Sunday, March 18, 2018

In Search of Populism (2018)

From the March 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
So-called populist movements are on the rise, from the US to Turkey. But this prompts the question: is ‘populist’ just a label people attach to views they dislike, or does it reflect a consistent political position?
Some definitions of populism may make it sound reasonably attractive, such as, ‘A political doctrine or philosophy that proposes that the rights and powers of ordinary people are exploited by a privileged elite, and supports their struggle to overcome this’ (Wiktionary). But the term is subject to various interpretations, and it can be very hard to pin down what if anything unites those termed populists.
One account of populism is by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser in 'Populism: a Very Short Introduction', where they describe it as ‘thin-centered’, meaning that it is not by itself a complete political position. Rather, it has to be combined with other ideas, which may include nationalism or agrarianism, and even racism. Populists, then, can support a range of different policies and proposals.
Another useful contribution is Jan-Werner Müller’s book 'What Is Populism?'. His main argument is that criticising and opposing elites is part of populism, but that there are other essential aspects too. Specifically, populists are anti-pluralist in that they believe that only they represent the people, with their opponents being ‘enemies of the people’. Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán said earlier this year that ‘2018 will be the year of the restoration of the will of the people in Europe’, and of course only he and his party know what that will amounts to.
Moreover, 'the people’ here does not mean the whole population or even the non-elite majority of the population. Rather, only some people really count as ‘the people’ (sometimes qualified as ‘the common people’ or ‘the pure people’). Thus Nigel Farage claimed that the Brexit vote represented a ‘victory for real people’, so excluding from this category those who voted to remain in the EU. Müller gives a 2016 quote from Donald Trump that is bizarre even by his standards: ‘the only important thing is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.’ Moreover, many – though not all – populist movements see the pure people (of whatever nationality) as being white and indigenous, with immigrants excluded. And an ‘underclass’ of unemployed or benefits recipients may be regarded as not part of the real people either.
Other typical characteristics of populist parties that Müller identifies include: belief in conspiracy theories, with the elite conspiring in various ways against the people and their true representatives; being internally monolithic, with the general membership subordinate to a single leader; seeing enemies everywhere and still acting like victims even when in office. Not all such parties will adopt all of these, however.
The main text of his book was written before Trump’s election as US President, but he is still able to say quite a bit about how populists behave when in charge of government, on the basis of developments in Hungary, Poland and Turkey. One point is that they tend to ‘occupy’ the state, which might mean appointing their supporters to supposedly non-partisan civil service positions, making the court system far more responsive to government policies, and capturing institutions that oversee the media. This is usually done quite openly and brazenly, rather than in the more subtle way that traditional parties might operate. In Hungary Orbán argued that anyone who criticised the government was in effect criticising the Hungarian people, who had elected it. In Venezuela Hugo Chávez more or less set up his own ruling elite, in the name of the ‘Bolivarian revolution’.
