Thomas Rothstein April, 1906

The “Synthetic” Criticism of Marx

Source: Th. Rothstein, “The “Synthetic” Criticism of Marx,” The Social Democrat, Vol. X No. 4 April, 1906, pp. 201-216;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

I little thought, when charging Bax with ignorance and misconception of the doctrine which he attempts to criticise, that I was committing a lèse majesté. Such, however, turns out to be the case. Hyndman calls it “a piece of literary presumption” on my part to have attacked one who is of “quite exceptional learning,” and is “one of the most acute intellects of his time,” whilst Bax himself, with becoming generosity, tries “not to be too hard upon me,” and sends me back to school there “to take my time” and prepare my examination paper on Gnosticism. I feel quite humbled; only I wonder, is it a discussion or something else? I will leave Bax, at this stage, alone; but to Hyndman I will point out that surely he cannot expect everyone to take the same estimate of Bax’s qualifications as he does – at least, so far as the subject of the present controversy is concerned; that even if Bax had been all what Hyndman believes him to be, there is no reason why he should not be attacked just as, for instance, Spencer – an acute mind, too, with some learning – was once attacked by Hyndman, or Engels is still being attacked both by him and by Bax; and that it is altogether bad taste and bad education “to put anyone” – I am using Hyndman’s own words “on a pedestal of infallibility” and stigmatise a frank attempt to criticise him as a “piece of literary presumption.” Surely we can stand a bit of plain speaking, can we not?

But I shall better leave this unsavoury subject. Bax may be a god, and I may be an insignificant beetle; and yet I make bold to assert, in as plain English as a foreigner can command, that he does not know the subject he is discussing.

First comes in his disclaimer of the authorship of what he “elsewhere” calls the Synthetic Philosophy. As, however, he, with a curious inconsistency, challenges me to “give him the name of a single bourgeois writer who has stated the matter as he has” – he being “probably as extensively acquainted with the Marxist literature as I am,” and yet not knowing any such writer – I will satisfy his curiosity and quote a certain German philosopher whose name, at least, is not unknown to Bax, though his writings evidently are. This is Paul Barth, who, in 1890, had written an article on the “Philosophy of Hegel and the Hegelians till Marx and Hartman,” to which already Engels had replied, and who, in 1897, elaborated it in a book called the “Philosophy of History.” In the latter he says:

“It goes without saying that the economic, like all other institutions, assist men .... in forming their ideas; it also, however, goes without saying that they do not alone form the contents of these ideas, as Marx and Engels taught."[1]

“The endeavour to bring the ideologies into close relationship with the economic structure shows its dangers as soon as an attempt is made to represent in this manner, say, the history of mathematics as the product of economics. Of course, the other ideologies are not so entirely independent and not so wholly following the consecutiveness of esoteric tradition as mathematics, but they, too, possess within them a strong logic of their own, in virtue of which they grow and develop far beyond the suggestions of the immediate surroundings.[2]

“With all their skill the Marxists are unable to explain one thing, viz., why do the adepts of the various sects remain true to their faith when the latter no longer serves their economic interests (by which, it is said, they are guided), but, on the contrary, becomes actually mischievous? Why did the Hussites emigrate, that is, go for a life of misery, instead of changing their faith? Why did, in the Netherlands, so many allow themselves to be massacred instead of, as Henry IV., gaining by a mass not Paris, but life itself? With a little thought the Marxists would, in the face of such questions, soon find out that there are other forces besides economic interests."[3]

Bax has been rather overhasty in issuing his challenge. Here is a bourgeois writer who states word for word what Bax has been saying on the inadequacy of economic interpretation, on the spontaneity and inner logic of mathematics and other sciences, and on the historical role of religious beliefs. Is he so well acquainted with the Marxist literature? Perhaps, however, he would like some more evidence of his “extensive” acquaintance with that literature. I have quoted a German; let me now quote an Englishman and an American, so as to be truly international.

