G.V. Plekhanov

The Development of the Monist View of History

Chapter I
French Materialism of the Eighteenth Century

“If you nowadays,” says Mr. Mikhailovsky, “meet a young man ... who, even with some unnecessary haste, informs you that he is a ‘materialist’, this does not mean that he is a materialist in the general philosophical sense, in which in olden days we had admirers of Buchner and Moleschott. Very often the person with whom you are talking is not in the least interested either in the metaphysical or in the scientific side of materialism, and even has a very vague idea of them. What he wants to say is that he is a follower of the theory of economic materialism, and that in a particular and conditional sense.” [1]

We do not know what kind of young men Mr. Mikhailovsky has been meeting. But his words may give rise to the impression that the teaching of the representatives of “economic materialism” has connection with materialism “in the general philosophical sense”. Is that true? Is “economic materialism” really and poor in content as it seems to Mr. Mikhailovsky?

A brief sketch of the history of that doctrine will reply.

What is “materialism in the general philosophical sense”?

Materialism is the direct opposite of idealism. Idealism strives to explain all the phenomena of Nature, all the qualities of matter, by these or those qualities of the spirit. Materialism acts in the exactly opposite way. It tries to explain psychic phenomena by these or those qualities of matter, by this or that organisation of the human or, in more general terms, of the animal body. All those philosophers in the eyes of whom the prime factor is matter belong to the camp of the materialists; and all those who consider such a factor to be the spirit are idealists.

That is all that can be said about materialism in general, about “materialism in the general philosophical sense”, as time built up on its fundamental principle the most varied superstructures, which gave the materialism of one epoch quite a different aspect from the materialism of another.

Materialism and idealism exhaust the most important tendencies of philosophical thought. True, by their side there have almost always existed dualist systems of one kind or another, which recognise spirit and matter as separate and independent substances. Dualism was never able to reply satisfactorily to the inevitable question: how could these two separate substances, which have nothing in common between them, influence each other? Therefore the most consistent and most profound thinkers were always inclined to monism, i.e., to explaining phenomena with the help of some one main principle (monos in greek means “one”). Every consistent idealist is a monist to the same extent as every consistent materialist. In this respect there is no difference, for example, between Berkeley and Holbach. One was a consistent idealist, the other a no less consistent materialist, but both were equally monistic; both one and the other equally well understood the worthlessness of the dualist outlook on the world, which up to this day is still, perhaps the most widespread.

In the first half our century philosophy was dominated by idealistic monism. In its second half there triumphed in science with which meanwhile philosophy had been completely fused – materialistic monism, although far from always consistent and frank monism.

We do not require to set forth here all the history of materialism. For our purpose it will be sufficient to consider its development beginning with the second half of last century. And even here it will be important for us to have in view mainly one of its trends – true, the most important – namely, the materialism of Holbach, Helvetius and their supporters.

The materialists of this trend waged a hot polemic against the official thinkers of that time who, appealing to the authority of Descartes (whom they can hardly have well understood), asserted that man has certain innate ideas, i.e., such as appear independently of his experience. Contesting this view, the French materialists in fact were only setting forth the teaching of Locke, who at the end of the seventeenth century was already proving that there are “no innate principles”. But setting forth his teaching the French materialists gave it a more consistent form, dotting such “i’s” as Locke did not wish to touch upon, being a well-bred English liberal. The French materialists were fearless sensationalists, consistent throughout, i.e., they considered all the psychic functions of man to be transformed sensations. It would be valueless to examine here to what extent, in this or that particular case, their arguments are satisfactory from the point of view of presentday science. It is self-evident that the French materialists did not know a great deal of what is now known to every schoolboy: it is sufficient to recall the views of Holbach on chemistry and physics, even though he was well acquainted with the natural science of his age. But the French materialists’ incontestable and indispensable service lies in that they thought consistently from the standpoint of the science of their age – and that is all that one can and must demand of thinkers. It is not surprising that the science of our age has advanced beyond the French materialists of last century: what is important is that the adversaries of those philosophers were backward people even in relation to science of that day. True, the historians of philosophy usually oppose to the views of the French materialists the view of Kant, whom, of course, it would be strange to reproach with lack of knowledge. But this contraposition is quite unjustified, and it would not be difficult to show that both Kant and the French materialists took, essentially, the same view [2], but made use of it differently and therefore arrived at different conclusions, in keeping with the different characteristics of the social relations under the influence of which they lived and thought. We know that this opinion will be found paradoxical by people who are accustomed to believe every word of the historians of philosophy. There is no opportunity to prove it here by circumstantial argument, but we do not refuse to do so, if our opponents should require it.

