The Monistic Conception of History by G. V. Plechanoff (part III)
[Plechanoff’s Famous Work now translated.]
“One of the most important conclusions to which one must come through the study of history is that the government is the most potent cause in shaping the character of the people; that the qualities and defects of nations, their strength or their weakness, their talents, their education or ignorance, are almost never due to climate or racial peculiarities; that nature gives everything to everybody, and the governments preserve or destroy the gifts of nature that constitute the common possession of the human race.” In Italy there were no marked changes either in climate or in race; “nature was the same for the Italians of all times; the only thing that did change was the government—and these changes always brought with them, or came together, with changes in national character.”
Thus argued Sismondi against those who tried to make the fate of nations dependent upon their geographic environment. His arguments contain some truth. Geography can really not explain much in history, especially because it (geography) is part of history, and because, as Sismondi says, governments do change, though the geographic environment remains the same. But this is only by the way ; we are interested in an other question. The reader must have already noticed that the fluctuations of the historical fate of nations is opposed to the stability of geographic environment. Sismondi knows of only one factor that can explain these changes : government—that is, the political order of a given country. The character of a nation is wholly determined by the character of its government. It is true that after dogmatically stating this theory, Sismondi tries later to soften it. Political changes, he says, come either before changes in national character or after them. That means that the character of the government is sometimes determined by the character of the people. Sismondi then has before him the same contradiction that the French “Enlighteners” had. The character of a nation is determined by the character of its government; the character of a government is determined by the character of the nation. Sismondi could just as little solve this contradiction as the French “Enlighteners.” He was therefore compelled to take as foundation for his discourse at one time one, at another time, another, member of this antinomy, But, as long as he has once taken the view that the character of a government determines the character of a people, he had to exaggerate out of all proportions the concept of government. It meant for him the whole social environment, all peculiarities of social relations. It would be more correct to say that for him, all peculiarities of a given social environment are affairs of government, the results of the political order. This is the stand point of the eighteenth century. When the French materialists wanted to express, in a short and vigorous manner, their convictions as to the all-powerful influence of the environment on man, they said : “C’est la Législation qui fait tout”—and whenever they spoke about legislation, they always meant political legislation, political order. Vico has a small article called Essays on a System of Jurisprudence in which the Civil Rights of the Romans are Explained by Their Political Revolutions. Though this essay was written just at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the ideas expressed in it, on relations between civil rights and the forms of government, were the accepted views until the restoration period. The “Enlighteners” reduced everything to politics.
But since the activity of a legislator, though not always teleological, is invariably conscious, and the conscious activity of a man is always dependent on his “opinions,” we come again to the thought then, that opinion is above everything else, although we set out to prove the supremacy of environment. The younger set of French historians took an entirely different view of this problem.
The course and results of the French Revolution, with its numerous surprises, was in itself a flaring denial of the power of “opinions.” Many had become entirely disappointed with “reason,” and others, who did not succumb to disappointments, became more and more inclined to the view that environment is all-powerful, and the investigation of its development became all-important. But their views on environment were also changed. The great historical happenings have demonstrated the weakness of legislators and political constitutions to such an extent that to declare them as the determining historical cause was ridiculous. Political constitutions began to be viewed not as a cause but as a result that is to be explained.
“A large number of writers, learned historians and publicists,” says Guizot in his Essais Sur L’histoire de France, “tried to explain the given state of society and state of civilisation through the prevalent political order. It would be far wiser to begin with the study of society itself in order to understand its political institutions. Before these institutions can become causes they are results ; society creates them before it begins to change itself under their influence. Instead of judging a people according to its political institutions, we must first study the people to find out what sort of a government it must of necessity possess. Society, its constituents, the life of its individual members, their dependency on their social positions, the relations between various classes of men—in short, the civil life of men (L’etat des personnes), these are the problems that should first engage the attention of the historian who wishes to know how people lived, and the publicist who wishes to know how they were governed.”
