History as Science. A Study of Social Evolution

II. The Materialist Foundations of HistoryContinued.

How far does the natural environment which is the very condition of human existence effect the course of history ? Under the term “natural environment” we may include the geographical, climatic, zoological, botanical, and extra terres­trial or astronomical conditions. The ideas of a community undoubtedly are influenced to a large degree by the natural conditions in which they live, and the different ideas and institutions of various societies can often be traced to distinct geographical, climatic, and other natural condi­tions of their environment. It is, then, a factor for consideration when tracing out the history of any society, but nevertheless it cannot be claimed that, as a rule that is, the natural or physical environment is a main factor in the changes which such a society may undergo.

The reason for this is readily seen when it is remembered how slow compared with human his­tory is the process of development in the natural world. While varying, therefore, in different localities, it is, generally speaking, comparatively static, except over immense periods of time. Exceptions there are, however, and where these occur the changed natural conditions effect a change in the ideas, activities, and development of the peoples which they influence. Migrations also, such as are habitual at certain stages of social evolution, bring the societies where they occur, into fresh physical surroundings, causing corresponding changes in their character. Thus we see the limitations of the natural environ­ment as a force for social change.

In addition to his natural surroundings, man also has a self-made or artificial environment, made by transforming material provided by nature, into things of utility to him. This capa­city for production is no monopoly of man’s, but exists in his humbler animal relatives, in the creation of nests, etc. What, however, is charac­teristic of man, and man alone, is the creation of tools or weapons, to be used for further produc­tion or appropriation, and for defence and attack. The use of tools by man is as though he had bodily organs which he can change at will, as they are desired for different uses. More­over, while organs are limited in number, variety and power by the bodily structure, the diversity and force of application of tools is increased with fresh inventions and discoveries. In ad­dition to tools and weapons in the strict sense of the words, man continually discovers or invents other new and improved means of ministering to his wants, which can be included with tools, etc., under the term, “technical development.” The “technical development” covers all adapta­tions of natural phenomena, either by change of form or of position, to meet the needs of man. Thus the using of tire, domestication of animals and plants, writing and printing, and the usage of natural forces—all form part of the technique.

Every advance in technique brings with it conditions making possible and desirable fur­ther discoveries and inventions, thus giving rise to a continuous technical progress. For instance, the use of fire, probably at first only a means for promoting warmth, made possible the cook­ing of food, leading to an increase in the articles of diet. Fish, for instance, now becomes usable as a regular food. The banks of rivers and sea coasts would now become favourable habitats, leading to the making of primitive canoes by hollowing out logs by means of fire and stone scrapers, and to a wider distribution of man by his gradually following the water-side, thus in course of time spreading over almost the entire land surfaces of the globe.

Although inventions and discoveries are pro­bably in the main made accidentally, yet the conditions for a discovery must have been pre­pared by previous advances leading up to it. Nevertheless it is possible for a discovery to be effected before the conditions exist which will make it useful. An illustration of this is the fact that when Hero of Alexandria invented a steam engine in the second century B.C., the conditions were unripe to assure its general utility, and in consequence Hero was looked up­on as a crank who had brought out a useless toy. But when, with the rise of machine pro­duction in the eighteenth century A.D., the need for some greater power than the wind or the running stream was felt, the steam engine, improved by Watt from the inventions of his immediate predecessors, after having practically retired into oblivion for about nineteen hundred years, was eagerly seized upon and rapidly spread to all the main branches of industry.

The technical development not only forms material for the rise of fresh concepts, but ideas also arise from the manner of its use, and the new conditions and relations which inevitably flow from its use, which also often extends man’s knowledge of his natural environment. His experience of the use of artificial means of production gives man fresh means of satisfying his desires, and by changing his mode of life gives rise to new wants. The more complex becomes the technique, the greater grows the number of intermediate stages, of aims, motives, and actions necessary to satisfy his ultimate needs and the longer, consequently, the circuit of ideas or train of thought to which these needs give rise. For instance, to enable a hunter to satisfy his physical requirements, it suffices for there to exist an abundance of game and water, and a cave or means of constructing a hut. The pro­cess of killing, preparing and cooking his food, and the train of thoughts associated with it are comparatively simple. On the other hand, the first care of a modern wage-worker is to be em­ployed by a capitalist or company, and in order to secure this a round-about process of consulting advertisements or labour-exchanges may have to be resorted to. Even then, after working for a week or a month, what he receives is not means of consumption, but money, which, in order to satisfy his wants, he must exchange in various stores and markets for the means of ministering to his requirements.

