Friday, December 15, 2006


Antonio Labriola

Essays on the Materialist Conception of History


This class of studies, like many others, but this more than any other, is confronted with a great difficulty, indeed an irksome hindrance, in that vice of minds educated by literary methods alone which is ordinarily called verbalism. This bad habit creeps into and spreads itself through all domains of knowledge; but in studies which relate to the so-called moral world, that is to say, to the historico-social complexus, it very often happens that the cult and the dominion of words succeed in corrupting and blotting out the real and living sense of things.

In the field where a long observation, repeated experiences, the certain use of improved instruments, the general or partial application of the calculus have resulted in putting the mind into a constant and methodical relation with things and their variations, as in the natural sciences properly so-called – there the myth and superstition of words are left behind and vanquished; there the questions of terminology no longer have more than the secondary value of pure convention. In the study of human relations and actions, on the contrary, the passions, the interests, the prejudices of school, sect, class and religion, the literary abuse of the traditional means of representing thought, and scholasticism, ever vanquished and always reborn, conceal the actual things, or transform them involuntarily into terms, into words, into abstract and conventional fashions of speech.

We must, first of all, take account of this difficulty when we use the expression or the formula "materialistic conception of history." Many have imagined, do imagine, and will imagine that it is possible and convenient to penetrate into the sense of the phrase by the simple analysis of the words which compose it instead of arriving at it from the context of an explanation, from the genetic study of the formation of the doctrine, or from the polemical writings in which its partisans refute the objections of its opponents. Verbalism tends always to shut itself up in purely formal definitions; it gives rise in the minds to this erroneous belief, that it is an easy thing to reduce into terms and into simple and palpable expressions the agitated and immense complexus of nature and history and that it is easy to picture the multiform and complicated interlacings of causes and effects; in clearer terms, it obliterates the meaning of the problems because it sees in them nothing but questions of nomenclature.

If, moreover, it then happens that verbalism finds a support in certain theoretical hypotheses, for example, that matter indicates something which is below or opposed to another higher or nobler thing which is called spirit; or if it happens to be at one with that literary habit which opposes the word materialism, understood in a disparaging sense, to all that, in a word, is called idealism, that is to say, to the sum total of the anti-egoistic inclinations and acts; then our embarrassment is extreme! Then we are told that in this doctrine it is attempted to explain the whole of man by the mere calculation of his material interests and that no value whatever is allowed to any ideal interest. The inexperience, the incapacity and the haste of certain partisans and propagandists of this doctrine have also been a cause of these confusions. In their eagerness to explain to others what they themselves only half understand, at a time when the doctrine itself is only in its beginnings and still has need of many developments, they have believed they could apply it, such as it was, to whatever historic fact they were considering, and they have almost reduced it to tatters, exposing it thus to the easy criticism and the ridicule of people on the watch for scientific novelties, and other idle persons of the same type.

Since it has been my privilege in these first pages simply to rebut these prejudices (in a preliminary fashion) and unmask the intentions and the tendencies underlying them, it must be remembered that the meaning of this doctrine ought, before all else, to be drawn from the position which it takes and occupies with regard to the doctrines against which it is in reality opposed, and particularly with regard to the ideologies of every sort; – that the proof of its value consists exclusively in the more suitable and more appropriate explanation of the succession of human events which is derived from it; – that this doctrine does not imply a subjective preference for a certain quality or a certain sum of human interests opposed by free choice to other interests, but that it merely affirms the objective coordination and subordination of all interests in the development of all society; and this it affirms, thanks to that genetic processus which consists in going from the conditions to the conditioned, from the elements of formation to the things formed.

Let the verbalists reason as they like over the value of the word matter in so far as it implies or recalls a metaphysical conception, or in so far as it is the expression of the last hypothetical substratum of experience. We are not here in the domain of physics, chemistry or biology; we are only searching for the explicit conditions of human association in so far as it is no longer simply animal. It is not for us to support our inductions or our deductions upon the data of biology, but, on the contrary, to recognize before all else the peculiarities of human association, which form and develop through the succession and the growing perfection of the activity of man himself in given and variable conditions, and to find the relations of co-ordination and subordination of the needs which are the substratum of will and action. It is not proposed to discover an intention nor to formulate a criticism; it is merely the necessity arising from the facts that must be put in evidence.

And as men, not by free choice, but because they could not act otherwise, satisfy first certain elementary needs, which, in their turn, give rise to others in their upward development, and as for the satisfaction of their needs, whatever they may be, they invent and employ certain means and certain tools and associate themselves in certain definite fashions, the materialism of historical interpretation is nothing else than an attempt to reconstruct by thought with method the genesis and the complexity of the social life which develops through the ages. The novelty of this doctrine does not differ from that of all the other doctrines which after many excursions through the domains of the imagination have finally arrived, very painfully, at reaching the prose of reality and halting there.


There is a certain affinity, apparently at least, between that formal vice of verbalism and another defect of the mind, whose origins may, however, be varied. In consideration of some of its most common and popular effects I will call it phraseology, although this word is not an exact expression of the thing and does not set forth its origin.