Mr. Kirkup, in his “History of Socialism,” says:-[4]

“It is a grave exaggeration to maintain that all social institutions, including philosophy and religion, are to be explained by reference to the economic factors. History is a record of the activity of the human mind in very many directions. Men have had various interests, which have had a substantive, and so far, an independent value, though they must also be regarded as an organic whole. It is absolutely impossible to account for all by reference to any one” (the italics are mine).

And Mr. Seligman, in his “Economic Interpretation of History,” says:- [5]

“Few writers would trace the different manifestations of language or even of art primarily to economic conditions; still fewer would maintain that the various forms of pure science have more than a remote connection with social conditions in general .... The facts of mentality must be reckoned with.”

I know what Bax will say on being confronted with these extracts from bourgeois writers: “So much the better for them.” This is a very easy way to get out of an awkward situation; but in the present case it will hardly do. Anyone can see that what Bax regards as conclusions, reached by him in the course of his reflections on the subject of Marx’s theory, is in reality but the fag-end of his pre-Socialist way of thinking. Every rising class thinks materialistically; it is the scientific form of thought and consequently revolutionary. On the other hand, a possessing class, which has to defend its position, invariably falls back upon “idealism” as a cloak for its naked brutality. The struggle between the two classes assumes, therefore, a curiously perverted form: the aggressors, who are inspired by the highest ethical ideals, give a materialistic basis for their action, while the possessors, who are moved by the sheer materialist interests of their class, entrench themselves behind “ethical ideals” and idealist thought. So it was in the case of the struggle between the rising bourgeoisie and the decaying aristocracy; so it is now in the case of the struggle between the rising proletariat and the decaying bourgeoisie. No doubt, “the measure of truth,” to use Bax’s expression, contained in the doctrine of Marx, is too apparent even to the unwilling bourgeois mind, and the bourgeois thinker is quite prepared to recognise it; but to go further would be suicidal, and so a saving clause is introduced which gives the parties the power to “contract out.” True, they say, there is an economic factor in history, and Marx has earned our undying gratitude for pointing it out (though, of course, he was not the first!); but to deny that there are other, to wit, ideal factors beside, is one-sidedness, crudity, dogmatics. “Our objections to the materialist conception of history,” says, together with Bax, Professor L. Stein, the author of a ponderous book on the “Social Question,” [6] refers only to its overgrowths and pretensions, but by no means to its essential element of truth. If the theory is taken in its sober and sensible aspects, one must, indeed, be filled with prejudice not to recognise the permanent service rendered by Marx. The philosophical error of Marx lies not so much in the theory itself, as in the exclusiveness attributed to it. The Marxists commit the mistake of onesidedness when they in their dogmatic zeal regard the economic (!) conditions of production as the sole and ultimate motive-source of all social phenomena.” Likewise Professor Seligman[7]: “The theory (the materialist conception of history) is no longer tenable as to the universal explanation of all human life (!). No monistic interpretation of humanity (!) is possible. But in the narrower sense of economic interpretation of history – in the sense, namely, that the economic factor has been of the utmost importance in history, and that the historical factor must be reckoned with in economics (?!) – the theory has been, and still is, of considerable significance.” Lastly Bax’s dear ally, Professor Masaryk, the great Socialist-killer, in his volume on the “Philosophical and Sociological Bases of Marxism” [8] “The entire discussion really turns upon the question of the degree of economic materialism, of the value which is to be attached to the economic conditions as factors in the civilised life of to-day. In this respect, I think, there can be no two questions as to the services rendered by Marxism to the scientific interpretation of history by the emphasis or even over-emphasis which it puts on the economic forces and conditions.”