Be that as it may, everyone knows that the French materialists regarded all the psychic activity of man as transformed sensations (sensations transformees). To consider psychic activity from this point of view means to consider all notions, all conceptions and feelings of man to be the result of the influence of his environment upon him. The French materialists did adopt this very view. They declared constantly, very ardently and quite categorically that man, with his views and feelings, is what his environment, i.e., in the first place Nature, and secondly society, make of him. “L’homme est tout education” (man depends entirely on education), affirms Helvetius, meaning by the word education the sum-total of social influence. This view of man as the fruit of his environment was the principal theoretical basis for the progressive demands of the French materialists. For indeed, if man depends on his environment, if he owes it all the qualities of his character, then he owes it also his defects; and consequently if you wish to combat his defects, you must in suitable fashion change his environment, and moreover his social environment in particular, because Nature makes man neither bad nor good. Put people in reasonable social relations, i.e., in conditions where the instinct of self-preservation of each of them ceases to impel him to struggle against the remainder: co-ordinate the interests of the individual man with the interests of society as a whole – and virtue will appear of its own accord, just as a stone falls to the earth of its own accord when it loses any support. Virtue requires, not to be preached, but to be prepared by the reasonable arrangement of social relations. By the light-hearted verdict of the conservatives and reactionaries of last century, the morality of the French materialists is up to the present day considered to be an egotistical morality. They themselves gave a much truer definition: in their view it passed entirely into politics.

The doctrine that the spiritual world of man represents the fruit of his environment not infrequently led the French materialists to conclusions which they did not expect themselves. Thus, for example, they sometimes said that the views of man have absolutely no influence on his conduct, and that therefore the spreading of one idea or another in society cannot by a hair-breadth change its subsequent fate. Later on we shall show wherein such an opinion was mistaken, but at this stage let us turn our attention to another side of the views of the French materialists.

If the ideas of any particular man are determined by his environment, then the ideas of humanity, in their historical development, are determined by the development of the social environment, by the history of social relationships. Consequently, if we were to think of painting a picture of the “progress of human reason”, and if we were not to limit ourselves in doing so to the question of “how?” (in what particular way did the historical advance of reason take place?), and put to ourselves the quite natural question of “why?” (why did that advance take place just in this fashion, and not otherwise?), we should have to begin with the history of the environment, the history of the development of social relations. The centre of gravity of our research would thus be shifted, at all events in the first stages, in the direction of studying the laws of social development. The French materialists came right up against this problem, but proved unable not only to solve it but even correctly to state it.

Whenever they began speaking of the historical development of mankind, they forgot their sensationalist view of “man” in general and, like all the philosophers of “enlightenment” of that age, affirmed that the world (i.e., the social relations of mankind) is governed by opinions (c’est l’opinion qui gouverne le monde). [3] In this lies the radical contradiction from which the materialism of the eighteenth century suffered, and which, in the reasoning of its supporters, was divided into a whole series of secondary and derivative contradictions, just as a banknote is exchanged for small cash.

Thesis. Man, with all his opinions, is the product of his environment, and mainly of his social environment. This was the inevitable conclusion from the fundamental proposition of Locke: there are no innate principles.

Antithesis. Environment, with all its qualities, is the product of opinions. This is the inevitable conclusion from the fundamental proposition of the historical philosophy of the French materialists: c’est l’opinion qui gouverne le monde.

From this radical contradiction there followed, for example, the following derivative contradictions:

Thesis. Man considers good those social relations which are useful to him. He considers bad those relations which are harmful to him. The opinions of people are determined by their interests. “L’opinion chez un peuple est toujours determinee par un interet dominant,” says Suard. [4] What we have here is not even a conclusion from the teachings of Locke, it is simply the repetition of his words: “No innate practical principles ... Virtue generally approved; not because innate, but because profitable ... Good and Evil ... are nothing but Pleasure or Pain, or that which occasions or procures Pleasure or Pain, to us.” [5]

Antithesis. The existing relations seem useful or harmful to people, according to the general system of opinions of the people concerned. In the words of the same Suard, every people “ne veut, n’aime, n’approuve que ce qu’il croit etre utile” (every people desires, loves and approves only what it considers useful). Consequently in the last resort everything again is reduced to the opinions which govern the world.

