The Theory of Historical Materialism
The laws of materialist dialectic are all-embracing, general laws of becoming. Hence, by the way, the unsurpassably wretched poverty of those “thinkers” (“manufacturers of ideology”, as Marx called them), who suggest that the difference between the Marxian and Hegelian dialectic is simply a matter of a change of label and that in fact Marx remained a Hegelian to the end of his life. Whereas Marxian dialectic as a doctrine of historical development was the first to conquer the whole sphere of nature comprehended from the point of view of an historical process, and broke those fetters which Hegel put upon the understanding of social development. The whole conception of the Rickert school proceeds from the historical character of society and the unhistorical character of nature. The whole laborious differentiation between the generalising method of the natural sciences and the individualising method of the social sciences, between nomothetics (or nomology), on the one hand, and ideography on the other, between “natural laws” and “reference to worth” is founded in the last resort on the absolute rupture between society and nature. Society itself is a product of the,historical development of nature, but a product which relatively is in opposition to nature, reacts upon it and even in the process of historical development transforms external nature itself into its product (the so-called cultivated landscape). Therefore Marx said that in fact there is one science, the science of history, which embraces both the history of the inorganic world, and the history of the organic world and the history of society. In the sphere of the natural sciences this meant a decisive break with mechanistic-mathematical rationalism which in Marx is bound up with the criticism of mechanistic materialism.
Natural matter was conceived as being all of the same kind, as only a quantitatively defined quantity, as a combination of qualitatively similar parts. It only follows that, objectively and independently of our consciousness, it exists in all the wealth of its qualitatively different and varied forms, with an historical process of transition from one form to another, with specific forms of movement and, consequently, with specific laws for this movement. Society arises historically from the biological species, through the herd, but once it has arisen, it develops in turn through its conditioned laws. It is always historical, that is it exists really only in its historical form, with its own historically defined laws, etc. In this way we here have all the wealth and all the variety of the world which in the historical process of thought, on the basis of the historical process of the development of social practice, is ever more adequately “grasped” by this thought. Every new form of moving matter thus has its own special laws. So it is no question of a flat monism of knowledge for which variety has no meaning and to which all cats are grey, nor is it a matter of pluralism for which unity does not exist, but of dialectical and materialist monism, which is adequate to the real unity in variety and variety in unity, with all its forms of contradiction, with its ruptures and catastrophes, with its transition of one form into another, which is adequate to the mighty and general historical process of development.
The historical view of society therefore presupposed the breaking down of the mathematical-atomistic-individualist conception of rationalism. However, here the essence of the matter did not lie at all in the fact (as the Kantians argue)5) that society must be torn out of (absolutely) its natural historical environment and converted into a substance creating the world out of its spiritual depths and dictating its laws to the cosmos, but in the ascertaining of specific social laws on the basis of an historical view of nature itself. The great limitation of the natural scientific theories before Marx lies in the “eternity” of the laws of nature, i.e. Whereas “the eternal laws of nature are more and more becoming transformed into historical laws. That water is liquid from o° to 100° is an eternal law of nature, but in order that it may have any force there must be: (1) Water, (2) a given temperature and (3) a normal pressure… So the laws of social development, if they exist at all, are supernatural laws having nothing in common with the laws of nature. Marx frequently, beginning with the first volume of Capital, speaks of the social process as a “natural historical” process, of the laws of social movement as ” natural laws like the law of gravity “, etc. On the other hand, Marx energetically emphasises the specific nature of social relationships and the corresponding laws (“Nature does not create the owners of money on the one hand and the owners of nothing but their own labour power on the other. Society is the link in the chain of the general historical development of the world, a link which develops according to law like the development of nature (in this sense the laws of society are natural-historical laws however “critically thinking persons” might wish to jump out into a world of supernatural being). But this law is a special law. Historical “laws of movement” of society can in fact be discovered only by means of materialist dialectic.
So the laws of social development are specific laws. “It was necessary in this case, therefore, just as in the realm of nature, to set aside these artificial inter-relations by the discovery of the real, a task which finally culminated in the discovery of the universal laws of movement which established themselves as the dominating ones in the history of human society.” These “universal laws of movement which established themselves as the dominating ones in the history of human society” were formulated by Marx in his theory of historical materialism, a doctrine of genius the creation of which certainly marks a new epoch in the development of the social sciences. It is well known how viciously Marx flayed it.” In practice taking its direction from the eternalising of the datum, in theory it simply included any “interruption in gradualness,” whereas Marx’s revolutionary dialectic starts from the inevitable change of social forms, including an historically conditioned contradictoriness of development, the sharpening of inner contradictions, the class struggle, the catastrophic transition of one social form into another by means of revolution, etc.
