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The New International, March 1935


Rubin Gotesky

Marxism: Science or Method?

The Historical Limits of the Materialist Conception of History

From New International, Vol. II No. 2, March 1935, pp. 71–73.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


FROM DENYING that Marxism is a science, it is not difficult to jump to another startling conclusion that historical materialism is confined in its application only to class societies. Hook performs this additional feat with the agility of a trained acrobat. His argument takes this form. Historical materialism is the abstract methodological approach which the proletariat concretizes in terms of the class struggle of today. In this concrete form, it is actually the method by which the proletariat frees itself and all oppressed classes from the dehumanizing chains of capitalism. Its applicability, therefore, is necessarily restricted to the society in which there are contending classes, the class struggle. It can never apply to a society in which all classes have been annihilated at one blow, or liquidated as the result of a long, voluntary process. Beyond capitalism, in the classless society, man is no longer subjugated by economic circumstances, chained like a prisoner to economic process and laws; he is, as Henley poetically apostrophized, the master of his fate; nothing except “natural necessities” hamper the free activity of his highly cerebrated, spiritualized existence. The world, in short, is his oyster. How can anyone, with a proper conception of that world, think of explaining its “general character ... in terms of the economic relations in which human beings find themselves and by which they are controlled”? (p. 97). How can anyone insist that there is a tie-up between the cultural life of classless man and the economic relations in which he finds himself? This principle, therefore, Hook says, “of necessity, must be suspended in a collectivist society in which man makes his own history, in which the total product of labor-power, although not returned to the individual worker, is disbursed and reinvested for the good of the community ...” (p. 97). The picture drawn is very pretty. Who would want to deny it? Man, no longer subject to unknown economic forces beyond his control, no longer tossed upon the Procrustean bed of the class struggle, lives in the pure, mountain air, clear of the steel filings and cotton waste of production. But Hook makes his picture even prettier by scraping his intellectual bow, in one of his chapters, musically across the strings of the bull fiddle of tragedy. “Under communism,” he says, “man ceases to suffer as an animal and suffers as a human. He therefore moves from the plane of the pitiful to the plane of the tragic.” (p. 101.)

Hook, therefore, is giving as his reason for saying historical materialism can not apply beyond class societies, the ability of man to control economic forces. But by his definition of historical materialism he seems to imply another. If we had to deal solely with this particular definition, the task of disposing of Hook’s position would be simple. Unfortunately he says other things to complicate our task. According to him, historical materialism is the “theory which explains the social life in terms of the economic relations in which men find themselves or are controlled”. In the form it is expressed, it is far removed from Marx’s and Engels’ conception, for it fails to include the forces of production and the propagation of life. But even in this form, it does not exclude, as Hook presupposes, applicability to a classless society.

Economic relations can mean, without contradiction, two things:

  1. those relations growing out of the private ownership of the means of production, or
  2. those relations dependent upon the sharing of the products of labor without any private ownership of the means of production.

The first means the existence of classes, of oppressors and oppressed; the second, a classless or communist society. Neither is excluded by Hook’s definition; and so, even in its terms, historical materialism can apply to a classless society.

Still, to take this definition as Hook’s complete understanding of historical materialism would not be to do him justice. In another place, (chap.XI, sec.3) Hook has a more adequate discussion, in which he approximates much more closely to the meaning of Marx and Engels. Here he distinguishes two aspects of the theory: the dynamic and the static. The dynamic phase is found in the productive forces of any society. These forces are responsible for deep and far-reaching changes, the appearance of new methods of production, new ideas, new developments in the fields of art and science. The static phase is found in the productive relations, in the private ownership of the means of production, in the distribution of the wealth of society. It is when the static and dynamic phases come into conflict that life and death struggles occur between classes.

