Two Essays on History

By C. Stephenson and Gabriel Deville


Despite the fact that the history of the human race records many striking examples of retrogression in social development, of civilizations destroyed and of peoples fallen backward into barbarism – such examples are, in truth, more frequent and spectacular, as Veblen has somewhere pointed out, than of those where the life and culture of peoples have been saved from such a precarious institutional situation, such for instance, as now threatens the peoples of the modern capitalist world – yet, it is indisputable, viewing history as a whole, since the days of primitive man to the present, that there has resulted a progressive, if uneven, development. Whatever slowly evolving forces or sudden calamities may have operated to sweep civilizations out of existence, and their peoples out of leadership in progress, something at least of value, prior to the complete wreck of productive and cultural life, appears to have been passed over to or appropriated by other peoples, and so saved for the race as a whole.

The art of writing, for instance, survives though its inventors have passed out of the knowledge of men; the dial on our watches reminds us of Ancient Babylon, and the uses we make of algebra call to mind a debt we owe to an Arab civilization long passed away. By means of the art of writing, the preservation of knowledge was made easier and its diffusion tremendously stimulated. The influence of this art is recognized as one of the factors featuring the beginning of civilization, and, in great degree, contributing to continuity and comparative rapidity of social progress. The slow development of pre-historic times, may in part be ascribed to the lack of such a medium of preserving and diffusing knowledge; for, though should all material evidence of progress be destroyed in some calamity, yet, if knowledge is preserved the injury will not be irreparable.

Not the least of the benefits accruing from the art of writing is the preservation of past experiences of the race. This is true in spite of two extremes of opinion tending to degrade our estimation of the study of history, that of the ultra-constitutionalists, obsessed by historical precedents and that of those they have driven, in hysterics, to the extreme reaction of seeing no value in the study of history whatever.

History may be said to be the corporate memory retained by the human race of its experiences and to be as essential to methodical social progress and well-being as is memory to the individual. Reflection on these social experiences shows us the moving forces and changing material movements and events, and which determine the nature of political, philosophical or religious ideologies, the modes of social and institutional development, and the successive forms of social organization. For the purpose of understanding present society and its problems we study the past out of which it grew organically and in which it still has roots. We study the phenomena of both past and present, not as things separated, finished and given, but as things in a cumulated sequence of cause and effect, interdependent and in ceaseless change, and, as such impregnated with the germs of future life, with potentialities, tendencies, and the necessity of social adjustments whether for human weal or woe.

But history, as it has been and is written, must be read with discrimination. Consideration must be given to the historian’s natural bias for or against a particular country or race, to his class connections, and to his political, religious and professional affiliations. Further to be considered is the period in which the historian lived or lives; for, just as there is a history of ideas, philosophical, religious, political, etc., so there is a history of the changing methods and purposes of presenting history, as for instance, during the interval that separates the Annalist of the ninth century, A.D., to the historian of the present day.

The great works of the classical literature of ancient Greece and Rome were lost to the world during the dark ages following upon the fall of Roman civilization. Out of social disorganization slowly and painfully emerged the feudal order; and out of a welter of ignorance and superstition as painfully and slowly emerged another dawn of intellectual light and learning. Intellectualism continued to extend its influence until it began to question the truth, and threatened to destroy the influence of the superstitious concepts and absurd dogmas of Organized Christianity. It was then that, in the fourteenth century, all the terrors of the “Holy Inquisition” were brought into play, and all free enquiry, discussion and the utterance of speculative ideas were suppressed: bigotry and intolerance, fire and fagot, rack and thumbscrew reigned supreme. The human mind had now to struggle against more than its own natural limitations along the road of intellectual enlightenment; it had also to free itself from the poisonous cloud-vapors of authoritarian dogma, accumulated during priest-ridden centuries and enforced by ruthless political power.

For a knowledge of Europe in the centuries following the fall of Rome on to the ninth century, we have to depend on the crude records of the Annalist, mostly monks, whose aim was to set down the disconnected events they narrated as simply marks of time to prevent the confusion of one year with an other. But some progress in method began to appear with the lapse of time. The Chronicler, who followed the Annalist, placed the mere distinction of time in subordination to the narrative of events, though he told them in mere order of succession without reference to their causes or relations in the present or past.

A modern historian, John Richard Green, places the birth of historical presentation, in the modern sense of the term, in the twelfth century. Says he:

“The growth of civilization brought reflection with it – still more as the recovery of the greater works of classical literature suggested larger views of man’s social and political relations, and, at the same time, furnished models on which new thoughts which they suggested might frame themselves . . . In a word history had begun, but it seemed to be born only to vanish away . . . the space from the close of the thirteenth century to the Reformation is a mere blank in historical progress.”

