1920s >> 1920 >> no-190-june-1920

The Historical Method of Karl Marx ..continued P. Lafargue

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

II. Deistic and Idealistic Philosophies of History—

Continued from May 1920.

But to show the progressive development of the bourgeoisie for a certain number of centuries back does not explain that historic movement any more than to trace the curve described in falling by a stone thrown into the air teaches us the causes of its fall. The philosophic historians attribute this evolution to the ceaseless action of the Spiritual Forces, particularly Justice, the strongest of all, which according to an idealistic and academic philosopher, “is always present even though it arrives only by degrees into human thought and into social facts.” Bourgeois society and its way of thinking are thus the last and highest manifestations of this immanent Justice, and it is to obtain these fine results that this fine lady has toiled in the mines of history.

Let us consult the judicial records of the lady aforesaid for information on her character and manners.

A ruling class always considers that what serves its economic and political interests is just and that what disserves them is unjust. The Justice which it conceives is realised when its class interests are satisfied. The interests of the bourgeoisie are thus the guides of bourgeois justice, as the interests of the aristocracy were those of feudal justice. Thus, through unconscious irony, Justice is pictured blindfolded that she may not see the mean and sordid interests which she protects with her aegis.

The feudal and guild organisation, injuring the bourgeoisie, was in its eyes so unjust that the immanent Justice resolved to destroy it. The bourgeois historians relate that it could not tolerate the forcible robberies of the feudal barons, who knew no other means of rounding out their fields and filling their purses. All of which does not prevent their honest immanent Justice from encouraging the forcible robberies which, without risking their skins, the pacific capitalists have committed by proletarians disguised as soldiers in the barbarous countries of the old and the new world. It is not that this sort of theft pleases the virtuous lady; she solemnly approves and authorises, with all legal sanctions, only the economic theft which, without clamorous violence, the bourgeoisie daily commits on the wage worker. Economic theft is so perfectly suited to the temperament and character of Justice that she metamorphoses herself into a watchdog over bourgeois wealth because it is an accumulation of thefts as legal as they are just.

Justice, who, as the philosophers say, has done marvellously in the past, who reigns in bourgeois society and who leads men toward a future of peace and happiness, is on the contrary the fertile mother of social iniquities. It is Justice who gave the slaveholder the right to possess man like a chattel; it is she again who gives the capitalist the right to exploit the children, women and men of the proletariat worse than beasts of burden. It is Justice who permitted the slaveholder to chastise the slave, who hardened his heart when he lacerated him with blows. It is she again who authorises the capitalist to grasp the surplus value created by the wage worker, and who puts his conscience at rest when he rewards with starvation wages the labour which enriches him. I stand on my right, said the slaveholder when he lashed the slave; I stand on my right, says the capitalist when he steals from the wage worker the fruits of his labour.

The capitalist class, measuring everything by its own standards, decorates with the name of Civilisation and Humanity its social order and manner of treating human beings. It is only to export civilisation to the barbarous nations, only to rescue them from their gross immorality, only to ameliorate their miserable conditions of existence that it undertakes its colonial expeditions, and its Civilisation and its Humanity manifest themselves under the specific form of stupefaction through Christianity, poisoning with alcohol, pillage and extermination of the natives. But we should be doing an injustice if we thought that it favours the barbarians and that it does not diffuse the benefits of its Humanity over the labouring classes of the nations which it rules. Its Civilisation and its Humanity may there be counted up by the mass of men, women and children dispossessed of all property, condemned to compulsory labour day and night, to periodic vacations at their own expense, to alcoholism, consumption, rickets; by the increasing number of misdemeanours and crimes, by the multiplication of insane asylums and by the development and improvement of the penitentiary system.

Never has ruling class so loudly clamoured for the Ideal, because never had a ruling class had such need for obscuring its actions with idealistic chatter. This ideological charlatanism is its surest and most efficacious method for political and economic trickery. The startling contradiction between its words and its acts has not prevented the historians and philosophers from taking the eternal Ideas and Principles for the sole motive forces of the history of the capitalised nations. Their monumental error, which passes all bounds even for the intellectuals, is an incontestable proof of the power wielded by Ideas, and of the adroitness with which the bourgeoisie has succeeded in cultivating and exploiting this force so as to derive an income from it. The financiers pad their prospectuses with patriotic principles, with ideas of civilisation, humanitarian sentiments, and six-per-cent. investments for fathers of families. These are infallible baits when fishing for suckers. De Lesseps could never have inflated his magnificent bubble at Panama, raking in the savings of eight hundred thousand little people, had not that “great Frenchman” promised to add another glory to the halo of his Fatherland, to broaden civilised humanity and to enrich the subscribers.

Eternal Ideas and Principles are such irresistible attractions that there is no financial, industrial or commercial prospectus, nor even an advertisement of alcoholic drink or patent medicine, but is spiced with it; political treasons and economic frauds hoist the standard of Ideas and Principles.

