Mark Starr: A Worker Looks At History

Chapter 1: A General Introduction

INDUSTRIAL History deals with the history of the Labour Process. Therefore we workers, by studying it, learn how, under various systems of society, the Labour Process was carried on. Too long we have been stuffed with "drum-and-trumpet history, Royal amours, Court intrigues, the romping of armies over the Continent," and the like. Shoving aside this superficial shoddy we wish to find out the status and conditions of the workers of other times. And we do this, not because of any love for the antique, but because, wishing to raise our class, we wish to learn how other classes found the road to power; looking backward to understand the present, and in order to march forward.

Theory and Practice.- "Man makes his own history," that is agreed; but when we come to discuss "how he made or makes it," then various conflicting theories or explanations are offered. Before dealing with the chief of these explanations, it is necessary thoroughly to understand what a theory is, what its use, and what its test. To listen to most people, one would think that theory and practise lived in worlds apart, and were in violent contrast to each other; whereas, in truth, theory and practise are inseparable. Perhaps the hypothesis (i.e., the advanced, partly proved theory) is too often confused with theories about which no doubts exist, e.g., Water is wet. The purely practical man is as impossible as the purely theoretical. To theorise is to generalise from experiences, e.g. the theory that "water puts out fire" has been gathered or generalised from experiences when water did quench fire. Theories are indispensable mental tools. Thus we all theorise, but the trouble is that we do no theorise consciously. To enable the worker to gain a true knowledge of the hard facts of life, to aid him consciously to generalise his theory therefrom, and then to act in accordance with the theory thus gained - these are the aims and uses of education.

Now, every person has an experience of his own which he cannot share with any other person. Theory, however, is different, for it can be shared, and the advantage of theory is that it saves the repetition of experience. Our mothers gave us the theory that "fire burns fingers"; this saved us from finding this out for ourselves. Of course, if we wished to prove the theory, the fire was always handy. Theories then, save us time and trouble, and they can be conveyed to other persons by teaching, oral or otherwise. Only centuries of stored accumulated theories give modern man his superiority over the animal and the savage.

Another use of theory is that by it we can forecast our future experience. I can say with indubitable certainty that if I burn my fingers in the fire in 1925 I shall recieve a burn. So, theory is a guide to practice, and it is important that we should get true pictures of all the facts and draw from them correct theories.

The test of the truth of a theory is "Will it explain the facts?" If we ever come across a kind of fire which did not burn fingers, our theory that fire did burn fingers would be proved untrue, and would have to go. The theory may be wrong, the facts never. And it will help us to get true theories if we remember that the world is continually changing and constantly demanding that we should revise our theories and bring them "up to date". It will be interesting to apply this test to the historical theories with which we will now deal.

1.The Theistic Conception of History. - History, under this theory or conception, was thought to be the work of a supernatural power which controlled and governed all men. Every nation has its gods, pixies, goblins, fairies, etc., which protect or afflict it. But a close study of religion reveals that it is the changed and not the changer. When a nomadic people adopt a settled life, then they need new gods. Before, they needed a portable god; in settled life they build temples. We need not examine in this Outline this theory at length. It certainly is not "up to date". No educated person, for example, will ascribe the present European War to the doings of a supernatural power. "The stage of History is not a Punch and Judy show".

2. The Great Man Theory. - The supernatural theory having failed to explain the facts, the theory that history was the record of the doings of great men was made - the "hero" was trotted out as the dynamic of progress. Carlyle's name is prominent in connection with this gospel of "hero-worship." But, alas, the greatness of all Carlyle's heroes can be explained by the material conditions of their times. Luther only moved when Indulgences were sold in his own parish, and if he had lived ten years earlier he would have been the central performer in a heated controversy at the stake in the market-place - another "burning question" would have been settled. "Men are the creatures and not the creators of their age." And what applies to Luther applies also to other great men - to the Cromwells, the Napoleons, and Kaisers of history - even to Lord Rhondda, over whom the press has so recently been slobbering. "No man is so great as to merit deification. No man is so commonplace as to merit damnation." Even the greatest personality fails if he battles to retain that which evolutionary forces have made obsolete. "He who labours in harmony with evolution, him we may modestly call 'great.' Let us all be great."...We suggest that this theory will not stand the test. History is not explained by great personalities.

3. The Climate, Food and Soil Theory. - This theory cannot be understood apart from the time in which it was made - the middle of the 19th century. The general principles of evolution were being proved by their individual application to biology. Law and order were being introduced into the other sciences. Many were the various idealist theories applied to history. In opposition to these idealists, who thought that material changes were caused by changes in ideas, arose other thinkers, who maintained the opposite view, i.e., that ideas arose from, and were governed by material conditions.

Buckle was one of these latter thinkers, and in his History of Civilisation, (Vol. I, Chapter 2) he wrote that the character of a people or a society was determined by the climate, food, soil, geographical position, etc., of the country in which it lived. This theory seems to explain the facts. A desert land would breed a race of nomads; an island people would become a mercantile nation; a hilly country would produce bands of raiders; civilisation would first spring up where Nature was kind and genial, and where food was procured easily. These and many other very interesting examples he adduces to prove his theory. Undoubtedly in the infancy of the race natural environment largely influenced society; e.g., in England Buckle's factors have remained unchanged since the Romans, and yet vast developments have taken place; and so, applying our test, we find that this theory does not explain the facts. Factors which do not change cannot cause change. We will now pass on to deal with the theory outlined by Marx and Engels (Engels, however, gives Marx the chief credit), which succeeded in explaining the complexity of history.

The Materialist Conception of History. - This theory of history shows that the change which preceeds all changes in the superstructure of society, in politics, morals, laws, religions, etc., is a change in the economic foundations of society, "the means and methods of wealth production and distribution." If the reader possesses a copy of Marx's Critique, he will find, on pp. 11, 12, the basis of this theory stated. It is only the workers who dare accept this theory of history, for the evolutionary forces are now on our side. Capitalism having solved the problem of production is now a fetter, and it has brought into existence its grave-diggers. This theory is the tool which we shall consciously apply in our industrial history studies, and not only will it help us to explain past history, but it will enable us to make it in the future.

The following pamplets will furnish interesting light upon this conception of history:- Socialism: Utopian and Scientific(Engels). 2d. S.L.P. Historical Materialism (Engels). 2d. The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels). 2d. Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History (Kautsky. 1s. 6d.)