Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Brief Sketch of the Materialist Conception of History - Part 2 (1924)

From the June 1924 issue of the Socialist Standard


Part 2
In our previous article in the May issue we pointed out that the Materialist conception of history regards the development of the means and methods of wealth production and distribution as the motive force and main cause of the changes in the forms of society. We said that this view of historical development had been subjected to a considerable amount of misrepresentation, and we promised to show that Marx and Engels did not, as is alleged by some of their opponents, fail to realise the importance of other factors in history besides the economic one. However, before proceeding to do this, let us look a little closer at our theory of history. In contrast with the old method of treating history, which emphasised the doings and mis-doings of kings and queens, and those of the so-called great men, as the most important of historical happenings, the more up-to-date method, the scientific method, of treating history, has for its theme not only the activities of mankind in general, but also the conditions under which men have lived at different stages of social development. The application of the principle of evolution is. generally speaking, no longer confined exclusively to what is called the purely natural world, but is likewise applied to human history. ” For,” says Engels, “we live not only in nature, but in human society, and this has its theory of development and its science no less than nature.”

As with natural history, which shows us that the struggle for the food supply is the fundamental principle of organic evolution, so with human history is the quest for food, clothing and shelter, together with the development of the means employed to produce these, the fundamental principle in the historical development of human society. In the quest for food, clothing and shelter, human beings do not live in a state of isolation from each other. They belong to the social animals, and since the conditions of their existence cannot be met in isolation, they are compelled to enter into relations with each other in order to live. In other words, the primary factor which holds human-beings together in society is the need for satisfying their economic requirements. Now how does man satisfy his economic requirements? The means of subsistence do not fall from heaven; they have to be produced from surrounding nature by human effort, and this brings us to the question of the means employed by man to produce the wherewithal to live.

Benjamin Franklin has aptly defined man as a tool-making animal. The fact that man can make tools is one of the main distinctions between himself and the lower animals from which he is descended. Not as a tool user is man to be distinguished from his pre-human ancestors, for many of these use tools such as sticks, as weapons of defence, and stones for cracking nuts. Man alone among those who compose the animal kingdom is capable of making tools at will. Whilst the lower animals have to depend upon their own bodily organs, and such tools as are found ready to hand in nature, they are unable to. rise above the limits set by nature. But with man the position is entirely different, for inasmuch as he produces tools he supplements his bodily organs and by the use of these tools is able to overcome the obstacles, and to a large extent rise above the limits set by his physical or natural surroundings. In other words, whilst the' lower animals adapt themselves to their environment, man as a tool-making animal is able to adapt the environment to himself.

To the extent that man produces and develops the tools which he uses to obtain the means of subsistence, he develops for himself a new set of conditions to which in turn he adapts himself in order to live. To illustrate what is meant by this, let us take an example from man’s existence during the period of savagery. In the very earliest stage of human existence, when man’s home was in the tropical or sub-tropical forests, the tools used by man to obtain the means of subsistence were not above those used by some of the lower animals. Part of the time of our primitive ancestors of this period was spent in trees, as only in this way could they “escape the attacks of large beasts of prey and survive.” Fruit, nuts and roots were the main means of subsistence, and. in such conditions as prevailed at this stage of human existence we can well say that man was at the mercy of his natural surroundings. But, when, at a later period of human development, man had discovered the use of fire and had acquired the ability to make it at will, an entirely new set of conditions were set up as a consequence. Our primitive ancestors were able, as a consequence of the use of fire, to leave the forests, add fish, which only becomes palatable by means of cooking, to their food supply, and by following the courses of rivers, and the shores of seas and lakes, they spread more generally over the greater part of the earth with less regard for climate and locality. Concerning these migrations of early man through his discovery of the use of fire, Morgan points out:—
  “Of the fact of these migrations there is abundant evidence in the remains of flint and stone implements of the Status of Savagery found upon all the continents. In reliance upon fruits and spontaneous subsistence a removal from the original habitat would have been impossible.” (Ancient Society, page 21.)
At a much later period, when man had invented the bow and arrow we find fresh conditions of existence obtaining largely as a result of this invention. The hunting of big game to serve as means of subsistence, which hitherto had brought forth only scanty results, since man’s only tools or weapons in the hunt were the crude club and spear, was, as a consequence of the use of the bow and arrow, taken up as a normal occupation, and meat was added more regularly to the food supply.

As Morgan says concerning the invention of the bow and arrow :—
   “This remarkable invention, which came in after the spear war club, and gave the first deadly weapon for the hunt, appeared late in savagery. It has been used to mark the commencement of its Upper Status. It must have given a powerful upward influence to ancient society, standing in the same relation to the period of savagery, as the iron sword the period of Barbarism, and the fire-arms to the period of civilisation.”— (Ancient Society, page 22.)
The invention of the bow and arrow, like the discovery of the use of fire led more or less directly to many remarkable changes in the conditions of human existence. But of these changes more will be said later. Here our chief concern is to stress the importance of the development of tools as the propelling force in social change. The word tools, it must be noted, is used by us in the wider sense to include all the means which are used in general by man to produce and distribute wealth. The telegraph, and the telephone, the giant machines of the cotton mill and the vast ocean liner used to carry wealth to all parts of the earth, are, from this point of view, just as much tools to our mode of living to-day, as the club and spear, and the bow and arrow were to the mode of living of our savage ancestors. With the progress of time the tools of wealth production and distribution develop so rapidly and become so varied and complex that we are apt to lose sight of them as being tools. Nevertheless, as said above, all the means of wealth production are tools in the wide sense of the term.

Now it is this development of tools which Marx and Engels saw to be the main cause of social change, but they did not stupidly imagine that this development took place apart from man’s conscious activity. On the contrary, they fully realised that man spurred on by economic necessity, that is, the necessity for gaining a greater economic security, played an active part in the process. But not an active part independently of time and conditions, but as determined by conditions at particular stages of social development. Whilst realising the overwhelming influence of material conditions in shaping human thought and conduct, Marx and Engels also realised the importance of man’s reaction on his environment.

The materialist conception of history as formulated by them cannot logically be said to imply an economic fatalism which would place man at the mercy of economic forces much in the same manner as a billiard ball is at the mercy of rival billiard players.

Now let us turn to the works of Marx and Engels for proof of what has been said.

In his work, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Buonaparte,” Marx, in dealing with a series of events in French history leading to the rise to power of Napoleon„the Third, says: -
  “Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth, he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of conditions such as he finds close at hand.”
This passage, rightly interpreted, leaves no room for the charge of fatalism.

In the first volume of Capital, when dealing with “the Labour process,” Marx, stressing the importance of man’s reaction upon his environment, says :—
   “Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and nature participate, and which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and nature. He opposes himself to nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway. We are not now dealing with those primitive instinctive forms of labour that remind us of the mere animal. An immeasurable interval of time separates the state of things in which a man brings his labour-power to market for sale as a commodity, from that stage in which human labour was still in its first instinctive stage. We presuppose labour in a form that stamps it as exclusively human. A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. At the end of every labour-process, we get a result that already existed in the imagination of the labourer at its commencement. He not only effects a change of form in the material on which he works, but he also realises a purpose of his own that gives the law to his modus operandi. and to which he must subordinate his will.”— (Page 157)
Robert Reynolds. 
(To be continued.)

Link to Part 3.




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