Wednesday, April 20, 2022

A Problem in Historical Materialism by Karl Kautsky (1940)

From the October 1940 issue of the Socialist Standard

The materialist conception of history has been often understood as if certain technical conditions of itself meant a certain method of production, nay, even certain social and political forms. As that, however, is not exact, since we find the same tools in various states of society, consequently the materialist conception of history is false and the social relations are not determined by the technical conditions. The objection is right, but it does not hit the materialist conception of history, but its caricature, by a confusion of technical conditions and method of production.

It has been said for instance, the plough forms the foundation of the peasant economy. But manifold are the social circumstances in which this appears!

Certainly! But let us look a little more closely. What brings about the deviations of the various forms of society which arise on the peasant foundations.

Let us take for example a peasantry, which lives on the banks of a great tropical or subtropical river, which periodically floods its banks, bringing either decay or fruitfulness for the soil. Water dams, etc., will be required to keep the water back here and to guide it there. The single village is not able to carry out such works by itself. A number of them must co-operate, and supply laborers, common officials must be appointed, with a commission to set the labor going for making and maintaining the works. The bigger the undertaking, the more villages must take a part, the greater the number of the forced laborers, the greater the special knowledge required to conduct such works, so much the greater the power, and knowledge of the leading officials compared with the rest of the population. Thus there grows on the foundation of a peasant economy a priest or official class as in the river plains of the Nile, the Euphrates or the Whang-Ho.

We find another species of development where a flourishing peasant economy has settled in fruitful, accessible lands in the neighborhood of robbers, nomadic tribes. The necessity of guarding themselves against these nomads forces the peasants to form a force of guards, which can be done in various manners. Either a part of the peasant applies itself to the trade of arms, and separates itself from the others who yield them services in return, or the robber neighbors are induced by payment of a tribute to keep the peace and to protect their new proteges from other robbers, or finally the robbers conquer the land and remain as lords over the peasantry, on whom they lay a tribute, for which, however they provide a protective force. The result is always the same: the rise of a new feudal nobility which rules and exploits the peasants.

Occasionally the first and second methods of development unite, then we have beside a priest and official class a warrior caste.

Again quite differently does the peasantry develop on a sea with good harbors, which favor sea voyages and bring them closer to other coasts with well to do populations. By the side of agriculture, fishery arises, fishery which soon passes over into sea-piracy and sea commerce. At a particularly suitable spot for a harbor is gathered together plunder and merchants’ goods and there is formed a town of rich merchants. Here the peasant has a market for his goods, there arise for him money receipts, but also the expenditure of money, money obligations, debts. Soon he is the debtor of the town money proprietor.

Sea piracy and sea commerce as well as sea wars bring, however, a plentiful supply of slaves into the country. The town money owners instead of exploiting their peasant debtors any farther, go to work to drive them from their possessions, to unite these into great plantations and to introduce slave work for peasant, without any change being required in the tools and instruments of agriculture.

Finally we see a fourth type of peasant development in inaccessible mountain regions. The soil is there poor and difficult to cultivate. By the side of the agriculture, the breeding of stock retains the preponderance; nevertheless both are not sufficient to sustain a great increase of population. At the foot of the mountains fruitful, well tilled lands tempt them. The mountain peasants will make the attempt to conquer these and exploit them, or where they meet with resistance to hire out their superfluous population as paid soldiers. Their experience in war, in combination with the poverty and inaccessibility of their land serves to guard it against foreign invaders, to whom in any case their poverty offers no great temptation. There the old peasant democracy still maintains when all around all the peasantry have long become dependent on Feudal Lords, Priests, Merchants and usurers. Occasionally a primitive democracy of that kind itself tyrannizes and explores a neighboring country which they have conquered, in marked contradiction to their own highly valued liberty. Thus the old cantons of the fatherland of William Tell exercised through their Bailiffs in Tessin in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries a rule, whose crushing weight could compare with that of the mythical Gessler.