How delightfully Baxian all this is, and how extensive must be Bax’s knowledge of the Marxist and anti-Marxist literature for him not to know that he is merely repeating the humdrum bourgeois criticisms! However, in one point he is decidedly original. The bourgeois critics, while insisting on the psychological, ethical, intellectual, and other “ideal” factors in history, naturally place their scene of action more particularly at the present time. “For the primitive state of the races,” says, for instance, our good philosopher, L. Stein,[9] “the proposition formulated by Marx and Engels may be quite true. It is, however, questionable whether in our times, since the modern State arose, the economic factor can still be regarded as the strongest, most decisive driving force of our civilisation, whether with the growing intelligence of mankind the spiritual motives may not come more and more to the front, till they not only equal the economic motives in importance, but in some cases even surpass them.” And more apodictically, Herr Barth[10] “One may safely assert that the further history proceeds, the less important become the given economic conditions for the tendencies of a nation and its time.” As we say, this relegation of the economic factor to the past periods of history, and the corresponding transposition of the “ideal” factors to the present stage is only too natural. It is done with a view to combat the class-war “shibboleths” of the Social-Democracy, and to prove to the revolutionary proletariat that, inasmuch as the bourgeoisie – at least in her “progressive” sections – is guided, not by its class-position, but by moral ideals, etc., its true policy ought to consist in a working alliance with the “Liberal democracy.”

Bernstein himself, as soon as he found out that Social-Democracy ought to become a “democratic party of reforms,” made the discovery that “modern society is much richer than all former societies in ideology, independent of economics."[11] But here comes Bax and puts the whole thing topsy-turvy. As a Socialist, he cannot shut his eyes to the fact that the economic factor is of some importance at the present day; on the other hand, he has still the fag-end of the bourgeois mode of thinking, sticking in his head, and believes in the “idealist” factor. How shall he dispose of it? Why, nothing could be easier! Shift it to former ages and have done with it! Never mind the ridiculousness of the procedure. Never mind the absurdity of shifting the centre of gravity of the ideal factor to a time when man was a plaything in the hands of Nature, and robbing it of its importance at a period when there are so many intellectual and ethical movements, and the control over Nature seems so complete! It is, anyhow, original, as no bourgeois thinker ever tumbled upon it. Only why, if such be the case, feel offended if a friendly critic calls it a “happy complement” of the Bernstein process? Bernstein puts the economic factor back to primitive times, and sees at the present stage the preponderance of ideologies. With Bax it is the precise reverse. Do they not form, then, together a “complete, full and orbicular” synthetic philosophy? If that is not a happy complement, I don’t know what is.

Here, however, a couple of points may be noted which, though minor, are nevertheless very characteristic. I charged Bax with eclecticism. The reader may now see whether I was right or wrong; but Bax himself takes strong exception to it. Eclecticism, he says, means “a piecing-together, a patchwork, not an organic unity”; but he has always insisted that “history is an organic unity, only in tracing the causation of events we have .... to take account of a double causal series.” This, for an author of a history of philosophy, is delightful. Bax, evidently, is not aware that the term “eclecticism” refers to the mode of thinking, while what he asserts to be an organic unity, is the subject matter of thought. Nobody ever charged history with being eclectic, it is only historians – like our good friend Bax – who are sometimes charged with eclecticism. Likewise his remarks on monism. He, of course, is a monist; everyone who recognises independent matter and an independent mind, is presumably a monist, like Bax. Only there are “two sorts of monism: an arid, fallacious, abstract monism, and fruitful and productive concrete monism,” and Bax is all for the latter sort. It is like our excellent friends of a certain type who are, of course, Socialists, but not of the arid, fallacious, abstract sort of Socialism. They are of the fruitful and productive concrete type of Socialists, whom we, somehow, call by another name, just as we call “monists” of the type of Bax differently.

The same innocent confusion of thought is exhibited by my worthy opponent in yet another place. In my first article I said: “Historical materialism is a method of inquiry, not a ready solution for historical riddles.” To these perfectly simple and intelligible words Bax appends a passage in which he contrives to pervert their meaning in quite an artistic fashion. I will explain to him what I meant. I meant to say that historical materialism is not an “Open, sesame,” which reveals the secrets of phenomena by the merest touch; it only shows the correct way to go about when carrying out a piece of historical research. This, so far from being a short cut to the heart of an historical problem, “saving a lot of mental exertion,” as Bax thinks, is a very laborious and a very thorny road, requiring a lot of study, circumspection and skill. That is why, for instance, Marx would not attempt, when speaking in a footnote of the influence of the economic” factor on religion, to furnish those “proofs” for which Bax is now so pathetically asking. That is also why Engels, when requested by Bax to tackle the problem of gnosticism, would not, like a certain famous Rabbi, satisfy his curiosity in a few words while turning on his heel, but sent him about his business with a phrase, which Bax, no doubt, has perverted, but of which the meaning is perfectly intelligible. And that is why – adding my own insignificant case – I, having something more important to do than to write an essay for examination by Bax, must respectfully decline to “take my time” and tackle the “Gnostic business or Manichaeism.”