Here, then, in the progressive development of man’s artificial means and instruments of production and other necessary functions, we have a potent source of change and growth in ideas. It must, however, constantly be borne in mind that all these factors which we have considered are simultaneously at work in a greater or less degree. The multitudinous variety of pheno­mena giving rise to concepts ; the various motives, near and more remote ; the passing of ideas from one individual to another, and from one society to another; the inheritance of the ideas of the past ; and lastly but above all, the fact that all these concepts form the most intri­cate and often fantastic combinations, and are all more or less capable of being reduced to abstractions, are all factors combining to make the ideas of man appear as a vast chaotic mass.

It is, indeed, not to be wondered at that for centuries human ideas were believed to be the manifestations of an immortal, non-material soul, and that the majority of attempts faded to elucidate the mystery of their origin. Nevertheless the keenest mind, the most acute thinker, cannot originate any conception which does not correspond in its basis to some phase of the sense perceptible world either of his own day or in the past experience of man.

III. The Course of History.

We now come to the second portion of our task. Having seen how the ideas of the indi­vidual arise and change, it now remains to con­sider how the individual’s ideas, or at least those which are translated into actions, result in that panorama of change, in the rise, progress and fall of successive forms of society, in the social and inter-social struggles, and in the progress in art, science, philosophy, literature, etc., which history has to show.

The use of a certain technique by a society necessitates a certain system of organisation within that community. As the complexity of the technique increases by the continual intro­duction of fresh means of production, the division of labour between the members of society in­creases in like ratio. At first this division of labour is along lines of age or sex, as where the able males attend to the hunting and fighting while the women look after the household and family affairs. To this is added when agricul­ture arises, the division into tool makers and repairers, and workers in the field, which is in rudiment that between the handicraft workers and the peasantry, between the town and the country. Society, therefore, with the develop­ment of the technique takes on more and more the character of a complex organism, with dis­tinct parts or organs, each performing separate functions and co-operating in the upkeep of the whole social body. The social division of labour depends not upon the technical development alone, but also is influenced greatly by the natural environment and also by the character of the external social environment or neighbour­ing communities. An instance of this latter is where an agricultural society is threatened by predatory hostile tribes, thus giving rise to the necessity of a section of society being trained in the use of arms as a means of defence. One effect of a division of labour in society is that now the individual ceases to be self-sufficing as regards production, but becomes more and more dependent upon the rest of society and so much the more helpless outside of it. We saw pre­viously that with increased complexity of tech­nique man’s wants, and consequently his motives for action, increase also ; now we see that by the same process he becomes more dependent upon the members of society as a whole for the satisfaction of these wants.

So long as the productive powers of society remain primitive, so that there is no considerable surplus of products over that needed to sustain the producers and those incapable of production by age, etc., just so long will all or nearly all those members capable of production be thus, necessarily, engaged. Even where a small surplus is available in times of plenty, it only serves to carry the community over the hard times of famine. When, however, in con­sequence of improved technique or of more fertile natural conditions, production becomes greater and more regular, a change occurs. A surplus of wealth now becomes permanent. Although this may result for a time in increased security and comfort for the producers, never­theless the conditions now exist whereby a cer­tain faction or profession under favourable circumstances can obtain a share of the social wealth greater than that allotted to the rest of society, and in time may aspire to, and actually secure the permanent appropriation of the sur­plus. Accumulation of considerable preponder­ance of wealth in the hands of individuals of certain groups, becomes a factor in the social life hitherto absent. The same progress in productivity also makes possible slavery, or the forced subjection of a class to perpetual labour for the benefit of another class or the rest of society.

We see, then, that the progress of the tech­nique up to a certain point, makes possible, and under certain circumstances brings a change in the social relations of the members of society. From being, with the primitive technique, an association of free and equal producers, co­operating in their several spheres to the general support of the whole social body, and sharing equally in the combined produce, it becomes with improved productivity a society of rich and poor, freemen and slaves, producers and non-producers. Examined closely, this transforma­tion of the social relations is seen to be the result of a change in the conditions of property. Whilst formerly private appropriation was limited in amount, often temporary and always conditioned by personal use, indeed “rude weapons, fabrics, utensils, apparel, implements of flints, stone and bone, and personal orna­ments represent the chief items of property in savage life.” 1 At a later period the prime sources of wealth, herds, slaves, and later land, which were previously collectively owned or at least controlled by the community, are held as individual property. Once private property becomes firmly established its further extension either automatically, or artificially by open pillage is only a matter of time and opportunity. Thus the old communal life is slowly but surely broken up. The edge of the wedge of private property finds a lodgement in the crannies of the old system, and as it is thrust inwards, under the blows, at first feeble and slow, but soon raining thick and fast, of economic evolu­tion, the gentile system, ages old, reared upon kinship and communism, is split asunder, and upon its ruins rises a society having as its very base economic and social inequality.

