1920s >> 1920 >> no-189-may-1920

The Historical Method of Karl Marx: P. Lafargue


Reprinted from the “International Socialist Review,” Oct., 1907.

The mode of production of the physical means of life dominates as a rule the development of the social, political and intellectual life” (Karl Marx).

I. The Socialist Critiques.

Marx, half a century ago, proposed a new method for the interpretation of history, which he and Engels applied in their studies. It is not surprising that the historians, sociologists and philosophers, fearing lest the communist thinker corrupt their innocence and cause them to lose the favour of the bourgeoisie, should ignore this method: but it is strange that Socialists should hesitate to employ it, possibly for fear of arriving at conclusions which might rumple their bourgeois notions, to which they unconsciously remain prisoners. Instead of experimenting with it so as to judge it from its use, they prefer to discuss the question of its value and they discover innumerable defects in it; it misconceives, they say, the ideal and its operation; it brutalises eternal truths and principles; it takes no account of the individual and of his role; it leads to an economic fatalism which excuses man from all effort, etc. What would these comrades think of a carpenter who, instead of working with the hammers, saws and planes put at his disposal, should quarrel with them? Since no perfect tools exist, he would have plenty of chance to rail at them. Criticism does not begin to be fruitful instead of futile, until it comes after experience, which, better than the most subtle reasoning, makes us sensible of imperfections and teaches us to correct them. Man first used the clumsy stone hammer, and its use taught him to transform it into more than a hundred types, differing in their raw material, their weight, and their form.

Leucippus and his disciple Democritus, five centuries before the Christian Era, introduced their concept of the atom to explain the makeup of mind and matter, and during more than two thousand years, philosophers, the idea not occurring to them of resorting to experience that they might test the atomic hypothesis, indulged in discussions on the atom in itself, on the fullness of matter indefinitely continued, on emptiness, discontinuity, etc. and it is not until the end of the 18th century that Dalton utilised the conception of Democritus to explain chemical combinations. The atom, with which the philosophers had been able to do nothing, became in the hands of the chemists “one of the most powerful tools of research that human reason has succeeded in creating”. But now, after its use, the marvellous tool has been found imperfect and the radio-activity of matter obliges the physicists to pulverise the atom, that ultimate particle of matter, indivisible and impenetrable, into ultra-ultimate particles, of the same nature in all atoms, and carriers of electricity. The atomicules, a thousand times smaller than the atom of hydrogen, the smallest of atoms, are said to whirl with an extraordinary velocity around a central nucleus, as the planets and earth revolve about the sun. The atom might be a miniature solar system and the elements of the bodies which we know might differ in themselves only in number and the gyratory movements of their atomicules. The recent discoveries of radio-activity, which shake fundamental laws of mathematical physics, ruin the atomic base of the chemical structure. It is impossible to mention a more noteworthy example of the sterility of verbal discussions and the fertility of experience. Action alone in the material and intellectual world is fruitful: “In the beginning was action”.

Economic determinism [* We prefer Marx’s own term, “The Materalist Conception of History,” —Editors “S.S.”] is a new tool put by Marx at the disposal of Socialists to establish a little order in the disorder of historic facts, which the historians and philosophers have been incapable of classifying and explaining. Their class prejudices and their narrowness of mind give to the Socialists the monopoly of this tool; but the latter before using it wish to convince themselves that it is absolutely perfect and that it may become the key to all the problems of history; on this account it is quite possible for them to continue during the whole of their lives to discourse and to write articles and volumes on historical materialism, without adding a single idea to the subject. Men of science are less timorous. They think that “from the practical point of view it is of secondary importance that theories and hypotheses be correct provided they guide us to results in agreement with the facts”. Truth, after all, is merely the best working hypothesis; often error is the shortest road to discovery. Christopher Columbus, starting from the error in figuring made by Ptolemy, on the circumference of the earth, discovered America, when he thought he was arriving at the East Indies. Darwin recognises that the first idea of his theory of natural selection was suggested to him by the false law of Malthus on population, which he accepted with closed eyes. Physicists can today perceive that the hypothesis of Democritus is insufficient to include the phenomena recently studied, yet that does not alter the fact that it served to build up modern chemistry.

