Is the Materialist Conception of History Sufficient?

Interesting Letters on an Interesting Subject

[The following correspondence has passed between two members of the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The subject matter is of such importance—an understanding of what is implied by tlte term “the materialist conception of history” being indispensible to anything like an adequate appreciation of the Socialist position—and our comrade Watts has presented his case so admirably, that we have readily undertaken to give the letters the wider publicity of these columns.—ED. Cttee.”]

Dear Comrade,— So far as I understand it, I agree with the Materialist Conception of History, but recently I have been studying the reports of the Sociological Society, which magnify the problem of the unification of the Social sciences until it appears almost insoluble ; and I have had my faith shaken in the sufficiency of the Materialist Conception because these learned people have made the question appear so great that the Materialist Conception appears too simple. I will, therefore, explain the difficulty according to the disciples of the Sociological Society.

They appear to agree that society is an organism of a complicated type, and that these complications are made intelligible only through their relations being truly comprehended. They view the sociological field as at present being separated into many particular fields, each in the hands of specialist investigators, and they claim that the sociologist (through the Sociological Society) is the scientist whose duty it is to co-ordinate the social specialisms and generalise from the investigations of the social They consider that the specialist investigators should work with the idea of the ultimate unity of their investigations, an idea that they claim it is one of the duties of the Sociological Society to foster. They deprecate the interpretation of the highly complex social phenomena in the terms of any one specialism; and this, it seems to me, is the point that particularly touches us.

On every hand we see men working with a view to the application of their particular remedy for various social evils. Do we not come under the same ban ? Do we not offer a sort of Morrison’s Pill for the earthquake? Socialism, at the last and ultimate analysis, is an economic proposition, a fundamental one, I grant, but still purely economic. Now the economic relations of men in society are not the only ones. We say : true, but all other relations grow out of the economic ones, and this, as I understand it, is the basis of the Materialist Conception of Histoiy. The point, then, is to demonstrate that the all important, the dominating factor in society, is its economic conditions.

There are a considerable number of people sometimes designated cranks, who desire to regenerate society through the application of their particular Morrison’s Pill. According to your alleged philosophic radical, all that is required is political perfection—the carrying of in political revolutionary reforms (I use the Hibernianism advisedly). According to the temperance fanatic, all that is required is the entire removal of the “drink evil,” root and branch. The ethical reformer seeks to emphasise the moral factor in social relations and through that means to establish the millenium. The orthodox man seeks that everybody should believe that certain impossible things once happened, and through that belief, somehow, I know not how, the millenium is coming. And so on. Every reformer of whatever colour or creed, has some Morrison’s Pill to give Society, to cure it of all its evils at one blow. But again I ask, does not the Socialist fall into the same category ? He says that ethical, moral, religious ; artistic, asthetical; political and intellectual relations are fundamentally determined by the economic relations, and he seeks to alter those economic relations so that following from such revolutionary change should come the change (and. of course, improvement) in the ethical, moral, religious: artistic, aesthetical; political, intellectual, and all other relations.

Now the difficulty seems to be, even granting all that we claim for the dominance of economic conditions, how far can man’s intellect get ahead of his economic and other conditions, and frame ideas and ideals to work to and for ? If man’s ideas were rigidly determined by his economic environment, the Socialist would be impossible, and indeed, the social conservative would be impossible, too, because in the same environment we find most divergent minds.

The whole problem that I am trying to formulate would seem to be the old one of “free-will” and “determinism.” And the only explanation of the divergences can be the individual temperament, call it what you will. So that the position seems to resolve itself into the effects of the action of the environment (in which must be included every influence which the human mind comes into contact with from first to last) on the individual personality, the “ego.” The great difficulty would seem to be, therefore, the true recognition of the forces that go to make up that ego through hereditary channels. Is our knowledge of the action of heredity sufficient for the formulation of a philosophy that should comprehend all the influence that go to make men, in all their strange variations of temperament ?

In conclusion, therefore, I would ask, is the Materialist Conception sufficient for the explanation of all the complex phenomena of modern Society ?

Fraternally yours,

P.S.—of course, you must not suppose that I am such a heretic on the Socialist philosophy as I appear from the above. I have exaggerated my own difficulties in order, not only to make the matter more controversial, but to, so far as possible, get the other side discussed.


Dear Comrade,—I have read your letter on the the Materialist Conception of History, and as I hold firmly to that conception as a guiding principle (having entirely convinced myself of its truth), I shall be glad to discuss the matter.

Before doing so, however, I will ask you to carefully peruse the following somewhat lengthy but exceedingly important quotation from Marx’s “Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy,” which gives an explanation of the Materialist Conception of History, as it is necessary to define our terms before using them as signs in our discussion.

This extract is from the preface to Marx’s “Critique of Political Economy.” Published (in Germany) 1857.

