Workers Vanguard No. 938

5 June 2009


Franz Mehring: On Historical Materialism

(From the Archives of Marxism)

Marxists seek to understand the world in order to change it. Our aim is the forging of workers parties to overthrow the capitalist profit system through proletarian revolutions worldwide, ushering in an egalitarian socialist society. In his 1893 pamphlet, On Historical Materialism, excerpted below, Franz Mehring drew on the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and advanced an appraisal of conceptions and thoughts as subordinate but integral elements of the material social structure. A brilliant historian and theoretician, Mehring was also an outstanding communist. When the German Social Democracy aligned with its “own” bourgeoisie in World War I, Franz Mehring—already well into his sixties—picked up the banner of revolutionary internationalism along with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, including by joining them in founding the German Communist Party in December 1918. Mehring died on 29 January 1919, shortly after the murder of his comrades, Luxemburg and Liebknecht.

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Let us glance once again at the accusations and objections which have been made against historical materialism: that it denies all ideal forces, that it makes humanity the helpless plaything of a mechanical development, that it rejects all moral standards.

Historical materialism is no closed system crowned by an ultimate truth; it is the scientific method for the investigation of processes of human development. It starts from the unchallengeable fact, that human beings do not only live in nature but also in society. There have never been people in isolation; every man who accidentally loses contact with human society, quickly starves and dies. But historical materialism thus recognizes all ideal forces in the widest context. “Of everything that happens in nature, nothing happens as a desired, conscious purpose. On the other hand, in the history of society, the participants are nothing but human beings endowed with consciousness, acting with thought and passion, working for specific purposes; nothing happens without a conscious intention, without a planned goal.... Will is determined through thought or passion. But the levers which in turn determined the passion or the thought are of very different kinds. They can be outside objects or ideal motives, greed, ‘enthusiasm for truth and justice,’ personal hatred or just individual peculiarities of all kinds” (Engels). This is the essential difference between the history of the development of nature on the one hand and of society on the other. But apparently all the innumerable conflicts of individual actions and wills in history only lead to the same result as the unconscious, blind agencies in nature. On the surface of history accident seems to reign as much as on the surface of nature. “Only rarely does what is desired take place; in most cases, the desired aims cut across each other, and come into conflict, or these aims are from the beginning impossible or lacking in means.” But when, through the interplay of all the blind accidents which appear to dominate in unconscious nature, a general law of movement nevertheless imposes itself—only then does the question arise whether the thoughts and desires of consciously acting human beings are also dominated by such a law.

And the law is to be found, if one searches for it, through which the ideal driving forces of human beings are set into motion. A human being can only reach consciousness in a social relationship, thinking and acting with consciousness; the social grouping of which he is part awakens and directs his spiritual forces. The basis of all social community, however, is the form of production of material life, and this determining also in the last analysis the spiritual life process, in its manifold reflections. Historical materialism, far from denying the ideal forces, studies them down to their very basis, so that it can achieve the necessary clarity about where the power of ideas is drawn from. Human beings make their own history, certainly, but how they make history, this is dependent in each case upon how clear or unclear they are in their heads about the material connections between things. Ideas do not arise out of nothing, but are the product of the social process of production, and the more accurately an idea reflects this process, the more powerful it is. The human spirit does not stand above, but within the historical development of human society; it has grown out of, in and with material production. Only since this production has begun to develop out of a highly variegated bustle into simple and great contradictions, has it been able to recognize the whole relationship; and only after these latter contradictions have died or been overcome, will it win domination over social production, and will the “prehistory of man come to an end” (Marx); and then “men will make their own history with full consciousness, and the leap of man from the realm of necessity into that of freedom” will take place (Engels)….

Only historical materialism demonstrates the law of this development of thought, and finds the root of this law in that which first made man into man, the production and reproduction of immediate life. That beggarly pride which once decried Darwinism as the “theory of the apes” may struggle against this, and find solace in the thought that the human spirit flickers like an unfathomable will-o’-the-wisp, and with Godlike creative powers fashions a new world out of nothing. This superstition was dealt with by [German Enlightenment-era writer and philosopher] Lessing, both in his mockery of the “bald ability to act now in one way, now in another, under exactly the same circumstances,” and also through his wise words:

The pot of iron
Likes to be lifted with silver tongs
From the flame, the easier to think itself
A pot of silver.

We can deal more briefly with the accusation that historical materialism denies all moral standards. It is certainly not the task of the history researcher to use moral standards. He should tell us how things were on the basis of an objective scientific investigation. We do not demand to know what he thinks about them according to his subjective moral outlook. “Moral standards” are caught up, involved in a continuous transformation, and for the living generation to impose on former generations its changing standards of today, is like measuring the geological strata against the flying sand of the dunes. Schlosser, Gervinus and Ranke, and Janssen [German historians]—each of them has a different moral standard, each has his own class morals, and even more faithfully than the times they depict, they reflect in their works the classes they speak for. And it goes without saying that it would be no different if a proletarian writer of history were to make rash criticisms of former times from the moral standpoint of his class today.

In this respect historical materialism denies all moral standards—but in this respect alone. It bans them from the study of history because they make all scientific study of history impossible.

But if the accusation means that historical materialism denies the role of moral driving forces in history, then let us repeat: the precise opposite is true. It does not deny them at all, but rather for the first time makes it possible to recognize them. In the “material, scientifically determinable upheaval of the economic conditions of production” it has the only certain yardstick for investigating the sometimes slower, sometimes faster changes in moral outlook. These too are in the last analysis the product of the form of production, and thus Marx opposed the Nibelungen tales of Richard Wagner, who tried in the modern manner to make his love stories more piquant by means of a little incest, with the fitting words: “In remote antiquity the sister was the wife and that was moral.” Just as thoroughly as it clears up the question of the great men who are supposed to have made history, historical materialism also deals with the images of historical characters that come and go in history according to their favour and disfavour in the eyes of different parties. It is able to do every historical personality justice, because it knows how to recognize the driving forces which have determined their deeds and omissions, and it can sketch in the fine shadings which cannot be attained by the coarser “moral standards” of the ideological writing of history.