aesthetics something instilling to the dignity of the “citizen”. “Should one depict people of the middle class as suffering or unfortunate? No, no, they should be only ridiculed!” Beaumarchais exclaimed ironically in his Lettre sur la critique du Barbier de Seville. “Ridiculous subjects and unfortunate kings – that is the only existing and only possible theatre. For my part, I have taken note of that.”

The citizens who were Beaumarchais’s contemporaries were, at least in most cases, descendants of the French bourgeois who, with an assiduity worthy of a better cause, had aped the nobles and had therefore been held up to ridicule by Molière, Dancourt, Regnard and many others. Thus, we see at least two substantially different epochs in the history of the spirit and morals of the French bourgeoisie: one of imitation of the nobility, and another of contradiction of the latter. Each of these epochs corresponded to a definite phase of the bourgeoisie’s development. The propensities and the trends in the tastes of any class consequently depend on the degree of its development and even more on its attitude to the superior classan attitude which is determined by that development.

That means that the class struggle plays an important part in the history of ideologies. Indeed, so important is that part that, with the exception of primitive societies in which no classes exist, it is impossible to understand the history of trends in the tastes and ideas of any society without an acquaintance with the class struggle taking place within it.

“It is not simply the immanent dialectics of speculative prin’ciple that are the very essence of the entire process of the development of modern philosophy,” says Ueberweg, “but rather a struggle and an urge towards reconciliation, on the one hand, between traditional religious conviction, one deeply entrenched in the spirit and sentiments and, on the other hand, knowledge in the sphere of the natural sciences and the humanities achieved in modern studies.” [62]

Were Ueberweg somewhat more attentive, he would realise that, at any given moment, speculative principles have themselves been the outcome of the struggle and the urge towards reconciliation that he speaks of. He should have gone further and asked himself the following questions: 1) have the traditional religious convictions not been the natural outcome of certain phases of social development? 2) have the discoveries in the field of the natural sciences and the humanities not sprung from the preceding phases of that evolution? 3) finally, was it not one and the same evolution, more rapid at some place or in some period of time, whilst elsewhere and in another period slower in rate and modified by a multitude of local conditions, that led both to the struggle between faiths and the new views acquired by modern thinking, and to the truce between the two forces waging that struggle, forces whose speculative principles translate the terms of that truce into the “divine language” of philosophy?

To view the history of philosophy from this angle means doing so from the materialist point of view. Though Ueberweg was a materialist, he did not seem to have had any idea of dialectical materialism, this despite all his learning. What ho has given us is nothing else but what the historians of philosophy have already proposed – a simple succession of philosophical systems: a certain system has engendered another, the latter in its turn bringing forth a third system, and so on. However, any succession of philosophical systems is merely a fact, something given, to quote from present-day parlance, something that calls for explanation but cannot be explained by the “immanent dialectics of speculative principles”. To people of the eighteenth century everything was accounted for by the activities of “legislators”. [63] However, we already know that it has been caused by social development; can it be that we shall never be able to establish the link between the history of ideas and that of society, the history of the world of ideas and the world of reality?

The kind of philosophy a man chooses for himself depends on the kind of man he is,” says Fichte. Cannot the same be said of any society or, more precisely, of any given social class? Are we not entitled to say with the same firm conviction: the philosophy of a society or social class depends upon what kind of society or class it is.

Of course, we should never forget that if the ideas predominant in any class at a given time are determined in content by the social position of that class, the form of those ideas is closely connected with those predominant during the previous epoch in the same class or a higher one. “In all ideological domains tradition forms a great conservative force” (Frederick Engels).

Let us take socialism as an example.

”Modern socialism is, in its essence, the direct product of the recognition, on the one hand, of the class antagonisms existing in the society of today between proprietors and non-proprietors, between capitalists and wageworkers; on the other hand, of the anarchy existing in production. But, in its theoretical form, modern socialism originally appears ostensibly as a more logical extension of the principles laid down by the great French philosophers of the eighteenth century. Like every new theory, modern socialism had, at first, to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand, however deeply its roots lay in material economic facts.” [64]

The formal but decisive influence of an existent set of ideas does not make itself felt only in a positive sense, i.e., not only in the sense that, for instance, the French socialists of the first half of our century made reference to the very same principles, as the Enlighteners of the preceding century did; that influence also assumes a negative nature. If Fourier was engaged in a constant struggle against what he ironically called perfectible perfectibility, he did so becaviso the doctrine of man’s perfectibility played an important part in the Enlighteners’ theories. If most of the French utopian socialists were on friendly terms with a merciful God, that sprang from an opposition to the bourgeoisie, whose youth was marked by considerable scepticism in this respect. If, however, the utopian socialists sang the praises of political indifferentism, the source was an opposition to the doctrine that “ everything depends on legislation”. In short, both in the negative and the positive sense, the formal aspect of the doctrine of French socialism was equally determined by the theories of the Enlighteners, theories which we should in no way lose sight if we wish to understand the utopians correctly.

