Georgi Plekhanov

Essays on the History of Materialism


The eighteenth-century materialists thought that they had done with idealism. The old metaphysics was dead and buried, and Reason wished to hear no more of it. However, things soon look a new turn: already in the epoch of the “philosophers”, a revival of speculative philosophy began in Germany, and during the first four decades of the current nineteenth century u deaf ear was turned to materialism, which was itself now considered dead and buried. To the entire world of philosophy and literature, the materialist doctrine seemed “drab”, “gloomy” and “deadening,” as it did to Goethe: “it made people shudder as though it were a spectre”. [1] For its part the speculative philosophy thought that its rival had been overcome for all time.

It must be acknowledged that speculative philosophy possessed a considerable advantage over materialism. It made a study of things in their development, their inception and destruction. However, to examine things from this latter point of view meant eschewing a mode of examination so characteristic of the Enlighteners, which, by eliminating from phenomena every internal movement of life, turned them into fossils whose nature and nexus were incomprehensible. Hegel, that nineteenth-century titan of idealism, never ceased from waging the struggle against this mode of examination; to him, it was “not free and objective thinking, since it did not allow the object to freely determine itself from within itself but presupposed it as being ready”. [2] The restored idealist philosophy lauded a method that was the diametrical opposite – the dialectical – and used it with amazing success. Since we have had frequent occasion to mention this method, and since we shall have further to deal with it, it may be useful to describe it in the words of Hegel himself, that master of idealist dialectics.

“Dialectic,” he says, “is usually regarded as an external skill which arbitrarily brings confusion into certain notions and creates in them merely an appearance of contradictions, so that it is not these definitions that are illusory, but this appearance, whereas the definitions of the intellect, on the contrary, are true. Indeed, dialectic is often nothing else but a subjective play which arbitrarily advances now proofs and now denials of a definite proposition – a reasoning in which content is absent and whose emptiness is concealed behind this ingenuity, which creates that kind of reasoning. However, in its real character, dialectic is the genuine own nature of the definitions of the intellect, of things, and of the finite in general. Reflection is in itself a movement of thought which transcends isolated definiteness and correlates it with others, thanks to which this definiteness is brought into a certain connection, but, besides that, preserves its former isolated significance. Dialectic is, on the contrary, an immanent transition of one definition into another, in which it is revealed that these definitions of the intellect are one-sided and limited, i.e., contain a negation of themselves. Everything finite is doomed to self-destruction. Consequently, dialectic is the motive soul of any scientific advance of thought and is a principle which alone brings into the content of science an immanent connection and necessity.”

Everything that surrounds us can serve as an instance of dialectic. “A planet now stands in this place, but in itself tends to be in another place, giving effect to its Otherness by its being in motion ... As for the presence of dialectic in the spiritual world, and in particular, in the legal and moral domains, it should here merely be recalled that, according to the experience of all men, any state of affairs or action carried to extremes changes into its opposite; this dialectic, we shall note in passing, is recognised in many proverbs. Thus, there is a proverb that says: Summuin jus, summa injuria, which means that an abstract right carried to extremes changes into injustice” ..., etc. [3]

The French materialists’ metaphysical method refers to the dialectical method of German idealism in the same way as elementary mathematics stands to higher mathematics. In the former, the notions are strictly limited and separated from one another as by an “abyss”: a polygon is a polygon and nothing else; a circle is a circle and nothing else. Already in planimetry, however, we are obliged to use what is known as the method of limits, which rocks our worthy and immovable notions and strangely brings them close to one another. How is it proved that the area of a circle is equal to the product of the perimeter and half of the radius? It is said that the difference between the area of a regular polygon inscribed in a circle and the area of that circle can be made an arbitrarily small magnitude, given the condition that we take a sufficiently large number of its sides. If we indicate the area, perimeter and diagonal of a regular polygon, inscribed in a circle, by means of a, p, and r, respectively, then we get that p•½r; here a and p•½r are magnitudes that change together with the number of sides but always remain equal among themselves; therefore their limits will also be equal. If we denote by means of A, C and R the area, circumference and radius of a circle respectively then A is the limit of a, C is the limit of p, and R is the limit of r; therefore A = C•½R. Thus, a polygon turns into a circle; it is thus that the circle is considered in thv process of its becoming. This is already a remarkable upheaval in mathematical notions, and it is this upheaval that the higher analysis takes as its points of departure. Differential calculus deals with infinitesimal magnitudes, or, as Hegel puts it, “it has to do with magnitudes which are in the process of disappearing – neither before their disappearance, for then they are finite magnitudes, not after, for then they are nothing.” [4]

However strange and paradoxical this device may seem, it renders mathematics incalculable services, thereby proving that it is the diametrical opposite of the absurdity it might be taken for at first. The eighteenth-century “philosophers” had a high appreciation of its advantages, and they engaged a great deal in the higher analysis. But these very people, who, like Condorcet, for instance, made excellent use of this weapon in their, calculations, would have been greatly surprised to learn that this dialectical device should be applied in the study of all the phenomena science deals with, irrespective of the sphere they pertain to. They would have replied that human nature is at least just as firm and eternal as the rights and duties of people and citizens, which derive from that nature. The German idealists held a different view. Hegel affirmed that “there is nothing that is not a condition ... between Being and Nothingness”.

As long as, in the field of geology, there held sway the theory of cataclysms, sudden upheavals, which with one hammer blow changed the surface of the globe and destroyed the old species of animals and plants to make room for new ones, the mode of thinking was metaphysical. But when this theory was rejected, yielding place to the idea of the slow development of the Earth’s crust under the lengthy influence of the same forces that also operate in our days, then the dialectical standpoint was taken up.

