MIA: Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms



Hic Rhodus, hic saltus!

Latin, usually translated: “Rhodes is here, here is where you jump!”

The well-known but little understood maxim originates from the traditional Latin translation of the punchline from Aesop’s fable The Boastful Athlete which has been the subject of some mistranslations.

In Greek, the maxim reads:

“ιδού η ρόδος,
ιδού και το πήδημα”

The story is that an athlete boasts that when in Rhodes, he performed a stupendous jump, and that there were witnesses who could back up his story. A bystander then remarked, ‘Alright! Let’s say this is Rhodes, demonstrate the jump here and now.’ The fable shows that people must be known by their deeds, not by their own claims for themselves. In the context in which Hegel uses it, this could be taken to mean that the philosophy of right must have to do with the actuality of modern society (“What is rational is real; what is real is rational”), not the theories and ideals that societies create for themselves, or some ideal counterposed to existing conditions: “To apprehend what is is the task of philosophy,” as Hegel goes on to say, rather than to “teach the world what it ought to be.”

The epigram is given by Hegel first in Greek, then in Latin (in the form “Hic Rhodus, hic saltus”), in the Preface to the Philosophy of Right, and he then says: “With little change, the above saying would read (in German): “Hier ist die Rose, hier tanze”:

“Here is the rose, dance here”

This is taken to be an allusion to the ‘rose in the cross’ of the Rosicrucians (who claimed to possess esoteric knowledge with which they could transform social life), implying that the material for understanding and changing society is given in society itself, not in some other-worldly theory, punning first on the Greek (Rhodos = Rhodes, rhodon = rose), then on the Latin (saltus = jump [noun], salta = dance [imperative]).

In 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx quotes the maxim, first giving the Latin, in the form:

“Hic Rhodus, hic salta!”,

— a garbled mixture of Hegel’s two versions (salta = dance! instead of saltus = jump), and then immediately adds: “Hier ist die Rose, hier tanze!”, as if it were a translation, which it cannot be, since Greek Rhodos, let alone Latin Rhodus, does not mean “rose”. But Marx does seem to have retained Hegel’s meaning, as it is used in the observation that, overawed by the enormity of their task, people do not act until:

“a situation is created which makes all turning back impossible,
and the conditions themselves call out: Here is the rose, here dance!.”

and one is reminded of Marx’s maxim in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy:

“Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation!.”

So Marx evidently supports Hegel's advice that we should not “teach the world what it ought to be”, but he is giving a more active spin than Hegel would when he closes the Preface observing:

“For such a purpose philosophy at least always comes too late. ...
The owl of Minerva, takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering.”

Marx also uses the phrase, but with salta instead of saltus, but with more or less the meaning intended by Aesop in Chapter 5 of Capital.

Thanks to Isaiah Berlin Virtual Library


History Repeats Itself?

Marx never believed that “history repeats itself,” but in a famous quote he said:

“Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.” [Marx, 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonapatre, Chapter 1.]

This seems to come from Engels’ letter to Marx of 3 December 1851:

“it really seems as though old Hegel, in the guise of the World Spirit, were directing history from the grave and, with the greatest conscientiousness, causing everything to be re-enacted twice over, once as grand tragedy and the second time as rotten farce, Caussidière for Danton, L. Blanc for Robespierre, Barthélemy for Saint-Just, Flocon for Carnot, and the moon-calf together with the first available dozen debt-encumbered lieutenants for the little corporal and his band of marshals. Thus the 18th Brumaire would already be upon us.”

– words quoted almost verbatim by Marx in Eighteenth of Louis Bonapartre.

Marx makes similar points in Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Introduction.

Possible sources in Hegel are The Philosophy of Right, §347 and The Philosophy of History, §32-33 though another version of this work published as Introduction to The Philosophy of History, published in 1837, said:

“A coup d’état is sanctioned as it were in the opinion of the people if it is repeated. Thus, Napoleon was defeated twice and twice the Bourbons were driven out. Through repetition, what at the beginning seemed to be merely accidental and possible, becomes real and established.”

but this is hardly the point being made by Marx. See The Philosophy of History, where Hegel contrasts Nature, where “there is nothing new under the Sun,” with History where there is always Development.