It will be seen that very different methods of production are compatible with the peasant economy. How are these differences to be explained? The opponents of the materialist conception of history trace them back to force, or again to the difference of the ideas which take form at various periods in the various peoples.

Now it is certain that in the erection of all these methods of production force played a great part, and Marx called it the midwife of every new society. But whence comes this role of force, how does it come that one section of the people conquers with it, and the other not, and that the force produces this and not other results? To all these questions the force theory has no answer to give. And equally by the theory of ideas does it remain a mystery where the ideas come from which lead to freedom in the mountain country, to priest rule in the river valley land, to money and slave economy on the shores of the sea and in hilly undulating countries to feudal serfdom.

We have seen that these differences in the development of the same peasant system rest on differences in the natural and social surroundings in which this system is placed. According to the nature of the land, according to the description of its neighbors will the peasant system of economy be the foundation for very different social forms. These special social forms become then side by side with the natural factors, further foundations, which give a peculiar form to the development based on them. Thus the Germans found when they burst in on the Roman Empire during the migration of the peoples, the Imperial Government with its bureaucracy, the municipal system, the Christian Church as social conditions, and these, as well as they could, they incorporated into their system.

All these geographical and historical conditions have to be studied, if the particular method of production in a land at a particular time is to be understood. The knowledge of the technical conditions alone does not suffice.

It will be seen that the materialist conception of history is not such a simple formula as its critics usually conceive it to be.

Dictatorship and Democracy in the Ancient World - Part 2 (1940)

From the October 1940 issue of the Socialist Standard

One cause of complaint against Athens was the fact that after the Persian War the wealth which had flowed in as tribute from the Allies to build the Athenian fleet was diverted to beautifying the city. Pericles defended this policy on the following grounds: —
“It was right, Pericles argued, that after the city had provided all that was necessary for war, it should devote its surplus money to the erection of buildings which would be a glory to it for all ages, while these works would create plenty by leaving no one unemployed and encouraging all sorts of handicraft. . . . As he did not wish the mechanics and lower classes to be without their share, nor yet to see them receive it without doing work for it, he had laid the foundations of great edifices which would require industries of every kind to complete them.”—(Plutarch, Pericles, 12. Quoted by Grant, Pericles, p. 217.)
The menace that always lurked in the background of the Greek world up to the time of Alexander was the huge semi-barbarous Persian Empire which sprawled over Asia and at intervals stretched out tentacles to embrace the thriving Greek cities. It was the attack of the Persian hordes on the Ionian Peninsular that assisted the Athenians to lay the foundations of their empire. The Persians had obtained control of the Greek cities on the Asiatic mainland, but their defeat at Marathon and the growth of Athenian power freed the mainland for a time from the Persian dragon.

After the Peloponesian war had run for ten years mutual exhaustion compelled the two leading contestants to agree to a truce. During the truce Athens conceived the plan of attacking Syracuse in Sicily, an early colony of Corinth which had grown wealthy enough to become second only to Athens in commercial standing. The Athenians sent out a large fleet and a powerful army and looked forward to obtaining much booty as well as crushing a growing rival. But political jealousy deprived them of their most gifted commander, Alcibiades. The fleet had hardly arrived at Sicily when a message was received recalling Alcibiades to stand trial on the accusation of violating sacred monuments. Alcibiades, however, was not prepared to risk the trial. Instead of returning he went to Sparta where he urged the Spartans to send aid to the Syracusans. The suggestion appealed to the Spartans, although the truce with Athens was still in operation. As a first step Sparta made an arrangement with the Persian colossus under which the latter was allowed to resume its hegemony over the Greek cities of the mainland on condition that Sparta was allowed a free hand in Greek lands and waters. Throughout the war Sparta also received regular subsidies from Persia, while Athenian revenues were diminishing.

The Syracusan expedition was the end of the Athenian Empire, for it suffered a crushing defeat and never really recovered from the blow. Henceforward Sparta dominated the Greek world until its harsh oligarchical rule eventually drove the subject cities to revolt and recreated a modified Athenian Empire.