For long centuries men have written on history, have explained it, have illustrated it. The most varied interests, from the interests more immediately practical to the interests purely esthetic, have moved different writers to conceive and to execute this type of composition. These different types have always taken birth in different countries long after the origins of civilization, of the development of the state and of the passage from the primitive communist society to the society which rests upon class differences and class antagonisms. The historians, even if they have been as artless as Herodotus, were always born and formed in a society having nothing ingenuous in it, but very complicated and complex, and at a time when the reasons for this complication and complexity were unknown and their origins forgotten. This complexity, with all the contrasts which it bears within itself and which it reveals later and makes burst forth in its various vicissitudes, stood forth before the narrators as something mysterious and calling for an explanation, and if the historian wished to give some sequence and a certain connection to the things narrated, he was obliged to add certain general views to the simple narration. From the jealousy of the gods of Father Herodotus to the environment of M. Taine, an infinite number of concepts serving as means of explanation and as complements to the things related have been imposed upon the narrators by the natural voices of their immediate thought. Class tendencies, religious ideas, popular prejudices, influences or imitations of a current philosophy, excursions of imagination and a desire to give an artistic appearance to facts known only in a fragmentary fashion, all these causes and other analogous causes have contributed to form the substratum of the more or less artless theory of events which is implicitly at the bottom of the narration, or which serves at least to flavor and adorn it. Whether men speak of chance or of destiny, whether they appeal to the providential direction of human events or adhere to the word and concept of chance, the only divinity left in the rigid and often coarse conception of Machiavelli, or whether they speak, as is frequent enough at the present time, of the logic of events, all these conceptions were and are effects and results of ingenuous thought, of immediate thought, of thought which cannot justify to itself its course, and its products, either by the paths of criticism or by the methods of experience. To fill up with conventional causes (e. g., chance) or with a statement of theoretical plausibility (e.g., the inevitable course of events which sometimes is confused in the mind with the notion of progress the gaps of our knowledge as to the fashion in which things have been actually produced by their own necessity without care for our free win and our consent, that is the motive and the result of this popular philosophy, latent or explicit, in the chroniclers, which by reason of its superficial character dissolves as soon as scientific criticism appears.

In all these concepts and all these imaginings which in the light of criticism appear as simple provisional devices and effects of an unripe thought, but which often seem to "cultured people" the non plus ultra of intelligence – in all these a great part of the human processus is revealed and reflected; and, consequently. We should not consider them as gratuitous inventions nor as products of a momentary illusion. They are a part and a moment in the development of what we call the human mind. If later it is observed that these concepts and these imaginings are mingled and confounded in the accepted opinions of cultured people, or of those who pass for such, they make up an immense mass of prejudices and they constitute an impediment which ignorance opposes to the clear and complete vision of the real things. These prejudices turn up again as etymological derivations in the language of professional politicians, of so-called publicists and journalists of every kind, and offer the support of rhetoric to self-styled public opinion.

To oppose and then to replace this mirage of uncritical conceptions, these idols of the imagination, these effects of literary artifice, this conventionalism by the real subjects, or the forces which are positively acting – that is to say, men in their various and diversified social relations – this is the revolutionary enterprise and the scientific aim of the new doctrine which renders objective and I might say naturalizes the explanation of the historical processus.

A certain definite nation, that is to say, not a certain mass of individuals, but a plexus of men organized in such and such a fashion by natural relations of consanguinity, or following such or such an artificial or customary order of relationship and affinity, or by reason of permanent proximity; – this nation, on a certain circumscribed and limited territory, having such and such fertility, productive in such and such a manner acquired through certain definite forms by continuous labor; – this nation, thus distributed over this territory and thus divided and articulated by the effect of a definite division of labor which is scarcely beginning to give birth to or which has already developed and ripened such and such a division of classes, or which has already disintegrated or transformed a whole series of classes; – this nation which possesses such and such instruments from the flint stone to the electric light and from the bow and arrow to the repeating rifle, which produces according to a certain fashion and shares its products conformably to its way of producing; – this nation, which by all these relations constitutes a society in which either by habits of mutual accommodation or by explicit conventions, or by acts of violence suffered and endured, has already given birth, or is on the point of giving birth to legal-political relations which result in the formation of the state; – this nation, which by the organization of the state, which is only a means for fixing, defending and perpetuating inequalities, by reason of the antagonisms which it bears within itself, renders continuously unstable the organization itself, whence result the political movements and revolutions, and therefore the reasons for progress and retrogression; – there is the sum of what is at the bottom of all history. And there is the victory of realistic prose over all the fantastic and ideological combinations.

Certainly it requires some resignation to see things as they are, passing beyond the phantoms which for centuries have prevented right vision. But this revelation of realistic doctrine was not and is not designed to be the rebellion of the material man against the ideal man. It has been and is, on the contrary, the discovery of the principles and the motives which are real and which belong to all human development, including all that we call the ideal in positive conditions, determined by facts which carry in themselves the reasons and the law and the rhythm of their own development.

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