Benedetto Croce

Historical Materialism and the Economics of Karl Marx

CHAPTER II. Concerning Historical Materialism Viewed as a Science of Social Economics

The attentive reader of Professor Stammler's book, (1) realises at the outset that it treats of the materialistic theory of history not as a fruitful guide to the interpretation of historical fact, but as a science or philosophy of society.

A number of attempts have been made, based in the first instance on Marx's statements, to build up on these statements a general theory of history or of society. It is on these attempts then, and not on the least bold amongst them, that Stammler bases his work, making them the starting point of his criticism and reconstruction. It may be precisely on this account that he chooses to discuss historical materialism in the form given to it by Engels, – which he calls the most complete, the authentic(!) statement of the principles of social materialism. He prefers this form to that of Marx, which he thinks too disconnected; and which is, indeed, less easily reduced to abstract generalities; whereas Engels was one of the first to give to historical materialism a meaning more important than its original one. To Engels, also, as is well known, is due the very name materialism as applied to this view of history.

We cannot, indeed, deny that the materialistic view of history has in fact developed in two directions, distinct in kind if not in practice, viz.: (1) a movement relating to the writing of history, and (2) a science and philosophy of society. Hence there is no ground for objecting to Stammler's procedure, when he confines himself to this second problem, and takes it up at the point to which he thinks that the followers of historical materialism have brought it. But it should be clearly pointed out that he does not concern himself at all with the problems of historical method. He leaves out of account that is, what, for some people – and for me amongst them – is the side of this movement of thought which is of living and scientific interest.

Professor Stammler remarks how in the propositions employed by the believers in historical materialism: 'the economic factor dominates the other factors of social life,' 'the economic factor is fundamental and the others are dependent,' and the like, the concept economic has never been defined. He is justified in making this remark, and in attaching the greatest importance to it, if he regards and interprets those propositions as assertions of laws, as strict propositions of social science. To use as essential in statements of this kind, a concept which could neither be defined nor explained, and which therefore remained a mere word, would indeed be somewhat odd. But his remark is entirely irrelevant when these propositions are understood as: 'summaries of empirical observations, by the help of which concrete social facts may be explained.' I do not think that any sensible person has ever expected to find in those expressions an accurate and philosophical definition of concepts; yet all sensible people readily understand to what class of facts they refer. The word economic here, as in ordinary language, corresponds, not to a concept, but to a group of rather diverse representations, some of which are not even qualitative in content, but quantitative. When it is asserted, that in interpreting history we must look chiefly at the economic factors, we think at once of technical conditions, of the distribution of wealth, of classes and sub-classes bound together by definite common interests, and so on. It is true these different representations cannot be reduced to a single concept, but no matter, there is no question of that: here we are in an entirely different sphere from that in which abstract questions are discussed.

This point is not without interest and may be explained more in detail. If economic be understood in its strict sense, for example, in the sense in which it is employed in pure economics, i.e., if by it be meant the axiom according to which all men seek the greatest satisfaction with the least possible effort, it is plain that to say that this factor plays a part (essential, dominant, or equal to that of the others) in social life, would tell us nothing concrete. The economic axiom is a very general and purely a formal principle of conduct. It is inconceivable that anyone should act without applying, well or ill, the very principle of every action, i.e., the economic principle. Worse still if economic be taken in the sense which, as we shall see, Professor Stammler gives to it. He understands by this word: 'all concrete social facts'; in which sense it would at once become absurd to assert that the economic factor, i.e., all social-facts in the concrete dominated, a part of these facts! Thus in order to give a meaning to the word economic in this proposition, it is necessary to leave the abstract and formal; to assign definite ends to human action; to have in mind an 'historical man,' or rather the average man of history, or of a longer or shorter period of history; to think, for example, of the need for bread, for clothes, for sexual relations, for the so-called moral satisfactions, esteem, vanity, power and so on. The phrase economic factor now refers to groups of concrete facts, which are built up in common speech, and which have been better defined from the actual application made of the above-mentioned propositions in historical narrative and in the practical programmes of Marx and his followers.

In the main, this is recognised by Professor Stammler himself when he gives an admirable explanation of the current meaning of the expressions: economic facts and political facts, revolutions more political than economic and vice versa. Such distinctions, he says, can only be understood in the concrete, in reference to the aims pursued by the different sections of society, and to the special problems of social life. According to him, however, Marx's work does not deal with such trifling matters: as, for instance, that so-called economic life influences ideas, science, art and so on: old lumber of little consequence. Just as philosophical materialism does not consist in the assertion that bodily facts have an influence over spiritual, but rather in the making of these latter a mere appearance, without reality, of the former: so historical materialism must consist in asserting that economics is the true reality and that law is a fallacious appearance.