Certainly to the superficial reader of Marx and Engels, it would seem as if Hook has here squeezed the essence of the materialist conception out of their combined writings. Who would dare deny that, for Marx and Engels, society grows or decays as a result of the contradictions which develop between the productive forces and productive relations of any social order? But how, on the basis of this generalization, can Hook uphold the theory that historical materialism is limited in application to class society? There can only be one other answer besides the one already mentioned: that productive relations are only expressed in the form of the private ownership of the means of production. [1]

There are, therefore, two arguments for Hook’s position:

  1. that historical materialism only applies where man cannot control economic forces; or
  2. that productive relations are only expressed in the form of the private ownership of the means of production.


The first proposition rests upon the indisputable truism that capitalism is unable to plan or control its economic destiny; that all class societies, up till now, have been unable to plan or control production. This inability of man to control his economic circumstances ends, however, with the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Society, then, can be planned and controlled, and man is no longer the victim of his environment. The opposite now becomes true: the environment is his slave, a reluctant and dangerous slave, perhaps, but a slave nevertheless. But according to Hook, where control exists, there historical materialism cannot apply. The proletarian dictatorship, therefore, finds itself theoretically in a very unique position. Historical materialism is applicable to the capitalist world around it and to its relation to that world, but within the dictatorship, it has to discover an entirely new method of historical analysis.

Contemporary facts might seem to substantiate the correctness of Hook’s position. The Stalintern has repudiated, if not openly, than in actuality, the basic theories of Marxism. It has invented the theories of socialism in one country; the united front only from below; social-Fascism; the independent revolutionary character of the peasantry; and party art and science. These new theories cannot be built on the foundation of the materialist method, for they are, in essence, a repudiation of it. Yet why does Hook agree with us that these theories, because they are non-Marxian, constitute a perpetual danger to the Soviet state as well as the world proletariat? Why should he agree with us, in insisting that the best defense for the workers’ state is a return to revolutionary Marxism, in short, to the materialist method? Why does he not repudiate our criticism as slanderous and counter-revolutionary? Ought he not to do honor to this bureaucracy for being the first to see, one-sidedly, in contradistinction to old-type Marxists like Lenin and Trotsky, that the proletarian state needed an entirely different method of analysis, and, therefore, evolved the theory of socialism in one country as the only solution for the problems facing a proletarian dictatorship?

Ought he not, in actuality, to agree with Brandler and Lovestone? These men may not have clarified for themselves the basic principle upon which their theories rest, but, in essence, they are putting into practise his principle. They say socialism in one country is the right theory for the Soviet Union; it is the world-shaking, never-to-be-forgotten contribution of Stalin to the theory of the working class. But it has its limitations, its geographical boundaries. All other theories, logically developed from this basic conception, cannot be applied to the rest of the world, because it is capitalist. To the rest of the world, the old-fashioned Marxian theories of democratic centralism within the party, united front, world revolution, etc., still apply with unabated theoretical force.

Hook, however, will have nothing to do with such philistine reasoning. He knows that the theory of socialism in one country is not only the basic source of the internal difficulties of the Soviet Union, but it is also the reason for the continued defeats of the proletariat of the world. He knows it has no firm scientific basis; that those who accept it find their important conclusions always in contradiction with the actual facts; that it destroys the possibility of any correct interpretation of social trends or proper preparation for the tasks of tomorrow.

Hook, too, if he were asked to explain the curious situation of a proletarian state officially upholding doctrines which are non-Marxian, in essence, would not give as his reason: the inapplicability of the materialist conception to a controlled society; instead he would make it very clear that no one can possibly understand the development of social theories in the Soviet Union, without considering the economic basis, the productive relations, the level of economic development, the relations of various sections or strata of a class to each other, etc.

Let us try, then, to put Hook’s advice into practise and see how the materialist method helps to explain, even in a controlled society, the existence of an ideology in contradiction with its fundamental interests.