The historic philosophy of the idealists could not be other than a war of words, equally insipid and indigestible, since they have not perceived that the capitalist parades the eternal principles for no other purpose than to mask the egoistic motives of his actions, and since they have not arrived at the point of recognising the humbug of the bourgeois ideology. But the lamentable abortions of the idealist philosophy do not prove that it is impossible to arrive at the determining causes of the organisation and evolution of human societies as the chemists have succeeded in doing with those which regulate the agglomeration of molecules into complex bodies.

The social world,” says Vico, the father of the philosophy of history, “is undeniably the work of man, whence it results that we may and must find its principles nowhere else than in the modification of human intelligence. Is it not surprising to every thinking man that the philosophers have seriously undertaken to know the world of nature, which God made and the knowledge of which He has reserved for Himself, and that they have neglected to meditate over that social world, the knowledge of which men may have, since men have made it?”

The numerous failures of the deistic and idealistic methods compel the trial of a new method of interpreting history.

III. Vico’s “Historical Laws”

Vico, scarcely ever read by the philosophical historians, although they play with a few of his phrases, which they interpret badly as often as they repeat them, formulated in his Scienza nuova certain fundamental laws of history.

He lays down as a general law of the development of societies that all nations, whatever their ethnic origin and their geographical habitat, traverse the same historic roads; thus, the history of any nation whatever is a repetition of the history of another nation which has attained a higher degree of development.

There exists”, he says, “an eternal ideal history traversed on earth by the histories of all nations, from whatever status of savagery, barbarism and ferocity men set out to civilise themselves”, to domesticate themselves, according to his expression. (Scienza nuova, libr.II, §5)

Morgan, who probably had no knowledge of Vico, arrived at a conception of the same law which he formulates in a more positive and complete fashion. The historic uniformity which the Neopolitan philosopher attributed to their development according to a pre-established plan the American anthropologist assigns to two causes, to the intellectual resemblance of men and to the similarity of the obstacles which they have had to surmount in order to develop their societies. Vico also believed in their intellectual resemblance. “There necessarily exists”, he said, “in the nature of human affairs, a universal mental language, common to all nations, which designs uniformly the substance of the things playing an active part in the social life of men and expresses it with as many modifications as there are different aspects which these things can take on. We recognise its existence in proverbs, those maxims of popular wisdom, which are of the same substance in all nations, ancient and modern, although they are expressed in so many different ways.” (Ib. Degli Elem. XXII.)

The human mind”, says Morgan, “specifically the same in all the tribes and nations of mankind, and limited in the range of its powers, works and must work, in the same uniform channels, and within narrow limits of variation. Its results in disconnected regions of space, and in widely separated ages of time, articulate in a logically connected chain of common experiences”. Elsewhere in this book Morgan shows that, like successive geological formations, the tribes of humanity may be superimposed in successive layers according to their development: classed in this way, they reveal with a certain degree of exactness the complete march of human progress from savagery to civilisation; for the paths of human experiences in the several nations have been almost parallel. Marx, who studied the path of economic “experiences”, confirms Morgan’s idea. The country most developed industrially, he says in the preface to Capital, shows those who follow it on the industrial ladder the image of their own future.

Thus, then, the “ideal eternal history” which according to Vico the different people of humanity must traverse each in their turn, is not a historic plan pre-established by a divine intelligence, but an historic plan of human progress conceived by the historian who, after having studied the stages traversed by every people, compares them in progressive series according to their degrees of complexity.

Researches, continued for a century on the savage tribes and ancient and modern peoples, have triumphantly proved the exactness of Vico’s law. They have established the fact that all men, whatever their ethnic origin or their geographical habitat, had in their development gone through the same forms of family, property, and production, as well as the social and political institutions. The Danish anthropologists were the first to recognise the fact and to divide the prehistoric period into successive ages of stone, bronze, and iron, characterised by the raw material of the tools manufactured and consequently of the mode of production. The general histories of the different nations, whether they belong to the white, black, yellow or red race, and whether they inhabit the temperate zone, the equator or the poles, are distinguished from each other only by Vico’s stage of ideal history, only by Morgan’s historic stratum, only by Marx’s round of the economic ladder to which they have attained. Thus the most developed people shows to those which are less developed the image of their own future.

The productions of intelligence do not escape Vico’s law. The philologists and grammarians have found that for the creation of words and languages men of all races have followed the same rules. Folklorists have gathered the same tales among savage and civilised peoples. Vico had already recognised among them the same proverbs. Many of the folklorists instead of considering the similar tales as the productions of nations which preserve them only through oral tradition think that they were conceived in only one centre, from which they were scattered over the earth. This is inadmissible and contradicts what has been observed in the social institutions and other productions, intellectual as well as material.