As long as it was thought in biology that species are immutable, the mode of thinking was metaphysical. This was the view held by the French materialists, who were constantly returning to it even when trying to give it up. Present-day biology has shed this view once and for all. The theory that bears the name of Darwin is a dialectical theory in its essence.

At this point, the following remark must be made. However healthy the reaction against the old metaphysical theories in natural science was, it created, in its turn, much regrettable muddled thinking. There appeared a trend towards interpreting new theories in the sense of the old expression: natura non facit sal turn, this leading to another extreme: attention was now being paid only to the process of gradual quantitative change in a given phenomenon; its going over into another phenomenon remained quite incomprehensible. This was the old metaphysics but placed on its head. In just the same old way, phenomena remained separated from one another by an unbridgeable gulf. So firmly is this metaphysics established in the minds of the present-day evolutionists that there are now a number of “sociologists” who reveal a total lack of understanding whenever their researches come up against revolution. As they see it, revolution is incompatible with evolution: historia non facit saltum. They are not in the least disturbed if, despite this historical wisdom, revolutions, and even great ones, take place. They hold fast to their theory: so much the worse for revolutions, which disturb its peacefulness; they are considered “maladies”. Dialectical idealism had already condemned this appalling confusion of ideas, and fought against it. Here is what Hegel says in respect of the above-mentioned expression: “It is said natura non facit saltum; and ordinary imagination, when it has to conceive a becoming or passing away, thinks it has conceived them when it imagines them as a gradual emergence or disappearance”. However, dialectic most convincingly shows that “changes of Being are, in general, not only a transition of one quantity into another but also a transition from the qualitative into the quantitative and conversely: a process of becoming something else which breaks off gradualness and is qualitatively something else as against the preceding being. Water, on being cooled, does not become hard little by little, gradually reaching the consistency of ice after having passed through the consistency of a paste, but is suddenly hard; when it has already attained freezing-point, it may, if standing still, be wholly liquid, and a slight shake brings it into the condition of hardness.

“The notion of the gradualness of becoming is based upon the idea that that which becomes is already, sensibly or otherwise, Actually there, and is imperceptible only on account of its smallness; the gradualness of vanishing is based on the idea that Notbeing or the Other which is assuming its place is equally there, only is not yet noticeable; there, not in the sense that the Other is contained in itself in the Other which is there, but that it is there as Determinate Being, only unnoticeable.” [5]


  1. all that is finite is such that cancels itself, is transmuted into its opposite. This transition is effected with the aid of the nature inherent in every phenomenon, which contains forces that engender its opposite.
  2. The gradual quantitative changes in a given content ultimately turn into qualitative distinctions. The features of that conversion are those of a leap, a break in the gradualness. It is highly erroneous to think that Nature or history makes no leaps.

Such are the characteristic features of the dialectical worldoutlook, which it would be useful to note here.

In its application to social phenomena (and we are dealing with them alone), the dialectical method has created a veritable revolution. It will be no exaggeration to say that to it we owe an understanding of human history as a law-governed process. The materialist “philosophers” saw in the history of mankind merely the conscious acts of more or less wise and virtuous people, but in the main of not very wise and quite unvirtuous people. Dialectical idealism surmised the existence of necessity where a first glance reveals merely the unordered play of chance, merely an endless struggle between individual passions and purposes. Even Helvetius, who, with his “assumption” that in history, just as in Nature, everything “occurs and acts of itself” (these are his own words), drew closer to the dialectical point of view; even he accounted for historical events only through the qualities of individuals in possession of political power. In his opinion, Montesquieu was in error when, in his book Sur la grandeur et la décadence des Romains, he ignored the fortunate play of circumstances that had been of service to Rome. He said that Montesquieu “fell into the shortcoming, all too common with reasoners, of wishing to ascribe Reason to everything, while at the same time falling into the error of all armchair scholars who, forgetful of mankind, ascribe with excessive ease constant views and uniform principles to all bodies” (Helvetius is speaking here of political “bodies” such as the Roman Senate) “while very often it is an individual who conducts to his own liking the grave assemblies called Senates”. [6]

How different from this is the theory of Schelling, who asserts that, in history, freedom (i.e., the conscious acts of people) turns into necessity, while necessity turns into freedom. Schelling regards the following question as the most important problem of philosophy: “what is it that, parallel with our acting perfectly freely, i.e., with full consciousness, leads to something arising in us in the form of something conscious, which has never existed in our minds and could never have arisen if our freedom were granted full play?” [7]

To Hegel, “world history is progress in the consciousness of freedom, a progress we have to cognise in its necessity”. Like Schelling he thinks that “in world history, thanks to the acts of men in general, results are also obtained which are somewhat different from those which they have striven for and achieved, from results they have immediate knowledge of, and wish; they are out to ensure that their interests are met, but, thanks to that, something further is realised, something that is latent in them, but is not consciously realised and formed no part of their intention”. [8]

It is clear that, from this point of view, it is not men’s “ opinions” that “govern the world”, and it is not in them that one should seek for a key to historical events. In its development, “public opinion” obeys laws which mould it with the same necessity that determines the movement of celestial bodies. It was thus that a solution was found for the antinomy that the “ philosophers” were constantly coming up against:

  1. Public opinion governs the world; it determines the relations among members of society; it creates the social environment.
  2. Man is a product of the social environment; his opinions are determined by the features of that environment. [9]

Everything depends on legislation, the “philosophers” reiterated, firmly convinced that any people’s mores depend on its legislation. On the other hand, they reiterated just as often that it was corrupt morals that led to the downfall of the civilisation of antiquity. What we have here is just another antinomy: 1) legislation creates morals; 2) morals create legislation. Such antinomies comprised, so to say, both the essence and the misfortune of eighteenth-century philosophical thought, which was incapable of solving them, getting rid of them, or comprehending the causes of the horrible muddle in which it found itself again and again.

