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A Brief Sketch of the Materialist Conception of History – Part 4

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Part 4
Before proceeding to touch upon the question of class struggles as a feature of historical development, we must point out to new students of our theory of history the necessity of them holding in mind a few important points hitherto not mentioned in this sketch. It is the nature of the Socialist philosophy, based upon the firm ground of positive science, to be thoroughly comprehensive. Hence the historical aspect of that philosophy, which we are here considering, embraces the findings of science as generally applied to man. Thus all ideas concerning the duration of man’s existence upon the earth which are derived from Biblical teachings, must be put on one side as being contrary to facts.

Generally speaking, until the early part of the 19th century the idea that man was created some 6,000 years ago by a supernatural power held undisputed sway over the minds of the great bulk of the people. So certain was the idea of creation held to be true that one eminent divine, Dr. Lightfoot, at one time Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, went so far as to fix the “precise date” of man’s creation. According to him man was created on the 23rd of October, 4004 B.C. at 9 o’clock in the morning. A similar utterance nowadays might impel rude people to call him Dr. Lighthead. As the historian, Buckle, satirically remarked when another eminent divine fixed the “date” of Noah’s entry into the Ark, “theologians have always been remarkable for the exactness of their knowledge on subjects respecting which nothing is known.” Nowadays, of course, these ideas are no longer considered as serious contributions to the study of man and his history. The principle of evolution has largely superseded the dogmas of theology, and it is more and more becoming acknowledged, even by theologians themselves, that man is a product of a process of evolution from lower forms of life—“a process of evolution going on through millions of years.” Hence the life history of the human race cannot be confined within the narrow limits of the more or less orthodox historians, who would lead us to believe that the history of Britain began with the invasion of the Romans, or that the history of America began with the arrival of the Puritan fathers from England.

The same method of enquiry which is employed in natural history, as far as origins are concerned, must be employed in human history, as it has been during the last hundred years with great success. The labours of many investigators into human origins have brought to light a mass of evidence showing that, not for 6,000 years, but for more than 100,000 years have human beings inhabited the earth. The view expressed by Lewis Henry Morgan that the existence of mankind extends backwards immeasurably and loses itself in a vast and profound antiquity, is shared by practically all the scientists who have investigated the history of mankind. Though opinions vary among geologists, those who study the general structure of the earth, and among anthropologists, those who study the physical and certain aspects of the social history of man, concerning the extent of human existence, it is generally agreed that any estimate which falls short of 100,000 years may be ignored.

History as commonly understood merely refers to the period of human existence during which we have written records of . human activities, but the term “pre-historic” has now become quite common, and is generally applied to that vast period of man’s existence about which the ordinary written records tell us nothing.

The evidence of man’s antiquity is not merely confined to the discoveries of human skulls, but is also to be gathered from the relics and tools unearthed from ancient river-beds, limestone caverns, lake bottoms, rude sepulchres and stone structures in many parts of the world.

As Paul Lafargue points out in his “Evolution of Property” the fact of man being a tool-making animal, “the discovery of a stone implement in a cavern or geological stratum is proof as positive of the presence of a human being as the human skeleton itself.”

Throughout the immense period of time that men have roamed “our planet,” they have pushed forward in their conquest of the forces of nature unaided by any power other than that of their own mental and physical abilities. No supernatural power has guided the footsteps of mankind in their long and painful journey from savagery to civilisation. Thus must working-class students look to the doings and surroundings of man alone in order to understand the movements of history.

And now about the struggle of classes. The Socialist is often reproached for declaring the existence of the class struggle as though he created the struggle. As well might our opponents reproach Copernicus for the earth’s motion round the sun, or Sir Isaac Newton for the law of gravitation. The Socialist does not create the struggle, he but points to its existence and to the lessons to be learned therefrom. The class struggle arises from the private or class-ownership of the means .of living, the land and the other resources of wealth production and distribution. Private property in the means of life necessarily implies a social system composed of masters and slaves, the former living on the proceeds of the exploitation of the latter.

Now how did these different social classes come into existence? It was an idea of some of the 18th-century philosophers that human society was held together by some sort of contract which was originally entered into between those who governed and those who were governed, but this idea is not a correct one, as the existence of an armed force in all class societies throughout history bears ample testimony.

Nor does the so-called “physiological differences,” as suggested by certain biologists, account for class distinctions. Class distinctions between men are to be found, not by making physiological comparisons between human beings, but in the way in which they get their living. “A beggar,” says Untermann “has the same physiological organisation as a king.” Class differences are not biological, they are fundamentally economic in character. If natural differences accounted for class distinctions, class societies would meet us in every phase of human history, and such is not the case.

Morgan points out that, assuming 100,000 years to be the extent of man’s existence upon the earth, something like 95 thousand years of this period must have been spent by mankind under savagery and barbarism. Now since classes did not arise until the higher stage of barbarism, it will be gathered that classless society existed for by far the greater portion of the period of human existence. As Marx observes on the questions of classes in modern society :

   One thing, however, is clear, nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economical revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production.—(Capital, pp. 147-148.)