But, with all deference to Professor Stammler, we believe that these trifling matters, to which he contemptuously refers, are precisely what are dealt with in Marx's propositions; and, moreover, we think them neither so trifling nor of such little consequence. Hence Professor Stammler's book does not appear to us a criticism of the most vital part of historical materialism, viz., of a movement or school of historians. The criticism of history is made by history; and historical materialism is history made or in the making.

Nor does it provide the starting point for a criticism of socialism, as the programme of a definite social movement. Stammler deceives himself when he thinks that socialism is based on the materialistic philosophy of history as he expounds it: on which philosophy are based, on the contrary, the illusions and caprices of some or of many socialists. Socialism cannot depend on an abstract sociological theory, since the basis would be inadequate precisely because it was abstract; nor can it depend on a philosophy of history as rhythmical or of little stability, because the basis would be transitory. On the contrary, it is a complex fact and results from different elements; and, so tar as concerns history, socialism does not presuppose a philosophy of history, but an historical conception determined by the existing conditions of society and the manner in which this has come about. If we put on one side the doctrines superimposed subsequently, and read again Marx s pages without prejudice, we shall then see that he had, at bottom, no other meaning when he referred to history as one of the factors justifying socialism.

'The necessity for the socialization of the means of production is not proved scientifically.' Stammler means that the concept of necessity as employed by many Marxians, is erroneous; that the denial of teleology is absurd, and that hence the assertion of the socialization of the means of production as the social programme is not logically accounted for. This does not hinder this assertion from being possibly quite true. Either because, in addition to logical demonstrations there are fortunate intuitions, or because a conclusion can be true although derived from a false premise: it suffices, obviously, that there should be two errors which cancel one another. And this would be so in our case. The denial of teleology; the tacit acceptance of this same teleology: here is a method scientifically in. correct with a conclusion that may be valid. It remains to examine the whole tissue of experiences, deductions, aspirations and forecasts in which socialism really consists; and over which Stammler passes indifferently, content to have brought to light an error in the philosophical statement of a remote postulate, an error which some, or it may be many, of the supporters and politicians of socialism commit.

All these reservations are needed in order to fix the scope of Stammler's investigation; but it would be a mistake to infer from them that we reject the starting point of the inquiry itself. Historical materialism says Professor Stammler has proved unable to give us a valid science of society: we, however, believe that this was not its main or original object. The two statements come practically to the same thing: the science of society is not contained in the literature of the materialistic theory. Professor Stammler adds that although historical materialism does not offer an acceptable social theory, it nevertheless gives a stimulus of the utmost intensity towards the formation of such a theory. This seems to us a matter of merely individual psychology: suggestions and stimuli, as everyone knows, differ according to the mind that receives them. The literature of historical materialism has always aroused in us a desire to study history in the concrete, i.e., to reconstruct the actual historical process. In Professor Stammler, on the contrary, it arouses a desire to throw aside this meagre empirical history, and to work with abstractions in order to establish concepts and general points of view. The problems which he sets before himself, might be arrived at psychologically by many other paths.

There is a tendency, at present, to enlarge unduly the boundaries of social studies. But Stammler rightly claims a definite and special subject for what ought to be called social science; that is definite social data. Social science must include nothing which has not sociability as its determining cause. How can ethics ever be social science, since it is based on cases of conscience which evade all social rules? Custom is the social fact, not morality'. How can pure economics or technology ever be social science, since those concepts are equally applicable to the isolated individual and to societies? Thus in studying social data we shall see that, considered in general, they give rise to two distinct theories. The first theory regards the concept society from the causal standpoint; the second regards it from the teleological standpoint. Causality and teleology cannot be substituted the one for the other; but one forms the complement of the other.