What was the link between the economic condition of the French bourgeoisie during the Restoration and the warlike appearance that the petty-bourgeois of the time, those knights of the tape measure, loved to assume? No immediate link existed; their beards and spurs in no way changed that condition either positively or negatively. However, as we already know, that amusing vogue was indirectly engendered by the bourgeoisie’s status in respect of the aristocracy. In the field of ideologies, many phenomena can be only explained indirectly by the influence of the economic advance. This is very often forgotten, not only by the opponents but also by the supporters of Marx’s historical theory.

Since the evolution of ideologies is determined, in essence, by economic development, these two processes always correspond to each other: “public opinion” adapts itself to the economy. That does not mean, however, that, in our study of the history of mankind, we have equal grounds to take as our point of departure either of these aspects – public opinion or the economy. While, in its general features, economic development can be sufficiently explained with the aid of its own logic, the road of spiritual evolution finds explanation only in the economy. A single example will make our idea clear.

During the times of Bacon and Descartes, philosophy displayed great interest in the development of the productive forces. “... Instead of the speculative philosophy taught at schools,” Descartes says, “one can find a practical philosophy, with the aid of which, given a knowledge of the force and the operations of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens and all the other bodies that surround us. just as distinct as our knowledge of the diverse crafts of our artisans, we might employ them in the same fashion for all the usages proper to them, thereby making ourselves masters and possessors of Nature.” [65] All of Descartes’s philosophy bears traces of this great interest. Thus the aim pursued by the studies of contemporary philosophers seemed to have been clearly deiined. But a century passed and materialism which, we might add, is the logical consequence of Descartes’s doctrine, became widespread in France; it was under its banner that the most progressive part of the bourgeoisie marched, and an ardent polemic flared up, but ... the productive forces were lost sight of: the materialist philosophers hardly ever spoke of them, for they now had quite different propensities, philosophy seemed to have set itself quite different tasks. What was the reason? Was it because France’s productive forces had already achieved sufficient development? Had the French materialists come to disregard that mastery of man over Nature that Bacon and Descartes had dreamt of? Neither of these was the case! However, in Descartes’s times, France’s production relations – if we limit ourselves here to France alone – still fostered the development of the productive forces, while, a century later, they became a hindrance to them. They had to be destroyed, and, to that end, so had the ideas that hallowed them. All the energies of the materialists, that vanguard of the bourgeoisie’s theorists, were focnssed on this point, their entire doctrine assuming a militant character. The struggle against “superstition” and in the name of “science”, and against “tyranny” and in the name of “natural law” became philosophy’s most important and most practical (in the Cartesian sense) task; the immediate study of Nature with the aim of increasing the productive forces as rapidly as possible receded into the background. When the aim was achieved and the obsolete production relations had been destroyed, philosophical thought took a now direction, with materialism losing its importance for a long time to come. The development of philosophy in France was following in the footsteps of changes in her economy.

“Science, unlike other architects, builds not only castles in the air, but may construct separate habitable storeys of the building before laying the foundation stone ...” [66] This method may seem illogical but it finds justification in the logic of social life.

When the eighteenth-century “philosophers” recalled that man is a product of his social environment, they denied any influence whatsoever on that environment on the part of that very “public opinion” which, as they declared in other instances, governs the world. Their logic stumbled at every step against one or the other side of this antinomy, which was, however, solved with ease by dialectical materialism. Of course, to the dialectical materialists, human opinion governs the world, inasmuch as, according to Engels, “... all the driving forces of the actions of any individual person must pass through his brain, and transform themselves into motives of his will ...” [67] But this does not contradict “public opinion” being rooted in the social environment and ultimately in the economic relations; neither does it contradict any given “public opinion” beginning to age as soon as the mode of production that has given rise to it becomes decrepit. It is the economy which shapes the “public opinion” that governs the world.

Helvetius, who attempted to analyse the “Spirit” from the materialist angle, met with failure because of the fundamental shortcoming in his method. To remain faithful to his principle that “man is nothing but sensation”, Helvetius was obliged to assume that the most celebrated giants of the spirit and the most glorious heroes of self-sacrifice for the public weal, in just the same way as the most miserable sycophants and most unworthy egoists, were guided only by a desire for sensual pleasures. Diderot protested against this paradox, but could not escape from the conclusion arrived at by Helvetius; he found refuge only in the realm of idealism. However interesting Helvetius’s attempt may have been, he nevertheless compromised the materialist understanding of the “Spirit” in the opinion of the general public and even of many “scholars”. It is usually held that, in this question, the materialists can only repeat what has already been said by Helvetius. However, it is necessary merely to understand the “Spirit” of dialectical materialism to see that the latter is insured against the errors made by its metaphysical forerunner.

Dialectical materialism considers phenomena in their development. From the evolutionary point of view, however, it is just as absurd to say that people consciously adapt their ideas and their moral sentiments to their economic conditions as to assert that animals and plants consciously adapt their organs to the conditions of their existence. In both cases, we have an unconscious process, which has to be provided with a materialist explanation.