Now the use of private property in the means of life did not take place as a result of a process of reasoning on the part of human beings, that is to say, men did not debate the question as to whether they would establish the institution of private property. In fact, much historical evidence exists to show that strenuous efforts were made by early man to prevent the break up of their communal institutions. Private property worked its way into the conditions of human existence by way of necessity, and had to be adopted by mankind as a means of their social advancement. The rise of classes, with their conflicting interests and struggles, is to be traced to the economic development we have mentioned, namely, the development of the tools of wealth production, aided by certain discoveries.

Whilst the productive powers of primitive society yielded no more wealth than was required for mere existence, all members of that society who were able would be compelled to devote the whole of their time in producing the wherewithal to live. “No idlers can be maintained at the cost of society.” But when the.productive powers of society increased to the extent that a surplus above that which is necessary for maintenance is produced, a change in social relations is made possible. The path is opened for the formation of distinct social classes. We cannot here enter into the question of the many conditions contributing to the rise of class society, as our main theme concerns the main factor of historical development. Only a few historical examples can be given by way of showing the truth of our theory of history, and in giving these examples it must be understood that they are taken from the Eastern part of the world, called the Old World, where, with certain natural advantages, the course of economic development first facilitated the rise of private property. The domestication of animals, unquestionably one of the great discoveries of the world, appears to have been one of the main contributions to the growth of private property in the means of life.

As the number of domesticated animals grew the more did it become necessary to find grounds for them to graze upon. Consequently, from taming and rearing animals, men were sooner or later compelled to turn their attention to agricultural pursuits, and to give up their habits of roaming from place to place and settle down to a more or less fixed habitation. Further, the division of labour in tribal society, hitherto confined to the sexes, the men engaged in war, hunting, fishing and the production of the raw materials for these occupations, whilst the women were in charge of the household, and cooked, sewed and weaved, was now extended to men themselves. Different professions or trades arose within the tribal organisation, and consequent upon the increase of wealth production which followed, the more did wealth fall into the possession of certain families within the tribe, which in turn created the desire for more wealth. But this could only be obtained by the employment of more labour power, and to get this was not possible within the tribe itself. The equality which prevailed under the conditions of life of tribal communism did not allow of men being pressed into the service of others. The required labour power had to be introduced from outside the tribal organisation. The solution to the problem of finding this labour power was found in war. It must be noted that tribal man did not extend the same feeling of comradeship to the members of other tribes as he did to those of his own tribe. For other tribes were regarded as enemies, and theoretically as well as practically every tribe was at war with other tribes, as in our own times people of other nations are regarded with suspicion, as though they are destined to endanger our existence.

Hitherto wars had been carried on between neighbouring tribes largely on account of the scarcity of food. In fact, so precarious were the conditions of human existence that cannibalism was often resorted to as a means of averting starvation.
A tribe which possessed a good hunting territory was at all times subject to attack from those tribes in a less fortunate position. But the all-round progress made in cattle raising and agriculture, which was later facilitated by the production of iron, altered all this. Wars between tribes were now undertaken with other objects in view. The captured enemies, instead of being killed and eaten as formerly, were now pressed into the service of their conquerors by being set to work in the interests of the latter; in other words, they were enslaved. Says Engels in his work, “The Origin of the Family” :—

  Under the given historical conditions, the first great division of social labour, by increasing the productivity of labour, adding to the wealth, and enlarging the field of productivity, necessarily carried slavery in its wake. Out of the first great division of social labour arose the first great division of society into two classes: masters and servants, exploiters and exploited.

From this time onwards down to the present day the evolution of society has produced different ruling and subject classes, slavery, though different in degree from that of earlier times, still exists as a feature of human society. For, slavery it must be understood, does not merely mean an intensified form of work, which is the popular notion, slavery is political and economic subjection—political in the sense that an armed force. exists to conserve the monopoly of the wealth produced by and stolen from the slave class, and economic in that the slave class is divorced from the means of life. The question of whether the work of the slaves is laborious or otherwise is irrelevant to the real meaning of slavery. As common experience shows, the vast resources of wealth production in modern society are privately owned, the owners of these taking no part in wealth production, yet enjoying the wealth produced by those who have to seek their permission in order to live, which is the very essence of slavery.

However, what is important for the working-class student of history to note is that, class society with its consequent enslavement of the wealth producers is the result of economic development, and further that it was when first established, a step forward in the advancement of human society.

“We must not forget,” says Engels, in his work, “Anti-Duhring,” “that our entire economic, political and intellectual development has its foundations in a state of society in which slavery was regarded universally as necessary. In this sense we may say that without the ancient slavery there would have been no modern Socialism.”

What is also of importance is that the use of force was required to establish class society, as the use of force has been necessary to its existence ever since. “Force,” says Marx, “is the midwife of the old society pregnant with the new.”

Robert Reynolds
(To be continued.)

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