Another important issue, one not really dealt with by Müller, is just who are the elites that populists attack. It is primarily the political establishment, career politicians who are often viewed as corrupt and far removed from the concerns of hardworking people. But it rarely extends to the capitalist class and the millionaire and billionaire members of the one percent. Some American workers have described Trump as ‘one of us’, because he is not part of the political elite, but this of course overlooks the fact that he is a capitalist and does not share the interests of US workers.
This issue of the status and make-up of the elite is discussed more fully by Mudde and Rovira. They note that there are a number of other examples of populist leaders who have been capitalists, such as Silvio Berlusconi in Italy and Ross Perot in the US in the 1990s. But they present themselves as political outsiders, as honest individuals who have made their fortune despite the corrupt politicians and so are part of ‘the people’, not part of the despised elite. Some populists in the US distinguish between Main Street and Wall Street, but without making a real distinction between workers and capitalists.
As noted, the ‘thin-centered’ nature of populism means that it can form part of a range of views. It is mostly coupled with various right-wing positions, as with UKIP and the Tea Party in the US. In France the Front National has succeeded in bringing issues such as immigration and ‘law and order’ onto the political agenda; it is extremely centralised, and so differs from the Tea Party, which was more of a social movement. On the left, Occupy Wall Street was also a social movement, but it has never really gone beyond this. Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are other examples of left-wing anti-austerity populist parties.
The Wiktionary definition quoted earlier illustrates the point that populism tends to have a far more positive image in the US than in Europe. This is largely due to the history of the People’s Party, also known as the Populists, who had quite an impact in the 1890s; their candidate gained over a million votes in the 1892 presidential election. Their politics involved supporting farmers, in particular against the banks and railway companies who charged high rates for loans and transport, and advocated government control of railways and the telephone system. The party faded after it merged with the Democrats in 1896, but some of its policies were adopted by the major parties. Müller, however, claims that the People’s Party was in fact not populist, apparently because they did not really claim to stand for ‘the people’.
Given the range of positions taken up by populists, and the fact that populism is  an attitude as much as a real political stance, it can clearly be difficult to provide a simple discussion of populists’ views. It might be said that, while much else they say is objectionable, they at least offer some critique of a society divided into an elite (however defined) and the rest of the population, and that workers who are contented with their lot do not support populist parties and movements. They must in some sense be angry and resentful, even if they choose the wrong targets as the focus of their anger. But crucially, supporters of populism have no conception of the nature of capitalism and of their own status as exploited workers. Vague appeals to some variation of ‘the people’ are no substitute for genuine class consciousness, for seeing those forced to sell their labour power as a class with a shared interest in getting rid of the wages and profit system.
Left-wing variants of populism are little different: in power, Syriza in Greece was unable to do much to challenge the socioeconomic system they encountered. The Occupy movement in the US has been described as ‘a genuine grassroots movement for economic justice’ (David Graeber: 'The Democracy Project'), but in practice it had few clear demands and never formulated a real picture of a future society that went beyond capitalism. Doing so needs much more than simply objecting to inequalities of power and wealth: it needs a realisation of the class basis of capitalism and of what a class-free society can be like.
Paul Bennett

