1920s >> 1924 >> no-237-may-1924

A Brief Sketch of the Materialist Conception of History – Part 1

Part 1

In opposition to the conventional notion that the present form of society has always existed, the Socialist points out that it has existed for not more than a few centuries, and was preceded by other forms of society. In point of fact, the life history of the human race is made up of a series of fundamental changes in social relations.
Broadly speaking, mankind have experienced four distinct forms of society, which are Primitive Communism, Chattel Slavery, Feudalism, and Capitalism. However, the knowledge of the changes in society must necessarily be connected with a knowledge of the causes underlying the changes.
Many attempts have been made by historians in the past to find the main cause or causes behind social development. Prior to the middle of the 19th century (excluding Vico, who has been called “the father of the philosophy of history”) the general conception of history was based upon the notion that the causes of all social changes are to be found in the changes in man’s ideas, and that the most important of all social changes are those of a purely political character. But as to the cause of the changes in man’s ideas, and what are the motive forces behind political changes remained a mystery until the time mentioned above, i.e., the middle of the 19th century. Conspicuous among the few historians who laboured to find a solution to the problem of social change, and to make a science of history, was Henry Thomas Buckle, the author of that useful work, “The History of Civilisation in England.” Rejecting the unscientific explanations of those who had endeavoured to show that the affairs of human society are the result of chance, free will, or supernatural interference, he sought for the explanation of historical development in man’s material conditions. In the second chapter of the first volume of his work, when dealing with the influence of physical laws on human society, Buckle states :—

  If we enquire what those physical agents are by which the human race is most powerfully influenced, we shall find that they may be classed under four heads, namely, Climate, Food, Soil, and the General Aspect of Nature, by which last I mean those appearances which, though presented chiefly to the sight, have, through the medium of that or other senses, directed the association of ideas and hence in different countries have given rise to the different habits of national thought.

But, as a satisfactory explanation of the cause of social change, this theory of Buckle’s failed. Unquestionably the factors emphasised by him have played an important part in influencing the ideas and institutions of human society, particularly when society was in its earlier stages of development, but it cannot be shown that climatic and geographical conditions are the driving force behind the changes that have taken place in society throughout historic times. The truth of this is not difficult to grasp when it is noted that, compared with the various changes in society, the climatic and geographical conditions of man’s environment have, broadly speaking, remained stationary throughout human history.
The solution of the problem we are considering, namely, the main cause of social change, was discovered by the founders of the modern Socialist movement, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and was first publicly announced by them in their joint work, “The Communist Manifesto,” published in 1848. These two men working independently of each, other came to the same conclusion, namely, that it was the economic development that formed the motive force of social development, resulting in the changes in the forms of society. Marx and Engels saw that the foundation of human society was an economic one, and that the whole structure of society rested upon this economic foundation. That the way in which wealth is produced and distributed gives rise to and in the main determines the form of the social system. Therefore, the solution of the problem of social change is to be found in the changes which take place in the means and methods by which society gets its living, and not, as was thought hitherto, in the changes in man’s ideas and ideals.
This view of the historical development of human society is known as the materialist conception of history, and is explained, in a brief way, by Engels, as follows:—

    The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life, and next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders, is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products arc exchanged. From this point of view the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.—

Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, page 45.
This discovery of the motive force of history ranks as one of the great discoveries of the 19th century, and is being more and more adopted by historians as the basis of historical research.
In passing, it may prove of interest to record how these two men were ready to credit each other for their respective shares in making the discovery. In the preface to his work, “The Critique of Political Economy,” after giving a brief summary of the materialist conception of history, Marx point out that Engels, with whom he had corresponded and exchanged ideas, “came by a different road to the same conclusion as myself (see his “ Condition of  the Working Class in England ”).”
On the other hand, Engels, in a footnote to his work on Feuerbach, makes the following statement:—

   It is incumbent upon me to make a personal explanation at this place. People have lately referred to my share in’ this theory, and I can hardly refrain from saying a few words here in settlement of that particular matter.
  I cannot deny that I had before and during my forty years’ collaboration with Marx a certain independent share, not only in laying out the foundations, but more particularly in working out the theory. But the greatest part of the leading essential thinking, particularly in the realm of economics, and especially its final sharp statement, belongs to Marx alone. What Marx supplied I could not have readily brought. Marx stood higher, saw farther, took a wider, clearer, quicker survey than all of us. Marx was a genius; we others, at the best, talented. Without him the theory would not be what it is to-day by a long way. It therefore rightly bears his name.

Surely these references are an indication of a not altogether unhealthy sign in these two ‘‘gross materialists,” as they were styled by their opponents.
However, Marx and Engels were not entirely alone in making this discovery of “the law of historical development.” Apparently without any knowledge of their writings, Lewis Henry Morgan, the great American Ethnologist, came to substantially the same conclusion. Through his investigations into the conditions of the savage and barbarian tribes, chiefly of the North American Indians, with whom he had lived for many years, Morgan came to certain conclusions regarding’ the life history of the human race. In his greatest work, “Ancient Society,” in which he traces the main lines of human progress from savagery through barbarism to civilisation, he shows that the extent of man’s supremacy over the forces of nature is determined by man’s ability to produce the means of subsistence. The following quotation from his work may be said to sum up his view of the matter :—

  The important fact that mankind commenced at the bottom of the scale and worked up, is revealed in an expressive manner by their successive arts of subsistence. Upon their skill in this direction, the whole question of human supremacy on the earth depended. Mankind are the only beings who may be said to have gained an absolute control over the production of food; which at the outset they did not possess above other animals. Without enlarging the basis of subsistence, mankind could not have propagated themselves into other areas not possessing the same kinds of food, and ultimately over the whole surface of the earth ; and lastly, without obtaining an absolute control over both its variety and amount, they could not have multiplied into populous nations. It is accordingly probable that the great epochs of human progress have been identified, more or less directly, with the enlargement of the sources of subsistence.—Ancient Society, page 19.

This view, it will be noted, is practically identical with the view of Marx and Engels.
A considerable amount of criticism has been levelled against Marx and Engels on the ground that they were supposed to have subordinated the whole of human history to the workings of economic laws. It is alleged by some of their critics that they failed to take into account the influence of such important factors as ideas, geography, climate, etc., and that the Materialist Conception of history leads to an “ economic fatalism.”
These criticisms are, however, based upon either an inability to understand, or an ability to deliberately misrepresent.
That the influence of man’s ideas, and also the importance of the other factors mentioned, were taken into account by Marx and Engels, when stating and applying the Materialist Conception of history we intend to show in a further article on the subject.

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