The following was said of “moral sentiment” by a man who was able to provide that explanation for the origin of species:

”It may be well first to premise that I do not wish to maintain that any strictly social animal, if its intellectual faculties were to become as active and as highly developed as in man, would acquire exactly the same moral sense as ours. In the same manner as various animals have some sense of beauty, though they admire widely different objects, so they might have a sense of right and wrong, though led by it to follow widely different lines of conduct. If, for instance, to take an extreme case, men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our unmarried females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duly to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters; and no one would think of interfering. Nevertheless, the bee, or any other social animal, would gain in our supposed case, as it appears to me, some feeling of right or wrong, or a conscience. For each individual would have an inward sense of possessing certain stronger or more enduring instincts, and others less strong or enduring; so that there would often be a struggle as to which impulse should be followed; and satisfaction, dissatisfaction, or even misery would be felt, as past impressions were compared during their incessant passage through the mind. In this case an inward monitor would tell the animal that it would have been better to have followed the one impulse rather than the other. The one course ought to have been followed, and the other ought not; the one would have been right and the other wrong ...” [68]

These lines evoked a great deal of censure of their author on the part of the “respectable” public. Thus a certain Mr. Sidgwick wrote in the London Academy that “a superior bee, we may feel sure, would aspire to a milder solution of the population question ...” We are prepared to admit this in respect of the bee but certain books on economy which are held in high esteem by “respectable” people testify to the British bourgeoisie, and not only the British, having failed to find a “milder” solution of this question. In June 1848 and in May 1871 [20*], the French bourgeois were not at all as mild as the “superior bee”. The bourgeois murdered and ordered the murdering of their worker “brothers” with unparalleled brutality and – and this is of even greater interest to us – without any qualms of conscience. No doubt they told themselves that they were obliged to follow this particular “road” and “no other”. Why was that so? It was because the bourgeoisie’s morality was prescribed to them by their social position, their struggle against the proletarians, in the same way as animals’ “line of conduct” is dictated to them by their conditions of existence.

The selfsame French bourgeois consider the slavery of antiquity immoral, and probably condemn the massacre of rebel slaves practised in ancient Rome as unworthy of civilised people and even of mind-endowed bees. The bourgeois comme il faut is quite “moral” and devoted to the common weal; in his understanding of morality and the common weal, he will never cross the borderline prescribed to him, irrespective of his will and consciousness, by the material conditions of his existence. In this respect, he differs in no way from members of other classes. In reflecting, in his ideas and sentiments, the material conditions of his existence, he merely shares the common fate of all “mortals”.

“Upon the different forms of property, upon the social conditions of existence, rises an entire superstructure of distinct and peculiarly formed sentiments, illusions, modes of thought and views of life. The entire class creates and forms them out of its material foundations and out of the corresponding social relations. The single individual, who derives them through tradition and upbringing, may imagine that they form the real motives and the starting-point of his activity ...” [69]

Jean Jaurès recently attempted to “radically reconcile economic materialism and idealism in their application to historical development”. [70] This outstanding orator came out somewhat belatedly, since the Marxist understanding of history leaves no room for “reconciliation” in this field. Marx never turned a blind eye to moral sentiments, which have a part to play in history; he only explained the origin of those sentiments. For Jaurès to gain a better understanding of the meaning of what he prefers to call “Marx’s formula” (and Marx always ridiculed formula-ridden people), we shall quote for him yet another passage from the book we have just cited from.

The reference is to the “Democratic-Socialist” party, which arose in France in 1849.

“The peculiar character of the Social-Democracy is epitomised in the fact that democratic-republican institutions are demanded as a means, not of doing away with two extremes, capital and wage labour, but of weakening their antagonism and transforming it into harmony. However different the means proposed for the attainment of this end may be, however much it may be trimmed with more or less revolutionary notions, the content remains the same. This content is the transformation of society in a democratic way, but a transformation within the bounds of the petty bourgeoisie. Only one must not form the narrow-minded notion that the petty bourgeoisie, on principle, wishes to enforce an egoistic class interest. Rather, it believes that the special conditions of its emancipation are the general conditions within the frame of which alone modern society can be saved and the class struggle avoided. Just as little must one imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position, they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not get beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically. This is, in general, the relationship between the political and literary representatives of a class, and the class they represent.” (Ibid., p.29). [22*]

The superiority of the dialectical method of Marx’s materialism is most distinctly to be seen where it is a matter of providing a solution of problems of a “moral” nature, which nonplussed eighteenth-century materialism. However, a correct understanding of that solution calls, first and foremost, for metaphysical prejudices to be cast off.

Jaurès had no grounds to assert the following: “I do not wish to place the materialist understanding on one side of the partition, and the idealist on the other”; he returns to the selfsame system of “partitions”: he places the spirit on one side, and on the other matter; here we have economic necessity, and there moral sentiments, and then he goes on to catechise them both, attempting to prove that they must permeate each other, just as “in man’s organic life the mechanism of the brain and the conscious will penetrate each other”. [71]

But Jaurès is not just another man. He possesses great knowledge, good will and outstanding abilities. You read him with enjoyment (we have never had the pleasure of hearing him speak), even when he is in error. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of many opponents of Marx, who vie with one another in attacking him.