It is in fact little observed that Marx has not presented his method of historical interpretation as a body of doctrine with axioms, theorems, corollaries and lemmas; it is for him merely an instrument of research ; he formulates it in a workmanlike style and puts it to the test. It can thus be criticised only by contesting the results which it gives in his hands, for instance, by refuting his theory of the class struggle. This our historians and philosophers carefully refrain from doing. They regard it as the impure work of the demon, precisely because it has led Marx to the discovery of this powerful motive force in history.

II. Deistic and Idealistic Philosophies of History.

History is such a chaos of facts beyond man’s control, progressing and receding, clashing and interclashing, appearing and disappearing without apparent reason, that we are tempted to think it impossible to bind them and classify them into series from which can be discovered the causes of evolution and revolution.

The collapse of systems in history has given rise in the minds of thinking men like Helmholtz to the doubt whether it is possible to formulate a historical law that reality would confirm. This doubt has become so general that the intellectuals no longer venture to construct like the philosophers of the first half of the 19th century plans of universal history; it is indeed an echo of the incredulity of the economists as to the possibility of controlling economic forces. But need we conclude from the difficulties of the historic problem and the ill-success of attempts to solve it that its solution is beyond the reach of the human mind? In that case social phenomena would stand apart as the only ones which could not be logically linked to determining causes.

Commonsense has never admitted such an impossibility; on the contrary, men have always believed what came to them, fortunate or unfortunate, was part of a plan preconceived by a superior being. Man proposes and God disposes is a historical axiom of popular wisdom which carries as much truth as the axioms of geometry, on condition, however, that we interpret the meaning of the word God.

All people have thought that a god directed their history. The cities of antiquity each possessed a State divinity or poliad as the Greeks called it, watching over their destinies and dwelling in the temple consecrated to him. The Jehovah of the Old Testament was a divinity of this kind; he was lodged in a wooden box, called “Ark of the Covenant”, which was transported when the tribes of Israel changed their location, and which was placed at the front of the armies in order that he might fight for his people. He took his quarrels so much to heart, according to the Bible, that he exterminated his enemies – men, women, children and beasts. The Romans, during the Second Punic War, thought it useful as a means of resistance to Hannibal to couple up their State divinity with that of Pessinus, namely Cybele, the mother of gods; they brought over from Asia Minor her statue, a big shapeless stone, and introduced into Rome her orgiastic worship: as they were at once superstitious and astute politicians, they annexed the State divinity of each conquered city, sending its statue to the capitol; they reasoned that, no longer dwelling among the conquered people, it would cease to protect them.

The Christians had no other idea of divinity when, to drive out the Pagan gods, they broke their statues and burned their temples, and when they called on Jesus and his eternal Father to battle with the demons who stirred up the heresies of Allah which opposed the crescent to the cross. The cities of the Middle Ages put themselves under the protection of municipal divinities; St. Genevieve was that of Paris. The republic of Venice, that it might have an abundance of these protecting divinities, brought over from Alexandria the skeleton of St. Mark and stole at Montpellier that of St. Roques. Civilised nations have never denied the Pagan belief: each monopolises for its use the only and universal God of the Christians, and makes therefrom its State divinity. Thus there are as many only and universal Gods as there are Christian nations, and the former fight among themselves as soon as the latter declare war; each nation prays its only and universal God to exterminate its rival and sings Te Deums in His honour if it is victorious, convinced that it owes its triumph only to His all-powerful intervention. The belief in the intrusion of God into human quarrels is not simulated by statesmen to please the coarse superstition of ignorant crowds; they share it. The private letters recently published, which Bismarck wrote to his wife during the war of 1870-71, show him believing that God passed His time in occupying Himself with him, his son and the Prussian armies.

The philosophers who have taken God for the directing guide of history share this infatuation; they imagine that this God, creator of the universe and humanity, can be interested in nothing else than their country, religion and politics. Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History is one of the most successful specimens of this kind: the Pagan nations exterminate each other to prepare for the coming of Christianity, his religion, and the Christian nations slaughter each other to assure the greatness of France, his country, and the glory of Louis XIV, his master. The historic movement, guided by God, culminated in the Sun King; when he was extinguished, shadows invaded the world, and the Revolution, which Joseph de Maistre calls “the work of Satan” burst forth.