A Brief Sketch of the Materialist Conception of History - Part 5 (1924)

From the November 1924 issue of the Socialist Standard

Part 5
Though slavery, as we have pointed out, was a necessary step in the development of human society, it by no means follows that it is necessary to society for all time. Slavery, or any other feature of society which may be necessary under certain historical conditions, may, and often does, become unnecessary when those conditions have passed away. This, to some extent, will explain the changes in the forms of slavery that have appeared throughout the history of class society. The chattel slavery of ancient Greece and Rome, when it no longer conformed to the requirements of society as determined in the main by economic development, was superseded by the serfdom of the middle ages, and this in turn was superseded by the wage slavery of present-day society.

So sure as slavery has its origin in the limited powers of wealth production of earlier times, and served to free a section of society to devote their time to the common business of society, which includes “the organisation of labour, the business of government, the administration of justice, art, science, etc.," it can be said to be necessary for human development. But when the means and methods of wealth production reach the stage of development of to-day, class society, with its slavery, ceases to be necessary to social advancement. In fact, it becomes a hindrance to social development. But this brings us to the question of what is useful or necessary in class society. No ruling class gives up its power of domination over the rest of society by virtue of the effects of their domination upon society, nor even for the purpose of social development. The question of whether a particular ruling class, or any of those social institutions which serve its purpose, is useful or necessary, has to be viewed relatively. What a ruling class may consider as useful or necessary may be, and generally is in the ultimate, considered by the rest of society as being useless and unnecessary. This is because the different material interests of the classes inevitably give rise to different ideas of social institutions. A ruling class will cling on to its power like grim death, and will either believe, or pretend to believe, that all that is associated with its domination is for the good of humanity as a whole. On the other hand, the rest of society must sooner or later feel the effects of domination, which involves their exploitation, and thus regard things from a different standpoint. The whole question becomes one of a contest for supremacy, which culminates in a social revolution. The statement of Marx that force is the midwife of the old society which is pregnant with the new can be regarded as a historical axiom which tells us much more than at first meets the eye. It implies that, though political force is employed in the formation of a new form of society, it can only be used for that purpose when any given form of society has reached a certain stage of economic development, when it “becomes pregnant with the new.” And this is a fact which has been impressed upon the minds of many who have taken part in movements for the establishment of a new form of society before the conditions were ripe. Further, this statement of Marx regarding class society implies that revolution is a necessary part of the whole process of evolution, and is a standing challenge to those who deny the necessity of revolution as a means of changing the form of society. A society does not change from one form to another automatically, nor do we discover any evidence of an existing ruling class forming a new form of society. As the economic development proceeds apace, ever bringing in its train fresh conditions, the more does any ruling class mould, or endeavour to mould, its domination in harmony with those conditions. The form of society is kept intact, even though concessions are made to the rest of society. The economic changes, with the changes in laws that are made from time to time by a ruling class, come within the process of evolution. But the revolution, the change in the entire form of society, must necessarily be carried out through a conflict between the classes—the dominant class using its power to retain its hold upon society, and the class seeking power endeavouring to get it by getting control of the State machinery held by the ruling class. The control of the State leads to the control of society. For it must be understood that the State, although signifying to the popular mind the whole of the people, is in reality an organ of class rule.

In the early stages of class society it became necessary to have an institution to deal with the conflicts arising from the exploitation of one class by another. As wealth accumulated on the one side and misery and wretchedness on the other, the more was society disturbed by internal conflicts. Not only this, but the wealth of individuals in that society became the cause of a systematic plundering by outside sources. Consequently, there arose the necessity for the formation of an institution which would not only protect the privately owned wealth, but would also endow that wealth “with the universal sanction of society.” “And this institution was found,” says Engels. “The State arose.” Arising from the necessity of conserving the wealth of individuals forming a class by themselves, and the desire of these to keep in check the rest of society, the State, differing in form from that of earlier times, has retained its essential character throughout, that is, a means of domination.

As Engels points out:—
   “The antique state was, therefore, the state of the slave-owners for the purpose of holding the slaves in check. The feudal state was the organ of the nobility for the suppression, of the serfs and dependent farmers. The modern representative state is the tool of the capitalist exploiters of wage labour.”—(“Origin of the Family,” page 209).
Now, as most people are aware, the State not only consists of the machinery for making laws, it also consists of the means of enforcing the observance of those laws. Obviously, there would be little use of making laws in a society where class divisions prompt people to act in defiance of them, unless some means existed to enforce action in line with the laws. The means existing for this purpose, although covered by a “code of legality,” are the armed forces.
Robert Reynolds
(To be continued.)

Link to Part 6.

A Brief Sketch of the Materialist Conception of History - Part 4 (1924)

From the October 1924 issue of the Socialist Standard

Link to Part 3.

Part 4
Before proceeding to touch upon the question of class struggles as a feature of historical development, we must point out to new students of our theory of history the necessity of them holding in mind a few important points hitherto not mentioned in this sketch. It is the nature of the Socialist philosophy, based upon the firm ground of positive science, to be thoroughly comprehensive. Hence the historical aspect of that philosophy, which we are here considering, embraces the findings of science as generally applied to man. Thus all ideas concerning the duration of man’s existence upon the earth which are derived from Biblical teachings, must be put on one side as being contrary to facts.