Herr Doktor Paul Barth, author of the book Die Geschichtsphilosophie Hegel’s und der Hegelianer bis auf Marx und Hartmann, Leipzig 1890, has understood Marx so little that he has been able to refute him. He has proved that the author of Capital contradicts himself at every step. Let us take a closer look at his method of reasoning.

”In respect of the end of the Middle Ages, Marx himself has provided material for his refutation in declaring (Kapital, Bd.I., S.737-50 [23*]) that one of the main causes of the primitive ‘accumulation’ of capital was the expropriation of the English peasants from the land by the feudal lords who, in view of the rising prices of wool, turned their arable land into pastures for their sheep, with very few shepherds, the ‘enclosures’, and turned those peasants into free proletarians who placed themselves at the disposal of the developing manufactures. Although, according to Marx, this agrarian revolution was caused by the rise of wool manufacture, the feudal forces, as he has himself depicted it, those landlords so eager for profits, were its forcible influence (Kapital, Bd.I, S.747), i.e., political force became a link in the chain, of economic upheavals.” [72]

As we have often had occasion to say, the eighteenth-century philosophers were convinced that “everything depends on legislation”. But when it was recalled, in the early years of the present century, that the legislator, who was thought to be capable of “everything” was, in his turn, a product of the social environment, when it was understood that any country’s “legislation” is rooted in its social structure, the trend to fall into the opposite extreme began frequently to appear: the role of the legislator, which had previously been overestimated, was now often underestimated. Thus, for instance, Jean-Baptiste Say wrote in the Introduction to his Traité d’économie politique: “For a long time, politics in the proper sense of the term, the science of the organisation of societies, was confused with political economy, which teaches how the wealth that meets the needs of society arises, is distributed and is used. Yet wealth is essentially independent of the political organisation. Under any form of government, the State can prosper if it is well administered. One has seen nations become rich under absolute monarchs: one has seen them ruined under national assemblies. If political freedom proves more favourable to the development of wealth, it is so indirectly, in the same way as it is more favourable to education.” The utopian socialists went even further, proclaiming from the house tops that the reformer of social organisation has nothing in common with politics. [73] What these two extremes have in common is that they both spring from a failure to properly understand the link between a country’s social and political organisation. Marx discovered that connection, so that it was easy for him to show how and why any class struggle is at the same time a political struggle.

The ingenious Doktor Barth saw only one thing in all this, i.e., that, according to Marx, a political act, one of “legislation”, could have no effect on economic relations; that, in the opinion of that selfsame Marx, any such act was merely a semblance, so that any English peasant forcibly deprived of his land by the landlord at the “end of the Middle Ages”, i.e., stripped of his former economic position upset, like a house of cards, the entire historical! theory of the celebrated socialist. Voltaire’s bachelor of arts from Salamanca could not have displayed greater ingenuity! [24*]

And so, Marx contradicts himself in his description of the “clearing of estates” in England. An excellent logician, Herr Barth makes use of that clearing to prove that law “has an independent existence”. But since the aim of the juridical action by the English landlords had very little in common with their economic interests, the esteemed Herr Doktor has voiced an assertion that is indeed free of any one-sidedness: “Thus, law has an existence of its own, though not an independent one.” An existence of its own, though not an independent one, forsooth! This is a many-sided statement and, what is still more important, protects our Herr Doktor from all kinds of “contradictions”. If one sets out to prove to him that law hinges on the economy, he will reply: that is because it is not sovereign. If one tells him that the economy is determined by law, he will exclaim that that is exactly what he is out to say in his theory of the independent existence of law.

Our ingenious Herr Doktor says the same thing about morals, religion and all other ideologies. Without exception, they all stand on their own legs though they are not independent. As you see, this is the old but always new story of the struggle between eclecticism and monism, the same story about “partitions”: here we have matter, and there spirit – two substances with an existence of their own, though one that is not independent.

But let us leave eclectics and return to Marx’s theory, about which we have several more remarks to make.

Savage tribes already have relations – peaceable or non-peaceable – between themselves and, should the opportunity arise, with barbarian peoples and with civilised Stales. These relations naturally exert an influence on the economic structure of any society. “Different communities find different means of production, and different means of subsistence in their natural environment. Hence, their modes of production, and of living, and their products are different. It is this spontaneously developed difference which, when different communities come in contact, calls forth the mutual exchange of products, and the consequent gradual conversion of those products into commodities.” [74] The development of commodity production leads to the disintegration of the primitive community. Within the clan there arise new interests, which ultimately engender a new political organisation; the class struggle begins, with all its inevitable consequences in the sphere of mankind’s political, moral and intellectual evolution. Its international relations become ever more complex and give rise to phenomena which at first glance seem to contradict Marx’s historical theory.

In Russia, Peter the Great brought about a revolution which exerted a tremendous influence on that country’s economic development. However, it was not economic needs but those of a political nature, the requirements of the State, which induced that man of genius to take revolutionary measures. In the same way, it was Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War [26*] that forced Alexander II’s government to do everything it could for the development of Russian capitalism. History teems with such examples, which seem to testify in favour of the independent existence of international, civil and any other kind of law. But let us take a closer look at the matter.

