Is the Materialist Conception of History sufficient?

[The completion of a correspondence between two members of the S.l’.G.B., the first portion of which appeared in the November issue.]

Dear Comrade.

I do not see why we should be concerned because your friend says it is utterly impossible to view Sociology as a picture, for if he means that, it is impossible to look at Sociology from an entirely detached point of view (that is, quite objectively), then I am not aware of its possibility having been maintained. But why is Sociology indicated in particular ? Why not Biology also ? If it is impossible in one case, it must be impossible in the other, or, indeed, in any branch of natural science. That the difficulties are greater in some cases than in others is obvious, but the difference is less than is usually supposed.

There is, however, this difference between Sociology and Biology : regarding the animals human interests are practically identical, hence there is comparative uniformity of human views respecting the animal world; but regarding society, with its parasites and workers ; class interests, (and consequently class views), are hopelessly in conflict. The modern social scientist must take his stand on the side of


if he is to be logical in his philosophy. In the domain of Sociology to pretend to face society in the interests of all its classes is idiotic, confusing, “ethical” and hypocritical, whilst logically it is an impossibility. To stand for the reconciliation of opposing class interests, except by the abolition of classes through the triumph of labour, is either to confusedly deliberate or to deliberately confuse.

If, then, it is impossible to really objectively view things which we can only know and judge by subjective means, must we therefore abandon all attempt to discount subjective interference and get as near to a detached view as our human limitations will permit? Obviously not, for the detached point of view remains the counsel of perfection, the ideal scientific viewpoint.

That few even attempt to attain to this, or that none can completely so view social, physical or biological phenomena, simply means that to err is human.

In getting at the truth of any matter the observer is hampered by his physical shortcomings, by the limited knowledge accumulated to his day, by his interests or by the phase of life most to the fore in his time. A few men rise to such a height in their perception of truth that their works are enduring and stand as landmarks of the different stages of human knowledge. Aristotle, Roger Bacon, Darwin, Spencer, Marx and Lewis Morgan, are some examples of this in the domain of science.

To know and discount personal disturbing influences, and to get a point of view as nearly detached as possible, must be the aim of every true scientist. What other plan has your friend to propose ? Does he propose that we should bury our heads in the sands of our narrowest environment because it is impossible to get a perfect view of the universe ? Or does he hold, as we hold, that


that while in Sociology (which, as I have said, is the most subjective of sciences) the difficulties of a scientific point of view are increased nevertheless, for a generalization to be even relatively true it, must be the result of, or in harmony with, an even and thorough view of each department of human knowledge at that epoch?

You say that the Socialist propaganda, which is necessary to the revolution, has little economic significance, and that the creation of a demand for Socialism is an intellectual rather than an economic process. We have here the shadow of our old friend—an uncaused effect: for if the intellectual process is not caused by the influence upon the individual of the conditions of existence, whence does it arise ? The fact that the Socialist propaganda (the demand for Socialism) arises in every country with the development of capitalism, is, in itself, a sufficient answer to our question. Further, to expect that Socialist propaganda can be the motive force changing economic conditions, is really to reject the materialist conception of history as explained by Marx in the extract I sent you.

Economic conditions (i.e., methods of wealth production and distribution) change gradually and independently of the will of man. They evolve by pressure on the means of existence and along the line of greatest economy, the line of least resistance, and thus form the real cause of intellectual and then political revolution. The Socialist propaganda and demand for Socialism is brought about by the decreasing harmony between the social (political) system and the economic mode of producing wealth (associated industry). The demand for Socialism is Nature’s preparation for the compulsory adaptation of the social organism to this economic change, a readaptation that must take place if humanity is to advance.

Strictly speaking, Socialism is not a revolution in economic conditions, but is a


which the ruling class has created in harmony with its material interests; the ruling class itself being the creature of economic necessity. Socialism changes (or rather abolishes) the class which controls, and the manner of profiting by, associated industry ; destroys attempted barriers to the further development of this, and places the social organism in a position of healthy reaction with its economic environment. The demand for Socialism is, then, in the main, the direct effect of the pressure of economic conditions on the individual organism. Just as a writer is great, and is understood, when he sees more fully and shows more clearly what others are being forced to (inarticulately) feel and believe, so the Socialist propagandist, more deeply impressed by economic conditions and social contradictions, voices more fully and clearly what others are economically being led to think, and so brings their aspirations to a focus. Thus the demand made by economic and social conditions on the individual organism is voiced again in the class struggle which can only end with the destruction of the social system that is growing more and more out of harmony with the economic basis of society.