Satan triumphed over God, the State divinity of the aristocracy and the Bourbons. The bourgeoisie, the class which God held in small regard, possessed itself of power and guillotined the king He had anointed: natural sciences, which He had cursed, triumphed and engendered for the bourgeoisie more riches than He had been able to give to His favourites, the nobles and the legitimate kings; Reason, which he had bound, broke her chains and dragged Him before her tribunal. The reign of Satan had begun. The romantic poets of the first half of the nineteenth century composed hymns in his honour; he was the unconquerable vanquished, the great martyr, the consoler and hope of the oppressed; he symbolised the bourgeoisie in perpetual revolt against nobles, priests and tyrants. But the victorious bourgeoisie had not the courage to take him for its State divinity; it patched up God, whom Reason had slightly disfigured, and restored him to honour; nevertheless, not having entire faith in His omnipotence, it added to Him a troop of demigods: Progress, Justice, Liberty, Civilisation, Humanity, Fatherland, etc. who were chosen to preside over the destinies of the nations who had shaken off the yoke of the aristocracy.

These new gods are “Ideas”, “Spiritual Forces”, “imponderable Forces”. Hegel undertook to bring back this polytheism of Ideas into the monotheism of the Idea, which, born of itself, creates the world and history by its own unfolding. The God of historic philosophy is a mechanic who, for His amusement constructs the universe, whose movements he regulates, and manufactures man, whose destinies He directs after a plan known to Himself alone, but the philosophic historians have not perceived that this eternal God is not the creator but the creature of man, who, in proportion to his own development, remodels Him, and that, far from being the director, He is the plaything of historic events.

The philosophy of the idealists, in appearance less childish than that of the deists, is an unfortunate application to history of the deductive method of the abstract sciences, whose propositions, logically linked, flow from certain undemonstrable axioms which impose themselves by the principle of evidence. The mathematicians are wrong in not troubling themselves regarding the fashion in which the ideas slipped into the human mind. The idealists disdain to inquire into the origin of their Ideas, coming no one knows whence; they confine themselves to affirming that they exist of themselves, that they are perfectible, and that in proportion as they become perfect they modify men and social phenomena, placed under their control; thus it is only necessary to know the evolution of Ideas to acquire the laws of history. In this way Pythagoras thought that the knowledge of the properties of numbers would give knowledge of the properties of bodies.

But because the axioms of mathematics cannot be demonstrated by reasoning, that does not prove that they are not properties of bodies, just like colour, form, weight and warmth, which experience alone reveals, and the idea of which exists in the brain only because man has come into contact with the bodies of nature. It is, in fact, as impossible to prove by reasoning that a body is square, coloured, heavy or warm as to demonstrate that the part is smaller than the whole, that two and two make four, etc.: all we can do is to state the experimental fact and draw its logical conclusions.

The Ideas of Progress, Justice, Liberty, Fatherland, etc., like the axioms of mathematics, do not exist outside of themselves and outside the spiritual domain; they do not precede experience but follow it; they do not engender the events of history, but they are the consequence of the social phenomena which in evolving create them, transform them, and suppress them; they do not become active forces save as they emanate directly from the social streams. One of the tasks of history unnoticed by the philosophers is the discovery of the social causes, of which they themselves are a product, and which give them the power acting upon the brains of the men of a given epoch.

Bossuet and the deist philosophers, who promoted God to the dignity of a conscious director of the historic movement, have after all merely conformed to the popular opinion of the historic role played by the divinity: the idealists who substitute for Him the Idea-Forces merely utilise in historic fashion the vulgar bourgeois opinion. Every bourgeois proclaims that his private and public acts are inspired by Progress, Justice, Patriotism, Humanity, etc. To be convinced of this we need only go through the advertisements of the manufacturers and merchants, the prospectuses of the financiers, and the electoral programmes of the politicians.

