1920s >> 1920 >> no-192-august-1920

The Historical Method of Karl Marx by Paul Lafargue: concluded

<.. Continued from here.

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

IV. The Natural Environment and the Artificial or Social Environment—Continued.

A few historical facts, too recent to be forgotten, will illustrate the interplay of the various parts of the artificial environment through the medium of man.

When industry had utilised the elasticity of steam as a motor power, it demanded new means of transportation to carry its fuel, its raw material and its products. It suggested to the interested manufacturers the idea of steam traction on iron rails which began to be practised in the coal fields of Gard in 1830 and in those of the Loire in 1832; it was in 1829 that Stephenson’s first locomotive drew a train in England. But when it was desired to extend this mode of locomotion, active and various opposition was encountered, which delayed its development for years. M. Thiers, one of the political leaders of official capitalism, and one of the authorised representatives of its common sense and public opinion, opposed it energetically, because, he declared, “a railroad cannot work”. Railroads, indeed, upset the most reasonable and established ideas: they required, along with other impossible things, grave changes in the mode of property – serving as a basis for the social edifice of the bourgeoisie then in power. Till then a capitalist created an industry or a mercantile establishment with his own money, increased, at the most, by that of one or two friends and acquaintances who had confidence in his honesty and skill; he directed the use of the funds and was the real and nominal proprietor of the factory or the commercial house. But the railroads were obliged to amass such enormous capitals that it was therefore necessary to induce a great number of capitalists to confide their money, which they had never left out of their sight, to people whose names they scarcely knew, still less their ability or morality. When they let go of the money they lost all control over its use; they had no personal proprietorship in the stations, cars, locomotives, etc., which it served to create; instead of pieces of gold or silver, having volume, weight and other solid qualities, they received back a narrow, light sheet of paper, representing fictitiously, an intangible morsel of the collective property, the name of which it bore, printed in big letters. Never in bourgeois memory had property taken on such a metaphysical form. This new form, which depersonalised property, was in such violent contradiction with that which summed up the joys of the capitalists, that which they had known and handed down for generations, that to defend it and propagate it no one could be found but the men charged with all the crimes and denounced as the worst disturbers of social order, – the Socialists. Fourier and St. Simon welcomed the mobilisation of property in paper stock-certificates. We find in the ranks of their disciples the manufacturers, engineers and financiers who prepared the revolution of 1848 and were the plotters of December 2: they profited by the political revolution to revolutionise the economic environment by centralising the nine provincial banks into the Bank of France, by legalising the new form of property and causing it to be accepted by public opinion, and by creating the network of French railways.

The great mechanical industry, which must draw its fuel and its raw material from a distance, and which must scatter its products widely, cannot tolerate the parcelling of a nation into little autonomous States, with tariffs, laws, weights and measures, coins, paper currencies, etc., of their own; it requires, on the contrary, the development of unified and centralised nations. Italy and Germany have met these requirements of the great industry, but only at the cost of bloody wars. MM. Thiers and Proudhon, who had numerous points of resemblance, and who represented the political interests of the little industry, became ardent defenders of the independence of the States of the Church and the Italian princes.

Since man successively creates and modifies the parts of the social environment, therefore, in him reside the motive forces of history, – so Vico and popular wisdom hold, rather than in Justice, Progress, Liberty, and other metaphysical entities, as the most philosophical historians stupidly repeat. These confused and inexact ideas vary according to the historical epochs and according to the groups or even the individuals of the same epoch; for they are the mental reflections of the phenomena produced in the different parts of the artificial environment; for example, the capitalist, the magistrate, and the wage-worker have different ideas of Justice. The Socialist understands by justice the restitution to the wage-working producers of the wealth which has been stolen from them, while to the capitalist justice is the conservation of this stolen wealth, and as the latter possesses the economic and political power, his notion predominates and makes the law, which, for the magistrate, becomes justice. Precisely because the same word covers contradictory notions, the capitalist class has made of these ideas an instrument of deceit and of domination.