Historical Materialism

"This conception of history depends on our ability to expound the real process of production, starting out from the material production of life itself, and to comprehend the form of intercourse connected with this and created by this mode of production (i.e. civil society in its various stages), as the basis of all history; describing it in its action as the state, and to explain all the different theoretical products and forms of consciousness, religion, philosophy, ethics, etc. etc. arise from it, and trace their origins and growth from that basis. Thus the whole thing can, of course, be depicted in its totality (and therefore, too, the reciprocal action of these various sides on one another).

"It has not, like the idealistic view of history, in every period to look for a category [eg. measuring periods of history in accordance to certain ideas], but remains constantly on the real ground of history; it does not explain practice from the idea but explains the formation of ideas from material practice. Accordingly it comes to the conclusion that all forms and products of consciousness cannot be dissolved by mental criticism, by resolution into "self-consciousness" or transformation into "apparitions", "spectres", "whims", etc. but only by the practical overthrow of the actual social relations which gave rise to this idealistic humbug; that not criticism but revolution is the driving force of history, also of religion, of philosophy and all other types of theory.

"It shows that history does not end by being resolved into "self-consciousness as spirit of the spirit", but that in it at each stage there is found a material result: a sum of productive forces, an historically created relation of individuals to nature and to one another, which is handed down to each generation from its predecessor; a mass of productive forces, capital funds and conditions, which, on the one hand, is indeed modified by the new generation, but also on the other prescribes for it its conditions of life and gives it a definite development, a special character. It shows that circumstances make men just as much as men make circumstances.

Karl Marx
The German Ideology
Chpt 2: Civil Society and the Conception of History

"The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature."

"Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly producing their actual material life.

"The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions determining their production.

Karl Marx
The German Ideology
Chpt 1: Idealism and Materialism

"At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.

"No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the tasks itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation.

Karl Marx
Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy

This concept is founded on Dialectical Materialism applied to history. Another name for the "materialist conception of history" formulated by Marx and Engels, 'Historical Materialism' was coined by Engels, and later popularised by Kautsky and Plekhanov.

See Also: Class struggle

Further Reading: Marx/Engels subject index: On Historical Materialism



[Humans] must be in a position to live in order to be able to "make history". But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation, clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain human life.

The second point is that the satisfaction of the first need (the action of satisfying, and the instrument of satisfaction which has been acquired) leads to new needs; and this production of new needs is the first historical act.

The third circumstance which, from the very outset, enters into historical development, is that [humans], who daily remake their own life, begin to make other [humans], to propagate their kind: the relation between man and woman, parents and children, the family. The family, which to begin with is the only social relationship, becomes later, when increased needs create new social relations and the increased population new needs, a subordinate one, and must then be treated and analysed according to the existing empirical data... These three aspects of social activity are not of course to be taken as three different stages, but just as three aspects... which have existed simultaneously since the dawn of history and the first [humans], and which still assert themselves in history today.

The production of life, both of one's own in labour and of fresh life in procreation, now appears as a double relationship: on the one hand as a natural, on the other as a social relationship. By social we understand the co-operation of several individuals, no matter under what conditions, in what manner and to what end. It follows from this that a certain mode of production, or industrial stage, is always combined with a certain mode of co-operation, or social stage, and this mode of co-operation is itself a "productive force". Further, that the multitude of productive forces accessible to [humans] determines the nature of society, hence, that the "history of humanity" must always be studied and treated in relation to the history of industry and exchange.

In history up to the present it is certainly an empirical fact that separate individuals have, with the broadening of their activity into world-historical activity, become more and more enslaved under a power alien to them (a pressure which they have conceived of as a dirty trick on the part of the so-called universal spirit, etc.), a power which has become more and more enormous and, in the last instance, turns out to be the world market. But it is just as empirically established that, by the overthrow of the existing state of society by the communist revolution (of which more below) and the abolition of private property which is identical with it, this power, which so baffles the German theoreticians, will be dissolved; and that then the liberation of each single individual will be accomplished in the measure in which history becomes transformed into world history.

Slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. "Liberation" is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture...

German Ideology, Chpt. 1, Marx and Engels

The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle... political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary.

In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant — the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed... an aggregate mean, a common resultant... each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it.