“The first work which I undertook for the purpose of solving the doubts which perplexed me was a critical re-examination of Hegel’s; ‘Philosophy of Law.’ The introduction to this work appeared in the German French Year Books of 1844. My investigations ended in the conviction that legal relations and forms of government cannot be explained either by themselves or by the so-called development of the human mind, but, on the contrary, have their roots in the conditions of men’s existence, whose totality Hegel, following the French and English writers of the eighteenth century, summed up under the name of civil society ; and that the anatomy of civil society must be sought in political economy, to which study I next gave my attention.
“The general result at which I arrived and which, once obtained, served as a guide for my subsequent studies, can be briefly formulated as follows:
“In making their livelihood together men enter into certain necessary, involuntary relations with each other.
“These industrial relations arise out of their respective conditions and occupations and correspond to whatever stage society has reached in the development of its material productive forces.
Different stages of industry produce different relations.
“The totality of these industrial relations constitutes the economic structure and basis of society.
“Upon this basis the legal and political superstructure is built.
“There are certain forms of social consciousness or so-called public opinion which correspond to this basis.
“The method prevailing in any society of producing the material livelihood determines the social, political and intellectual life of men in general.
“It is not primarily men’s consciousness which determines their mode of life; on the contrary it is their social life which determines their consciousness.
“When the material productive forces of society have advanced to a certain stage of their development they come into opposition with the old conditions of production, or, to use a legal expression, with the old property relations under which these forces have hitherto been exerted.
Instead of serving longer as institutions for the development of the productive sources of society, these antiquated property relations now become hindrances. Then begins an epoch of social revolution.
“With the change of the economic basis the whole vast superstructure undergoes, sooner or later, a revolution.
“In considering such revolutions we must always distinguish clearly between the change in the industrial methods of social production on the one hand ; this change takes place unconsciously, strictly according to the laws of natural science, and might properly be called an evolution.
“And, on the other hand, the change in the legal, political, religions, artistical or philosophical, in short, ideological, institutions; with reference to these men fight out this buttle as a revolution conscious of their opposing interests. This conflict takes the form of a class struggle.
As little as we judge an individual by what he thinks he is, just as little can we judge such revolutionary epoch by its own consciousness.
“We must rather explain this consciousness out of the antagonisms of men’s industrial occupations, out of the conflict existing between the productive capacity of social industry and the legal institutions under which this industry is carried on.
“A society, no matter what its form may be, is never broken up until all the productive powers are developed for which it is adapted.
New and higher social institutions are never established until the material conditions of life to support them, have been prepared in the lap of the old society itself Therefore, mankind never sets for itself any tasks, except those for which it has received proper training and which it is able to perform.
“If we examine closely, it will always be found that the conflict never arises except where the material conditions of its solution are already at hand, or at least are in the the process of growth.
“We may in wide outlines characterise the Asiatic, the antique, the feudal and the modern capitalistic methods o£ production as a series of progressive epochs in the evolution of economic society.
“The industrial relations arising out of the capitalistic method of production constitute the last of the antagonistic forms of social production ; antagonistic not in the sense of antagonism between individuals, but of antagonism growing out of the circumstances in which men must live who take part in social production.
“But the productive forces which are developed in the lap of capitalistic society create at the same time the material conditions needed for the abolition of this antagonism. The capitalist form of society, therefore, will bring to a close this cycle of the history of human society, as it has existed under the various forms of exploitation..”

And now to proceed with my own contribution to the discussion.

All history, indeed all intellectual life, can be explained only from the accompanying and preceding material conditions, since any other theory than this postulates an uncaused thing, which is contrary to all experience, and is therefore unscientific and untenable. Intellectual life is but the reflex of material conditions. That intellectual life has a secondary reflex action upon material conditions in no way changes the fact that material conditions form the base, origin, and material of all intellectual life.

Now, in the Materialist Conception of History we are given the dominant factor in the determination of all history ; that is, the method in which wealth is produced and exchanged. Obviously, in order that there may be human history two things are essential; firstly, men, and secondly, food and shelter for them. How much, where and how food and shelter can be obtained, determines, firstly, man’s existence, secondly, where he shall live, and thirdly, how he shall live. Therefore the Materialist Conception of History is without doubt the determining and basic factor in all history ; indeed, broadly interpreted, all material conditions are comprised in it.

Just as we speak of the “Law of Evolution” so we may speak of the Materialist Conception as the “Law of History.” As in one case we can explain existing organic forms by the “Law of Evolution,” so in the other case can we explain existing social forms only by the materialist ”Law of History.” In organic, as in social, evolution, there are many minor matters that, with our present defective knowledge we cannot yet explain. Nevertheless, it would be absurd and unscientific to abandon the law which has been proved right in so many instances the moment we come upon obscure or complicated detail whose connection with the fundamental law is not at once seen.