If, then, we pass from the general and abstract to the concrete, we have society as existing in history. The study of the facts which develop in concrete society Stammler consigns to a science which he calls social (or political, or national) economics. From such facts may still be abstracted the mere form, i.e., the collection of rules supplied by history by which they are governed; and this may be studied independently of the matter. Thus we get jurisprudence, or the technical science of law; which is always bound up inseparably with a given actual historical material, which it works up by scientific method, endeavouring to give it unity and coherence. Finally, amongst social studies are also included those investigations which aim at judging and determining whether a given social order is as it ought to be; and whether attempts to preserve or change it are objectively justified. This section may be called that of practical social problems. By such definitions and divisions Professor Stammler exhausts every possible form of social study. Thus we should have the following scheme:

1. General Study of Society.
a. Causal.
b. Teleological.
2. Study of Concrete Society.
a. of the form (technical science of law).
b. of the matter (social economics).
c. of the possible (practical problems).

We believe that this table correctly represents his views, although given in our own way, and in words somewhat different from those used by him. A new treatment of the social sciences, the work of serious and keen ability, such as Stammler seems to possess, cannot fail to receive the earnest attention of all students of a subject which is still so vague and controversial. Let us examine it then section by section.

The first investigation relating to society, that concerned with causality, would be directed to solving the problem of the nature of society. Many definitions have been given of this up to the present: and none of them can be said to be generally accepted, or even to claim wide support. Stammler indeed, rejects, after criticism, the definitions of Spencer or Rümelin, which appear to him to be the most important and to be representative of all the others. Society is not an organism (Spencer), nor is it merely something opposed to legalised society (Rümelin): Society, says Stammler, is 'life lived by men in common, subject to rules which are externally binding.' These rules must be understood in a very wide sense, as all those which bind men living together to something which is satisfied by outward performance. They are divided, however, into two large classes: rules properly speaking legal, and rules of convention. The second class includes the precepts of propriety and of custom, the code of knightly honour, and so on. The distinctive test lies in the fact that the latter class are merely hypothetical, while the former are imposed without being desired by those subjected to them. The whole assemblage of rules, legal and conventional, Stammler calls social form. Under these rules, obeying them, limiting them and even breaking them men act in order to satisfy their desires; in this, and in this alone, human life consists. The assemblage of concrete facts which men produce when working together in society, i.e., under the assumption of social rules, Stammler calls social matter, or social economics. Rules, and actions under rules; these are the two elements of which every social datum consists. If the rules were lacking, we should be outside society; we should be animals or gods, as says the old proverb: if the actions were lacking there would remain only an empty form, built up hypothetically by thought, and no portion of which was actually real. Thus social life appears as a single fact: to separate its two constituent factors means either to destroy it, or to reduce it to empty form. The law governing changes within society cannot be found in something which is extra social; not in technique and discovery, nor in the workings of supposed natural laws, nor in the influence of great men, of mysterious racial and national spirit; but it must be sought in the very centre of the social fact itself. Hence it is wrong to speak of a causal bond between law and economics or vice versa: the relation between law and economics is that between the rule and the things ruled, not one of cause and effect. The determining cause of social movements and changes is then ultimately to be found in the actual working out of social rules, which precede such changes. This concrete working out, these actions accomplished wider rules, may produce (1) social mutations which are entirely quantitative (in the number of social facts of one or another kind); (2) mutations which are also qualitative, consisting that is in changes in the rules themselves. Hence the circle of social life: rules, social facts arising under them; ideas, opinions, desires, efforts resulting from the facts; changes in the rules. When and how this circle originated, that is to say when and how social life arose on the earth, is a question for history, which does not concern the theorist. Between social life and non-social life there are no gradations, theoretically there is a gulf. But as long as social life exists, there is no escape from the circle described above.

The form and matter of social life thus come into conflict, and from this conflict arises change. By what test can the issue of the conflict be decided? To appeal to facts, to invent a causal necessity which may agree with some ideal necessity is absurd. In addition to the law of social causality, which has been expounded, there must be a law of ends and ideals, i.e., a social teleologic. According to Stammler, historical materialism identifies, nor would it be the only theory to attempt such an identification, causality and teleology; but it, too, cannot escape from the logical contradictions which such assertions contain. Much praise has been given to that section of Professor Stammler's book in which he shows how teleological assumptions are constantly implied by historical materialism in all its assertions of a practical nature. But we confess that the discovery seems to us exceedingly easy, not to be compared to that of Columbus about the egg. Here again we must point out that the pivot of the Marxian doctrine lies in the practical problem and not in the abstract theory. The denial of finality is, at bottom, the denial of a merely subjective and peculiar finality. And here, too, although the criticism as applied to historical materialism seems to us hardly accurate, we agree with Stammler's conclusion, i.e., that it is necessary to construct, or better to reconstruct, with fresh material, a theory of social teleology.