How does this new state of affairs affect the psychology of society ? First let us see the influence of the ideas of the individual upon the general course of society. As we have seen, the ultimate motives and main impulses for action can be classified under two chief heads, those to meet the desires or serve the needs of the individuals, and those for the social good. In a society where all are socially equal these two motives to a large extent coincide. By working for society’s welfare the individual at the same time promotes his own. When society, however, divides into classes these two impulses to action become more or less opposed. In the former stage where there are no social divisions other than those of a purely natural character (such as age, sex, etc.) and in which common property predominates over private property, the common interests of the members of society greatly out­balance any incidental individual interest of a member thereof. The contrary is the case, however, in class-divided societies, with the class distinctions based upon ownership, or lack of, property of various kinds. Here private property overrules common property, and the interests of a member coincides for the most part with that of the class to which he belongs, and it is often antagonistic to that of the other classes of the community. The slave who seeks to support society and to maintain its stability fastens still firmer his shackles, but when he seeks to promote his own welfare or that of his class he threatens the social structure which rises above him.

Now although the ultimate motives can be classified into a few divisions, the immediate needs leading up to the satisfaction of these essential wants and desires, and the ideas underlying the actions which fulfil these immediate needs are multifarious and complex and become more so as the technical conditions advance. Moreover, the minor activities of individuals often conflict and nullify one another. Also through lack of foresight or unforeseen circum­stances the end aimed at is very often not accomplished, “the ends of the actions are intended, but the results which follow from the actions are not intended, or in so far as they appear to correspond with the end desired, in their final results are quite different from the conclusions wished.” 2

It is not, however, the isolated actions and ideas of individuals which influence history greatly, but those common to greater or less social groups. In fact it might almost be stated as an axiom that the influence of a given idea on society varies in like ratio to the proportion­ate size of the section of society which holds to or supports it. Now, although the ultimate needs of all members of society, such as the necessity for sustenance, and the general desire for well-being are identical, yet by reason of the division of labour their means of satisfying them and as a consequence the immediate needs of the differ­ent social grades are varied. When these grades, originally free and equal, evolve into unequal classes these immediate needs and motives, as we have seen, become antagonistic. Therefore, while the individuals even of the same class might have divergent opinions upon a large number of topics, yet they can all unite in adopt­ing a certain viewpoint and mode of action regarding subjects which touch upon their class welfare and interests and, consequently, their prime individual ones. It would therefore appear that the class numerically the strongest would always dominate society in accordance with the interests of that class. But the matter is by no means so simple as this for reasons which will now be made plain.

In the first place, with the rise of antagonistic classes a factor makes its appearance having a most potent effect upon the future development of society. Under the old system of social equal­ity such as exists to-day in all savage and most barbarian peoples, there was no incentive to act in a manner contrary to the welfare of the social whole. As a consequence there existed no necessity for a stronger regulating factor to secure social harmony than custom and public opinion. This state of affairs vanishes when, with econo­mic development, classes having antagonistic interests appear. Society now exists in a con­dition of unstable equilibrium, liable to internal risings and disruptions whenever the class interests of the less favoured sections manifest themselves too openly. An addition to custom and public opinion, a further and stronger regulator of social order becomes essential. A public power of coercion appears. The social forces of offence to, and defence from, external foes are converted into, or supplanted by, a force destined mainly to maintain order inside the community, to suppress class antagonisms, thus establishing apparent stability in the system. What was custom now becomes law ; in other words, the State now appears for the first time. Nominally impartial and standing exalted above the general social structure, the State must necessarily support the ascendency of the fa­voured class in the community, who, indeed, become more or less openly the controllers of it. This class dominating society by reason of the political control, moulds the existing institutions and creates new ones in accordance with its own ideas, so that the social system comes to reflect in all its ramifications the interests of the class which rules it.

(1) “Ancient Society,” p. 537, L. H. Morgan. LL.D
(2) “Feuerbach” (p. 104) by Frederick Engels.

(To be continued.)


Leave a Reply