Engels to J. Bloch In Königsberg

History is the science and art of story telling past recorded events based on a critical examination of source materials. The bias of any history principally begins with the historian's philosophical premises, and the range and quality of source materials available.

One broad example of historical bias can be found simply in the subject of history — from the historian who details events of kings and queens, presidents and premiers, implicitly positing that history is primarily about leaders rather than the life of the masses.

"[People] make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like an nightmare on the brains of the living."

Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, by Karl Marx

The Marxist study of history seeks both the elucidate the conditions, and first and foremost the material conditions under which historical struggles are fought, and then to identify the agents who make history. For Marxists, the agents or "subjects" of history are not focused only on the prominent individuals whose voices speak the aims and consciousness of the masses, nor on masses of people trapped by circumstance, and nor on the ideas which animate people; but specific unities of all three. The "subjects of history" are self-conscious masses of people, whose ideas and aims are inherited from the past and given new form in the voices of individual spokespersons and leaders. No one of these three aspects of an historical subject can be active without the others: a mass of people without organisation and without a consciousness of its own demands cannot make history, and nor can a "leader" who does not voice the aspirations of masses. The subjects of history are not the "forces of production" nor the "laws of history," but instead people make history always acting under certain material and spiritual conditions. It is these conditions and how people sought to change them which give meaning to the stories that are told in history.

Regardless of their philosophical premises, historians must invariably exhibit the influence of a set of ideas or moral lessons that can be derived from their presentation of history: for example, the great Chinese historian Ssu-ma Ch'ien often interlaced his historical work with Taoist morality and support for a certain practice of dialectics by introducing conflicting historical lessons.

The source material of history take three distinct forms: primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.

A primary source is concrete evidence created by a participant, subject, or observer of an event. Primary sources can take different forms, some of which are more reliable than others. For example: a reporter's dispatch in the heat of a revolution, versus the memoirs of the former ruler written decades later; a photograph versus an impassioned painter. Primary sources closest to the events, and generally considered most reliable, take the form of artifacts, photographs, audio or video recordings, and other media which allow for less bias than other forms.

Second in ranking in terms of reliability can be found in journals, books, magazine and newspaper articles, speeches, interviews, surveys, letters, memos, and manuscripts. While each of these always present varying levels of bias, scope and interpretation, they represent the real, existing bias of that participant at the time. Thus, in a "true" canvassing of history, primary sources from a variety of positions are necessary.

Lastly, memoirs and autobiographies generally introduce more bias and revisionism than works recorded at the time, due to fading memories and recent developments. Meanwhile, government and organisational records and statistics are a mixed bag, but generally help to provide an overall baseline of existing conditions.

A secondary source is a historical work that interprets or analyzes historical events without having any direct connection to that event, but that largely bases itself on primary sources. An Encyclopedia is the best example of a secondary source that aims to be an objective summation of primary sources, while the diligent and dedicated historian also produces secondary sources for the purpose of shedding light on, and enabling an easier digestion of, primary source material.

The last category of history is the tertiary source, and these works mainly rely on secondary sources or on other tertiary sources, to tell their story of history. "Popular" and strongly opinionated histories often take this form. These forms of history are the farthest removed from evidence of the events they describe, and make up the most common type of history.

Hegelian Theory: Hegel divided history into three primary methods:

(1) Original History: where the historian directly expresses the spirit of their own age in writing about it; e.g. "We inflicted a glorious victory over the barbarians today".

(2) Reflective History: the historian tells of a given time from outside of that time. Reflective History is divided into:

(a) Universal History: the historian tells the story of an entire people, but as if one and the same consciousness pervaded all the actors throughout; e.g. "The puritans came to America to find Freedom."

(b) Pragmatical History: the historian sets out to draw from the past lessons for the present, as if all the events of the past were played out under the same conditions, with more or less success; e.g. "The good guy always loses."

(c) Critical History: this is the rewriting of history in the light of understanding that was only attained by the author afterwards; e.g. "The nation was not truly socialist."

(d) Particular History: the history of particular aspects of life, such as Art, Science, etc, which brings out an aspect of the changing consciousness of people and culture (Classical art, impressionism, cubism, etc).

(3) Philosophic History: "the thoughtful consideration of history", in which the writer traces the unfolding of the changing culture and ways of life of each time or nation.

Philosophy of History, Hegel