Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Monday, August 14, 2006

19. In Conclusion.

'WE can now pause to summarise the whole of our lessons, make a mental stocktaking, and in retrospect retrace our journey —a Journey through the long avenue from prehistoric time, "a time when no man knows," to the known, experienced events of modern days. The evidence accumulated and pieced together by arch groping in the past, misty traditions of ancient peoples, and the surer written records of later times have all lent us their aid. Brief references were made to the Stone and Iron Age, the coming of the Aryans east to Europe, of how our own particular country emerged upon the stage of written history with the coming of the Romans, and of how Saxon, Dane, and Norman followed, and finally lost their racial identity in later times. The geologist told us of the struggle between the elements in the earth’s formation. The biologist showed how individual animals and species struggled with each other. And we passed on to sociology and witnessed a struggle still proceeding.

In this struggle the new class and the old class were engaged, and out of it came the evolution of society. We followed "the chain of change" from mark to manor, from tribal communism to slavery, from slavery to feudalism, and then onwards to manufacture and machinofacture and our own industrial system. The evolution of the warrior, the merchant, the guildsman, and of the industrial capitalist, with his inevitable companion the wage-worker, has engaged our attention.

The growth of trade, the division of labour, the rise and fall of handicraft, the division between town and country, the development of the local, the national and (with the discovery of new continents) the world market, the dawn of the new day of science after medieval night —these and many other things figure upon our Syllabus. The attempts of each rising class to gain political power, the different phases passed through by Capitalism, the beginning of permanent organizations by our own class, with the success and failure which attended its attempts, all formed subjects for later lessons. We have watched new orders and relations arising out of the old; and have seen that the triumph of each class, as well as its birth, always coincides with the development and progress of material conditions. Every system in its maturity also contained the germs of its own decay. From being a helper the particular system becomes a hinderer. Instead of being revolutionary and a useful aid to production, it becomes reactionary and a useless fetter upon production. Then comes into play the new class which the old has begotten and carries forward the banner of progress. Therefore, using history as a touchstone, and recognising that new ideas, new codes of morality, new laws, etc., have their origin in changing economic conditions, we are now in a position clearly to examine the economic factors at present at work, to act in accordance with their evolution, and take up our stand with the new class in its forward march.

The Logic of the Machine.—This is a term often used to describe the economic factors which are inherent in capitalist production, and which, as we have seen, especially since the Industrial Revolution, have been compelling the working-class to take up arms in its own defence.

Right at the beginning of this book it was shown that man only differed from the animal in his power of tool-making, which of course predicates a corresponding development of the thinking faculty, and this again would be closely connected with a vocal language; tool-making, thinking, and talking being inseparable and correlative in their growth. Man has in common with the animal "the will to live," but he has something else, viz., "the will to live better." Now the economic needs of man for food, clothing and shelter are satisfied by contact with Nature, i.e., the soil, fruit-trees, and all the earth’s contents and inhabitants. Moreover, these bodily needs must be satisfied before he can indulge in art or any other spicitual needs which in later development may be his. Naturally, man tries to satisfy these former needs with the least possible exertion. But he can only continue "to live better" by constantly developing and improving his tools. For here, with the making of the first tool, begins the great gulf between man and the animal. The animal acts directly upon Nature; but man interposes between himself and Nature a tool— an action mighty in its consequences, as we shall see. For example, a dog and a rabbit scratch and burrow the ground with their paws; but man makes a sharpened stick, a spade, and in time a steam plough, and successfully, by means of his tools, honeycombs even the rocks of the earth in search of minerals. The fox jumps for the grapes; but man, as a result of his improved technique, thinks of a ladder. When even the eagle’s eye fails to pierce the distance, man’s telescope is more successful. Man’s power over his natural environment results from this interposition. A fish out of water has become proverbial as an instance of an unsuitability to environment which spells death. Likewise, a bird cannot live under water. But man, with his technique, becomes a fish in his submarine and a bird in his aeroplane. The dense forests are cleared; the jungle inhabited; the ocean spanned; the deserts irrigated ; the microbe-infested fever swamps made healthy, and the mountains bored, because man increases his science, harnesses natural forces to do his bidding, and is ever perfecting his tools and machinery.