Although Sparta had obtained a firm grip of the bulk of the Greek states there were still those on the Asiatic Mainland under Persian control. How Sparta proposed solving this problem is explained by Robertson in “The Story of Greece and Rome.”
“There remained the liberation of the Greeks from Persia. The defeat of the Persians at Mycale did not mean their retirement from the AEgean. They still held all their possessions, both in Asia Minor and in Thrace. But to drive them out and liberate the Greek cities meant the maintenance of an efficient fleet in the eastern AEgean for a considerable time, and such a policy was, as might be expected, distasteful to Sparta. She, therefore, proposed that Asiatic Greeks should leave their cities and migrate to new homes to be provided for them in Greece.”–(P. 127.)
Before concluding this little sketch of conditions in Greece at the time, it remains to say a little more about that section of Greek society that went under the name of “Oligarchs,” particularly as it has a modern significance.

The Greek philosophers carne principally from the democratic states, but they represented a revolt against the abolition of the political privileges of the rich, and their teaching was directly antagonistic to existing government. Philosophers had reached the stage of doubting the value of all that was accepted and hence democratic government come in for their criticism. Socrates compared the existing constitution of Athens with his ideal state and found it wanting. The Sophists objected to the acceptance of anything on tradition and exalted the individual above the state. It was a reaction against the extreme democracy of the time.

It may appear strange to us that the slaves, who formed a large element in Greek society, were entirely ignored by both philosophers and politicians. But in those days the slave as such had no more standing than a horse or a bullock, although it was possible, under exceptional conditions, for a slave to obtain his freedom. Commerce was a great assistance in helping slaves to become freedmen.

The philosophers were the intellectual expression of oligarchical aspirations, and helped to influence dissatisfied sections of the population in favour of oligarchy—the dictatorship of one man or a small group of men.

The Oligarchs were a minority section that organised in secret clubs, threw their weight for or against any project or legislation that favoured their aspirations, and were able at times to seize power by force when conditions favoured a coup.

The following excellent summary of oligarchy is taken from Whibley’s “Political Parties at Athens,” and although it is only concerned with Athens, it nevertheless applied generally: —
“The oligarchs as a whole were a disloyal faction, for neither their methods nor their objects entitle them to be regarded as a party. They not only rejected the obligation to obey the laws, but they were traitors to their country, for they intrigued with the national enemy against it; their ends were always selfish and treasonable, and were pursued by means of conspiracy and terrorism. 
They formed, as their name implies, a small minority of the State, and were for the most part men of wealth, or political adventurers who saw possibilities of their own advancement in the chance of revolution. In particular, many of the young aristocrats, who looked with contempt on the rule of the lower classes, and were anxious to overthrow it, joined their ranks. 
The motives which had put rich men in opposition to the constitution are obvious …. the political conflict was reactionary, the rich striving to regain the powers they had lost.”—(P. 81.)
From what has been written it should be clear that the Peloponesian War was no different from other later wars in the sense that it arose directly out of the economic conditions of the time. It is also an example of how little “human nature” has changed in the course of two thousand years.

Buckle on War and Religion (1940)

From the October 1940 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Whatever religion may be in the ascendant, the influence of its ministers is invariably strengthened by a long and dangerous war, the uncertainty of which perplex the minds of men, and induce them, when natural resources are failing, to call on the supernatural for help. On such occasions the clergy rise in importance; the churches are more than usually filled ; and the priest, putting himself forward as the exponent of the wishes of God, assumes the language of authority, and either comforts the people under their losses in a righteous cause, or else he explains to them that those losses are sent to them as a visitation for their sins, and as a warning that they have not been sufficiently attentive to their religious duties ; in other words they have neglected rites and ceremonies in the performance of which the priest himself has a personal interest.”—(“History of Civilisation in England,” Vol. 3, p. 34. World’s Classics Edition.)