The metaphysician considers and studies things one after another and in their isolation from one another. When he feels the need to provide an overall picture, he examines things in their interaction; at this point he comes to a halt, and does not, and cannot, go any further, since to him things remain separated from one another by a gulf, and since he has no conception of their development to explain either their origins or the relations existing between them.

Dialectical idealism crosses these borders, which the metaphysicians find impassable. It regards both aspects of the relation of interaction, not as “directly given” but as “moments of something tertiary and higher, which is Notion”. Thus, Hegel examines the morals and state structure of Sparta. “If, for example,” he says, “we consider the mores of the Spartan people as the result of their state structure and, conversely, their state structure as the result of their mores, this mode of examination may be correct, yet it does not give final satisfaction, because in fact we have understood neither the state structure nor the mores of this people. That is possible only if it is realised that these two aspects, and also all the other aspects revealed by the life and history of the Spartan people, have a Notion as their foundation.” [10]

The French philosophers harboured only contempt, or rather only hatred, for the Middle Ages. Helvetius looked upon feudalism as the “height o/ absurdity. Though Hegel was very far from any romantic idealisation of the mores and institutions of medieval times, he regarded the latter as a necessary element in mankind’s development. Moreover, he already saw that the internal contradictions of medieval social life had given rise to present-day society.

The French philosophers saw in religion merely a mass of superstitions springing from mankind’s own stupidity and the fraud practised by the priests and the prophets. They could only wage a struggle against religion. However useful this kind of work was for their times, it made not the least contribution to the scientific study of religion. That study was prepared by dialectical materialism. It will suffice merely to compare Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu with Holbach’s Critical History of Jesus Christ to see the vast step forward made in the philosophy of religion under the beneficial influence of Hegel’s dialectical method. [11]

When the “philosophers” made a study of the history of philosophy they did so to cull therein arguments supporting their views, or else to destroy the systems of their idealistic predecessors. Hegel did not dispute his precursors’ systems, which he considered various stages in the development of a “single philosophy”. Any particular philosophy is a daughter of its times; “the most recent philosophy is the outcome of all preceding philosophies and’must therefore contain the principles of all of them; therefore, if only it is a philosophy, it is the most developed, richest and most concrete philosophy”. [12]

A “perfect legislation” was one of the favourite subjects studied by the philosophers, each of whom had his own Utopia on this score. Dialectical idealism cold-shouldered such studies. “A State,” says Hegel, “is an individual totality, of which you cannot take any particular side, even a supremely important one, such as its political constitution; and deliberate and decide on it in isolation.... One must understand the spirit of a people from which everything in the State springs; it develops of itself, and in its development one can distinguish certain periods, for each of which a certain constitution is necessary, which is not a matter of choice but is in keeping with the spirit of the times ... Second and further: it is not only the constitution that is determined by the spirit of a people, but that spirit of a people is a link in the course of the development of the World Spirit, in which individual constitutions occur.” [13]

In a word, dialectical idealism regarded the Universe as a single whole “developing from its own Notion”. A cognition of that integrity and a revelation of the process of its development – such was the task that philosophy set itself – a noble, majestic and admirable task! A philosophy that set itself such a task could not seem “drab” or “deadening” to anybody. Quite the reverse: it evoked universal admiration by the fullness of its life, the irresistible force of its movement, and the beauty of its brilliant colours. Yet the noble attempt launched by idealistic dialectical philosophy remained uncompleted; it did not and could not complete it. After rendering the human spirit invaluable services, German idealism fell into decline in order, as it were, to provide fresh proof for its own theory, and show from its own example that “all that is finite is such that cancels itself, is transmuted into its opposite”. Ten years after Hegel’s death, materialism again appeared on the arena of philosophical development, and to this day has not ceased from scoring victories over its old opponent.

What is that Notion, that Absolute Idea, that World Spirit of which German speculative philosophy kept on speaking? Is there any means of cognising that mysterious being which, it was thought, gives movement and life to everything?

Indeed, there exists such a means, and a very simple one at that; only it calls for careful examination. If that is given, a most wonderful transformation takes place. That Absolute Idea, which is so irresistible in its movement, so luscious and fiuitful, mother to everything that has been, is and will be in future centuries, loses all lustre, becomes immovable, proves a pure abstraction and, very far from being able to explain anything, humbly asks for the least explanation of itself. Sic transit gloria ... ideae.

The Absolute Idea, with all its immanent laws, is merely a personification of the process of our own thinking. Anyone who appeals to that Idea for an explanation of the phenomenon of Nature or social evolution abandons the firm soil of facts and enters the realm of shadows. That is exactly what happened to the German idealists.

In a book that came out in Frankfort on the Main in 1845 and was written by two men whose names won fame in the second half of the nineteenth century, we find a splendid exposure of the “mystery of speculative constructions”.