In your first letter you said : “The point is, then, to demonstrate that the all important, the dominating factor in society is its economic conditions.” I endeavoured, briefly, to demonstrate that economic conditions (the how, where, and quantity of the necessaries of life) undoubtedly do form the dominant, and root factor in all life. In your second letter you say : “It is undoubtedly true that the ultimate explanation of any force or condition in society is to be found in the means adopted by men to satisfy their material wants.” But you add: “When you have explained the origin of man’s ideas as arising through economic and material channels, that does not explain the possible reaction of these intellectual forces on the economic and material conditions.” The problem, though essentially the same, is restated. Let us examine it.

If it is admitted that the origin and ultimate explanation of man’s ideas, social relationships, and intellect itself, lie in material conditions: if, in fact, the evolution of the human family from


(which differed from the substance around it only in that it could absorb fresh substance and broke in two when its size became too great for the cohesion of its material) is due to, and is explicable only on the ground of the varying nature of the struggle for existence, then the rest follows as a logical consequence, for it is evident that the “ego” (or whatever fanciful name one may give the individual), is but the result of past conditions of the struggle to obtain the necessaries of existence. Obviously, therefore, the intellect can only reflect or redistribute under the pressure and through the channels of present economic conditions the influence of past conditions. The reflex or secondary action of the “ego” must, then, ever remain inferior in intensity and effect, but tend to be similar in direction, to the material conditions of life which cause and modify it. Intellectual, like all other forces, tend to run in worn channel’s ; and this fact of the “inertia of the mind” would cause mankind to continue always in the same rut were it not that changing conditions compel mankind to readapt itself to them. Intellect in itself would perpetuate, but not innovate, if changing material conditions did not compel it to change the direction of its activities.

This is important, let us insist upon it. Given the individual organism and the laws of its economic environment, it is obvious that the organism (which, with its experience, has been moulded by past conditions of life) will endeavour to play out its course along the line of least resistance and will continue into present conditions, in so far as they are similar to the past, the action forced on the individual by past environment. And since by pressure on the means of life, natural selection of the most economic methods, and the consequent


(individual and social) the line of least resistance continually changes its direction, the organism (social and individual) must adapt itself (be adapted) to the changing economic conditions or lose its place in the economy of nature.

Now it will be seen that although with growing complexity of structure the individual grows more powerful and his influence on surrounding conditions appears to grow in importance; yet the individual can never become greater in power than the material conditions of which he is but the creature and reflection, for the secret of his growing power is the growth of his power to adapt himself to, and become more pliable before, these same material conditions.

You object to my analogy of the clay balls because it leaves out the reaction of the individual on his environment. But the analogy was not made to illustrate that. It simply illustrated the fallacy of the “identical environment” idea, and showed how some may be Conservatives and some Socialists in a given society. A purpose that I hope the illustration has served. An analogy is, of course, a comparison between different things which have nevertheless some features in common. Hence no analogy can be perfect, and argument by analogy is dangerous. It is enough for the purpose if the analogy illustrates (for it cannot prove) the working of some general law. In my example it was only the formation of individuality, or the cause of individual differences, that was illustrated.