Generally speaking, until the early part of the 19th century the idea that man was created some 6,000 years ago by a supernatural power held undisputed sway over the minds of the great bulk of the people. So certain was the idea of creation held to be true that one eminent divine, Dr. Lightfoot, at one time Vice Chancellor of Cambridge University, went so far as to fix the “precise date” of man’s creation. According to him man was created on the 23rd of October, 4004 B.C. at 9 o’clock in the morning. A similar utterance nowadays might impel rude people to call him Dr. Lighthead. As the historian, Buckle, satirically remarked when another eminent divine fixed the “date” of Noah’s entry into the Ark, “theologians have always been remarkable for the exactness of their knowledge on subjects respecting which nothing is known.” Nowadays, of course, these ideas are no longer considered as serious contributions to the study of man and his history. The principle of evolution has largely superseded the dogmas of theology, and it is more and more becoming acknowledged, even by theologians themselves, that man is a product of a process of evolution from lower forms of life—“a process of evolution going on through millions of years.” Hence the life history of the human race cannot be confined within the narrow limits of the more or less orthodox historians, who would lead us to believe that the history of Britain began with the invasion of the Romans, or that the history of America began with the arrival of the Puritan fathers from England.

The same method of enquiry which is employed in natural history, as far as origins are concerned, must be employed in human history, as it has been during the last hundred years with great success. The labours of many investigators into human origins have brought to light a mass of evidence showing that, not for 6,000 years, but for more than 100,000 years have human beings inhabited the earth. The view expressed by Lewis Henry Morgan that the existence of mankind extends backwards immeasurably and loses itself in a vast and profound antiquity, is shared by practically all the scientists who have investigated the history of mankind. Though opinions vary among geologists, those who study the general structure of the earth, and among anthropologists, those who study the physical and certain aspects of the social history of man, concerning the extent of human existence, it is generally agreed that any estimate which falls short of 100,000 years may be ignored.

History as commonly understood merely refers to the period of human existence during which we have written records of . human activities, but the term "pre-historic” has now become quite common, and is generally applied to that vast period of man’s existence about which the ordinary written records tell us nothing.

The evidence of man’s antiquity is not merely confined to the discoveries of human skulls, but is also to be gathered from the relics and tools unearthed from ancient river-beds, limestone caverns, lake bottoms, rude sepulchres and stone structures in many parts of the world.

As Paul Lafargue points out in his “Evolution of Property” the fact of man being a tool-making animal, "the discovery of a stone implement in a cavern or geological stratum is proof as positive of the presence of a human being as the human skeleton itself."

Throughout the immense period of time that men have roamed “our planet," they have pushed forward in their conquest of the forces of nature unaided by any power other than that of their own mental and physical abilities. No supernatural power has guided the footsteps of mankind in their long and painful journey from savagery to civilisation. Thus must working-class students look to the doings and surroundings of man alone in order to understand the movements of history.

And now about the struggle of classes. The Socialist is often reproached for declaring the existence of the class struggle as though he created the struggle. As well might our opponents reproach Copernicus for the earth’s motion round the sun, or Sir Isaac Newton for the law of gravitation. The Socialist does not create the struggle, he but points to its existence and to the lessons to be learned therefrom. The class struggle arises from the private or class-ownership of the means .of living, the land and the other resources of wealth production and distribution. Private property in the means of life necessarily implies a social system composed of masters and slaves, the former living on the proceeds of the exploitation of the latter.

Now how did these different social classes come into existence? It was an idea of some of the 18th-century philosophers that human society was held together by some sort of contract which was originally entered into between those who governed and those who were governed, but this idea is not a correct one, as the existence of an armed force in all class societies throughout history bears ample testimony.

Nor does the so-called “physiological differences,” as suggested by certain biologists, account for class distinctions. Class distinctions between men are to be found, not by making physiological comparisons between human beings, but in the way in which they get their living. “A beggar,” says Untermann “has the same physiological organisation as a king.” Class differences are not biological, they are fundamentally economic in character. If natural differences accounted for class distinctions, class societies would meet us in every phase of human history, and such is not the case.