One of the fundamental presuppositions of the materialist method is that the predominant political theories of a society are the theories of the ruling class. In the Soviet Union, the proletariat is the ruling class; and yet its fundamental principles, its ideology – Marxism – are, in practise, distorted and corrupted. How explain this? It is a second principle of the materialist method that every class is not a homogeneous, completely integrated mass; it is divided into groups, the members of which are tied together by the fact that they perform a special function for the social order. These functions are also the basis for the development of special interests peculiar only to a given group. These special interests, therefore, are often the causes for groups coming into conflict with each other. At these critical moments of difference, each group tries to impose ideas on the others, which may be only to its own interests, or, despite the failure to recognize them as such, to the interests of all concerned. When theories are accepted which are apparently in disagreement with the accepted conceptions of a given ruling class, it is necessary, then, to look for the particular groups within that class who do play, because of their social function, a significant role in the formation of policy. Such groups are nearly always distinguished by the fact that they are better taken care of economically; they are granted special social privileges, like the use of state automobiles, not permitted to the ordinary members; and finally, they show in manner and behavior the important role they are required to play in that society.

In the Soviet Union, one particular group stands out as possessing all of these characteristics: the bureaucracy. It has become so important that even the communist party is subordinate to it. Through its leader, Stalin, the bureaucracy dictates the policy of the Soviet Union to the party; and the party masses accept it, without daring to disagree. This bureaucracy was responsible for the theory of socialism in one country, as well as all the other theoretical caricatures of Marxism.

We have reached the center of our problem: to seek those social factors which would explain not only the extraordinary power of the bureaucracy today, but also why it had to pervert Marxism.

A bureaucracy in modern society is an absolute necessity, for it performs the very essential function of managing the social order. And so, the proletariat sets up one composed of a selection from its members of those it considers best suited for the task.

One may say the bureaucracy is an evil, but it is a necessary evil which no society can do without. But as Robert Michels long ago pointed out, its existence, however necessary and important, often bring abuses in its train. [2] To prevent these abuses from flowering into great blossoms of evil, a society or class must ever be on its guard against the violation, by its bureaucracy, of what it has come to consider its fundamental rights. Often however, special historical conditions may require that society or class to give up these rights temporarily, or may actually prevent either from maintaining them.

In the Soviet Union, special historical conditions existed which made it possible for the bureaucracy to usurp great and absolute powers for itself and abrogate the fundamental rights of the masses. The first of these conditions was the economic backwardness of Russia. Its economic backwardness meant, of course, an economic poverty that would take years to eradicate. The bureaucracy, which increased in numbers at a very rapid rate, was given economic privileges that made its standard of living far superior to the subsistence level of the majority of the proletariat and peasantry. Many of the bureaucrats also became members of the party, because of the advantages attached, the possibility, for instance, of achieving very high positions in the management of industry and agriculture. Fearful of extreme poverty, and made pessimistic by the long span of time necessary to build a highly industrialized society, the bureaucracy became extremely anxious to retain its special privileges and advantages. Therefore, it turned conservative, afraid of innovations which might possibly upset the social balance to its disadvantage, a turn characteristic of every bureaucracy under similar circumstances. Naturally, its conservatism was molded in its character by the pressure and form of the proletarian state. In other words, it had to use the language of Marxism, and shape existing institutions to its purpose, in order to protect and defend itself.

The second condition was the defeat suffered by the German workers in 1923. Terribly frightened, the bureaucracy saw its own existence threatened by the immanent possibility of a capitalist attack. From that time on, it rang the changes, in and out of season, of capitalist intervention. Out of this fear, which meant, on the one hand, a lack of faith in the world proletariat, and on the other, exaggerated ideas of the power of the bourgeoisie, grew the theory of socialism in one country. This theory, in substance, said that the major task of the world proletariat was not making the world revolution, but aiding the Soviet Union in the building of a classless society within its geographic boundaries.

The third factor was the peasantry. After the civil war, the NEP was inaugurated as a means of restoring the destroyed economic foundation. The NEP brought economic revival, but also certain very great dangers, one from the side of the peasantry who were rapidly being differentiated into rich and poor; the other, from increasing unemployment among the proletariat. Both together meant the possibility of counter-revolution.