This view is just the opposite of Vico’s. The latter would explain civil laws through political revolutions; Guizot, on the contrary, would explain political institutions through civil life, that is, through civil laws. But the French historian goes even further in his analysis of society. According to him, the civil lives of all nations that entered the historical arena after the fall of the western Roman Empire, are strongly tied to their land relations (état des terres). The study of their land relations must therefore precede the study of their civil life : “In order to understand political institutions, it is necessary to study the different groups that constitute a given society, and their mutual relations.” In order to understand these groups, it is necessary to know the nature of their land relations. From this standpoint Guizot studies the French history of the first two dynasties. For him it is the history of a struggle between various groups of society. In his history of the English Revolution, he goes a step further, describing it as a struggle of the bourgeoisie against the aristocracy, and thus silently admits that in order to explain the political life of a country, it is necessary to study not only the land relations, but their property relations in general.
This view was not only held by Guizot, but was also shared by Mignet, Thierry and others.
In his Vous des Révolutions d’Angleterre, Thierry represents the history of the English revolution as a struggle between the bourgeoisie and aristocracy. “All those whose ancestors belonged to the conquerors,” he says in speaking about the first English Revolution, “deserted their castle for the King’s camp. At the time it could be said that the armies assembled—one in the name of leisure and power and the other in the name of labour and freedom. All those who did not work, all those who looked to life only for the pleasures that they could get without working for them, assembled under the King’s banner, to protect their common interests; all the descendants of the conquerors that were drawn into commerce fell in with the party of the people.”
The religious movements of that time were, according to Thierry, only reflexes of real life interests : “Both sides fought for real interests. All the rest was only for pretext. Those who were on the side of the subjects were mostly Presbyterians, that is, they did not want any subjection even in religion. Those who fought on the other side were Anglicans or Catholics, that is, they strove for power and taxes, even on the religious field.” Thierry quotes from the History of the Reign of James the Second the following words : “The Whigs looked on all religious opinions as politicians ; even their hate of the Pope was caused not by the prejudices and idol-worship of that unpopular sect, but by their desire to make the power of the state absolute.”
In Mignet’s opinion “social movements are determined by ruling interests. These proceed to their goals, stop as soon as the goal is achieved, and make place for other movements which are unnoticed at first but which grow to be predominant in time. This was the way of feudalism. Feudalism exists in the needs of men—but not yet in practice—this is the first epoch; in the second epoch it existed in practice, slowly ceasing to correspond to man’s needs and finally ceased to exist entirely. No revolution was accomplished in any other way than this.” In his history of the French Revolution Mignet interprets these events from the standpoint of the “needs” of different social classes. The struggle between these classes is for him the mainspring of what happened. Of course this standpoint did not find favour in the eyes of the eclectics of that time. The eclectics accused the new historians of fatalism, and the spirit of system. As it usually happens in such cases, the eclectics did not see the really weak points in these new theories and energetically fought against its strong points. At all events this conflict is old and at present uninteresting. It is more important to note that these views were defended by the St. Simonist, Bazar, one of the most brilliant representatives of socialist thought of that time.
Bazar did not think that Mignet’s book on the French Revolution was perfect. As one of its defects he considered the fact that according to Mignet the French Revolution was a thing in itself, without any connection with “that long chain of efforts which, after destroying the old social order, were to make the introduction of the new order easier.” He knows, of course, that the book undoubtedly has its good qualities. “The author strove to characterize those parties that led the Revolution consecutively. He wanted to show us the connections between those parties and the interests of certain social classes, to show how the development of events put first one party and then another at the head of the movement and caused them to disappear entirely afterwards. The spirit of system and fatalism, for which these historians have been so severely criticised by the eclectics are, in Bazar’s opinion, most valuable assets.”
If one should have asked Thierry, Guizot or Mignet whether the character of the people determines the form of its government, or the form of the government determines the people’s character, every one of them would have answered that in spite of the fact that between these two there is always a strong mutual influence, they must, nevertheless, both be explained by a third, more important factor : “by the social life of the people and their property relations.” And the contradiction that could not be solved by the French materialists of the eighteenth century, could thus be solved now.
Trans.: H. Kantorovitch for the Modern Quarterly.
(Socialist Standard, February 1927)