Thesis. Those are very much mistaken who think that religious morality – for example, the commandment to love one’s neighbour – even partially promoted the moral improvement of mankind. Such commandments, as ideas generally, are quite devoid of power over men. Everything depends on social environment and on social relations. [6] Antithesis. Historical experience shows us “que les opinions sacrees furent la source veritable des maux du genre humain” – and this is quite understandable, because if opinions generally govern the world, then mistaken opinions govern it like bloodthirsty tyrants.

It would be easy to lengthen the list of similar contradictions of the French materialists, inherited from them by many “materialists in the general philosophical sense” of our own age. But this would be unnecessary. Let us rather look more closely at the general character of these contradictions.

There are contradictions and contradictions. When Mr. V.V. contradicts himself at every step in his Destinies of Capitalism or in the first volume of his Conclusions from an Economic Investigation of Russia, his sins against logic can be of importance only as a “human document”: the future historian of Russian literature, after pointing out these contradictions, will have to busy himself with the extremely interesting question, in the sense of social psychology, of why, with all their indubitable and obvious character, they remained unnoticed for many and many a reader of Mr. V.V. In the direct sense, the contradictions of the writer mentioned are as barren as the well-known fig-tree. There are contradictions of another character. Just as indubitable as the contradictions of Mr. V.V., they are distinguished from the latter by the fact that they do not send human thought to sleep, they do not retard its development, but push it on further, and sometimes push it so strongly that, in their consequences, they prove more fruitful than the most harmonious theories. Of such contradictions one may say in the words of Hegel: Der Widerspruch ist das Fortleitende (contradiction leads the way forward). It is just among these that the contradictions of French materialism in the eighteenth century must be rightfully placed.

Let us examine their main contradiction: the opinions of men are determined by their environment; the environment is determined by opinions. Of this one has to say what Kant said of his “antinomies” – the thesis is just as correct as the antithesis. For there can be no doubt that the opinions of men are determined by the social environment surrounding them. It is just as much beyond doubt that not a single people will put up with a social order which contradicts all its views: it will revolt against such an order, and reconstruct it according to its own ideals. Consequently it is also true that opinions govern the world. But then in what way can two propositions, true in themselves, contradict each other? The explanation is very simple. They contradict each other only because we are looking at them from an incorrect point of view. From that point of view it seems – and inevitably must seem – that if the thesis is right, then the antithesis is mistaken, and vice versa. But once you discover a correct point of view, the contradiction will disappear, and each of the propositions which confuse you will assume a new aspect. It will turn out to be supplementing or, more exactly, conditioning the other proposition, not excluding it at all; and if this proposition were untrue, then equally untrue would be the other proposition, which previously seemed to you to be its antagonist. But how is such a correct point of view to be discovered?

Let us take an example. It often used to be said, particularly in the eighteenth century, that the constitution of any given people was conditioned by the manners of that people; and this was quite justified. When the old republican manners of the Romans disappeared, their republic gave way to a monarchy. But on the other hand it used no less frequently to be asserted that the manners of a given people are conditioned by its constitution. This also cannot be doubted in the least. And indeed, how could republican manners appear in the Romans of the time, for example, of Heliogabalus? Is it not patently clear that the manners of the Romans during the Empire were bound to represent something quite opposite to the old republican manners? And if it is clear, then we come to the general conclusion that the constitution is conditioned by manners, and manners – by the constitution. But then this is a contradictory conclusion. Probably we arrived at it on account of the mistaken character of one or the other of our propositions. Which in particular? Rack your brains as you will, you will not discover anything wrong either in one or in the other; they are both irreproachable, as in reality the manners of every given people do influence its constitution, and in this sense are its cause, while on the other hand they are conditioned by the constitution, and in this sense are its consequence. Where, then, is the way out? Usually, in questions of this kind, people confine themselves to discovering interaction: manners influence the constitution and the constitution influences manners. Everything becomes as clear as daylight, and people who are not satisfied with clarity of this kind betray a tendency to one-sidedness worthy of every condemnation. That is how almost all our intellectuals argue at the present time. They look at social life from the point of view of interaction: each side of life influences all others and, in its turn, experiences the influence of all the others. Only such a view is worthy of a thinking “sociologist”, while those who, like the Marxists, keep on seeking for some more profound reasons or other for social development, simply don’t see to what degree social life is complicated. The French writers of the Enlightenment were also inclined to this point of view, when they felt the necessity of bringing their views on social life into logical order and of solving the contradictions which were getting the upper hand of them. The most systematic minds among them (we do not refer here to Rousseau, who in general had little in common with the writers of the Enlightenment) did not go any further. Thus, for example, it is this viewpoint of interaction that is maintained by Montesquieu in his famous works: Grandeur et Decadence des Romains and De l’Esprit des Lois. [7] And this, of course, is a justifiable point of view. Interaction undoubtedly exists between all sides of social life. But unfortunately this justifiable point of view explains very little, for the simple reason that it gives no indication as to the origin of the interacting forces. If the constitution itself presupposes the manners which it influences, then obviously it is not to the constitution that those manners owe their first appearance. The same must be said of the manners too: if they already presuppose the constitution which they influence, then it is clear that it is not they which created it. In order to get rid of this muddle we must discover the historical factor which produced both the manners of the given people and its constitution, and thereby created the very possibility of their interaction. If we discover such a factor we shall reveal the correct point of view we are seeking, and then we shall solve without difficulty the contradiction which confuses us.