The ideas of Progress and of evolution are modern in their origin; they are a transportation into history of that human perfectibility which became fashionable with the eighteenth century. It was inevitable that the bourgeoisie should regard its entrance into power as an immense step of social progress, while the aristocracy looked upon it as a disastrous setback. The French revolution, because it occurred a century after the English revolution, and consequently in conditions more fully ripe, substituted so suddenly and completely the bourgeoisie for the nobility that from that time the idea of Progress took firm root in the public opinion of Europe. The European capitalists believed themselves founded on the power of Progress. They affirmed in good faith that their habits, manners, virtues, private and public morality, social and family organisation, industry and commerce were an advance over everything which had existed. The past was only ignorance, barbarity, injustice and unreason: “Finally, for the first time”, cried Hegel, “Reason was to govern the world.” The bourgeois of 1793 deified her; already in the beginning of the bourgeois period in the ancient world Plato (in the Timaeus) declared her superior to Necessity, and Socrates reproached Anaxagoras with having, in his cosmogony, explained everything by material causes without having made any use of Reason, from whom everything could be hoped (Phaedo). The social dominance of the bourgeoisie is the reign of Reason.

But a historical event, even so considerable a one as the grasping of power by the bourgeoisie, does not alone suffice to prove Progress. The deists had made God the sole author of history; the idealists, not wishing it to be said that Progress in the past had deported itself as a do-nothing Idea, discovered that during the Middle Ages it had prepared for the triumph of the bourgeois class by organising it, by giving it intellectual culture, and by enriching it, while it wore out the offensive and defensive fortress of the Church. The idea of evolution was thus to introduce itself naturally in the train of the idea of Progress.

But for the bourgeoisie there is no progressive evolution save that which prepares for its own triumph, and as it is only for some ten centuries that its historians can find definite traces of its organic development, they lose their Ariadne’s thread as soon as they venture into the labyrinth of earlier history, whose facts they are satisfied to narrate without attempting to marshal them into progressive series. Sine the goal of progressive evolution is the establishment of the social dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, that end once attained Progress must cease to progress. In fact, the bourgeois who proclaim that their capture of power is a social progress unique in history, declare that it would be a return to barbarism, “to slavery”, as Herbert Spencer says, if they were dislodged from power by the proletariat. The vanquished aristocracy looked upon its defeat in no other light. Belief in the decree of Progress, instinctive and unconscious in the bourgeois masses, shows itself conscious and reasoned in certain bourgeois thinkers. Hegel and Comte, to cite merely two of the most famous, affirm squarely that their philosophic system closes the series, that it is the crowning and the end of the progressive evolution of thought. So, then, philosophy and social and political institutions progress only to arrive at their bourgeois form, then Progress progresses no more.

The bourgeoisie and its more intelligent intellectuals, who fix insurmountable limits to their progressive Progress, do better still; they withdraw from its influence certain social organisations of prime importance. The economists, historians, and moralists, to demonstrate in an irrefutable fashion that the paternal form of the family and the individual form of property will not be transformed, assure us that they have existed from all time. They put forth these impudent assertions at the moment when researches which have been carried on for half a century are bringing into clear light the primitive forms of the family and of property. These bourgeois scientists are ignorant of them, or reason as if they were ignorant of them.

The ideas of Progress and of evolution were especially fashionable during the first years of the nineteenth century, when the bourgeoisie was still intoxicated with its political victory, and with the prodigious development of its economic riches; the philosophers, historians, moralists, politicians, romancers, and poets fitted their writings and their teachings to the sauce of progressive Progress, which Fourier was alone or almost alone in reviling. But toward the middle of the century they were obliged to calm their immoderate enthusiasm: the apparition of the proletariat on the political stage in England and in France awoke in the mind of the bourgeoisie certain disquieting reflections on the eternal duration of its social dominance. Progressive Progress lost its charms. The ideas of Progress and of evolution would finally have ceased to be current in bourgeois phraseology had not the men of science, who from the end of the eighteenth century had grasped the idea of evolution circulating in the social environment, utilised it to explain the formation of worlds and the organisation of vegetables and animals. They gave it such a scientific value and such a popularity that it was impossible to sidetrack it.


(Translated by Chas. H. Kerr.)

(To Be Continued in Socialist Standard June 1920)

(Socialist Standard, May 1920)