“If from real apples, pears, strawberries and almonds I form the general idea ‘Fruit’, if I go further and imagine that my abstract idea ‘Fruit’, derived from real fruit, is an entity existing outside me, is indeed the true essence of the pear, the apple, etc., then – in the language of speculative philosophy – I am declaring that ‘Fruit’ is the ‘Substance’ of the pear, the apple, the almond, etc. I am saying, therefore, that to be a pear is not essential to the pear, that to be an apple is not essential to the apple; that what is essential to these things is not their real existence, perceptible to the senses, but the essence that I have abstracted from them and then foisted on them, the essence of my idea – ‘Fruit’. I therefore declare apples, pears, almonds, etc., to be mere forms of existence, modi, of ‘Fruit’. My finite understanding supported by my senses does, of course, distinguish an apple from a pear and a pear from an almond, but my speculative reason declares these sensuous differences inessential and irrelevant. It sees in the apple the same as in the pear, and in the pear the same as in the almond, namely, ‘Fruit’. Particular real fruits are no more than semblances, whose true essence is ‘the Substance’ – ‘Fruit’.” [14]

In essence, however, German speculative philosophy did not adhere to the viewpoint of substance. “Absolute substance,” says Hegel, “is truth, but it is not yet all the truth; it must also be understood as effective and living of itself, and for that reason be denned as Spirit”. Let us see how this higher and more truthful point of view is achieved.

“If apples, pears, almonds and strawberries arc really nothing: but ‘the Substance’, ‘the Fruit’, the question arises: Why does ‘the Fruit’ manifest itself to me sometimes as an apple, sometimes as a pear, sometimes as an almond? Why this appearance of diversity which so obviously contradicts my speculative conception of ‘Unity’; ‘the Substance’; ‘the Fruit’?

“This, answers the speculative philosopher, is because ‘the Fruit’ is not dead, undifferentiated, motionless, but living, selfdifferentiating moving essence. The diversity of the ordinary fruits is significant not only to my sensuous understanding, but also for ‘the Fruit’ itself and for speculative reason. The different ordinary fruits are different manifestations of the life of the ‘one Fruit’; they are crystallisations of ‘the Fruit’ itself. Thus in the apple ‘the Fruit’ gives itself an apple-like existence, in the pear – a pear-like existence. We must therefore no longer say, as one might from the standpoint of the Substance: a pear is; ‘the Fruit’, an apple is ‘the Fruit’, an almond is ‘the Fruit’, but ‘the Fruit’ presents itself as a pear, ‘the Fruit’ presents itself as an apple, ‘the Fruit’ presents itself as an almond; and the differences which distinguish apples, pears, and almonds from one another are the self-differentiations of ‘the Fruit’ and make the particular fruits different members of the life-process of ‘the Fruit’ ...

“We see that if the Christian religion knows only one Incarnation of God, speculative philosophy has as many incarnations as there are things, just as it has here in every fruit an incarnation of the Substance, of the Absolute Fruit. The main interest for the speculative philosopher is therefore to produce the existence of the real ordinary fruits and to say in some mysterious way Ilial there are apples, pears, almonds and raisins ...

“It goes without saying that the speculative philosopher accomplishes this continuous creation only by representing universally known qualities of the apple, the pear, etc., which exist in reality, as determining features invented by him, by giving the names of the real things to what abstract reason alone can create, to abstract formulas of reason, finally, by declaring his own activity, by which he passes from the idea of an apple to the idea of a pear, to be the self-activity of the Absolute Subject, ‘the Fruit’.” [15]

This materialist criticism of idealism is as harsh as it is just. The “Absolute Idea”, the “Spirit” of German speculative philosophy, was nothing but an abstraction. However, an abstraction which is considered the ultimate solution of the most profound problems of science, can he only detrimental to the latter’s progress. And if those thinkers who addressed themselves to this abstraction rendered great services to human thought, they did so despite that abstraction, not thanks to it, inasmuch as it did not hamper their study of the actual movement of things. We find splendid thoughts in Schelling’s philosophy of Nature. lie possessed considerable knowledge in the realm of the natural sciences, but to him the “material universe” was nothing but the “revealed world of Ideas”. Perhaps he was not contradicting himself when he asserted that “magnetism is a universal act of inspiration, the implanting of unity in multiplicity, of notion in difference” and that “that very intrusion of the subjective into the objective, which in the ideal ... is self-consciousness, is here expressed in being”. But does this take us a single step towards a cognition of magnetic phenomena or an understanding of magnetism’s nature? Not only have we failed to make any progress but we run tremendous risk of denying actual facts to please a theory which may seem to us more or less ingenious but in any case is absolutely arbitrary.

The same may be said of the history of mankind. As Sir Alexander Grant once put it, to borrow philosophy from Hegel’s History of Philosophy is tantamount to borrowing poetry from Shakespeare, i.e., is almost inevitable. In certain respects, a study of Hegel’s philosophy of history, or of his aesthetics, his philosophy of law or his logic, is necessary at present too. But it is not the idealist point of view that gives all these works their value. On the contrary, that point of view is quite barren: it is fruitful only in respect of engendering confusion. Thus, for instance, Hegel describes, with an ingenuity that would do credit to an expert, the influence of the geographical environment on the historical development of human societies. But is he able to explain anything at all when he says that “the Determinate Spirit of a people, since it is active and its freedom derives from Nature, bears a specific geographical and climatic impress thanks to the latter”? Or – to take up an example he himself makes use of – does he bring us a single step closer to an understanding of the history of Sparta when he says that the mores of that country, like its State structure, were merely moments in the evolution of notion? It is true, of course, that the viewpoint of the “French philosophers”, against whom he cites this example (the viewpoint of interaction, which remains an insurmountable boundary of their most fruitful researches), is quite insufficient. It is, however, not enough to reject this point of view; what is essential is to show in what measure a “Notion” can be a secret mainspring promoting social progress. Not only was Hegel never able to reply to this perfectly lawful question but he seems to have been little satisfied with the light notion allegedly shed on the history of mankind. He felt the need to stand on firm ground and make a careful study of social relations, so he ended up by categorically stating that “property inequality was the main cause of Lacedaemon’s decline.” All this is true, but that truth does not contain a jot of absolute idealism. [16]