Morgan points out that, assuming 100,000 years to be the extent of man’s existence upon the earth, something like 95 thousand years of this period must have been spent by mankind under savagery and barbarism. Now since classes did not arise until the higher stage of barbarism, it will be gathered that classless society existed for by far the greater portion of the period of human existence. As Marx observes on the questions of classes in modern society :
   One thing, however, is clear, nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economical revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production.—(Capital, pp. 147-148.)
Now the use of private property in the means of life did not take place as a result of a process of reasoning on the part of human beings, that is to say, men did not debate the question as to whether they would establish the institution of private property. In fact, much historical evidence exists to show that strenuous efforts were made by early man to prevent the break up of their communal institutions. Private property worked its way into the conditions of human existence by way of necessity, and had to be adopted by mankind as a means of their social advancement. The rise of classes, with their conflicting interests and struggles, is to be traced to the economic development we have mentioned, namely, the development of the tools of wealth production, aided by certain discoveries.

Whilst the productive powers of primitive society yielded no more wealth than was required for mere existence, all members of that society who were able would be compelled to devote the whole of their time in producing the wherewithal to live. "No idlers can be maintained at the cost of society.” But when the.productive powers of society increased to the extent that a surplus above that which is necessary for maintenance is produced, a change in social relations is made possible. The path is opened for the formation of distinct social classes. We cannot here enter into the question of the many conditions contributing to the rise of class society, as our main theme concerns the main factor of historical development. Only a few historical examples can be given by way of showing the truth of our theory of history, and in giving these examples it must be understood that they are taken from the Eastern part of the world, called the Old World, where, with certain natural advantages, the course of economic development first facilitated the rise of private property. The domestication of animals, unquestionably one of the great discoveries of the world, appears to have been one of the main contributions to the growth of private property in the means of life.

As the number of domesticated animals grew the more did it become necessary to find grounds for them to graze upon. Consequently, from taming and rearing animals, men were sooner or later compelled to turn their attention to agricultural pursuits, and to give up their habits of roaming from place to place and settle down to a more or less fixed habitation. Further, the division of labour in tribal society, hitherto confined to the sexes, the men engaged in war, hunting, fishing and the production of the raw materials for these occupations, whilst the women were in charge of the household, and cooked, sewed and weaved, was now extended to men themselves. Different professions or trades arose within the tribal organisation, and consequent upon the increase of wealth production which followed, the more did wealth fall into the possession of certain families within the tribe, which in turn created the desire for more wealth. But this could only be obtained by the employment of more labour power, and to get this was not possible within the tribe itself. The equality which prevailed under the conditions of life of tribal communism did not allow of men being pressed into the service of others. The required labour power had to be introduced from outside the tribal organisation. The solution to the problem of finding this labour power was found in war. It must be noted that tribal man did not extend the same feeling of comradeship to the members of other tribes as he did to those of his own tribe. For other tribes were regarded as enemies, and theoretically as well as practically every tribe was at war with other tribes, as in our own times people of other nations are regarded with suspicion, as though they are destined to endanger our existence.

Hitherto wars had been carried on between neighbouring tribes largely on account of the scarcity of food. In fact, so precarious were the conditions of human existence that cannibalism was often resorted to as a means of averting starvation.

A tribe which possessed a good hunting territory was at all times subject to attack from those tribes in a less fortunate position. But the all-round progress made in cattle raising and agriculture, which was later facilitated by the production of iron, altered all this. Wars between tribes were now undertaken with other objects in view. The captured enemies, instead of being killed and eaten as formerly, were now pressed into the service of their conquerors by being set to work in the interests of the latter; in other words, they were enslaved. Says Engels in his work, “The Origin of the Family” :—
  Under the given historical conditions, the first great division of social labour, by increasing the productivity of labour, adding to the wealth, and enlarging the field of productivity, necessarily carried slavery in its wake. Out of the first great division of social labour arose the first great division of society into two classes: masters and servants, exploiters and exploited.
From this time onwards down to the present day the evolution of society has produced different ruling and subject classes, slavery, though different in degree from that of earlier times, still exists as a feature of human society. For, slavery it must be understood, does not merely mean an intensified form of work, which is the popular notion, slavery is political and economic subjection—political in the sense that an armed force. exists to conserve the monopoly of the wealth produced by and stolen from the slave class, and economic in that the slave class is divorced from the means of life. The question of whether the work of the slaves is laborious or otherwise is irrelevant to the real meaning of slavery. As common experience shows, the vast resources of wealth production in modern society are privately owned, the owners of these taking no part in wealth production, yet enjoying the wealth produced by those who have to seek their permission in order to live, which is the very essence of slavery.