Wherein lay the strength of those West-European States which awakened the genius of the great Muscovite? It lay in the development of their productive forces. Peter understood that very well, since he bent every effort to speed up the development of those forces in his country. Where did the means he used come from? How did that power of an Asiatic despot arise, which he used with such fearful energy? That authority owed its origin to the economy of Russia; those means were restricted by the production relations in Russia at the time. Despite his awesome authority and his iron will, Peter did not and could not succeed in turning St. Petersburg into an Amsterdam, or in making Russia a naval power, which was his unswerving ambition. Peter the Great’s reforms gave rise to an original phenomenon in Russia. He tried to implant European manufactures in Russia, which did not have the workers, so he used the labour of state serfs there. Industrial serfdom, a form unknown in Western Europe, existed in Russia until 1861, i.e., until the abolition of serfdom.

No less characteristic an example was the serf condition of the peasants in East Prussia, Brandenburg, Pomerania and Silesia, beginning with the mid-sixteenth century. The development of capitalism in the Western countries was constantly undermining the feudal forms of the exploitation of the tiller of the soil. It was only in this part of Europe that capitalist development preserved those forms for a fairly lengthy period of time.

Slavery in the European colonies is also, at first glance, a paradoxical example of capitalist development. This phenomenon, like those mentioned above, cannot be explained by the logic of economic life in the countries it was to be met in. The explanation is to be sought in international economic relations.

Thus we have, in our turn, returned to the standpoint of interaction; it would be stupid to forget that this is not only a legitimate but an absolutely essential point of view. It would, however, be equally absurd to forget that this standpoint does not of itself explain anything, and that, in using it, we should always seek a “third”, the “very highest”, that which Notion was to Hegel, and to us the economic condition of peoples and countries whose mutual influence must be established and understood.

In any civilised country, literature and the fine arts exert a more or less considerable influence on the literature and the fine arts of other civilised countries. This mutual influence is aresuit of similarity in such countries’ social structures.

A class that is struggling against an enemy gains a definite position in its country’s literature.If the same class in another country comes into motion, it absorbs the ideas and forms created by its more advanced counterpart. However, it modifies them or goes farther than they do, or else lags behind them, this depending on the difference in its own condition and that of the class that provides it with a model.

We have already seen that the geographical environment has had an important influence on the historical development of peoples. We now know that international relations perhaps have an even greater influence on that development. The joint influence of the geographical environment and international relations explains the vast difference we find in the historical fates of peoples, although the fundamental laws of social evolution are everywhere the same. So we see that the Marxist understanding of history, far from being “limited” and “one-sided”, opens up a vast field of research to us. Very much hard work, patience and love of the truth are needed to properly cultivate even a very small part of that field, which, however, belongs to us; the acquisition has been made, the work has been begun by matchless craftsmen, and it only remains for us to carry on the good work. And we must do that if we do not wish to convert, in our minds, Marx’s masterly idea into something “drab”’, “gloomy”, and “deadening”.

“When thinking remains standing at the generality of Ideas,” as Hegel puts it so very well, “as is of necessity the case in the first philosophies (for example, in the Being of the Eleatic school, in lieraclitus’s Becoming, etc.) it is justly reproached with formalism. It may happen that in a more developed philosophy, too, only abstract propositions and definitions are conceived, and only they are repeated; that, for example, everything is oneness in the Absolute, that the subjective and the objective are identical, in any consideration of the particular.” [75] We could with good reason be reproached with such formalism if, in respect of any given society, we merely repeated that the anatomy of that society is rooted in its economy. That is indisputable, but it is insufficient; a scientific idea must be put to scientific use; one must be aware of all these vital functions of that organism, whose anatomical structure is determined by the economy; one must understand how it moves and is nourished, how the sensations and concepts that arise in it thanks to that anatomical structure become what they are; how they change together with the changes that occur in that structure, and so on. It is only on that condition that we can make progress, and it is only by observing that condition that we can be confident of it.

People often see in the materialist understanding of history a doctrine which proclaims man’s subordination to the yoke of a remorseless and blind necessity. Nothing could be more false than that idea! It is the materialist understanding of history that shows people the way that will lead them from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.

In the field of morality, the philistine – that eclectic par excellence – always proves to be an “idealist”. The more stubbornly he clutches at his “ideal”, the more helpless his mind feels against the drab prose of social life. That mind will never triumph over economic necessity; that ideal will always remain an ideal; it will never come true, since it has “an existence of its own but one that is not independent”, because it is incapable of emerging from behind its “partition”. On one side we have spirit, the ideal, human dignity, fraternity and the like; on the other, matter, economic necessity, exploitation, rivalry, crises, bankruptcies, and universal and mutual deception. Reconciliation between these two realms is impossible. The present-day materialists can regard such “moral idealism” with nothing but contempt. They have a far loftier idea of the power of human reason. True, the latter advances in its development thanks to economic necessity, but that is exactly why what is genuinely reasonable should not always remain in the condition of an “ideal”. What is reasonable becomes actual, and the achievement of that purpose is assumed by the irresistible force of economic necessity.