Referring to the state of historical enquiry in England, he says:

“But although a happy instinct taught the English scholars of the seventeenth century to select what were the most important records of the past . . . no instinct could teach them the true principles on which the study of these records had to be based. On the contrary they were led away by the theological spirit, which in every department of knowledge has been the bane of all true progress, and the wider questions of national or social life were subordinated to the miserable controversies of warring sects.”

Nevertheless, he points out that the very controversies which blighted historical enquiry and method in England were the means of giving birth to its development on the continent. The Jesuits were, strangely enough, unconscious midwives when they instituted the compilation of the lives of the saints in order “to overawe the Protestant world with a gigantic panorama of the life and effort and perpetuity of the church which it defied”. The labors of this enterprise developed in certain of those engaged in it a more scientific spirit that had hitherto obtained, and their influence infused fresh life and vigor into historical research, and into the presentation of history.

What is said above touches as briefly as the writer was able on methods of presenting history. Of much more importance to the student, however, are the various theories upon which historians have attempted to base an explanation or interpretation of the movement and events of history. But this phase of our subject is too important to be dealt with in the space we have at our disposal, and brief notice only must suffice.

There is little except antiquarian value in the theories of the Annalists and the Chroniclers. Their historic horizon was extremely narrow and they viewed the world as a complexity of things ready made. The pages of their annals and chronicles are cluttered with reports of supernatural intervention, beneficial and malevolent, into what were, after all, often little more than tribal affairs. Alongside those, as worthy of even less consideration, we must place a class of histories rampant down to our day. These are the familiar vulgarizing “drum and trumpet” histories of our schools, which are cooked to inculcate national prejudice into the plastic minds of the young. It is chiefly by means of these “histories” that the extreme forms of the “great man” theory of history are fostered.

Of higher interest to the student of history and of sociology in general, are the two modern conflicting theories of history, the Idealistic and the Materialistic conceptions.

For the former conception it may be said that those who hold to it base their interpretation of history on a concept of the power and self-sufficiency of the idea, and that thus social progress and well-being are based upon man’s better insight into supposed eternal truths and to an increase of his sense of justice. To them, history is a record of good and evil deeds, fundamentally a record of conflicts between the upper and the nether worlds of spirit and carnal desire.

In another part of this issue of the Clarion (*) will be found Gabriel Deville’s brief summary of the Marxian “Materialistic Conception of History”, and of the interdependent theory that class struggles are the historical instruments of political progress. The reader is referred to the summary as an introduction to a study of that theory of history. Deville pays attention to the Anarchists, as a branch of the idealist school of historical thought, but also with them must be grouped all bourgeois schools of political conviction, including Liberals, Radicals, and also Socialists other than Marxian Socialists.


(*) This article, together with a reprint of Deville’s preface to The People’s Marx appeared in the Western Clarion, June 1st, 1920.

The Materialistic Conception of History

Gabriel Deville’s preface to his People’s Marx. This work was Deville’s epitome of the first volume of Marx’s Capital, which as he states, was undertaken on the invitation and executed with the encouragement of Marx himself.

By study, and by observation of the phenomena of inorganic and organic Nature, Man becomes conscious of their relations of cause and effect and becomes more and more the master of his own development.

Before co-ordinating his ideas and grasping their different relations, man acts. This is true, both in the childhood of the individual and the race. But it is only from the time that it becomes subordinate to deliberate thought that his action ceases to be incoherent and becomes really and rapidly effective. And what is true of every other kind of action is true of revolutionary action. It must have science for its guide, or its puerile efforts will produce only abortive effects.

No matter what the subject may be, to maintain that science is useless or that study has had its day, is only an idle pretext to avoid study or an attempt to excuse wilful, persistent ignorance.

It is evident that the study of social life, alone and of itself, will not modify the social form and will not furnish, elaborated in the smallest details, the ground-plan and elevation of a new society; but it will disclose the constituent elements of the present society; their essential combinations and relations, their tendencies and the law which prevails over their evolution. This knowledge will put us in a position, not “to abolish by decrees the natural phases of the development of modern society, but to shorten the period of pregnancy and to mitigate the pangs of child-birth”.