Try to imagine that someone has explained to us with amazing” clarity the mechanism of the movements of animals but then goes on to say, with the utmost gravity, that the vital and concealed cause of all these movements is to be found in the shadows cast by moving bodies. That someone is an “absolute” idealist. Perhaps, we shall share the views of this idealist for a certain, time, but I hope that in the final analysis we shall understand the science of mechanics and bid “a long farewell” to his “philosophy of mechanics”.

That, at least, is how various disciples of Hegel behaved. Though they were capable of a high appreciation of the advantages provided by the great thinker’s method, they went over to the materialist point of view. The excerpts from The Holy Family cited above will suffice to show how definitive and ruthless their criticism of idealist speculative philosophy was.

The dialectical method is the most characteristic feature of present-day materialism; therein lies its essential distinction from the old metaphysical materialism of the eighteenth century. One can therefore form an opinion of the profundity of the views and the seriousness of those historians of literature and philosophy who have not deigned to notice that distinction. The late Lange divided his History of Materialism into two parts – materialism before and after Kant.

Another kind of division must of necessity suggest itself to anyone who has not been blinded by the spirit of some school or by cut-and-dried concepts: materialism after Hegel was no longer what it had been prior to him. But could anything else have been expected? To judge of the influence nineteenth-century idealism has had on the development of materialism, one should first and foremost realise what the latter has become today. This was something that Lange never did. Though in his book he spoke of all and sundry, even of nonentities like Heinrich Szolbe, he made no mention at all of dialectical materialism. This learned historian of materialism did not even suspect that there wore contemporary materialists who were remarkable in quite a different way than Messrs. Vogt, Moleschott and Co. [17]

The ease with which dialectical materialism was able to overcome idealism should seem inexplicable to anyone who lacks a clear understanding of the fundamental question separating the materialists from the idealists. People guided by dualist prejudices usually think, for example, that there are two completely different substances in man: body or matter, on the one hand, and on the other, the soul, the spirit. Though they do not know and often do not even ask how one of these substances can affect the other, people nevertheless consider that they are fully aware it would be “one-sided” to explain phenomena with the aid of only one of these two substances. Such people are smugly aware of their superiority over the two extremes, and are neither idealists nor materialists. However venerable the age of this longstanding mode of considering philosophical questions may be, it is in essence worthy only of the philistine. Philosophy has never been able to feel satisfaction with such “many-sidedness”: on the contrary, it has tried to rid itself of the dualism so beloved of eclectic minds. The most outstanding philosophical systems have always been monist, i.e., have regarded spirit and matter merely as two classes of phenomena whose cause is inseparably one and the same. We have already seen that the French materialists regarded the “faculty of sensation” as one of the properties of matter. To Hegel, Nature was merely an “otherness” of the Absolute Idea. This “otherness” is in certain measure the Idea’s Fall from Grace; Nature is the creation of the Spirit, existing only thanks to its favour. This imaginary Fall in no way precludes the identity in substance between Nature and Spirit; on the contrary, it presupposes that identity. Hegel’s Absolute Spirit is not the limited spirit of the philosophy of limited minds. Hegel was well able to ridicule those who saw in Matter and Spirit two different substances “just as mutually impenetrable as any matter is assumed to be in respect of another, existing only in their mutual non-being in each other pores, just like with Epicurus who gave the gods sojourn in the pores of the Cosmos, but quite consistently burdened them with no communion with the world”. Despite his hostility towards materialism, Hegel appreciated its monist trend. [18] But if we have adopted the monist point of view, it is experience itself that should decide which of the two theories – idealism or materialism – provides the better explanation of the phenomena we encounter in the study of Nature and human societies. It will easily be seen that even in the field of psychology, a science studying facts that can be called mostly phenomena of the spirit, our work proceeds with greater success when we accept Nature as primary, and consider the actions of the spirit as necessary consequences of the movement of matter. “Surely no one,” says agnostic Huxley, “who is cognisant of the facts of the case, nowadays doubts that the roots of psychology lie in the physiology of the nervous system. What we call the operations of the mind are functions of the brain, and the materials of consciousness are products of cerebral activity. Cabanis may have made use of crude and misleading phraseology when he said that the brain secretes thought as the liver secretes bile; but the conception which that much-abused phrase embodies is, nevertheless, far more consistent with fact than the popular notion that the mind is a metaphysical entity seated in the head, but as independent of the brain as a telegraph operator is of his instrument.” [19] In the area of the social sciences as understood in the broad sense of the term, idealism, as we have already pointed out, has often arrived at a consciousness of its incapacity, and resorted to a purely materialist explanation of historical facts. We shall again emphasise that the great revolution in German philosophy in the fifth decade of our century was greatly fostered by the essentially monist nature of German idealism. “It is, in fact, the case,” Robert Flint says, “that Hegelianism, although the most elaborate of all idealistic systems, presents only the feeblest of barriers even to materialism.” This is perfectly true, though Flint should have said “as a consequence of being” instead of “although”.