That Bax does not understand what a “method of historical inquiry” is, is not surprising, seeing that he himself has none, and puts in, as I pointed out in my first article, “psychological spontaneity,” that is, two words which explain just nothing, whenever he is unable to discover the “social origin of things.” True, he now points out that by this term he really means the independence of the psychological series from any external one, but this new version scarcely improves matters. He, himself, admits, in reply to my contention, that “the impulse to observe, or to reflect, in special departments might have been given, or even the results might have been suggested by current conditions of life,” only to him this point appears as “unimportant” and “trivial.” What a curious blindness! If the impulse to observation and to reflection, as well as even the results, are prompted by the conditions of life, what becomes of the famous independence of the psychological series? Is it not clear that it stands in close causal relationship with the economic series? Bax, so far from noticing the damaging nature of the admission he has made, thereupon shifts his ground and asserts – taking the case of geometry – that “it is the correctness of the formulation of the space-relations that is the crucial point for the science as such.” As if anybody has ever denied that mind must be able to arrive at the truth in geometrical as in other sciences in order that science may be possible at all! As well might he say, when discussing the history of dietetics, that it is the correct working of the stomach which constitutes the crucial point for that science! No, my worthy opponent, it is not the laws of correct reasoning which we are discussing, any more than we would discuss the laws of proper digestion, when considering the history of dietetics. What we are considering are the problems which the human mind sets before itself, and the conditions under which it may arrive at the truth, and if these are suggested, as you yourself admit, by the conditions of life, then we have the whole of what constitutes the history of science explained on the method of historical materialism.

But Bax evidently has some very peculiar views as to what is history, in spite of his having written a number of historical works. He calls, for instance, quite seriously, the fact that the doctrine of natural selection was suggested to Darwin and Wallace by the economic conditions of the time, trivial, since “observation and experiment on the phenomena of natural history themselves would have been quite sufficient in a mind such as Darwin’s to have led to the same results!” This piece of philosophy of history is delicious. Bax evidently is not aware of the fact that there were great minds before Darwin, and yet the law of natural selection has not been discovered by them. “Ex monti partituritur mus,” he flings at me with a deadly irony. His philosophy is as bad as his Latin. [12]

Here, however, the case of metaphysics is again trotted out, and some fun is made of Lafargue, who has said something somewhere (my opponent never gives exact quotations from exact sources, but relates of something said by somebody, he thinks). I shall not go over the same ground again, as I carefully abstain from doing throughout the present article. I will only quote the opinions of some authors, who may be taken to know something of philosophy, but who at the same time cannot be charged with belonging to the “dogmatic” school of neo-Marxians. The first is the late Professor Anton Menger, who concludes his preface to the “New Theory of Ethics,” published in 1905, with the following words: “There will come a day when the whole philosophical system of Socialism will be unfolded before our eyes, and then it will be seen that our modern philosophy, based apparently on objective experience, and even on it priori knowledge, is really developing under the strongest influence of the deep antagonisms of our time.” But Menger was a Socialist; so I will now quote – the good old Frederick Denison Maurice, a thinker who, I need scarcely tell an English reader, was anything but a materialist: “I don’t think,” he says in a letter to a correspondent in 1848,[13] “metaphysics have been separated by any real and consistent thinker from politics, or that he has applied one method to the one and a different method to the other .... In the men who have exercised most influence upon England of a psychological or metaphysical kind – Hobbes and Locke – the connection between their so-called abstract theories and their doctrines of government and political society, is most direct and obvious. The Leviathan is the explanation and embodiment of the treatises on Liberty and Necessity. The essay on Government is the proper key to the essay on the Human Understanding .... Aristotle avowedly makes everything subordinate to his polity; his ethics and metaphysics are only the porch to that temple .... I should be strongly inclined, then, to recommend you to study the works on ‘politics’ which have been written by the most eminent metaphysicians in different periods, and to view their more abstract speculations chiefly as illustrating them.”