By preaching the thorough study of society, Karl Marx did not pretend to be the creator of a science unknown before him. This is proven by the numerous notes to his work, which is on the contrary, based on the labor of the economists who preceded him, and he had the courage and candor, in the case of every proposition, to cite the author who first formulated it. But no one has done more than Karl Marx to make plain by their analysis the true meaning and tendency of social phenomena. No one, therefore, has done more for the emancipation of the working-class, for the emancipation of humanity.

Yes, without doubt, others, before him, felt the social injustices and grew righteously indignant. Many were those who dreamt of remedying these evils and drew up on paper admirable projects of reform. Inspired by a laudable generosity, having in most cases a very clear perception of the sufferings of the masses, they criticized with as much justice as eloquence the existing order of things. But as they had no exact conception of its causes and its evolution they constructed (on paper) model societies that were none the less chimerical because their architects had some correct intuitions. If they had the universal welfare as a motive, they did no have reality as a guide.

In their projects of social renovation, they entirely disregarded facts, pretending to have recourse only to the pure light of reason, as if reason, which is only the co-ordination and generalization of the ideas furnished by experience, could be, in itself, a source of knowledge – knowledge external and superior to the cerebral modifications of external impressions.

In a word, they were idealists, just as the anarchists are today. Instead of making reality the starting point of their reasoning, they attribute reality to the fictions born of their particular ideal of absolute justice.

Finding, from the speculative point of view, that the most agreeable of all social regimes would be that which would permit the most unrestricted freedom to the blossoming of individuality, and which would have no law save the free will of individuals, the anarchists preach its realization without troubling themselves to enquire whether the economic necessities permit of its establishment. They do not suspect the retrograde character of the extreme individualism, the unlimited autonomy, which is the essence of anarchism.

In the various orders of facts, evolution is invariably accomplished by the transition from an incoherent form, from a state of diffusion to a state of concentration. And, as the concentration of the parts becomes greater, their reciprocal interdependence increases, that is to say, that more and more they cannot extend the range of their own activity without the co-operation of the other parts. This is a general truth that the anarchists do not suspect. Poor fellows! They pretend to see further than anyone else, but they do not perceive that they are marching backwards.

For all these fanciful conceptions – although more or less well meant – Marx was the first to substitute the study of social phenomena based on the real conception – the materialist conception. He did not sing the praises of a system more or less perfect from the subjective point of view. He scrupulously examined the facts, methodically arranged the results of his examination and drew the conclusion, which was and is the scientific explanation of the historical progress of humanity, and particularly, of the capitalist period through which we are passing.

History, he has shown, is nothing but the history of class conflicts. The division of society into classes, which made its appearance with the same social life of man, rests on economic relations – maintained by force – which enable some to succeed in shifting on to the shoulders of others the natural necessity to labor.

Material interests have always been the inciting motives of the incessant struggles of the privileged classes, either with each other, or against the inferior classes at whose expense they live. Man is dominated by the material conditions of life, and these conditions, and therefore the mode of production, have determined and will determine human customs, ethics and institutions – social, economic, political, juridical, etc.

As soon as one part of society has monopolized the means of production, the other part, upon whom the burden of labor falls, is obliged to add to the labor-time necessary for its own support, a certain surplus labor time, for which it receives no equivalent, – time that is devoted to supporting and enriching the possessors of the means of production. As an extractor of unpaid labor, which, by means of the increasing surplus-value whose source it is, accumulates every day, more and more, in the hands of the proprietary class the instruments of its domination, the capitalist regime surpasses in power all the antecedent regimes founded on compulsory labor.

But, today, the economic conditions begotten by this regime, trammelled in their natural evolution by this very regime, inexorably tend to break the capitalist mold which can no longer contain them, and these destroying principles are the elements of the new society.

The historic mission of the class at present exploited – the proletariat – which is being organized and disciplined by the very mechanism of production, is to complete the work of destruction begun by the development of social antagonisms. It must, first of all, definitely wrest from its class adversaries the political power – the command of the force devoted by them to preserving intact their economic monopolies and privileges.

Once in control of the political power, it will be able, by proceeding to the socialization of the means of production through the expropriation of the usurpers of the fruits of others toil, to suppress the present contradictions between collective production and private capitalist appropriation, and to realize the universalization of labor and the abolition of classes.

Such is a summary sketch of the irrefutable theory taught by Marx. His constant aim is to enable every reader to judge its truth and validity for himself.

As thought is nothing but the intellectual reflex of the real movement of things, he has not for an instant departed from the material foundation of his thought, from external phenomena; he has not separated man from the conditions of his existence. He has observed, he has stated the result of his observation, and purely by the depth of his analysis he has complemented his positive conception of the present order by the knowledge of the inevitable dissolution of this order.