Peter Sedgwick

Historical Materialism

(Autumn 1962)

Peter Sedgwick, Historical Materialism, International Socialism (1st series), No.10, Autumn 1962, p.33. (review)
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Economic Interpretation of History
R.A. Seligman
Columbia University Press, 11s.

First published in 1902, this is a pleasant and sprightly justification for historical materialism, at least as it is very commonly understood. The author makes out a careful and sensible case for the preponderant role of economic causation in history, paying due regard to other causal influences and answering some of the more crass objections to theory. These rejoinders are surprisingly relevant to present-day anti-Marxist and anti-rationalist objectors. However, it is doubtful whether Seligman’s case has much connection with the Marxism of Marx. The materialism justified here has explicitly ‘nothing in common’ with Socialism or the class-struggle. It gives little attention to relations-of-production or to the crucial periods of social upheaval, preferring to concentrate upon the role of technology and on correlations between various economic and non-economic factors at different times. It dismisses the part played by ‘great men’ in history rather abruptly, and avoids any discussion of the relationship between politics and economics (In this respect, it must he admitted International Socialism is itself not exempt from blame, since some of its leading contributors adhere to an over-economic materialism which leaves little independent role for policy or political decision).

Nonetheless, there is some useful reading here. The book is written in a direct no-nonsense style which compares very favourably with American academic writing nowadays.

Peter Sedgwick

Last updated on 21 February 2010