There is another aspect of the important results of the tool, and that is the consequences arising from its ownership by particular persons. Jack London, in his pamphlet, The Strength of the Strong, tells in a simple, picturesque fashion the story of these results. To cut a long story short, it can be said:—The class of persons owning the tools or the means of production is the ruling class. In the realm of biology there is a very obvious division of labour based upon physiological grounds,. e.g., that of sex. It is impossible for the queen bee, the worker bee, or the drone to do each other’s work. But in sociology, with the coming of tools, a new division of labour, based upon economic grounds arises. It has already been shown that man, unlike the animal, is not physically changed by his environment, but that he able, by changing and improving his tools, to overcome it. First came a difference between man and man, based upon tool-using; in modern life the difference between a miner and an engineer, a painter and a plumber, is in the different tools they use. Physically, a capitalist and a wage-worker, a queen and a washer-woman, are alike. Neither has an arm, an eye, or a leg more than the other. The difference is one of economic position which is based in this case upon tool- ownership. Technique has developed to the extent that a leisured class is possible, i.e., a class which appropriates the surplus labour of another.

The breakup of the tribal community of pauperism, the rise of private property and the State, the division of society into classes, and the use of slaves, have been noted by us previously. Out of slavery came Feudalism. Then, the land was the chief means of production, and as the fighters became its owners, they were the ruling class. Gradually we saw trade and the merchant class increase. From handicraft evolved manufacture. New means of production dwarfed the importance of the land. The old relations were broken down, and a new class rose to power. We witnessed how it asserted its strength upon the economic field first, and then later, in a political revolution, but how the industrial capitalist was never all-powerful until he possessed the machine. The following is a bare enumeration of some of the effects of the operation of its logic. In dealing with the results of the Industrial Revolution we have had occasion to notice them before :—

(1) The machine breaks down all barriers of age, sex, and race. The use of machinery destroyed much of the laborious, heavy work, and thus made possible its performance by women and children. The merciless exploitation of the child slaves of the factory has not yet faded from our memory; and, though restricted, it has not even now disappeared. The "breaking up of the home" —that anti-Socialist bogey— has already been in many instances accomplished.[See Mary Marcy’s leaflet.] While women’s entrance into industry may —especially if the male workers do not tackle the problem intelligently— at first have disastrous results, still, if she fmally gains economic independence and becomes the true equal and comrade of man, undreamt of beneficial results will accrue.

Again, the possibility of sharing the Imperialist’s ideas of there being "superior" and "inferior" peoples is clearly revealed if we recognise that the difference between lesser and more developed peoples, just as between man and the animal, is one of more or less developed technique. One need not be very well versed in world politics to notice demonstrations of how the capital and commodities of the more advanced countries, by investment and export, beget their like in all the ends of the earth; and of how the so-called backward countries are reproducing the industrial systems of the forward ones, and following practically the same lines of development.

(2) In the wake of the machine comes the crisis, the growth of large production, and the increasing of the rate of exploitation of the worker. There is no need to elaborate these points, as they have already been dealt with. They occur as the inevitable outcome of the inherent laws of the capitalist system and were given as the fundamental cause of the Industrial Unrest in Outline 18.

(3) Born before the machine, yet made doubly necessary by its coming, trade unions commenced striving to retain by collective effort the imperilled status and livelihood of their members. Individual bargaining having failed, workmen formed local trade clubs. From these grew national clubs or unions of each separate trade. These again formed into federations and congresses to gain strength. Some attempts were made tp form international unions between like trades, and national delegates were appointed at some of the congresses to to express the international unity of Labour, which was being already realised.

Our recent lessons have indicated how the logic of the machine has destroyed the craft basis of the oldest unions by destroying handicraft and introducing unskilled labour —the machine minders and "hands" of modern production. Changing circumstances thus caused the basis, aim and policy of the unions to be revised. The members of an industry union now aim at controlling industry through their organizations. Having understood the logic of the machine, they seek to master it. To do this, they have first to shape their own union, control its policy and representatives, and convert their organization into a fighting machine capable of efficiently waging war on the industrial and political fields.

Before our lesson finishes an endeavour will be made to direct attention to the theoretical weapons already at hand, which will give the worker a clear understand ing of his proper aim, and stimulate him to practical work and to solve the question of ways and means to attain that desired end.

The Rise of Scientific Socialism.—Since we have been discussing the machine and the effects of its private ownership, it is only proper that we should turn to a proposed alternative economic system, the founders of which for the first time in history, laid bare the forces making for the dissolution of the capitalist system. It has been well said that though the machine has no voice, its victim has one, and that this victim is forced to cry out in protest and cherish ideas of revolt. Another writer has well described Capitalism as being to the worker a chair with spikes in it, which will not allow him to sit content until they are removed. And thus, in spite of conservative forces and the power of traditian, the worker will be forced to face "things as they are" and alter them. "Labour, the Atlas of the capitalist system, is destined to become its Nemesis."