Compare with this Bax’s solemn declaration that here, in the domain of pure philosophy, the development is mainly, if not entirely, a purely intellectual one following its own causal series and not influenced – appreciably at any rate – by anything outside itself"! If I were not afraid to call down upon my unlucky head the reproach of “literary presumptuousness,” I would, too, be strongly inclined to recommend Bax to study afresh the history of philosophy – perhaps he would then see what another “acute intellect,” and a neo-Kantian into the bargain, saw, namely, that “there is no philosophy which develops out of itself ... but only philosophising men, who, together with their teachings, are children of their time"! Thus speaks F. Lange,[14] the author of the classical “History of Materialism,” to whom, I guess, even Bax himself owes not a little of his “quite exceptional learning.”

However, I shall never finish if I were to follow Bax step by step. Truth is one and the errors are many, and the time and space at my disposal will not suffice if I were to take upon myself to correct all the fallacies with which Bax’s latest “criticism” abounds. A couple of points, however, must be further noted. First, Bax taunts me with denying the historical part played by great personalities. If he had read the passage on which he bases his criticism, he would have seen that the question was not under discussion at all. I merely pointed out that consciousness and will, be they of an ordinary mortal or of a Napoleon, are in themselves but individual faculties, and as such belong to the domain of biography, not of history. A man may have a strong, a weak, a good, a bad will; he may have a consciousness clear or dim, filled with great thoughts or chimeras – all this has, per se, but a biographical, not an historical interest. It is only when these individual wills and consciousnesses coalesce into a social will and consciousness that they collectively acquire an historical value; but then, as I pointed out, the economic factor will determine their form. Thus, the question of great personalities did not come in at all, and Bax has simply shifted the argument. If, however, I were to follow him in his systemless wandering, I would say that I fully recognise the historical role of great personalities, only I am afraid, not in the sense of “intellectual and psychological spontaneity,” in which presumably Bax takes it. The hero of history is not a “spontaneous generation,” but just as much a child of his time as any other mortal, born of a woman; and it is precisely owing to his superior intellectual and psychical gifts that he is able to perceive and to feel “the body and the pressure of the time,” as Shakespeare called it, clearer and quicker than any other man and lead the people in working out its tendencies. This, so far from being a limitation of the validity of Marx’s teaching, is just in complete accord with it, for the adaptation of the various forms of social life to the continuous transformation of the economic basis is not a synchronous process, but one which is going on “more or less” rapidly, so that some of the human agents engaged in it are always in advance of all others, and the hero of history is in advance of all. A great personality, therefore, is both the product and the maker of his time – the latter, however, in a strictly determinist sense.

This virtually disposes of the second point raised by Bax. Having been driven to drop the charge that we, Marxists, imagine history to be an automatic process without the assistance of any conscious human agency, he now proceeds to saddle us with the idea that the social consciousness is playing but a passive role! Whoever told him that, I don’t know; but he is so sure of having driven me into a corner that he warns me, with greater courage than I care here to qualify, not to perform “again” the usual Marxist wriggle. The word “again” speaks volumes for Bax’s conscientiousness as a polemist; and the warning itself is characteristic of the spirit in which he meets his opponents. But apart from that, may I tell him that he is simply fighting with windmills? It is tolerably true that the forms of social consciousness express but what the economic conditions impress upon them (I say “tolerably,” because the power of tradition, as already pointed out by Marx, must be added to it), but to argue from this that they are simply “passive reflectors” is sheer arbitrariness. Let Bax consider what I have said just now about the role of historical personages as well as what I said in my first article on page 660, and he will see that with us the forms of social consciousness are not merely passive reflectors, but – to carry the figure of speech further – also active radiators. The only difference between us two is that he regards the “rays” emitted by social consciousness as spontaneously generated from its inner arbitrary self, while I, and together with me all Marxists, regard them as generated by “the body and the pressure of the time.” Thus, in the present transformation of Liberal England into an Imperialist one, the consciousness of the capitalist class, as well as of some of its “heroes,” like Chamberlain, plays an active part; but, while Bax regards it as a spontaneously generated agency – one that might have arisen 500 years ago as easily as 500 years hence – we Marxists regard it, in our dogmatic limitation, as the product of the present economic conditions of England.