However, what is important for the working-class student of history to note is that, class society with its consequent enslavement of the wealth producers is the result of economic development, and further that it was when first established, a step forward in the advancement of human society.

"We must not forget,” says Engels, in his work, "Anti-Duhring,” "that our entire economic, political and intellectual development has its foundations in a state of society in which slavery was regarded universally as necessary. In this sense we may say that without the ancient slavery there would have been no modern Socialism.”

What is also of importance is that the use of force was required to establish class society, as the use of force has been necessary to its existence ever since. "Force,” says Marx, "is the midwife of the old society pregnant with the new.”
Robert Reynolds
(To be continued.)

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.)

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.

A Brief Sketch of the Materialist Conception of History - Part 1 (1924)

From the May 1924 issue of the Socialist Standard

Part 1
In opposition to the conventional notion that the present form of society has always existed, the Socialist points out that it has existed for not more than a few centuries, and was preceded by other forms of society. In point of fact, the life history of the human race is made up of a series of fundamental changes in social relations.

Broadly speaking, mankind have experienced four distinct forms of society, which are Primitive Communism, Chattel Slavery, Feudalism, and Capitalism. However, the knowledge of the changes in society must necessarily be connected with a knowledge of the causes underlying the changes.

Many attempts have been made by historians in the past to find the main cause or causes behind social development. Prior to the middle of the 19th century (excluding Vico, who has been called “the father of the philosophy of history”) the general conception of history was based upon the notion that the causes of all social changes are to be found in the changes in man’s ideas, and that the most important of all social changes are those of a purely political character. But as to the cause of the changes in man’s ideas, and what are the motive forces behind political changes remained a mystery until the time mentioned above, i.e., the middle of the 19th century. Conspicuous among the few historians who laboured to find a solution to the problem of social change, and to make a science of history, was Henry Thomas Buckle, the author of that useful work, “The History of Civilisation in England.” Rejecting the unscientific explanations of those who had endeavoured to show that the affairs of human society are the result of chance, free will, or supernatural interference, he sought for the explanation of historical development in man’s material conditions. In the second chapter of the first volume of his work, when dealing with the influence of physical laws on human society, Buckle states :—
  If we enquire what those physical agents are by which the human race is most powerfully influenced, we shall find that they may be classed under four heads, namely, Climate, Food, Soil, and the General Aspect of Nature, by which last I mean those appearances which, though presented chiefly to the sight, have, through the medium of that or other senses, directed the association of ideas and hence in different countries have given rise to the different habits of national thought.
But, as a satisfactory explanation of the cause of social change, this theory of Buckle’s failed. Unquestionably the factors emphasised by him have played an important part in influencing the ideas and institutions of human society, particularly when society was in its earlier stages of development, but it cannot be shown that climatic and geographical conditions are the driving force behind the changes that have taken place in society throughout historic times. The truth of this is not difficult to grasp when it is noted that, compared with the various changes in society, the climatic and geographical conditions of man’s environment have, broadly speaking, remained stationary throughout human history.

The solution of the problem we are considering, namely, the main cause of social change, was discovered by the founders of the modern Socialist movement, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, and was first publicly announced by them in their joint work, “The Communist Manifesto,” published in 1848. These two men working independently of each, other came to the same conclusion, namely, that it was the economic development that formed the motive force of social development, resulting in the changes in the forms of society. Marx and Engels saw that the foundation of human society was an economic one, and that the whole structure of society rested upon this economic foundation. That the way in which wealth is produced and distributed gives rise to and in the main determines the form of the social system. Therefore, the solution of the problem of social change is to be found in the changes which take place in the means and methods by which society gets its living, and not, as was thought hitherto, in the changes in man’s ideas and ideals.