The selfsame Flint is quite right when he goes on to say the following: “It is true that thought is placed by it” (Hegel’s system. – G.P.) “before matter, and matter is represented as the stage of a process of thought; but since the thought which is placed before matter is unconscious thought – thought which is neither subject nor object, which is therefore not real thought, nor even so much as a ghost or phantasm of thought – matter is still the first reality, the first actual existence, and the power in matter, the tendency in it to rise above itself, the root and basis of spirit subjective, objective, and absolute.” [20] It will easily be understood how this inconsistency, inevitable in idealism, facilitated the revolution in philosophy we are referring to. This inconsistency makes itself particularly felt in the philosophy of history. “Hegel is guilty of being doubly half-hearted: firstly in that, while declaring that philosophy is the mode of existence of the Absolute Spirit, he refuses to recognise the actual philosophical individual as the Absolute Spirit; secondly, in that he lets the Absolute Spirit as the Absolute Spirit make history only in appearance. For since the Absolute Spirit becomes conscious of itself as the creative World Spirit only post festum in the philosopher, its making of history exists only in the consciousness, in the opinion and conception of the philosopher, i.e., only in the speculative imagination.” These lines come from Karl Marx, the father of present-day dialectical materialism. [21]

The significance of the philosophical revolution brought about by this man of genius was expressed by him in the following brief words: “My dialectic method is not only different from the Hegelian, but is its direct opposite. To Hegel, the life-process of the human brain, i.e., the process of thinking, which, under the name of ’the Idea’, he even transforms into an independent subject, is the demiurgos of the real world, and the real world is only the external, phenomenal form of ’the Idea’. With me, on the contrary, the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind, and translated into forms of thought.” [22]

Before setting forth the results Marx obtained with the aid of this method, we shall make a cursory review of the trends that emerged in French historical science during the Restoration.

The French “philosophers” were convinced that it was public opinion that governed the world. When they recollected that, according to their own sensualist theory, man, with his opinions, is a product of the social environment, they averred that “everything depends on legislation”, supposing that this brief but instructive reply settled the question. Further, to them “legislation”’ meant first and foremost public law, the “government” of each particular country. During the first decades of our century, this point of view was ever more rejected. It was beginning to be asked whether it would not be more correct to seek for the roots of political institutions in civil law. [23] The replies to this question were now affirmative.

“It is through an examination of political institutions,” Guizot wrote, “that most writers, scholars, historians or publicists have sought to understand the condition of society, and the degree or brand of its civilisation. It would have been wiser to begin with a study of society itself in order to ascertain and understand its political institutions. Prior to becoming cause, institutions are an effect; society creates them before itself being modified by their influence and, instead of trying to discover in the system or forms of government what the condition of a people has been, one should first and foremost examine the condition of a people to learn what its government should or could be ... Society, its composition, the way of life of individuals according to their social standing, the relations between various classes of individuals, and finally the status of individuals – this is assuredly the first question that attracts the attention of the historian who wishes to know how peoples lived, and of the publicist writer who wishes to learn how they were governed.” [24]

What we have here is a complete revolution in the historical views of the “philosophers”. But Guizot goes even farther in his analysis of the “composition of society”. In his opinion, the civil life of all modern peoples is intimately linked with landed-property relations, which is why the latter should be studied before civil life. “To understand political institutions, one should know the various social conditions and their relations. To understand the various social conditions one should know the nature and relations of landed property.” [25] It was from this point of view that Guizot examined the history of France under the Merovingians and the Carolingians. In his history of the English Revolution, he took a new step forward in regarding that event as an episode in the class struggle of modern society, making property relations rather than landed-property relations the backbone of political movements.

Augustin Thierry arrived at the same views. In his writings on the history of England and France, he regarded the development of society as the motivation of political events. He was very far from thinking that the world was governed by public opinion, which to him meant only a more or less appropriate expression of social interests. Here is an example of his understanding of the struggle waged by Parliament against Charles I.

”Anyone whose ancestors came over with the Conqueror, left his castle for the Royalist camp to take a position in keeping with his rank. The townsmen flocked to the opposite camp ... Idlers and those who wanted only enjoyment without labour, irrespective of the caste they belonged to, joined the Royalist forces to defend their own interests; at the same time families of the caste of former conquerors who had made good in industry joined the Parliamentary party. On both sides the war was conducted for these positive interests. All the rest was merely a semblance or a pretext. Those who defended the cause of the subjects were mostly Presbyterians, i.e., were opposed to all and any subordination even in religion. Those who supported the opposite cause belonged to the Church of England or the Catholic faith. That was because, even in the realm of religion, they wanted power and the right to tax others.” [26]

This is fairly clear, but seems clearer than it actually is. Political revolutions are indeed a consequence of the struggle that classes wage for their positive interests, their economic interests. But what is the cause that gives the economic interests of a particular class one form or another? What is the cause that gives rise to classes in society? True, Augustin Thierry speaks of “manufactures”, but with him this concept is very vague, and to cope with this difficulty, he goes back to the Norman Conquest. Thus, the classes whose struggle gave rise to the English Revolution owed their descent to the Norman Conquest. “All this began with the Conquest,” he says, “and it is the Conquest that underlies the whole matter.” But what is to be understood by conquest? Does it not return us to the activities of “government”, for which we have attempted to find an explanation? Even if we disregard all this, the fact of conquest can never account for the nodal consequences of that conquest. Prior to the conquest of Gaul by the Barbarians, it had been conquered by the Romans, but the social consequences of these two conquests were quite different. Wherein lay the cause? Without any doubt, the Gauls of Caesar’s times lived in conditions different from that of the fifth-century Gauls; neither can there be any doubt that the Roman conquerors in no way resembled the “Barbarians” – the Franks and the Burgundians. But can all these distinctions be accounted for by other conquests? We can enumerate all kinds of known and all possible conquests. Nevertheless, we shall remain within a vicious circle; each time we return to the inescapable conclusion that there is, in the life of peoples, a something, an x, an unknown quantity, to which the “strength” of the peoples themselves and of the various classes existing in them owes its origin, its direction and its modifications. In short, it is clear that such “strength” is based on a something, so that the question can be reduced to a definition of the nature of that unknown quantity. [27]