One reason why Bax is unable to grasp our position is hinted at by himself when he emphatically declares that “even the content which it (social consciousness) receives from without is not necessarily economic.” Who says it is? Not we. It is our “critics” who invariably imagine that we fill human consciousness with thoughts of money, profits, wages, etc., and leave no room for thoughts on love, God, science, art, and other “human” subjects. This is why, by the way, they constantly put into our mouth the term “economic motive,” instead of economic conditions, and then prove to their own satisfaction that the Marxists – the epigoni, as Bax, in common with our bourgeois enemies, dubs us – are idiots, inasmuch as they do not perceive that the idea of a future life is not an economic interest! May I assure my distressed opponent that we allow man to think of everything he likes – of all things in heaven above and on earth below. Only, we are afraid, the very choice of the subjects, and still more so the way, in which he thinks about them, are determined by something else than his “spontaneous” self.

Taking all in all, however, the whole strife between us, between the Marxists and their opponents, is, in reality, the old strife over again between the materialists and the idealists. What was with Plato “reminiscence,” and with Descartes the innate ideas and with Kant the a priori forms of thought is now with Bax and his bourgeois colleagues “intellectual spontaneity,” the “independence of the psychological series,” and so on. “Nihil est in intellectu quod prius non fuerit in sensu” (Nothing is in the mind which was not previously in the senses), say we figuratively with Locke. “Nisi intellectus ipse” (Except mind itself), add they the insidous Leibnitzian rider. It is the wretched dualism, the handmaid of theology and reaction, over again, and its combination with Socialist opinions is a curious sight.

One more word, and I shall be done. Bax says that we, “extreme” Marxists, discredit and injure the movement. Alas, we have already heard this many times before from the lips of our bourgeois well-wishers. “It is unfortunately true,” laments, for instance, Professor Seligman,[13] “that many historical materialists by the very exaggeration and vehemence of their statements, have brought discredit on a doctrine which, in a sublimated form (!), contains so large an element of truth, and which has done so much for the progress of science.” Strange to say, however, we do not feel it – we get “red cheeks” and our movement grows. In this case, however, the fun is doubly funny, since Box quotes as witness – whom would you think? – none other than Jaurès, the one who has done more to disorganise Socialism in France than any other man alive, and has ended by capitulating to the very same wicked Marxists, who are so injurious to the movement! What a splendid witness!


1. P. Barth, “Die Philosophie der Geschichte,” p.325.

2. Barth, 1.c., p.327.

3. Barth, 1.c., p. 158.

4. p.158.

5. p.147.

6. “Die Soziale Frage,” etc., p.401.

7. Lc., p.159.

8. “Die philosophischen und Soziologischen Grundlagen des Marxismus,” p.129.

9.1.c., p.177.

10. l.c.p.353.”

11. “Voraussetzungen,” etc., p.10.

12. The actual quote is from Horace “ montes parturiunt, nascetur ridiculus mus.” The mountains parted (gave birth) to a ridiculous little mouse. Note that in addition to the wrong quotation Bax has made an elementary schoolboy howler by making the plural of “mons,” “monti” not the correct “montes.” In 1906 this was savage stuff among gentlemen. – Note by Ted Crawford.

13. F. Maurice, “The Life of F. D. Maurice,” vol. I., p.465.

14. 1.c., p.45.