The eighteenth-century “philosophers” repeated ail nauseam that the world is governed by public opinion, which is why nothing can stand opposed to Reason, which is “ultimately always right”. Nevertheless, those same philosophers often expressed considerable doubt about the force of Reason, such doubt logically springing from another aspect of a theory characteristic of those “philosophers”. Since everything depends on the “legislator”, the latter either allows Reason to triumph, or else extinguishes its torch. Therefore, anything is to be expected of the “legislator”. In most cases, the legislators and the monarchs who control the destinies of their peoples show very little concern for the triumph of Reason. Thus, the latter’s prospects have become infinitesimal! It only remains for the philosopher to rely on chance, which sooner or later will place power in the hands of a “sovereignwho is well disposed towards Reason. We already know that Ilelvetius actually counted on some fortunate chance alone. Let us see what another philosopher of the same epoch has to say on the matter.

“The most obvious principles are often the most contested; they have to combat ignorance, credulity, stubbornness, custom and vanity in people, in a word, the interests of the great and the stupidity of the people which make them remain attached to their old systems. Error defends its territory inch by inch, and it is only with the aid of struggle and perseverance that one can tear the least of its conquests away from it. Let us not think for that reason that the truth is useless: once sown its seed lives on, it will yield fruit with time, and like seeds which, before emerging, lie buried in the earth for a long time, it awaits the circumstances which will let it develop ... It is when enlightened sovereigns govern nations that truth yields the fruits one is entitled to expect of it. It is ultimately when nations are tired of the poverty and innumerable calamities that their errors have engendered that necessity makes them resort to truth, which alone can protect them against the misfortunes that deception and prejudice have made them suffer so long.” [76]

Here we have the same faith in “enlightened sovereigns” and the same doubt about the power of “Reason”! Compare with these barren and timid hopes the nnshakeable conviction shown by Marx, who says that there neither is, nor will there ever be a monarch capable of effectively preventing the development of his people’s productive forces and consequently its liberation from the yoke of obsolete institutions, and then tell me who has greater faith in the power of Reason and its ultimate triumph? On one hand, we have a cautious “perhaps”; on the other, a confidence that is as unshakeable as that given us by mathematical proofs.

The materialists could only harbour a half-belief in their god – “Reason”, since, in their theory, that god was constantly coming up against the iron laws of the material world, blind necessity. “Man reaches his end”, says Holbach, “without being free for a single moment, beginning with his birth and ending with his death.” [77] The materialist has to make this assertion since, according to Priestley, “the doctrine of necessity ... is the immediate result of the doctrine of materiality of man; for mechanism is the undoubted consequence of materialism.” [78] But until it was learnt that this necessity could give rise to man’s freedom, one could not but be a fatalist. “All events are connected among themselves,” says Helvetius. “A forest felled in the North changes the direction of the winds, the state of the crops, the arts in a country, its mores and government”. Holbach speaks of the incalculable consequences that the movement of a single atom in a despot’s mind can have for a country’s fate. The determinism of the “philosophers” went no further in the understanding of the role of necessity in history, which is why, to them, historical development was also subordinate to chance, that coin which served as necessity’s small change. Freedom remained something opposed to necessity, while materialism, as Marx pointed out, was incapable of understanding human activity. The German idealists very clearly saw this weak side of metaphysical materialism but it was only with the aid of the Absolute Spirit, i.e., with the aid of a fiction, that they were able to join freedom and necessity together. The contemporary materialists of the Moleschott type are caught up in the contradictions of the eighteenth-century materialists. It was Marx alone, who, in his consideration of “human practice”, was able to reconcile “Reason” and “necessity”, without for a moment rejecting the theory of “man’s materiality”. Mankind “sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at, least in the coarse of formation.” [79]

The metaphysical materialists saw necessity subordinating people to itself (“a forest felled ...”, etc.); dialectical materialism shows how necessity will free them.

“The bourgeois mode of production is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production – antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism but of an antagonism that einanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.” [80]

Though allegedly fatalistic, Marx’s theory is one that, for the first time in the history of economic science, put an end to the fetishism of the economists, according to which they explained economic categories – exchange-value, money and capital – by the nature of material objects, and not by the nature of relations among people in the process of production. [81]

We cannot here set forth what Marx did for political economy, but shall only note that, in this science, he used the same method, and, in dealing with political economy, he adopted the same standpoint as in his explanation of history – that of the relations of people in the process of production. Therefore, one can form a judgement of the intellectual level of those people – so numerous in present-day Russia – who “recognise” Marx’s economic theory but “reject” his historical views.

Anyone who has understood what the dialectical method of Marx’s materialism means can also form a judgement of the scientific significance of arguments that appear from time to time as to which method Marx used in his Capital – the inductive or the deductive.

Marx’s method is simultaneously both inductive and deductive. Moreover, it is the most revolutionary of all the methods ever used.