Guizot is also hemmed in by the selfsame contradictions. What do the “property relations” in the peoples spoken of in his Essais owe their origin to? They stem from the actions of conquerors: “After the conquest, the Franks became landowners ... The absolute independence of their landed property was their right, just as the independence of their persons was; that independence had no other guarantee than the strength of the possessor but, in using his strength to defend it, he thought he was exercising his right”, etc. [28]

It is no less characteristic that, for Guizot, civil life was closely linked with “landed-property relations” only in the case of “modern peoples”.

Neither Mignet nor any other French historian of the time (and the French historians of the time were outstanding in more than one respect) was able to extricate himself from the difficulty that brought Guizot and Augustin Thierry to a standstill. They were already well aware that the cause of society’s development should be sought in its economic relations. They already realised that underlying political movements were economic interests, which were paving a way there. After the French Revolution, that epic struggle waged by the bourgeoisie against the nobility and the clergy, [29]] it would have been hard to fail to understand that. However, they were unable to explain the origin of society’s economic structure. Whenever they dealt with this subject, they addressed themselves to conquest, harking back to the viewpoint held in the eighteenth century, since the conqueror was also a “legislator”, only from without.

Thus, Hegel, against his will, so to say, arrived at the conclusion that the solution of the mystery of the peoples’ historical destinies should be sought in their social conditions (inproperty”). The French historians of the Restoration, for their part, deliberately referred to “positive interests”, to economic conditions, as an explanation of the origin and development of various forms of “government”. However, neither of them – neither the idealist philosopher nor the positive historiographers – were able to solve the grand problem that inescapably confronted them: on what, in its turn, did the structure of society, property relations, depend. As long as this grand problem remained unsolved, all research into what was called in France les sciences morales et politiques was not built on any genuinely scientific foundation, it was with full justice that these pseudo-sciences could be contrasted with mathematics and the natural sciences as the sole “exact” sciences, those specifically termed sciences.

Thus the task of dialectical materialism was determined in advance. Philosophy, which had in past centuries rendered vast services to natural science, now had to lead social science out of the labyrinth of its contradictions. On accomplishing that task, philosophy might say: “I have fulfilled my duty, and can now depart”, since exact science is bound, in the future, to render the hypotheses of philosophy quite useless.

The features of a new understanding of history, excellently formulated and set forth with the utmost clarity, are already contained in articles by Marx and Engels in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, Paris 1844; The Holy Family by the same two authors; The Condition of the Working Class in England by Engels; The Poverty of Philosophy by Marx; Manifesto of the Communist Party by Marx and Engels, and Wage Labour and Capital by Marx. However, we find a systematic if brief outline in Marx’s book A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Berlin 1859.

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines] their consciousness.” [30]

But what is meant by relations of production? It is what is called in legal parlance property relations, of which Guizot and Hegel spoke. In explaining the origin of these relations, Marx’s theory thus replies to a question that the representatives of science and philosophy prior to him had been unable to answer.

Man, together with his “opinions” and “education”, is a product of his social environment as was well known to the French materialists of the eighteenth century, though they often lost sight of this. The historical development of “public opinion”, like the entire history of mankind, is a law-governed process, as was stated by the German idealists of the nineteenth century. This process, however, is determined, not by the properties of the “World Spirit”, as such idealists thought, but by the actual conditions of man’s existence. The forms of “’government”, of which the philosophers had so much to say, are rooted in what Guizot tersely called society, and Hegel civil society. But the development of civil society is determined by the development of the productive forces at men’s disposal. Marx’s understanding of history, called narrow-minded and one-sided by the ignoramuses, is in fact the lawful outcome of centuries of development of historical ideas. It contains them all, inasmuch as they possess genuine value; it places them on far firmer ground than they ever stood on during any period of their efflorescence. That is why, to use an already quoted expression of Hegel’s, it is the most developed, rich and concrete of them.


1. See Book XI of Dichtung und Wahrheit, in which Goethe describes his impression of Système de la Nature.

2. Encyklopädie herausgegeben von L.v. Henning, § 31.

3. ibid., § 81 and Supplement.

4. Wissenschaft der Logik, Nürnberg 1812, I. Band, I. Buch. S.42.

5. Logik, I. Band, I. Buch, S.313.

6. Cf. Pensées et réflexions d’Helvetius, in Vol.III of his Œuvres complètes, Paris 1818, p.307.

7. System des transcedentalen Idealismus, Tübingen, 1800, S.426 und f.

8. Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Geschichte, 9. Bd. der Hegelschen Werke, herausgegeben von E. Gans, S.22, 30. Cf. Schelling, op. cit., S.424.

9. Cf. our essay on Holbach.

10. Encyklopädie, I. Teil, § 156, Zusatz.

11. Incidentally, instead of reading Holbach’s book, the German reader might turn the pages of Leben Jesu (H.E. Paulus, Heidelberg 1828), which sets forth the same point of view. Only the German Enlightener tries to laud that which the French philosopher fought against so passionately. Paulus sees a miracle of goodness and wisdom in a person who produced on Holbach the impression of an ignorant and depraved idler.