The strict knowledge of the objective laws of social development is a long way from presupposing in Marx, despite the numerous critics who wage a permanent guerilla warfare of dwarfs against the giant of thought and action, any kind of “destiny” or ” fate”. Sofor Marx it was important to discover the “laws of movement” of the special form of combination human society, and moreover, of historical society. It is interesting to note that a number of Marx’s critics who attack him for his so-called mechanistic approach to society, also reproach him with starting from society and not from the human unit. of a whole (and not its “parts”) specifically social (and not generic, special, biological, physico-chemical).
But Marx does not take this whole, society, as an empty abstraction.
If, for example, we begin our analysis with population, then this will be an abstraction if we leave out classes; This once attained, we might start on our return journey until we would finally come back to population, but this time not as a chaotic notion of an integral whole, but as a rich aggregate of many conceptions and relations.
The method of this transition, from the chaotic conception of the concrete to the simplest abstract and then back to the enriched concrete aggregate, is Marx’s method, a method which cannot be contained within the formal-logical and usual oppositions of induction and deduction, analysis and synthesis, concrete and abstract. So the concept of society with Marx is no longer an empty abstract and extra-historical concept, but a concept which includes the whole divided variety of its concrete historical definitions, which are given in their development, in correspondence with the real course of the real historical process. Marx, on the basis of a painstaking study of history, reached a conception of the economic structure of society which is the morphological principle of all the social whole, of “the mode of production”, both historically of the “individual” (and at the same time the “typical”), and of the specific stage of historical development.
1. With Marx society is a part of nature, but a part in opposition to it, a special and specific part which arises historically (thus here is a unity, but not an identity; the division of the one).
2. It actively influences nature and changes it (mutual interpenetration of opposites).
3. It has its specific laws (social laws) which differ qualitatively from the laws of the inorganic world and the laws of biology (a new quality arising historically) but which are anything but “laws” of a supernatural kind (materialism).
4. Society is taken in the variety of its historic definitions and in the process of its historical development (the dialectic of the abstract and concrete).
5. There is no teleological “world conception” in Marx (“aims of history”, “progress”, “united humanity”; “in fact what is meant by the words ‘purpose’, ‘aim’, ‘germ’, ‘idea’ in previous history is nothing but the abstraction of later history, the abstraction of the active influence exercised by past history on later history”).
But this production is not the mechanical juxtaposition of separate labouring individuals, but production of which the subjects are social individuals in a definite type of social connection. This is the “productive relations”, the main social division (in class society, division in the first place into classes), that basis on which the political, moral, philosophical, religious, etc., “superstructure” grows up. Its productive forces (the unity of means of production and labour power), its economic structure corresponding to the technical production basis and the level of productive forces; So this historical social whole (Totalität) appears as a concrete subject of history with a multitude of its own concrete qualities and corresponding definitions. But all this aggregation of influences and connections has its material basis even for the cloudiest sublimations: the material mode of production and consequently, in movement, the process of direct material production of life, active social practice, which gets its expression in social consciousness.
It is not social consciousness which determines social being, but, on the contrary, social being as the foundation determines social consciousness.
But historical society is itself a dialectical unity of opposites. The process of the production of life, that is the process of labour, the process of the growth of productive forces, is its material content, fundamental and direct. When this contradiction between productive forces and productive relations breaks up the whole unity, social revolution takes place, society passes from one stage into another. The juridical relations of property (the juridical translation of productive relations), the state superstructure, the old “modes of presentation”, all collapse and give place to new forms.21) The old forms were once “forms of development”. But the process of revolution is not an automatic process: men make their own history.22) However, the laws of social development revealed by Marx tell us how great masses of people, divided and united by common conditions of life, behave when these conditions of life change. The contradiction between the mode of production and the development of productive forces is shown and expressed in a number of other contradictions which lay bare the opposition of classes, intensify class polarisation, sharpen class interests, produce an ideological demarcation of classes, force on the formation of the class self-consciousness of the revolutionary class and its allies, and through the revolution of living people, through the struggle of the revolutionary class against the class which fortifies the old productive relations in the concentrated form of its state power, through the destruction of this power and the smashing of its opponents’ forces, through the emancipation of productive forces and the organisation of new forms of movement of these forces, society passes into another form of historical being.