That portion of the artificial or social environment in which a man functions gives him a physical, intellectual, and moral education. This education by things, which engenders ideas in him and excites his passions, is unconscious; so when he acts, he imagines he is following freely the impulses of his passions and ideas, while he is only yielding to the influences exercised on him by one of the parts of the artificial environment, which can react on the other parts only through the intermediary of his ideas and passions. Obeying instinctively the indirect pressure of the environment, he attributes the direction of his actions and emotions to a God, a divine intelligence, or to ideas of Justice, Progress, Humanity, etc. If the march of history is unconscious, since as Hegel says, man always finishes with a result other than that which he sought, it is because thus far he has been unconscious of the cause which makes him act and directs his actions.

What is the most unstable part of the social environment, that which is changed oftenest in quantity and quality, that which is most apt to disturb the whole?

The mode of production; answers Marx.

By mode of production Marx means not what is produced but the way of producing it; thus there has been weaving from prehistoric times, but it is only for about a century that there has been machine weaving. Machine production is the essential characteristic of modern industry. We have under our eyes an unparalleled example of its terrible and irresistible power to transform the social, economic, political and legal institutions of a nation. Its introduction into Japan has lifted that country in one generation from the feudal state of the middle ages into the constitutional state of the capitalist world, and has placed it in the front rank of world powers.

Multiple causes unite in assuring to the mode of production this omnipotence of action. Production absorbs, directly or indirectly, the energy of an immense majority of the individuals of a nation, while in the other parts constituting the social environment (politics, religion, literature, etc.) a slender minority is occupied, and even this minority can not but be interested in procuring the means of existence, material and intellectual. Consequently all men undergo mentally and physically, more or less, the modifying influence of the mode of production, while but a very small number of men are subjected to that of the other portions; now, as it is through the intermediary of men that the different parts of the social environment act on each other, that which modifies the most men possesses of necessity the most energy for moving the whole mass.

The mode of production, relatively unimportant in the social environment of the savage, takes on a preponderant and ever-growing importance through the incessant incorporation into production of the forces of nature, in proportion as man learns to know them: prehistoric man began this incorporation by using stones for weapons and tools.

Progress in the mode of production is relatively rapid, not only because production occupies an enormous mass of men, but again because, by enkindling “three furies of private interest”, it puts into play the three vices which, for Vico, are the moving forces of history, – hardheartedness, avarice and ambition.

Progress in the mode of production has become so headlong for the last two centuries that the men interested in production must constantly remodel the corresponding parts of the social environment to keep them on the level; the resistances which they encounter give rise to incessant conflicts, economic and political. Thus, to discover the first causes of historic movements, we must seek them in the mode of production of material life, which, as Marx says, dominates in general the development of the social, political and intellectual life.

Marx’s economic determinism takes away from Vico’s law of the unity of historical development its character of predetermination, which would carry the idea that the historic phases through which a nation passes, like the embryonic phases of an animal, are, as Geoffrey Saint-Hillaire thought, indissolubly linked to its very nature and determined by the inevitable action of an inner force, an “evolutionary force”, which would conduct it along pre-established paths toward ends marked out in advance; whence it would follow that all nations must progress, always and whether-or-no, at an equal pace and along one and the same path. The law of the unity of development, thus conceived, would be verified by the development of not one nation.

History, on the contrary, shows nations as they are, some limping through certain stages of evolution, which others traverse like race-horses, while others again go back from stages already reached. These delays, progressions, and recessions are explained only when we examine the social, political and intellectual history of the several nations in the light of the history of the artificial environments in which they have evolved, the changes in these environments, determined by the mode of production, determine in their turn historic events.

Since artificial environments are transformed only at the cost of national and international struggles, the historic events of a nation are thus subjected to relations which arise between the artificial environment to be transformed and the nation, fashioned as it has been by its natural environment and its hereditary and acquired characteristics. The natural environment and the historic past have impressed upon each nation certain original characteristics; so it follows that the same mode of production does not produce, with mathematical exactness, the same artificial or social environments, and consequently does not occasion historical events absolutely alike in different nations and at all moments in history, since vital international competition increases and intensifies in proportion to the growth in the number of nations arriving at the higher stages of civilisation. The historic evolution of nations, then, is not predetermined, any more than the embryonic evolution of individuals: if it passes through similar organisations of family, property, law, and politics, and through analogous forms of thought in philosophy, religion, art, and literature, it is because nations, whatever their race and geographical habitat, experience in their development material and intellectual wants which are substantially alike and must inevitably resort, for the satisfaction of these wants, to the same methods of production.


(Translated by Chas. H. Kerr.)


(Socialist Standard, June 1920)