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Fourth International, April 1942


Franz Mehring

On the Method of Marxism


From Fourth International, vol.3 No.4, April 1942, p.125.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


We have the right to assert that historical materialism already has a firm and unshakable foundation. But we do not mean to say by this that all of the results we have hitherto achieved on the basis of historical materialism no longer require to be defended. Nor do we mean to say by this that the theory of historical materialism is already definitively completed and that there is nothing more to be done in this sphere.

Cases can be cited of the abuse of historical materialism along with other cases of reducing it to banalities – and this has led to distortions as does every banality in the study of history. And even in cases where the theory of historical materialism is applied correctly as a method of analyzing history, a great deal depends on the measure of talent and training at the disposal of those who take this method as their guide; a great deal likewise depends on the quantity and nature of material at their disposal. This is, in the nature of things, self-evident; because in the field of historical sciences a mathematically exact method of proof is impossible of achievement. Whoever looks for proof of the inadequacy of the materialist method of historical analysis in these seeming “contradictions” can very well be left in peace by us: let him amuse himself. Intelligent people can only be spurred by such kind of “contradictions” to occupy themselves with the study: which one of the investigators who contradict one another has done his work more painstakingly and fundamentally. And in this way, precisely thanks to these “contradictions,” our method can only gain in clarity and reliability both in application as well as the results gained.

There still remains a vast amount of labor for historical materialism to perform in clarifying the history of mankind in its manifold branches. However, on the soil of bourgeois society, historical materialism is not destined to unfold all of its power inasmuch as its ever growing strength runs directly counter to this society. It is of course a pleasant thing to recognize that the most conscientious bourgeois historians feel themselves to a certain extent influenced by historical materialism ... However this influence has its limits. So long as the bourgeoisie continues to exist as a class it cannot possibly renounce bourgeois ideology. Even Lamprecht, the most prominent representative of the so-called “economic-historical” school, begins his History of Germany not with an exposition of German economy but with a description of “German national consciousness.” Historical idealism in its various theological, rationalistic and naturalistic ramifications constitutes the historical method of the bourgeoisie, whereas historical materialism represents the historical outlook of the working class. Historical materialism will attain its full flowering only with the emancipation of the proletariat; only then will history become a science in the strict sense of the term; only then will history become what it has – always striven to be but has never been:; the guide and instructor of mankind. – Franz Mehring, On Historical Materialism

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