“In its mystified form,” says Marx, “dialectic became tlie fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and to glorify the existing state of things. In its rational form it is a scandal and abomination to bourgeoisdorn and its doctrinaire professors, because it includes in its comprehension and affirmative recognition of the existing state of things, at the same time also, the recognition of the negation of that state, of its inevitable breaking up; because it regards every historically developed social form as in fluid movement, and therefore takes into account its transient nature not less than its momentary existence; because it lets nothing impose upon it, and is in its essence critical and revolutionary.” [82]

Holbach, one of the most revolutionary representatives of French philosophy of the last century, was frightened by the drive for markets, without which the modern bourgeoisie cannot exist. He would willingly have checked historical development in this direction. Marx welcomed that drive for markets, that eagerness for profits, as a force destructive to the existing order of things and as a preliminary condition of mankind’s emancipation.

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all newformed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property.

“National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature ...” [83]

In rebelling against feudal property, the French materialists sang the praise of bourgeois property, which they held to be the innermost soul of any human society. They saw only one aspect of the question, considering bourgeois property the fruit of the labours of the proprietor himself. Marx shows what the immanent dialectic of bourgeois property leads up to:

“The average price of wage-labour is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence, which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer. What, therefore, the wage-labourer appropriates by means of his labour, merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence – But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths.” [84]

However revolutionary the French materialists were, they appealed only to the enlightened bourgeoisie and to the “ philosophising” nobles who had gone over to the camp of the bourgeoisie. They had a stark fear of the “rabble”, the “people”, the “ignorant mob”. But the bourgeoisie was and could be only semi-revolutionary. Marx addressed himself to the proletariat, a class that is revolutionary in the full sense of the word.

“All the preceding classes that got the upper hand, sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.” [85]

In their struggle against the then existing social system, the materialists were constantly appealing to the “mighty of this world”, to “enlightened sovereigns”. They tried to show the latter that their theories were quite innocuous in essence. Marx and Marxists hold a different stand in respect of “the mighty of this world”.

“The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.” [86]

It is quite obvious that such a doctrine could not meet with a favourable reception from the “mighty of this world”. The bourgeoisie of today has become a reactionary class: it is out to “turn back the wheel of history”. Its ideologists are incapable of even understanding the tremendous scientific importance of Marx’s discoveries. But then, it is the proletariat that uses his historical theory as the best guide in its struggle for emancipation.

This theory, which frightens the bourgeoisie with its alleged fatalism, instils boundless energy into the proletariat. In defending the “doctrine of necessity” against attack by Price, Dr. Priestley, among other things, said the following: “To say nothing of myself, who certainly, however, am not the most torpid and lifeless of all animals; where will he find greater ardour of mind, a stronger and more unremitted exertion, or a more strenuous and steady pursuit of the most important objects, than among those of whom he knows to be necessarians?” [87]

Priestley was speaking of his contemporary English “Christian necessarians” [35*], to whom he could ascribe that kind of ardour with or without good grounds. But talk a little to Messrs. Bismarck, Caprivi, Crispi or Casimir Perier, and they will tell yon marvels about the activities and exertions of the “necessarians” and “ fatal of our times – the Social-Democratic workers.


61. “Government officials, craftsmen and shopkeepers no doubt considered it their duty to have solemn faces and wear moustaches to display their liberalism. By their behaviour and certain details of costume they intended to show themselves as relics of our heroic army. The assistants at shops of fashion did not confine themselves to moustaches; to complete their metamorphosis, they attached spurs to their boots, which jingled martially along the roadways and pavements of the boulevards” (A. Perlet, De l’influence des mœurs sur la comédie, 2e édition, Paris 1848, pp.51-52). Here we have an example of the influence of the class struggle in an area which, at first glance, might seem to depend only on whim. It would he interesting to study, in a special work, the history of vogue from the viewpoint of the psychology of classes.

62. Ueberweg, Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, hrsg. von Dr. Max Heinze, Berlin 1880, 3. Teil, S.174.

63. “But why is it that letters have times of quietude, when minds are no longer productive, when nations seem to be exhausted by an excessive fertility? It is because despondency is often occasioned by imaginary errors, by the weakness of men in office ...” (Tableau des révolutions de la littérature ancienne et moderne, par l’abbé de Cournand, Paris 1786, p.25).

64. F. Engels, Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, Leipzig 1877, S.1. [17*]

65. Descartes, Discours de la méthode, chap.VI.

66. Karl Marx, Zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, S.35. [18*]

67. Ludwig Feuerbach, S.57. [19*]

68. The Descent of Man, London 1883, pp.99-100.

69. Karl Marx, Der 18. Brumaire des Louis Bonaparte, S. 26. [21*]

70. See his paper on the idealist understanding of history (Neue Zeit, XIII, 2, S.545ff.).

71. The reader who is curious enough to learn how economic necessity permeates the “idea of justice and law” will have great pleasure in reading an article by Paul Lafargue Recherches sur les origines de l’idée du bien et du juste published in No.6 of Revue philosophique, 1885. We do not understand with full clarity what is meant by the permeation of economic necessity by the idea named above. If thereby Jaurès understands that we must try to reorganise the economic relations in bourgeois society in keeping with our moral sentiments, we shall reply as follows: 1) That is self-understood, but it is hard to find in history any party which set as its task the triumph of that which, in its own opinion, contradicted its “idea of right and good”. 2) I to does not clearly realise the meaning of the words he uses: he speaks of morals which, as Taine puts it, issue directions, while the Marxists try to state laws in what can be called their moral doctrine. In those conditions, a misunderstanding is quite inevitable.