This view of the historical development of human society is known as the materialist conception of history, and is explained, in a brief way, by Engels, as follows:—
    The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life, and next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or orders, is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products arc exchanged. From this point of view the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in man’s better insight into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch.—
Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, page 45.
This discovery of the motive force of history ranks as one of the great discoveries of the 19th century, and is being more and more adopted by historians as the basis of historical research.

In passing, it may prove of interest to record how these two men were ready to credit each other for their respective shares in making the discovery. In the preface to his work, “The Critique of Political Economy,” after giving a brief summary of the materialist conception of history, Marx point out that Engels, with whom he had corresponded and exchanged ideas, "came by a different road to the same conclusion as myself (see his “ Condition of  the Working Class in England ”).”

On the other hand, Engels, in a footnote to his work on Feuerbach, makes the following statement:—
   It is incumbent upon me to make a personal explanation at this place. People have lately referred to my share in' this theory, and I can hardly refrain from saying a few words here in settlement of that particular matter.
  I cannot deny that I had before and during my forty years’ collaboration with Marx a certain independent share, not only in laying out the foundations, but more particularly in working out the theory. But the greatest part of the leading essential thinking, particularly in the realm of economics, and especially its final sharp statement, belongs to Marx alone. What Marx supplied I could not have readily brought. Marx stood higher, saw farther, took a wider, clearer, quicker survey than all of us. Marx was a genius; we others, at the best, talented. Without him the theory would not be what it is to-day by a long way. It therefore rightly bears his name.
Surely these references are an indication of a not altogether unhealthy sign in these two ‘‘gross materialists,” as they were styled by their opponents.

However, Marx and Engels were not entirely alone in making this discovery of "the law of historical development.” Apparently without any knowledge of their writings, Lewis Henry Morgan, the great American Ethnologist, came to substantially the same conclusion. Through his investigations into the conditions of the savage and barbarian tribes, chiefly of the North American Indians, with whom he had lived for many years, Morgan came to certain conclusions regarding' the life history of the human race. In his greatest work, "Ancient Society,” in which he traces the main lines of human progress from savagery through barbarism to civilisation, he shows that the extent of man’s supremacy over the forces of nature is determined by man’s ability to produce the means of subsistence. The following quotation from his work may be said to sum up his view of the matter :—
  The important fact that mankind commenced at the bottom of the scale and worked up, is revealed in an expressive manner by their successive arts of subsistence. Upon their skill in this direction, the whole question of human supremacy on the earth depended. Mankind are the only beings who may be said to have gained an absolute control over the production of food; which at the outset they did not possess above other animals. Without enlarging the basis of subsistence, mankind could not have propagated themselves into other areas not possessing the same kinds of food, and ultimately over the whole surface of the earth ; and lastly, without obtaining an absolute control over both its variety and amount, they could not have multiplied into populous nations. It is accordingly probable that the great epochs of human progress have been identified, more or less directly, with the enlargement of the sources of subsistence.—Ancient Society, page 19.
This view, it will be noted, is practically identical with the view of Marx and Engels.

A considerable amount of criticism has been levelled against Marx and Engels on the ground that they were supposed to have subordinated the whole of human history to the workings of economic laws. It is alleged by some of their critics that they failed to take into account the influence of such important factors as ideas, geography, climate, etc., and that the Materialist Conception of history leads to an “ economic fatalism.”

These criticisms are, however, based upon either an inability to understand, or an ability to deliberately misrepresent.

That the influence of man’s ideas, and also the importance of the other factors mentioned, were taken into account by Marx and Engels, when stating and applying the Materialist Conception of history we intend to show in a further article on the subject.
Robert Reynolds

Link to Part 2.