Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Brief Sketch of the Materialist Conception of History - Part 3 (1924)

From the September 1924 issue of the Socialist Standard

Part 3
(Continued from June S.S.)

The somewhat lengthy quotation from Marx’s "Capital” together with one taken from "The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” which were given in the previous article, show how utterly false is the view that Marx took no account of ideas as a factor in social change. Whilst we have no desire to multiply examples, we think it necessary to give one more quotation upon this point.

In the form of an appendix to Engels' work on Feuerbach, there are several extracts taken from the writings of Marx concerning the materialistic philosophy of Feuerbach and others. In one of these extracts Marx says:—
   "The materialistic doctrine that men are the products of conditions and education—different men, therefore, the products of other conditions and changed education—forgets that circumstances may be altered by men and that the educator has himself to be educated.”
So we could continue to pile up the evidence from the writings of both Marx and Engels to prove how they realised and asserted the importance of man’s ideas as an active participant in historical development.

Any theory of history which excluded man’s ideas from the part they play in social development would scarcely deserve serious consideration. For, in grappling with the forces of nature to sustain himself "man makes his own history” inasmuch as the, will to live spurs him on to devise ways and means of subduing his natural surroundings to meet his needs and desires.

As we have already indicated, the way in which man moulds his environment in harmony with his requirements is by the making and using of tools, and this fact alone implies that man applies his intelligence to his surroundings.

The historical development of human society is not to be understood as though it were an automatic process in which human action plays no part, for historical development can only take place through human actions, and only from this point of view is our theory of history to be understood.

Our view of historical development, instead of implying fatalism, implies a scientific determinism which sees the principle of causation, as it applies throughout nature, applying to human thought and conduct — which in turn is by no means passive in historical happenings.

Not only avowed opponents have interpreted the materialist conception of history as though it regarded men like so many "marionettes, whose threads are held and moved no longer by Providence but by’ economic categories,” but also many who have styled themselves "Marxists” have done likewise. The writer has heard it said by certain "Marxists” who, under the impression that they are interpreting the materialist conception aright, that economic development alone would suffice to effect the change in the form of society from the Capitalist to the Socialist form. That whether we desired it or not Socialism would emerge through economic development quite independently of our action.

Like the celebrated gentleman who exchanged the errors of the Church of Rome for those of the Church of England, such people are, instead of worshipping God, worshipping "economic development” without understanding its meaning.

Obviously, whether we view history from the point of view of economic development alone, or from the standpoint of the actual change in .the form of society, we must logically view it as a process wherein the human mind has, in a certain sense, a positive influence. And here a word about mind. "Man,” says Dietzgen, "does not think originally because he wants to, but because he must,” but though Dietzgen is here speaking of ideas that are formed instinctively, involuntarily, nevertheless it is equally true of ideas that are formed consciously. For, in order to live, man must apply his mind in various directions as the problems of his surroundings confront him.

When we speak of mind we have not the same idea in view as that of the theologians and mystics of all shades of thought, who would have us believe that mind is "a thing in itself ” which can exist apart from the body. Mind apart from body nobody ever saw or is ever likely to see. “Mind” is a term used to denote the working process of the brain—the sum-total of ideas as they are generated and combined in the brain—through the medium of our sense organs—the organs of touch, taste, hearing, smell and sight. Mind, therefore, is not a thing in the sense that it can be grasped by the hand or be seen by the aid of a microscope, but is, as indicated above, an expression or manifestation of generalised ideas which arise from the impressions made upon the brain by “ the realities of the outer world.” 

The materialist view of mind is a determinist view, which sees, in line with the findings of modern psychology, “that all mental phenomena are causally dependent upon physical phenomena.” Ideas do not descend upon us from heaven, or arise in our heads independently of material causes, but are the result of past and present material conditions. Thus it will be gathered that the “mind” is a reflector, and since the things reflected are those of man’s environment, the nature or character of .the environment determines our ideas.

As the environment undergoes change, through the development of tools, fresh conditions are created which form the material for fresh ideas, and with the increasing complexity of the environment newer wants and desires emerge as a consequence. Thus it is that man is more or less compelled to turn his mind in the direction of inventing and improving the tools of production. It is then the changes in the environment wrought by the changes in the methods employed to procure the means of living which form the driving force behind the changes in ideas. The truth of the dependence of the changes in ideas upon external forces may be seen in the fact of the tendency of ideas to remain stationary as in the case of a slowly developing environment, and in the case of tradition. The view has been put in another way as follows: - 
  Progress must not be looked upon as something immanent in man. What is immanent in man is rather a tremendous mental laziness which confronts all novelty with hostility. In order to conquer this inherent laziness, something from without must enter into him which shall draw him forcibly out of his customary existence, and this something is nothing supernatural but quite palpable—it is nothing else but a forced or voluntary change of environment.”—(Muller-Lyer, History of Social Development.)
And a very superficial examination of society will show that changing economic forces so change the environment that they are the greatest factor in changing ideas.

So far we have emphasised the fact of human action along economic lines for the reason that economic needs are primary. Obviously, we must first satisfy these before we are able to turn our thought in other directions, the claims of the “lofty idealists” notwithstanding. And this applies not only to our individual existence, but also to the existence of human society as a whole. But though this is so, no Marxist would assert that the entire activities of mankind are to be explained on purely economic grounds.

“Nobody,” says Kautsky, “would declare the sexual passion to be an economic motive,” even though “the alteration in the annual number of marriages is called forth by changes in the economic situation.” All that Marx and Engels claimed for historical materialism was that the economic development is the dominant factor of historical development. “More than this,” says Engels, neither Marx nor I ever asserted.”

Engels has pointed out that Marx and he were partly responsible for some of their supporters laying more stress on the economic side than it deserved. But he explains that it was essential for Marx and himself to emphasise the economic factor in order to meet the attacks of their opponents who had disputed their view of history, and further, that they did not have the time, place or opportunity to let the other factors get their full recognition. The evidence for this explanation by Engels is to be found in the introduction to his work on “Feuerbach. The roots of the Socialist Philosophy.

So far we have omitted, for the purpose of simplification, one very important fact which our view of history reveals quite clearly from the facts of history itself, namely, that with the exception of that early stage of human society when a crude form of communism prevailed, the history of society is largely made up of a series of class struggles, based upon conflicting economic interests. Thus the upward, march of mankind from savagery to civilisation has not alone been composed of a struggle between man and external nature, but has also been composed of struggles between man and man carried on along lines of class interests. This aspect of the subject will be dealt with in the continuation of this sketch.
Robert Reynolds
(To be continued.)

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