Let us omit, for the present, an examination of Stammler's construction of teleology, which includes some very fine passages (e.g. the criticism of the anarchist doctrine) and ask instead: What is this social science of Stammler, of which we have stated the striking and characteristic features? The reader will have little difficulty in discovering that the second investigation, that concerning social teleology, is nothing but a modernised philosophy of law. And the first? Is it that long desired and hitherto vainly sought general sociology? Does it give us a new and acceptable concept of society? To us it appears evident that the first investigation is nothing but a formal science of law. In it Professor Stammler studies law as a fact, and hence he cannot find it except in societal subjected to rules imposed from without. In the second, he studies law as an ideal and constructs the philosophy (imperative) of law. We are not here questioning the value of the investigation, but its nature. The present writer is convinced that social data leave no place for en abstract independent science. Society is a living together; the kind of phenomena which appear in this life together is the concern of descriptive history. But it is perfectly possible to study this life together from a given point of view, e.g., from the legal point of view, or, in general, from that of the legal and nonlegal rules to which it can be subjected; and this Stammler has done. And, in so doing, he has examined the nature of law, separating the concrete individual laws and the ideal type of law; which he has then studied apart. This is the reason why Stammler's investigation seems to us a truly scientific investigation and very well carried out, but not an abstract end general science of society. Such a science is for us inconceivable, just as a formal science of law is, on the contrary, perfectly conceivable.

As to the second investigation, that concerning teleology, there would be some difficulty in including it in the number of sciences if it be admitted that ideals are not subjects for science. But here Professor Stammler himself comes to our assistance by assigning the foundation of social teleology to philosophy, which he defines as the science of the True and of the Good, the science of the Absolute, and understands in a non-formal sense.

Professor Stammler speaks readily of a monism of the social life, and accepts as suitable and accurate the name materialism as applied to Marx's conception of history, and connects this materialism with metaphysical materialism, applying to it also Lange's statement, viz., that 'materialism may be the first and lowest step of philosophy, but it is also the most substantial and solid.' For him historical materialism offers truth, but not the whole truth, since it regards as real the matter only and not the form of social life; hence the necessity of completing it by restoring the form to its place, and fixing the relation between form and matter, combining the two in the unity of social life. We doubt whether Engels and his followers ever understood the phrase social materialism in the sense which Stammler assigns to it. The parallel drawn between it and metaphysical materialism seems to us somewhat arbitrary.

We come to the group of concrete sciences, i.e., those which have for their subject society as given in history. No one who has had occasion to consider the problem of the classification of the sciences, will be inclined to give the character of independent and autonomous sciences to studies of the practical problems of this or that society, and to jurisprudence, and the technical study of law. This latter is only an interpretation or explanation of a given existing legal system, made either for practical reasons, or as simple historical knowledge. But what we think merits attention more than these questions of terminology and classification, is the conception of social economics, advanced by Stammler; of the second, that is, of the concrete social sciences, enumerated above. The difficulties arising out of this conception are more serious, and centre on the following points; whether it is a new and valid conception, or whether it should be reduced to something already known; or finally whether it is not actually erroneous.

Stammler holds forth at length against economics regarded as a science in itself, which has its own laws and which has its source in an original and irreducible economic principle. It is a mistake, he says, to put forward an abstract economic science and subdivide it into economic science relating to the individual and social economic science. There is no ground of union between these two sciences, because the economics of the isolated individual offers us only concepts which are dealt with by the natural sciences and by technology, and is nothing but an assemblage of simple natural observations, explained by means of physiology and individual psychology. Social economics, on the other hand, offers the peculiar and characteristic conditions of the externally binding rules, wider which activities develop. And what can an economic principle be if not a hypothetical maxim: the man who wishes to secure this or that object of subjective satisfaction must employ these or those means, 'a maxim which is more or less generally obeyed, and sometimes violated'? The dilemma lies then between the natural and technological consideration and the social one: there is no third thing. 'Ein Drittes ist nicht da!' This Stammler frequently reiterates, and always in the same words. But the dilemma (whose unfortunate inspiration he owes to Kant) does not hold, it is a case of a trilemma. Besides the concrete social facts, and besides the technological and natural knowledge, there is a third thing, viz., the economic principle, or hedonistic postulate, as it is preferred to call it. Stammler asserts that this third thing is not equal in value to the two first ones, that it comes as a secondary consideration, and we confess that we do not clearly understand what this means. What he ought to prove is that this principle can be reduced to the two former ones, viz., to the technical or to the social conditions. This he has not done, and indeed we do not know how it could be done. That economics, thus understood, is not social science, we are so much the more inclined to agree since he himself says as much in calling it pure economics, i.e., something built up by abstraction from particular facts and hence also from the social fact. But this does not mean that it is not applicable to society, and cannot give rise to inferences in social economics. The social factor is then assumed as a medium through which the economic principle displays its influence and produces definite results. Granted the economic principle, and granted, for example, the legal regulation of private property in land, and the existence of land differing in quality, and granted other conditions, then the fact of rent of land arises of necessity. In this and other like examples, which could easily be brought forward, we have laws of social and political economics, i.e., deductions from the economic principle acting under given legal conditions. It is true that, under other legal conditions, the effects would be different; but none of the effects would occur were it not for the economic nature of man, which is a necessary postulate, and not to be identified with the postulate of technical knowledge, or with any other of the social rules. To know is not to will; and to will in accordance with objective rules is not to will in accordance with ideals which are merely subjective and individual (economic).