Socialism is a word which came into general use in the third decade of the 19th century, and it has always heen understood to signify a new state of affairs in opposition to Capitalism. The adjective "scientific" is used to distinguish this Socialism from the schemes of these Utopians and idealist Socialists who based their plans for a new state of affairs upon abstract principles, rather than upon the logic of the machine and the historical growth of society resulting from the friction between rival classes.["The Utopian is one who, starting from an abstract principle seeks for a perfect social organization." —Plekhanov].

Many great thinkers in the past, dissatisfied with the conditions of their times, had drafted out plans for a re-modelling of affairs. Some of them put their p1an into practice and experimented with communal colonies. Plato’s Republic, More’s Utopia, Cabet’s Icaria, St. Simon’s Industrial System , Fourier’s Phalanstery, and Robert Owen’s New Moral World are the best known examples.

Scientific Sociaiinn can only be understood by knowing the conditions of its birth and the experience of its founders. At the close of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th, society in the two most advanced countries, France and England, was passing through a change. And the Socialism fathered by that change was based, not upon ideals, wishes, or a subjective change in men’s heads, but upon the objective processes of society. None of the Utopians saw Socialism as an historic necessity, or recognised the class struggle In which the workers were the true bearers of progress. The real test of Scientific Socialism is that it explains itself; for its theories clearly came out of the material conditions of the times. The French Revolution, "promising the reign of reason, had brought the despotism of the factory." The French section of the capitalist class triumphed, and the feudal nobility were sent packing. But the proletarian element in the Revolution remained unsatisfied. A new, distinct class could be clearly seen for the first time, for whom the Revolution did go far enough, and who, in the 19th century, made many revolts against the bourgeoisie. In England, too, a revolution of another sort was taking place. The rapid introduction of machinofacture revolutionised the old methods of production and caused immense misery among the working class, making it feel and express its antagonism to the capitalists here also. To explain these new social facts, new theories were required and these theories were expressed most clearly by Marx and Engels, the acknowledged founders of Scientific Socialism. As these men happened to be born in Germany, their theories are sometimes dismissed as being "foreign" by people (e.g., the Fabians) who claim to have distinctly British (!) economic theories. As if there was anything national about a scientific theory or as if Socialism was determined by geography! The foolishness of the objection becomes more apparent when it is realised that the forty years of research embodied in Capital were spent in England, the classic land of Capitalism. Owing to Germany’s then backward state, the conclusions could never have been arrived at there.

Marx was born in 1818 at Trèves. He studied law, history, and philosophy at the Bonn and Berlin universities. His Radical opinions spoiled his chance of appointment as lecturer on philosophy at the former, and he became editor of the Rhenish Gazette in 1842. This being suppressed, he went to Paris in 1843. Here he met Proudhon and Heine, and began his famous collaboration with Frederick Engels. Being expelled from France, he resided in Brussels. With Engels he produced, in 1848, the famous Communist Manifesto. After the failure of the uprisings in the same year, he finally settled in London in 1849, and died there in 1883.

Engels (1820-95) was the son of a wealthy cotton spinner and was destined for a commercial career. But he too became interested in philosophy, and contributed to the Rhenish Gazette. In 1842 he came to Manchester and became connected with the Owenite and Chartist movements. After 1844, he and Marx were in constant
touch with each other, and their work became inseparable. Engels, with becoming humility, always gave Marx the chief credit, as the following passage written by him at the death of Marx shows:— "I cannot grasp the thought that this genius should have ceased to fertilize with his powerful thoughts the proletarian movement of both worlds. Whatever we all are, we are through him; and whatever the movement of today is, it is through his theoretical and practical work; without him we should still be stuck in the mire of confusion." Alone, either of these men would have made a mark. Combined, they left behind them works whose true insight and value have not yet been fully appreciated.

The poverty and sorrows of Marx, of his family, and of his fellow-exiles, his activities in the formation of the first International —for neither Marx nor Engels were closet philosophers— his herculean theoretic labours, his disdain of popularity, his hatred of phrasemongery and his many other distinguishing traits may be read of in the biographies which exist. As Wilhelm Liebknecht put it:—

Today Marx’s Capital dominates social and political science like Darwin’s works in the science of natural history. And there is no thinking proletarian in all the countries of the globe who does not know that Capital is an armoury filled with "mental weapons" that, wielded by the proletariat, will ensure its emancipation.