During the years of the NEP, the bureaucracy leaned invariably on the peasantry because it was the source of all good things. Criticism by the workers was retaliated with the loss of jobs, for the reserve army of the unemployed could always replace those who were fired. Thus bureaucratic intimidation and the constant fear of starvation reduced the proletariat, already exhausted by the revolution and the civil war, to an effective silence and passivity. During this period the corruption and incompetence of the bureaucracy exceeded all bounds.

Naturally, within the party itself – the domain within which all differences, at first, were fought out – there sprang up different factions who expressed, in more or less complete ideological form, the reactions of different strata of the proletariat and of other classes to social developments at home and abroad. One section, the Right, expressed the influence of the peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie upon it; another section, the Left, the interests of the proletariat, as a whole; a middle section, Centrist in character, the special needs of the bureaucracy within the Soviet dictatorship. The bureaucracy had no need to fear the Right, which was even more conservative than itself. Therefore, it used the Right with whom it was broadly in agreement to deadly purpose in reducing the Left to a state of impotence. The bureaucratization of the party, the reformulation – in essence, the destruction – of the fundamental principles of democratic centralism within the party, was the basic prerequisite for the success of the bureaucracy. It accomplished this task, with the aid of the Right, by methods known to bureaucrats the world over.

The fourth and last condition which assured the victory of the bureaucracy was the continued defeats of the world proletariat after 1923. [3] Though the defeats followed from the completely false evaluation and falsified Marxism of the Right and Center, the Soviet and international press was used to explain away these defeats, suppress the documents of the Left Opposition, and finally to expel the Left in 1927. After that, the bureaucracy had an easy time reducing the Right to impotence in the Soviet Union and expelling them abroad. [4]

We see, then, that the materialist method is as adequate for explaining the contradictory character of the theories of a controlled society as it is in explaining the developments of capitalism. And if the Left Opposition had not used this method, it would not have exposed to the Russian proletariat its danger, or forced the bureaucracy to carry out, however belated and distorted, policies which saved the Soviet Union from utter destruction from within; even though historical conditions were such that it could not be the instrument for carrying out the correct policy.

Nevertheless are we not arguing against a straw man? Hook was speaking of the classless society, not of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is still a class society even though transitional in character? The objection is absurd, as is easily shown. If it is assumed that the dictatorship, because it is a class society, can be explained by historical materialism, then it follows, from our original hypothesis, that it has no control over economic forces. But it can control them; there is a planned economy in the Soviet Union; therefore two things follow:

  1. it is not a class society, and
  2. historical materialism cannot explain it.

The dictatorship, nevertheless, is a class society, even though transitional in character; therefore, this truth contradicts the assertion that no class society can be controlled. Finally, since historical materialism is actually applicable to a controlled society, it invalidates completely Hook’s first argument. It must be admitted that actual control over economic forces does not involve repudiation of historical materialism.



1. p. 142. The social relations of production, which are synonymous with the expressions “the property relations”, and “the economic foundation of culture ...” (My italics.)

2. Michels goes further and generalizes his discovery into an inalienable law of society which he calls the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Hook, pointing out the basic shortcoming of the Swiss professor’s analysis; a failure to consider adequately the social and economic factors which make, not only for the appearance of abuses, but also for their disappearance. (Vide, Hook, pp. 311ff.)

3. See Draft Program, Strategy of the World Revolution, Problems of the Chinese Revolution, by Leon Trotsky. Pioneer Publishers.

4. Those who follow world and Soviet events know that the day of judgment for the bureaucracy must come. The proletariat will not allow it to retain irresponsibly the seat of power forever. Already signs of this are manifest in the regrettable Kirov affair. The secrecy of the trials, the youth of the communists supposedly complicit in the crime, the actual complicity of the GPU, the positive stupidity of the arguments and the fraudulence of the evidence used in an attempt to involve Leon Trotsky, and even the recent turn to the Right – the doing away with bread rations, the parliamentary reforms shortly to be instituted which are intended to increase the voting strength of the peasantry – all indicate an attempt on the part of the bureaucracy, a desperate attempt, to avoid the fatal day of reckoning by resting its weight upon the peasants.

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