As far as the fundamental contradiction of the French materialists is concerned, this means the following. The French materialists were very mistaken when, contradicting their customary view of history, they said that ideas mean nothing, since environment means everything. No less mistaken was that customary view of theirs on history (c’est l’opinion qui gouverne le monde), which proclaimed opinions to be the main fundamental reason for the existence of any given social environment. There is undoubted interaction between opinions and environment. But scientific investigation cannot stop at recognising this interaction, since interaction is far from explaining social phenomena to us. In order to understand the history of mankind, i.e., in the present case the history of its opinions, on the one hand, and the history of those social relations through which it passed in its development, on the other, we must rise above the point of view of interaction, and discover, if possible, that factor which determines both the development of the social environment and the development of opinions. The problem of social science in the nineteenth century was precisely to discover that factor.

The world is governed by opinions. But then, opinions do not remain unchanged. What conditions their changes? “The spreading of enlightenment,” replied, as early as the seventeenth century, La Mothe le Vayer. This is the most abstract and most superficial expression of the idea that opinions dominate the world. The writers of the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century held to it firmly, sometimes supplementing it with melancholy reflections that the fate of enlightenment, unfortunately, is in general very unreliable. But the realisation that such a view was inadequate could already be noticed among the most talented of them. Helvetius remarked that the development of knowledge is subordinated to certain laws, and that, consequently, there are some hidden and unknown causes on which it depends. He made an attempt of the highest interest, still not assessed at its true value, to explain the social and intellectual development of man by his material needs. This attempt ended, and for many reasons could not but end, in failure. But it remained a testament, as it were, for those thinkers of the following century who might wish to continue the work of the French materialists.



[1] Russkoye Bogatstvo, January 1894, Section II, p. 98.

[2] [Plekhanov’s statement about “both Kant and the French materialists taking, essentially, the same view” is erroneous. In contradistinction to Kant’s agnosticism and subjective idealism, the French materialists of the eighteenth century believed in cognisability of the external world.]

[3] “I mean by opinion the result of the mass of truths and errors diffused in a nation: a result which determines its judgements, its respect or contempt, its love or hate, which forms its inclinations and customs, its vices and virtues – in a word, its manners. This is the opinion of which it must be said that it governs the world.” Suard, Melanges de Litterature, Paris, An XII, tome III, p.400.

[4] Suard, tome III, p.401.

[5] Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Book I, Ch.3; Book II, Ch.20, 21, 28.

[6] This principle is more than once repeated in Holbach’s Systeme de la Nature. It is also expressed by Helvetius when he says: “Let us suppose that I have spread the most stupid opinion, from which follow the most revolting consequences; if I have changed nothing in the laws, I will change nothing in manners either” (De l’Homme, Section VII, Ch.4). The same opinion is frequently expressed in his Correspondance Litteraire by Grimm, who lived for long among the French materialists and by Voltaire, who fought the materialists. In his Philosophe ignorant, as in many other works, the “Patriarch of Ferney” endeavoured to demonstrate that not a single philosopher had ever yet influenced the conduct of his neighbours, since they were guided in their acts by customs, not metaphysics.

[7] Holbach in his Politique naturelle takes the standpoint of interaction between manners and constitution. But as he has there to deal with practical questions, this point of view leads him into a vicious circle: in order to improve manners one must perfect the constitution, and in order to improve it, one must improve manners. Holbach is rescued from this circle by an imaginary bon prince, who was desired by all the writers of the Enlightenment, and who, appearing like deus ex machina, solved the contradiction, improving both manners and constitution.


Last updated on 28.12.2004