50 Years Ago: The Materialist Conception of History

All history, indeed all intellectual life, can be explained only from the accompanying and preceding material conditions, since any other theory than this postulates an uncaused thing, which is contrary to all experience, and is therefore unscientific and untenable. Intellectual life is but the reflex of material conditions. That intellectual life has a secondary reflex action upon material conditions in no way changes the fact that material conditions form the base, origin, and material of all intellectual life.

Now, in the Materialist Conception of History we are given the dominant factor in the determination of all history; that is, the method in which wealth is produced and exchanged. Obviously, in order that there may be human history two things are essential; firstly, men, and secondly, food and shelter for them. How much, where and how food and shelter can be obtained, determines, firstly, man’s existence, secondly, where he shall live, and thirdly, how he shall live. Therefore the Materialist Conception of History is without doubt the determining and basic factor in all history; indeed, broadly interpreted, all material conditions are comprised in it.

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The question often occurs; how is it that in identical environment some are Socialists and some are Conservatives, if economic conditions determine, in the last resort, the views of men? The matter of this “identical environment ” can be illustrated by a simple analogy. Suppose a hundred soft clay balls were put in a bag and sat on, these balls would all be in an identical environment, like men in any class in society subjected to economic pressure, so what would happen? Some balls would be squared, ‘ some, slightly flattened, and some utterly squashed, as determined by their position in this so-called identical environment. In society different classes have different environment. In a given class some would be slightly modified Conservatives, and some revolutionary: as pressure increases so all would become entirely altered. All, then, would be affected, but slightly unequally, since no two balls, or two persons, could possibly be in exactly the same environment. So in society men picture the future from what they see and feel in the present. Some by hereditary fitness and actual environment would more easily and clearly comprehend the needs of the present and the tendency of things; others in conditions less violently affected would find it more difficult to see clearly, or would from the materials in their hands or inherited weakness, form false pictures which would lure them in wrong directions.

From the November 1905 issue of the Socialist Standard.