12. Encyklopädie, § 13.

13. Philosophie der Geschichte, S.50-51.

14. Die heilige Familie, oder Kritik der kritischen Kritik. Gegen Bruno Bauer and Konsorten. Von F. Engels und K. Marx, Frankfurt a.M. 1845, S.79. [1*]

15. Die heilige Familie, S.80-84. [2*]

16. For other examples of the same kind we shall refer the reader to our article For the Sixtieth Anniversary of Hegel’s Death, Neue Zeit 1891-92, Nos.7, 8, 9. [3*]

17. In this respect, incidentally, Lange followed the views and customs of all learned writers belonging to “good society”. In his turn, Hettner often compared the doctrine of Diderot with that of the modern materialists. But whom did he consider as representative of modern materialists? Moleschott! Hettner knows so little of the condition of modern materialism that he is sure ho is expressing something very profound in writing: “In the doctrine of morality, materialism has not yet risen above such miserable attempts (i.e., those made by the eighteenth-century materialists. – G.P.). If materialism would adduce proof of its viability, then its immediate and most important task lies in evolving a doctrine of morality” (Literaturgeschichte des 18. Jahrhunderts, 2. Teil, Braunschweig, 1881, S.402).You are late to recall it, dear Sir!

18. “Yet one should recognise in materialism an enthusiastic striving to emerge from the limits of a dualism which assumes two different worlds as equally substantial and true, and to do away with the sunderance of the initial unity.” (Encyklopädie, III. Teil, § 389 und Zusatz). We shall note, in passing, that in his History of Philosophy Hegel gave in a few words a better appraisal of French materialism and of such men as Helvetius than the professional historians of materialism did.

19. [Plekhanov is quoting from the French translation of Huxley’s Hume. (English Men of Letters)] Hume, sa vie, sa philosophie, trad. de l’anglais par G. Compayré, Paris 1880, p.108. It would be correct to say that, despite everything, agnosticism is simply a cowardly materialism that tries to preserve an air of decency.

20. Philosophy of History in France and Germany, Edinburgh and London 1874. p.503.

21. Die heilige Familie, S.127. [4*]

22. Das Kapital, I. Band, 3. Aufl., Vorwort zur 2. Aufl., S.XIX. [5*]

23. Following the events of the late eighteenth and the early nineteenth centuries, it was no longer so easy to think that “it is public opinion that governs the world”: those events often revealed the impotence of public opinion. “So many events decided by force; so many crimes absolved by success; so many virtues branded by censure; so many misfortunes insulted by might; so many generous sentiments made the butt of mockery; so many vile calculations hypocritically commented on; all these wore down hope even in those who were most devoted to the cult of reason ...”, wrote Mme. de Staël in the eighth year of the French republic (De la littérature considerée dans ses rapports avec les institutions sociales, t.I, p.IV, Introduction). Indeed, all the utopians of the Restoration [6*] and Louis-Philippe period were convinced that public opinion governed the world. This was the underlying principle of their philosophy of history. However, we shall not deal here with the psychology of the utopians.

24. Essais sur l’Histoire de France, 10e ed., Paris 1860, pp.73-74. The first edition of these Essais appeared in 1822.

25. Essais sur l’Histoire de France, pp.75-76.

26. Œuvres complètes de M. Augustin Thierry, VI tome, 10 éd., Paris 1866, p.60. The article we are quoting from – Vues des révolutions d’Angleterre – was published in Censeur Européen in 1817, i.e., several years before the appearance of Guizot’s Essais.

27. Augustin Thierry owed the clearest of his historical views to Saint-Simon, who did very much to explain mankind’s historical development. However, he was unable to define the x we have mentioned above. To him, human nature was in essence a sufficient cause of mankind’s development. He came up against the same stumbling block as the eighteenth-century materialist philosophers. Incidentally, we hope to be able to set forth SaintSimon’s views in a special essay. [7*]

28. Guizot, op. cit., pp.81-83.

29. The liberal French historians of the Restoration often spoke of the class struggle and, moreover, made sympathetic reference to it. They were not even horrified by the spilling of blood. “... So I repeat that war, that is to say the revolution, was necessary,” Thiers exclaimed in a note to his History of the French Revolution (éd. de 1834, t.I, p.365). “God has given people justice only at the price of struggle.” As long as the bourgeoisie had not yet completed its struggle against the aristocracy, the theorists of the bourgeoisie had no objections to the class struggle. The appearance on the historical scene of the proletariat, with its struggle against the bourgeoisie, brought considerable changes into the views of those theorists, who today find the standpoint of the “class struggle” too “narrow-minded”. Tempora mutantur et nos mutamur in illis!

30. Zur Kritik der politischen Oekonomie, Vorwort, S.V. [8*]


1*. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol.4, Moscow, 1975, pp.57-58.

2*. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol.4, Moscow 1975, pp.58-59.

3*. See present edition, Vol.I, pp.401-26.

4*. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Vol.4, Moscow 1975, p.86.

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

6*. This refers to the period of the restoration of the Bourbons (1814-30) interrupted by Napoleon’s Hundred Days (1815).

7*. Plekhanov did not write a special essay on Saint-Simon though he devoted several pages to the latter in his articles Utopian Socialism in the Nineteenth Century and French Utopian Socialism of the Nineteenth Century.

8*. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Moscow 1970, pp.20-21.

Last updated on 9.10.2007