Both in biology and in sociology, inability to see the working of fundamental principles or laws is usually the result of insufficient knowledge, narrowness of the field of view, and a priori notions. This is especially true of the modern social specialist. Lost in a forest of detail he lacks the breadth of view that is necessary to an understanding of general principles. We do not now magnify the accidentals of zoology to the extent that the old naturalists did, who thereby got fanciful and conflicting classifications; but, probably aided by the fact that we see the detail of animal life from a distance, and so get a truer perspective than in sociology, we have grasped the basic principles of organic evolution in the food supply and the conditions of the struggle to obtain it. No science is so subjective as sociology, for here we meet the “furies of private interests ;” and hampered as are the majority of specialists by preconceived ideas and class prejudice, small wonder is there that even the most honest of them arrive at such inane conclusions. They fail to distinguish between essentials and accidentals, and detail assumes greater importance than principles or laws in consequence. “They cannot see the wood for the trees.” Specialisation is, of course, essential, but. the co-ordination of the social sciences can only he the work of one who takes a thorough but even view of all.

To realise the full force of the Materialist Concept a broad knowledge of history, economics, and natural science is absolutely essential, and history is the most important. Such broad surveys of history as are given in even elementary primers like Jenk’s History of Politics and Fyffe’s History of Greece, or in such works as Thorold Rogers’ Six Centuries of Work and Wages and Buckle’s Introduction to the History of Civilisation, throw into relief the general principles of history and afford a granitic foundation to the Materialist Conception.

It is too great a task to attempt any historical survey here ; but it is most clear; to take the example that immediately affects us; that the tremendous transformation in this country during the last three centuries of the conditions of things and the social life arising therefrom, is directly traceable to the wonderful change which has taken place in the methods of producing and distributing wealth. A new class has been created and forced to power. The face of the country has been changed from agricultural to manufacturing. Huge towns have arisen where once were cornfields. The change from individual to social production has revolutionised social relationships. Where once men worked singly for home consumption they now work in huge armies for others, disciplined and commanded. Where once was handicraft is now giant machine production. All this has been brought about by the gradual change in the methods of producing and distributing the wealth of the country ; due to the greater economy of co-operative over individual production, and to the greater econony of machine over hand labour. Modern social life is explicable only upon this basis : the line of least resistance in wealth production impelling men into entirely new social relationships.

It will be seen how curious is the idea that the scientific Socialist, by indicating economic conditions as the basis of all social relationships, has only a Morrison’s Pill a la Carlyle to offer of no greater efficiency than is usual with such nostrums. The cure-all pill idea implies idealism. It implies that men can, out of their own souls, evolve a scheme of things and force it on society without that scheme being of necessity the outcome of present conditions and in harmony with the natural trend of things. Socialism of the scientific type is, of course, not this by any means. The various reformers with their nostrums are rather like the quacks who profess to cure virulent fevers by means of prayers, charms and incantations, or at least, like the pseudo scientific quacks who prescribe drugs to counteract only the symptoms and effects of diseases, leaving the causes untouched. The Socialist is rather like the true scientist who goes to causes in material conditions, and sees that effective drainage is laid down, cleanliness maintained, and correct food given.

The question often occurs : how is it that in identical environment some are Socialists and some are conservatives, if economic conditions determine, in the last resort, the views of men ? The matter of this “identical environment” can be illustrated by a simple analogy. Suppose a hundred soft clay balls were put in a bag and sat on, these balls would all be in an identical environment, like men in any class in society subjected to economic pressure, so what would happen ? Some balls would be squared, some slightly flattened, and some utterly squashed, as determined by their position in this so-called identical environment. In society different classes have different environment. In a given class some would be slightly modified conservatives, and some revolutionary: as pressure increases so all would become entirely altered. All, then, would be affected, but slightly unequally, since no two balls, or two persons, could possibly be in exactly the same environment. So in society men picture the future from what they see and feel in the present. Some by hereditary fitness and actual environment would more easily and clearly comprehend the needs of the present and the tendency of things; others in conditions less violently affected would find it more difficult to see clearly, or would from the materials to their hands or inherited weakness, form false pictures which would lure them in wrong directions.

So far from economics being but one specialisation of no greater import than a host of other artificial divisions or specialisms, economics is, then, the fundamental, the essential specialism. It is the trunk upon which all the various branches depend, or rather, to be more accurate, it is the anatomy of social life. The truth of this proposition is amply demonstrated at the bar of social history, even with the knowledge at present, available ; just as the truth of the law of evolution is shown at the bar of the more developed natural sciences. The conclusions of all natural science, indeed, render no other interpretation of history logically tenable except the Materialist Conception of History.


[A further instalment of this correspondence will appear in the next issue.]

Leave a Reply