1920s >> 1926 >> no-268-december-1926

The Monistic Conception of History by G. V. Plechanoff (part I)

[Plechanoff’s Famous Work now translated.]

Materialism is the direct opposite of idealism. Idealism strives to explain all phenomena of nature, all the properties of matter, through one or the other of the properties of the spirit. Materialism does just the opposite. It tries to explain all psychical phenomena through some properties of matter, through the organisation of the human, or living, organism. All those philosophers for whom matter is the prime factor belong to the materialist group, all those that hold spirit as the prime factor are idealists. This is all that can be said about materialism in general, for on its foundations various structures have been erected, materialism of one epoch has an entirely different aspect from that of another epoch. Materialism and idealism are the two most important tendencies in philosophy. It is true, together with these two, there have always been some kind of dualistic systems that recognised spirit and matter as separate and independent substances. But dualism could never satisfactorily reply to the inevitable question,—how could two substances, separate and independent as they are, influence each other? This is why all the foremost and the deepest thinkers have been inclined to monism, i.e., to explain all phenomena through the help of some one fundamental principle. Every profound idealist as well as every profound materialist is a monist. In this there is no difference, for instance, between Berkeley and Holbach. The first was a confirmed idealist, the second was a no less confirmed materialist, but both were monists; both understood the impossibility of dualism.

In the first half of our century 1 idealistic monism reigned; in the second half—in science, with which materialism has since united—materialistic monism, gained the upper hand, though a materialism not always open and frank.

Here we do not need to give a whole history of materialism.2 It will be enough for us to observe its development beginning from the second half of the last century (18th) and even in this period, its principal tendencies will suffice for us. We will take up the materialistic views of Holbach, Helvetius and their co-workers.

The materialists of this school conducted a heated polemic against the official thinkers of the time, who, professing to follow Descartes, whom they scarcely understood, argued that man has certain innate ideas,—ideas that are independent of experience. Combating this view, the French materialists, only defended the views of J. Locke, who, as early as the end of the 17th century, taught that there are no innate principles. But in explaining Locke’s philosophy the materialists have given it a more momentous character, touching on problems which the well-bred English liberal ignored. The French materialists were undaunted sensualists ; they looked on all psychic activities of man as transformation of sensations. It would be useless here to inquire how far their arguments are good in the light of contemporary science. It is obvious that the French Materialists of that time did not know what every high schoolboy knows to-day. It is enough to remember only the views of Holbach on physics and chemistry —though he was supreme in the science of his day. The great merit of the French materialists was that they thought deeply, and in correspondence with the science of their time. This is all that we can demand from any thinker. There is, of course,, nothing strange in the fact that science has advanced far beyond the views of the French materialist. It is more important to remember that those who fought against the materialists were even then behind the science of the time. It is true the historians, of philosophy usually put the views of Kant as antithetical to the views of the materialists. It would certainly be strange to reproach Kant with ignorance. It would, nevertheless, not be hard to show, that both Kant and the materialists stood on the same fundamental principles, but used them in different ways, and, therefore, came to different conclusions. This was in accordance with the different social environment that influenced their respective lives and thoughts. We know that people who believe the historians on their bare words, will find this opinion paradoxical. We have no opportunity of proving the truth of this statement here; but we do not refuse proof if our opponents demand it.3

It is well known, however, that the French materialists viewed all psychic activity of men, as transformation of sensation (sensations transformées). To view psychic activity from this standpoint means to recognise that all conceptions and feelings of man are results of the influence of his environment. This the French materialists recognised. They continually, hotly and categorically, declared that man with his views and feelings is what his environment makes turn, his environment being in the first place, nature, and the second place, society. “L’homme est tout educationé,” declares Helvetius. By education he understands the sum total of social environment. This view of man as a product of his environment was the chief theoretical basis of the new demands of the French materialists. If man is dependent on his environment, if the environment is responsible for every trait in his character, it is also responsible for his defects. If you would fight against his defects, you must change his environment accordingly, and primarily his social environment, because nature creates man as neither good nor bad. Place him in a reasonable social position under such conditions that his self-preservation instincts do not necessarily drive him to fight every other man, among conditions in which the interests of the individual correspond with interests of the whole society—and virtue will triumph. (Vertu) virtue is not something to be made possible through a reasonable reconstruction of social relations. Thanks to the conservatives and reactionaries of the last century (18th), the morality of the French materialists is still thought of as the morality of egoism, while they themselves defined it more correctly when they declared that their morality entirely merges in politics.

The teaching that the spiritual world of man, is the result of his environment often brought the French materialists to results entirely unexpected by them. Thus, for instance, they often declared that the opinions of man have no influence whatever on his conduct, and, therefore, no matter what ideas society holds it cannot change its fate in the least. We shall later show where they were mistaken. At present let us examine the other side of French materialism.

If the ideas of every man are determined by his environment, then the ideas of the human race must be determined by the evolution of the social environment, by the history of social relations. If we desire to paint a picture of the progress of human reason, and if we do not limit ourselves to the question “how,” but also ask “why,” we must begin from the history of the enironment; from the history of the evolution of social relations. The main point, at least at the beginning, would then be to discover the laws of social evolution. The French materialists approached this problem, but could not solve it, or even put the question correctly.

Whenever they began to speak about historical development of society, they forgot their sensualistic view on man in general, and together with “Enlighteners” of their time, declared that the world (i.e., social relations of men) was ruled by opinions (c’est l’opinion qui gouverne le monde). This is the basic contradiction of the 18th century materialism.

1 This was written in 1894. Translator’s Note.
2 A few years later Plechanoff published “A Contribution to the History of Materialism.” Translator’s Note.
3 Plechanoff has proved this in a series of brilliant polemical essays, against Bernstein, Conrad Schmidt, and other neo-Kantians, “Neue Zeit,” 1898-1899.

(To be continued.)

Translated by H. Kantorovitch for MODERN QUARTERLY.

(Socialist Standard, December 1926)

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