72. op. cit., pp.49-50.

73. “In our civilised world, we have every possible forms of government. But are Western countries, which lean more or less towards the democratic form of state, less afflicted by spiritual, moral and material poverty than Oriental countries, which have a more or less autocratic form of rule? Or did the Prussian monarch take less closely to heart the plight of the poorer classes of the people than did the French Chamber of Deputies or the king of the French? The facts prove the opposite to us with such force and thought convinces us of the opposite so much that wo arc inore than indifferent to all politically liberal strivings, which have simply become repulsive to us” (M. Hess in Gesellschaftsspiegel, 1846).

74. Das Kapital, 1, S.353. [25*]

75. Encyklopädie, I. Teil, § 12, Einleitung.

76. Essais sur les préjugés, de l’influence des opinions sur les mœurs et sur le bonheur des hommes etc., Liege 1797, p.37. This book is ascribed to Holbach or to the materialist Dumarsais, whose name stands on the title sheet.

77. Le bon sens puisé dans la nature, I, p.120.

78. Priestley, A Free Discussion of the Doctrines of Materialism, etc., p.241.

79. Zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, Vorwort, S.VI. [27*]

80. ibid., S.VI. [28*]

81. “To what extent some economists are misled by the Fetishism inherent in commodities, or by the objective appearance of the social characteristics of labour, is shown, amongst other ways, by the dull and tedious quarrel over the part played by Nature in the formation of exchange-values. Since exchange-value is a definite social manner of expressing the amount of labour bestowed upon an object, Nature has no more to do with it, than it has in iixing the course of exchange.

“The mode of production in which the product takes the form of a commodity, or is produced directly for exchange, is the most general and most embryonic form of bourgeois production. It therefore makes its appearance at an early date in history, though not in the same predominating and characteristic manner as now-a-days. Hence its Fetish character is comparatively easy to be seen through. But when we come to more concrete forms, even this appearance of simplicity vanishes. Whence arose the illusions of the monetary system? To it gold and silver, when serving as money, did not represent a social relation between producers, but were natural objects with strange social properties. And modern economy, which looks down with such disdain on the monetary system, does not its superstition come out as clear as noon-day, whenever it treats of capital? How long is it since economy discarded the physiocratic illusion, that rents grow out of the soil and not out of society?” (Das Kapital, I, S.52-53). [29*]

82. Das Kapital, I, 3. Aufl., Vorwort zur 2. Aufl., S.XIX. [30*]

83. Manifesto of the Communist Party, Ch.I. [31*]

84. Communist Manifesto, Ch.II. [32*] The law of wages that Marx speaks of here is more precisely formulated in Capital, where he shows that it is actually even more unfavourable to the proletarian. However, what the Manifesto says, is enough to destroy the illusion the nineteenth century inherited from its predecessor, or rather predecessors.

85. Communist Manifesto, Ch.I. [33*]

86. ibid., Ch. IV. [34*]

87. Dr. Priestley, op. cit., p.391.


17*. F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, Moscow 1975, p.23.

18*. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Moscow 1970, p.57.

19*. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in three volumes, Vol.3, Moscow 1973, p.369.

20*. The reference is to the suppression of the June 1848 insurrection of workers in Paris and of the Paris Commune in May 1871.

21*. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in three volumes, Vol.1, Moscow 1973, p.421.

22*. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in three volumes. Vol.1, Moscow 1973, pp.423-24.

23*. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Moscow 1974, pp.671-85.

24*. Bachelor of arts from Salamanca – a character from Voltaire’s philosophical story Histoire de Jenni ou l’athée et le sage.

25*. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Moscow 1974, p.332.

26*. The reference is to Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War of 1853-56 which showed the rottenness and impotence of the serf-owning system in the country and made its government abolish serfdom and carry out a series of reforms in the 1860s-70s, these hastening Russia’s bourgeois development,

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

28*. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Moscow 1970, pp.21-22.

29*. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Moscow 1974, p.86.

30*. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol.I, Moscow 1974, p.29.

31*. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in three volumes, Vol.1, Moscow 1973, pp.111-12.

32*. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in three volumes, Vol.1, Moscow 1973, pp.121, 122.

33*. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in three volumes, Vol.1, Moscow 1973, p.118.

34*. K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works in three volumes, Vol.1, Moscow 1973, p.137.

35*. Christian necessarians – a Christian sect which maintained that the will is not free and that moral creatures do not act freely but according to necessity.

Last updated on 9.10.2007