You ask for an illustration of the reaction of the individual on his environment, and you suggest an excellent example the colonies. Let us take, in the first place, the animals transferred by the white man to the “colonies” during historical times. We find


(or I should say, organisms) developed by conditions in the broader and more differentiated area of the old world, running feral in the new. The horse, the result of continuous natural selection in the old world, transplanted in its developed form to the new world, found itself more adaptable (intelligent) and better fitted to obtain the necessaries of life than the native animals whose economy and distribution were consequently considerably altered. The rabbit, developed by the keener old world struggle for existence, transferred to Australia, found itself more fitted to exist than many of the natural inhabitants because the latter were the creatures of a less diverse or more restricted environment. Thus the animal and vegetable economy of Australia became modified by the reaction of the rabbit’s inherited nature upon it. So the human inhabitants of parts of the old world, their individual and social organisms the results of a keener and more varied struggle for existence, were economically forced to introduce themselves and their superior naturally selected methods of production into America and Australia, where their greater adaptability and more efficient means of obtaining food and shelter caused them to oust the less adaptable native populations, and to develop afresh on lines determined by their newer material conditions.

We see, then, that at bottom it is the methods of wealth production and distribution which determine the existence or extermination of races, the development of their intellect and the societies they form. Any known more profitable method of production will inevitably, in the long run, take the place of the old.

In grasping the reaction of the individual on his environment,


may help us. A man, let us say, living under conditions inducive of typhoid fever, catches that disease and communicates it to others, thus spreading the effects of his own environment. If many live in typhoid-giving circumstances there will be a severe epidemic: indeed the disease will probably break out at several independent centres. But if very few live under conditions inducive of typhoid fever, there will be no epidemic and the disease will rapidly disappear. Hence individuality only gives a little longer life to an effect produced by external causes, for if the same causes are not operative elsewhere, the disease finds no food to live upon and is starved out.

The spread of Capitalism to Japan is another illustration to hand. In Japan, development from a kind of Feudalism to Capitalism has been very rapid. The visits of merchants, the settlement of Europeans bringing their methods of production, with them to Japan and starting factories with the cheap labour available, combined with the existence of the requisite degree of energy and adaptability on the part of the Japanese, and the favourable natural resources and geographical position of the country, enabled the more efficient methods of production to rapidly oust the old and brought about a change (a feature of which was a revolution) in Japanese society that placed it in harmony with the changed economic basis, and with the interests of the new class thereby given power.

The Socialist propagandist also propagates a policy, a class interest, created by circumstances. If the same circumstances are acting around, the ideas propagated spread in milder or more acute form. If the same causes do not operate around the propagandist, his efforts will make but an eddy that will rapidly die away. Our propaganda is, then, simply the means of giving definiteness, cohesion, and conscious expressions to the direct effects of economic and social pressure.


now begins to assume truer proportions. For just as the social organism in a more or less embryo stage may be seen in the lower social animals, and in higher and higher forms as we go from the most primitive folk to the most civilised nation: so man’s well developed consciousness may be seen in lower degrees of development among the less developed organic beings. Man’s intellect can only put together things he has seen or known, but he can put them together in new order and form fresh patterns. By the process of reasoning (that is to say, by mental comparison) man can, to some extent foretell the results of certain actions if he has known similar results to occur (even though separately or partially) in the past. Growing to grasp the essential oneness of Nature and her inviolable order, and finding that he cannot alter her course to suit his phantasies, but that he is Nature’s plaything and his sane wishes are Nature’s wishes, man realizes that his salvation lies in knowing Nature and in more completely adapting himself to her in all her moods, for, if the forces within him fail to respond to the forces without, he is annihilated.

Thus the pressure of economic necessity, acting on the individual and on society, brings man’s consciousness into line with the new conditions of the struggle for life. The seeking of self interest, necessarily common to all sentient beings either individually or socially, brings humanity into contact with the obstacles that bar its path. An increasing number of the class economically necessary, by contact with the obstacle in the line of their interests and helped by the teaching of those who have explored it more fully, become conscious of the existence of the barrier and of the necessity for its removal. Economic pressure continually swells their ranks till a sufficient number of the rising class have become conscious of their mission, and aided by the ripeness of material conditions, throw down the obstacle to their progress with a crash.

Taking human society we can then say in view of the organic unity of the human family, that changing conditions of wealth production compel human beings to change the form of society in adaptation to the economic change, and therefore that all over the world and in every historical epoch, varied by climatic and racial conditions, “the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange and the social organization necessarily following from it form the basis upon which is built up, and from which alone can be explained, the political and intellectual history of that epoch.”


(Socialist Standard, February 1906)

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