The history of the idea of the soul and the ideas to which it has given birth is one of the most curious examples of the remarkable uniformity of the development of thought. The idea of the soul, which is found in savages, even the lowest, is one of the first intellectual inventions. The soul once invented, it was necessary to fit it out with a dwelling place, under the earth or in the sky, to lodge after death, in order to prevent it from wandering without domicile and pestering the living. The idea of the soul, very vivid in savage and barbarous nations, after having contributed to the manufacture of the Great Spirit and of God, vanishes among nations arrived at a higher degree of development, to be reborn with a new life and force when they arrive at another stage of evolution. The historians, after having pointed out in the historic nations of the Mediterranean basin the absence of the idea of the soul, which nevertheless had existed among them during the preceding savage period, recognise its rebirth some centuries before the Christian era, as well as its persistence until our own days. They content themselves with mentioning those extraordinary phenomena of the disappearance and reappearance of so fundamental an idea without attaching importance to them and without thinking of looking for the explanation which, however, they would not have found in the field of their investigations, and which we can only hope to discover by applying Marx’s historical method, by seeking it in the transformations of the economic world.

The scientists who have brought to light the primitive forms of the family, property, and political institutions, have been too much absorbed by the labour of research to have time to enquire into the causes of their transformations: they have only made descriptive history, and the science of the social world must be explanatory as well as descriptive.

Vico thinks that man is the unconscious motive power of history and that it is not his virtues but his vices which are the active forces. It is not “disinterestedness, generosity, and humanity, but ferocity, avarice, and ambition” which create and develop societies; “these three vices which lead the human race astray, produce the army, commerce, and political power, and consequently the courage, wealth, and wisdom of republics: so that these vices, which are capable of destroying the human race on earth, produce civil felicity.”

This unexpected result furnished to Vico the proof of “the existence of a divine providence, a divine intelligence, which, out of the passions of men, absorbed entirely by their private interests, which might make them live in solitudes like fierce beasts, organise civil order, thus permitting us to live in a human society.”

The divine providence which directs the evil passions of men is a second edition of the popular axiom: “man proposes and God disposes”. This divine providence of the Neapolitan philosopher and this God of popular wisdom who leads man by the aid of his vices and his passions, what are they?

The mode of production, says Marx.

Vico, in accordance with the popular judgment, affirms that man alone furnishes the motive power of history. But his passions, bad and good, and his needs are not invariable quantities as the idealists suppose, for whom man has always remained the same. For example, maternal love, that heritage from the animals, without which man in the savage state could not have lived and perpetuated himself, diminishes in civilisation to the point of disappearing in the mothers of the rich class, who from its birth relieve themselves of the child and entrust it to the care of hirelings; – other civilised women feel so little the need of maternity that they make vows of virginity [1]; paternal love and sexual jealousy, which cannot show themselves in savage and barbarous tribes during the polyandrous period, are on the contrary highly developed among civilised people; – the sentiment of equality, vivid and imperious in savages and barbarians, who live in communities, to the point of forbidding any one the possession of an object which the others could not possess, has become so fully obliterated since man has lived under the system of individual property, that the poor and the wage workers of civilisation accept resignedly and as a divine and natural destiny their social inferiority.

Thus, then, in the course of human development, fundamental passions are transformed, reduced, and extinguished, while others arise and grow. To seek only in man the determining causes of their production and evolution would be to admit that although living in nature and society, he does not submit to the influence of the surrounding reality. Such a supposition cannot arise even in the brain of the most extreme idealist, for he would not dare to assume that we should meet the same sentiment of modesty in the respectable mother of the household and the unfortunate earning her living with her sex; the same swiftness of calculation in the bank clerk and the philosopher; the same agility of the fingers of the professional pianist and the ditch digger. It is thus undeniable that man on the physical, intellectual, and moral sides is subject unconsciously, but profoundly, to the action of the environment in which he moves.

IV. The Natural Environment and the Artificial or Social Environment

The action of the environment is not merely direct, it is exercised not merely upon the organ which functions, upon the hand in the case of the pianist and the ditch digger, upon the moral sense in that of the honest woman and prostitute; it is again indirect and reacts upon all the organs. This generalisation of the action of the environment which Geoffrey Saint-Hillaire designated under the characteristic name of subordination of the organs and which modern naturalists call law of correlation, Cuvier explains thus: “Every organised being forms a whole, a unique and closed system, whose parts correspond to each other and contribute to the same definite action by a reciprocal action. None of these parts can change without the other parts also changing.” For example, the form of the teeth of an animal cannot be modified from any cause whatever without involving modifications in the jaws, the muscles which move them, the bones of the skull to which they are attached, the brain which the skull encases, the bones and muscles which support the head, the form and length of the intestines, indeed in all parts of the body. The modifications which are produced in the fore limbs as soon as they have ceased to serve for walking have led to organic transformations which have definitely separated man from the anthropoid apes.

It is not always possible to foresee and understand the modifications involved by the change which has occurred in any certain organ: for example, why the breaking of a leg or the removal of a testicle in the stag family causes the atrophy of the horn on the opposite side; why white cats are deaf; why mammals with hooves are herbivorous and those with five toes armed with claws are carnivorous.


(Translated by Chas. H. Kerr.)

(To Be Continued)

(Socialist Standard, June 1920)