The same writer, in the same book, Karl Marx:Biographical Memoirs, wrote:-

On Capital he was at work forty years—and how he did work! Only a Marx can work so. And I am not exaggerating when I say: The worst paid day-labourer in Germany has received more wages in forty years than Marx did for a salary, as an honorary fee for one of the two greatest scientific creations of the century. The other one is repre ented by Darwin’s works.
"Science" is not a market value. And can we expect that human society would pay a decent price for the execution of its own death warrant?

Liebknecht for twelve years shared Marx’s exile in London, and the following is a glimpse of how they spent their time: -

About this time the magnificent reading-room of the British Museum, with its inexhaustible treasures of books, had been built—and thither, where lie passed a certaiis time every day, Marx drove us; Tn learn! To learn! This was the categorical Imperative he frequently enough loudly shouted to us, but it also was expressed by his example, yea, by the sole aspect of this forever strenuously working mind.

Here he mentions the wild plans and hopes of other fugitives, and in contrast to this he says :—

We...were sitting in the British Museum and trying to educate ourselves and to prepare arms and ammunition for the battles of the future. Sometimes we would not have had a bite, but that would not prevent our going to the Museum —there were at least comfortable chairs to sit down on, and in winter a cheering warmth— which were missing at home, if one had any "house" or "home" at all.

The Marxian Theories.—From the men to their message. The Marxian Theories can be well compared to a triangle, with the Labour Theory of Value, the Theory of Surplus Labour, and the Materialist Conception of History as its three sides. In our lessons, we have had chiefly to do with the latter, though the two former are bound up with it, and would also repay investigation and test. The M.C.H. was first formulated in the Communist Manifesto:— "The history of all hitherto existing society (i.e., all written history) is the history of class struggles." And in later works the theory was enlarged and applied to the history of different nations. The historic mission of the working class, the true nature of the State, and the real, underlying factor beneath all changes in ideas were roughly perceived even when the Manifesto was penned in 1848. "History for the first time," wrote Engels, "was placed on its real foundation; the obvious fact, hitherto totally neglected, that first of all men must eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, and therefore must work before they can struggle for supremacy and devote themselves to politics, religion, philosophy, etc.—this obvious fact at last found historical recognition."

As we have already dealt with the logic of the machine, and seen how social relations are based upon tool-ownership and that the class which owns the tools is very different from the other class that is forced to use those tools in order to get a living— besides having consistently used this theory right throughout our lessons— there is no need to dwell upon it further. Though the expectations and prophecies of the historic Manifesto were not fulfilled, yet the theory explains in a scientific manner its own mistakes, and, as a method of looking upon society and explaining its evolution, it is unparalleled.

There is one other matter that should be mentioned before our conclusion. When giving particulars concerning the lives of Marx and Engels, we found that both took up the study of philosophy, in which branch of learning at that time Hegel was the leading figure. It is some times alleged that the work of Marx is vitiated by this Hegelian influence, and that he lacked the insight into society which Darwinism later brought. Apart from this mixing up, in an "organic" view of society, of biology and sociology, this misconception of Hegelianism (for it taught evolution in general before Darwin gave it individual specific proof in biology) and this false assumption that Marx did not know and appreciate Darwin’s work, there is also a sad neglect of the vital difference between the philosophy of Hegel and Historical Materialism.

There is room here only for a brief reference to that difference. Hegel, living in revolutionary times, with his "dialectic method" saw movement through inherent struggle. But he was misled by the ideological form wbich the contest took. To him it was "the Absolute Idea" coming to recognition in the minds of men. For example, Feudalism broke down because feudal ideas became obsolete in the face of new; Socialism from the Hegelian viewpoint will come because old ideas are displaced by new. In later reactionary times Hegel’s tame political conclusions and his glorification of the State made him popular with the ruling powers. Bernstein, in his Ferdinand Lassalle as Social Reformer shows how the works of Lassalle— "the man who forged the sword of Social Democracy in Germany" —were vitiated by his adherence to the Hegelian "idea" as a cause of progress.

The mysticism of Hegel and his "Absolute Idea" were attacked by the left wing of his school, which accepted his method but rejected his conclusions. With Hegel the world stood on its head, i.e., on the idea. Marx stood it on its feet, and showed that ideas were generated in material conditions. "With me," wrote he (p. 30, Capital), "the ideal is nothing else than the material world reflected by the human mind and transformed into forms of thought." The relations between ideas and the conditions which generate them are more fully explained in the Preface of The Critique(1859).

