1920s >> 1927 >> no-269-january-1927

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

[Plechanoff’s Famous Work now translated.]

Part II.
Thesis : Man and his opinion is the result of the environment; especially of social environment. This is the inevitable conclusion from Locke’s main principle : the non-existence of innate ideas.

Antithesis : The environment with all its attributes is the result of opinions. This is the inevitable conclusion from the historical philosophy of the French materialists : c’est l’opinion qui gouverne le monde.

From these fundamental contradictions others followed, as, for instance, these :

Thesis : Man holds to be good those social relations that are useful to him; he considers as bad those that are harmful for him. The opinions of men are then determined by their interests : “L’opinion chez un peuple est toujours determinés par un interêt dominant,” says Suard. This is not a logical inference from Locke, it is really a plain repetition of his words, “no innate practical principles . . . virtue generally approved not because innate, but because profitable . . . good and evil . . . are nothing but pleasure and pain to us.” 1

Antithesis : Certain relations seem to men to be good or bad in relation to the general system of their opinions. In the words of Suard every person loves, supports and justifies only that which he thinks useful for him, (Ne veut n’aime n’approuve que ce qu’il croit être utile), consequently, everything depends upon opinions.

Thesis : It is a great mistake to think that religious morality, for instance, the commandment about loving one’s neighbour, has in any way helped the moral alleviation of men. Such commandments, as ideas in general, are powerless against men. Ideas depend entirely upon the social environment and social relations.2

Antithesis : Historical experience shows that “que l’opinions sacrées furent la source véritable des maux du genre humain,” and this seems true, because if opinions in general rule the world, then false opinions will rule in the manner of blood-thirsty tyrants.

It would be quite easy to prolong the list of such contradictions of the French materialists, which some of our moderns inherited from them, but this would be superfluous. Let us rather examine the general character of these contradictions.

There are contradictions and contradictions. When, for instance, Mr. V. V. 3 contradicts himself in every line. His logical sins can have no other value than that of a “human document.” The future historian of Russian literature, will, in showing these contradictions, ponder over the social-psychological problem—how is it that so many readers did not detect contradictions that are so evident? But there are contradictions of another kind; these are the kind that do not put to sleep human thought, do not detain its development, but stimulate it to progress. The impetus for further development that they give is often so strong, that in the last analysis they are often, in spite of their contradictions, of more value than the logically perfect theories. About such contradictions Hegel said: “Der Widerspruch ist das Fortleitende” (contradictions lead forward). Of this kind are the contradictions of eighteenth century French materialism.

Let us examine their main contradiction. Human opinions are determined by their environment; the environment is determined by opinions. We can say about this what Kant said about his antinomies, the thesis is just as true as the antithesis. There can really be no doubt that human opinions (convictions) are determined by their social environment. But, it is just as true that no people will subject itself to a social order that is in contradiction to all its opinions. The people will rebel against it, and rebuild it according to their convictions. We must admit then, that the antithesis is also true. The question then is how can two theses, both true, contradict each other? There is a very simple explanation of it. They contradict each other only because we look at them from the wrong angle, an angle which makes it appear that if one is true the other must be false. If we once find the true standpoint from which to look at them, the contradictions will disappear. Each of the propositions will take on a new form. We shall find that each one does not contradict the other, but adds to its completeness, or rather that each conditions the other; that if one is untrue, the other must also be untrue. How can we find such a standpoint?

Let us take one instance. It was often repeated, especially in the eighteenth century, that the form of government in each country is determined by the morals of the respective people. This is really true. When the old republican morality disappeared in Rome, the republic was changed into a monarchy. But on the other hand, it was not less often said, that the morality of a people is determined by their form of government. This is also true. And really, where could the Romans of the time of Heligobalus get their republican morals? Is it not clear that the morals of the people of the Roman Empire had to be just the opposite of the morals of the time of the Republic? If this is clear, we come to the general conclusion that the forms of government do determine the morals of the people, and the morals of the people do determine the forms of government. Surely we must have reached this conclusion through some mistake. What then is our mistake? Ponder as much as you will, you will not find any mistake in either of the two propositions. They are both above reproach. Usually in such cases people content themselves with the principle of mutualism : Morals influence the constitution, the constitution influences morals—everything is as clear as day, and people who are dissatisfied with this solution are, of course, “narrow-minded.” This is just how our intelligentzia look at this question. They look at social life from the standpoint of mutualism; each aspect of life influences all others, and is influenced by all others. Only such a view is considered worthy of a thinking “Sociologist,” and whoever, like the Marxists, looks for deeper causes of social development, does not see the complexity of social life. The French “Enlightener” were also inclined towards this standpoint. The most systematic intellects among them (we do not include in this Rousseau who had little in common with the “Enlighteners”) did not go further than this. Thus, for instance, it is to be found in the famous Grandeur et Décadence des Romains of Montesquieu and also in his De I’Esprit de Lois. This is, of course, in itself a right standpoint. Mutual influences undoubtedly exist between all sides of social life. Unfortunately this standpoint does not explain much, for the simple reason that it does not say anything about the origin of these mutually influencing forces. If the form of government pre-supposes those morals which it influences, it is clear that it cannot be their first cause. The same must be said about the morals. The political order which they influence cannot be their creators. We must, in order to find a way out of this tangle, find that historical factor that is responsible for both the morals of a certain people and their political system and thereby created the possibility of their mutual influence.

The French materialists were greatly mistaken, when in contradiction to their usual view of history, they affirmed that ideas have no significance whatever, because environment is everything; not less mistaken is their usual view that declares opinions to be the fundamental cause for the existence of a certain social environment. There can be no doubt that there is a process of mutual influences between ideas and environment. But scientific investigation cannot stop at the recognition of this mutual ism, because mutualism does not explain really the social facts. In order to under stand the history of humanity, i.e., on the one hand, the history of opinions, and, on the other, the history of social relations, it is necessary to rise above mutualism; we must find, if we can, that factor that determines both the development of the social environment and the development of ideas. The task of nineteenth century social science was to find this factor.

The world is governed by opinions. But opinions also have a history. What determines their history? “The spread of Education,” answered some as early as the seventeenth century. The “Enlighteners” of the eighteenth century held fast to this opinion. The more talented among them, however, were themselves dissatisfied with their own answer. Helvetius remarks that the development of knowledge is controlled by certain laws. He even writes a very important essay to explain the social and intellectual development of man as a result of his material wants. He has not succeeded in this; for many reasons he could not at that time succeed. It has remained for the thinkers of the next century to continue the work of the French materialists.

(To be continued.)

Trans, for MODERN QUARTERLY by H. Kantorovitch.

1 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Vol. I, Ch. 3; Vol. II, Ch. 20, 21, 28.
2 This proposition is more than once expressed in the Système de la Nature of Holbach. The same is also expressed by Helvetius.
3 V. V. was one of the theoreticians of Naradnichestvo, and affirmed that capitalism would not develop in Russia as it has developed in Western Europe.

(Socialist Standard, January 1927)

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