Stammler might say that if the science of economics thus interpreted is not properly a social science, he leaves it on one side, because his object is to construct a science which may be fully entitled to the name of social economics. But – let us, too, construct a dilemma! – this social economics, to which he aspires, will either be just economic science applied to definite social conditions, in the sense now indicated, or it will be a form of historical knowledge. No third thing exists. Ein Drittes ist nicht da!

And indeed, for Stammler an economic phenomenon is not any single social fact whatever, but a group of homogeneous facts, which offer the marks of necessity. The number of economic facts required to form the group and give rise to an economic phenomenon cannot be determined in general; but can be seen in each case. By the formation of these groups, he says, social economics does not degenerate into a register of data concerning fact, nor does it become purely mechanical statistics of material already given which it has merely to enumerate. Social economics should not merely examine into the change in the actual working out of one and the same social order, but remains, now as formerly, the seat of all knowledge of actual social life. It must start from the knowledge of a given social existence, both in regard to its form and in regard to its content; and enlarge and deepen it up to the most minute peculiarity of its actual working out, with the accuracy of a technical science, the conditions and concrete objects of which are clearly indicated; and thus free the reality of social life from every obscurity. Hence it must make for itself a series of concepts, which will serve the purpose of such an explanation.

Now this account of the concept of social economics is capable of two interpretations. The first is that it is intended to describe a science, which has indeed for its object (as is proper for sciences) necessary connections, in the strict sense of the word. But how establish this necessity? How make the concepts suitable to social economics? Evidently by allowing ourselves to be guided by a principle, by abstracting a single side from concrete reality; and if it is to be for economics this principle can be none other than the economic principle, and social economics will consider only the economic side of a given social life. Profits, rent, interest, labour value, usury, wages, crises, will then appear as economic phenomena necessary under given conditions of the social order, through which the economic principle exerts its influence.

The other interpretation is that Stammler's social economics does not indeed accomplish the dissolving work of analysis but considers this or that social life in the concrete. In this case it could do nothing but describe a given society. To describe does not mean to describe in externals and superficially; but, more accurately, to free that group of facts from every obscurity, showing what it actually is, and describing it, as far as possible in its naked reality. But this is, in fact, historical knowledge, which may assume varied forms, or rather may define in various ways its own subject. It may study a society in all its aspects during a given period of fume, or at a given moment of its existence, or it may even take up one or more aspects of social life and study them as they present themselves in different societies and at different times, and so on. It is history always, even when it avails itself of comparison as an instrument of research. And such a study will not have to make concepts, but will take them as it needs them from those sciences, which do, in fact, elaborate concepts.

Thus it would have been of great interest to see the working out of this new social economics of Stammler a little more clearly, so that we might determine exactly in which of the aforesaid two classes it ought to be placed. Whether it is merely political economy in the ordinary sense, or whether it is the concrete study of single societies and of groups of them. In the latter case Stammler has added another name or rather two names; science of the matter of social life and social economics, to the many phrases by which of late the old History has been disguised (social history, history of civilization, concrete sociology, comparative sociology, psychology of the populace and of the classes, etc.). And the gain, if we may be allowed to say so, will not be great.

September 1898.


1. Wirthschaft und Recht nach der materialistischen Geschichtsauffassung, eine socialphilosophische Untersuchung, DR RUDOLPH STAMMLER, Professor at the University of Halle, A.S., Leipzig, Veit U.C., 1896, pp. viii-668.