The Future —What of it? Will our lessons help us to face it? If they do not, they have failed. The sole object of our studies is to get a knowledge of past events and of theories which truly explain the facts of our working life, and which will guide us in future practice. Our classes are connected with an institution which had its birth in the Industrial Unrest. The C.L.C. was founded in 1909 out of the most unique strike on record. [See Plebs Magazine, (Vol.1) and What Does Education Mean to the Worker? (Plebs Pamphlet.)] It aims at spreading independent working-class education, and upon its curriculum figure the truths arrived at by these two German thinkers, who gave themselves so wholeheartedly and "wholeheadedly" to the workers’ cause. As W.W. Craik finely puts it: "The good they did was not interred with the bones of Marx at Highgate, nor lost in the sea into which the dust of Engels was thrown, but lives on and fertilises in the conquering army of an intellectual Labour Movement by the side of whose cradle Marx and Engels stood at the dawn of a new day."

Vain are the hopes of an industrial peace. Like snow upon the mountain side they will vanish before the sun of economic heat. In every country Capitalism begets its gravediggers. In its endeavour to increase its profits it will force the workers to take up a militant attitude upon the industrial, political and educational fields, and progress will be accelerated until the workers of the world will unite and their emancipation be accomplished. To the Day!

Books—Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs (Leibknecht). Karl Marx(Spargo). Books and pamphlets by Marx and Engels are too numerous to list, and are obtainable at cheap rates from the S.L.P. and 20th Century Press. Ramsay Macdonald’s Socialism and Societyand The Socialist Movement contain good accounts of the Utopians, though somewhat spoilt by the "organic" view of society above-mentioned. Other general and particular histories of Socialism are available.

Particulars of PLEBS Publications are announced in
Monthly, 2d.; post paid, 2.5d. Annual postal sub., 2/6. Six months, 1/3.
Articles on Labour-Educational questions, Reviews, Correspondence, Class Notes, and Reports, etc.

The circulation of the PLEBS has more than doubled during the last two years, and is increasing monthly. Educational classes are being formed in all parts of the country, and the question of Independent Working Class Education becomes more and more important to the organized Labour Movement. Since 1908 the PLEBS has been working "to further the interests of Independent Working Class Education as a partizan effort to improve the position of Labour in the present, and ultimately to assist in the abolition of wage-slavery."

From Secretary, Plebs League, 176, Springvale Rd., Sheffield.'

From A Worker Looks at History, by Mark Starr.



At 8:02 pm, Anonymous Imran said...


I've been looking through this website after I came across the review to John Newsinger's new book. In fact I've been going through all the archives trying to learn more and find more gems.

You had a post on Victoria and her imperial wars. You recommended Victor Keirnan's book 'From Conquest to Collapse'. Does that cover all of the battles mentioned in your post on Victoria?

Have you come across Donald Featherstone's work 'Colonial Small Wars'? Would you recommend it?

Best Wishes and Kindest Regards

At 8:46 pm, Blogger Roobin said...

On a slightly different note, ever suffer from writer's cramp, Snowball?

At 11:30 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Imran - cheers for your kind comments.

I have not read the Featherstone book you mention, but I will try and check it out - thanks. The Kiernan book covers quite a few if I can remember, but it is about European wars rather than Britain per se. However, Kiernan writes so well and has what Hobsbawm called an 'encyclopedic knowledge' that anything by him is worth reading and thinking about, in my opinion.

Roobin - er, well I am due to take a couple of weeks off at the end of the month so my post rate will fall off somewhat.

However, changes are afoot at Histomat (I have roped in a housemate 'zorba') to join this blog and well, I will properly introduce him at some point. Watch this space...

At 1:34 pm, Anonymous Imran said...

Hi Snowbal.

Regarding you post about John Newsinger's book 'The Blood Never Dried'. Is it fully footnoted AND does it also contain a Bibliography?

Kindest Regards

At 5:12 pm, Blogger Snowball said...

It is fully footnoted, yes, but there is no bibliography.

Newsinger is an academic at Bath Spa Uni.

At 6:08 pm, Anonymous Imran said...

Thank you!

I take it the footnotes contain the book title, its author and year of publication?

Kindest Regards

At 11:58 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Indeed so - I suspect they may well also contain the book's place of publication as well...

At 8:41 pm, Anonymous Imran said...

Thank you!

Kindest Regards


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