So Marx looks at society as an historically concrete society, the historical form of which is a transitional form. The “general laws” of historical development therefore include the laws of the transition of one social form into another and presuppose specifically historical special laws for different social-economic formations.
There lies at the basis of the theory of historical materialism the materialist premise that all the vital wealth of society, the whole content of its complete process of life, is in the long run determined by the level of power over nature, by the degree of real mastery (and thus of real change) of the external world, i.e. by the movement and self-movement of productive forces, by the process of material labour which always takes place in a concrete historical social form, that is to say, which is continuously connected with the economic structure of society. In relation to the material, productive, motive forces and the changing economic structure of.society, the natural premises are, as such, a relative constant, although an extremely important constant as being historically the starting-point of development. Moreover, the movement of these natural premises, as premises of social development, is derived from the movement of productive forces. Only when they are transformed from matter into material, from “things in themselves” into “things for us”, entering the stream of artificial material transformation, that is the stream of the material labour process, becoming objects of change, are they changed (both qualitatively and quantitatively), as “elements” of social development. It is just the same also with biological “human nature”, that is with the other aspect of “the natural premises” for social development. The law of its development is determined by the law of the development of society as a whole at the basis of which lies the law of the development of productive forces, that is a specifically social law. positivism) which mechanically transfers biological laws to society and deduces the laws of social development from so-called “human nature” as its biological nature. Phenomena of social consciousness are derived from the phenomena of social being. The material fact of the process of the development of productive forces (or their decline) in its social-historical form, that is the changes in the productivity of social labour and in human relations in the process of that labour (productive relations), these are the main determinants which in the last resort, either directly or indirectly, immediately or through a number of intermediate links, condition the changes in the whole sphere of superstructures, political, juridical, moral, scientific, aesthetic, philosophical. The superficial idealist point of view in the social sciences starts from a different species of the forms of social consciousness, without even posing the problem of the objective determinants of this consciousness. The psychology of classes corresponds to the hierarchy of social relations and the economic development of classes.” Together with the destruction of the dualism in principle of nature and society, of natural and social laws, there also goes the opposition in principle of theory and history.
So the materialist conception of history is materialist dialectic in its specific and enriched form; Marx was the first to deduce the laws of historical development on the basis of a wealth of material, a great sea of facts, a vast acquaintance with the historical material of various ages and peoples, an unusually rich experience of modern European history and of the practice of the social class struggle of which he was himself a great master in all its spheres. Society, historical society, was scientifically “discovered” as alive and complex, internally contradictory and mobile, connected with nature and actively influencing it, a unity developing its contradictions and passing from one qualitatively defined forma tion to another, with peculiar specific laws. So the general laws of social and historical development (Engels) already melt into themselves the special laws of the movement of specific social and historic formations expressing the specific forms of moving contradictions. The laws of the development of feudalism, for example, are not the same as the laws of the development of capitalism. The laws of movement of each such formation are original, although they also “act” on the basis of general laves, established by the theory of historical materialism. Therefore, for example, it would be foolish to look for the law of periodical crises of over-production in natural forms of economy just as it would be foolish to look for flexible forms of scientific thought in stagnant societies. Marx established an infinite variety of general and partial laws of “the second order” besides the vast and mighty generalisations which form the “core” of the materialist conception of history. Take, for example, his remark about the rôle of Protestantism in the genesis of capitalism,26) which has evoked a whole literature (Sombart, Max Weber, in particular, Tröltsch, etc.).
In the theory of historical materialism the teaching on classes and class struggle has particular importance. Thus here are formed within society its living Totalitäten, classes of which one in the course of development becomes the revolutionary class par excellence. It explains, by starting from the most general laws of being and becoming (materialist dialectic or dialectical materialism), the general objective laws of human history. It gets its further interpretation in the theory of capitalist development, in which the general laws of social dialectic assume an even more concrete form as the laws of the development and doom of capitalist society and the laws of its inevitable transition into socialism through the revolution of the proletariat and its dictatorship.