G.V. Plekhanov

The Materialist Conception of History


Written: 1897.
Source: Essays in Historical Materialism (Approx. the first half of the essay reproduced here)-
Publisher: International Publishers.
Transcribed: Andy Blunden.
HTML Markup: Andy Blunden.


We must confess that it was with no little prejudice that we took up the book of this Roman professor. We had been rather frightened by certain works of some of his compatriots – A. Loria, for example (see, in particular, La teoria economica della constituzione politica). But a perusal of the very first pages was enough to convince us that we had been mistaken, and that Achille Loria is one thing and Antonio Labriola another. And when we reached the end of the book we felt that we would like to discuss it with the Russian reader. We hope that he will not be annoyed with us. For after all, “So rare are books that are not banal!”

Labriola’s book first appeared in Italian. The French translation is clumsy, and in places positively infelicitous. We say this without hesitation, although we have not the Italian original before us. But the Italian author cannot be held responsible for the French translator. At any rate, Labriola’s ideas are clear even in the clumsy French translation. Let us examine them.

Mr. Kareyev, who, as we know, very zealously reads and most successfully manages to distort every “work” having any relation at all to the materialist conception of history, would probably inscribe our author in the list of “economic materialists.” But that would be wrong. Labriola firmly, and fairly consistently, adheres to the materialist conception of history, but he does not regard himself as an “economic materialist.” He is of the opinion that this title applies more fittingly to writers like Thorold Rogers than to himself and those who think like him. And that is perfectly true, although at a first glance it may not seem quite clear.

Ask any Narodnik or subjectivists what is an economic materialist, and he will answer that an economic materialist is one who attributes predominant importance to the economic factor in social life. That is how our Narodniks and subjectivists understand economic materialism. And it must be confessed that there undoubtedly are people who attribute to the economic “factor” a predominant role in the life of human society. Mr. Mikhailovsky has more than once cited Louis Blanc as one who had spoken of the predominance of this factor long before a certain master of certain Russian disciples. But one thing we do not understand: Why did our venerable subjective sociologist pick on Louis Blanc? He should have known that in this respect Louis Blanc had many predecessors. Guizot, Minier, Augustin Thierry and Toqueville all recognised the predominant role of the economic “factor,” at least in the history of the Middle Ages and of modern times. Consequently, all these historians were economic materialists. In our days, the said Thorold Rogers, in his Economic Interpretation of History, also revealed himself as a convinced economic materialist; he too recognised the predominant importance of the economic “factor.”

It is not to be concluded from this, of course, that Thorold Rogers’ social and political views were identical with those, say, of Louis Blanc: Rogers held the view of the bourgeois economists, whereas Louis Blanc was at one time an exponent of Utopian Socialism. If Rogers had been asked what he thought of the bourgeois economic system, he would have said that at the basis of this system lie the fundamental attributes of human nature, and that, consequently, the history of its rise is the history of the gradual removal of obstacles that at one time hindered, and even totally precluded, the manifestation of these attributes. Louis Blanc, on the other hand, would have declared that capitalism itself was one of the obstacles raised by ignorance and violence to the creation of an economic system which would at last really correspond to human nature. This, as you see, is a very material difference.

Who would be nearer to the truth? To be frank, we think that both these writers were almost equally remote from it, but we have neither the wish nor the opportunity to dwell on this point here. What is important to us just now is something else. We would request the reader to observe that in the opinion of both Louis Blanc and Thorold Rogers the economic factor, which predominates in social life, was itself, as the mathematicians put it, a function of human nature, and chiefly of the human mind and human knowledge. The same must be said of the above-mentioned French historians of the Restoration period. Well, and what name shall we give to the views on history of people who, although they assert that the economic factor predominates in social life, yet are convinced that this factor – the economics of society – is in its turn the fruit of human knowledge and ideas? Such views can only be called idealistic.

We thus find that economic materialism does not necessarily preclude historical idealism. And even that is not quite accurate; we say that it does not necessarily preclude idealism but what we should say is that perhaps – as it has been mostly hitherto – it is nothing but a variety of idealism. After this, it will be clear why men like Antonio Labriola do not regard themselves as economic materialists: it is because they are consistent materialists and because, as regards history, their views are the direct opposite of historical idealism.


“However,” Mr. Kudrin will probably tell us, “you, with the habit common to many of the ‘disciples,’ are resorting to paradoxes, are juggling with words, deceiving the eye and sword-swallowing. As you put it, it is the idealists who are economic materialists. But in that case, what would you have us understand by genuine and consistent materialists? Do they reject the idea of the predominance of the economic factor? Do they believe that side by side with this factor there are other factors operating in history, and that it would be vain for us to investigate which of them predominates over all the others? We can only rejoice at the genuine and consistent materialists if they really are averse to dragging in the economic factor everywhere.”

Our reply to Mr. Kudrin is that, indeed, the genuine and consistent materialists really are averse to dragging in the economic factor everywhere. What is more, even to ask which factor predominates in social life seems to them pointless. But Mr. Kudrin need not hurry to rejoice. It was by no means under the influence of Messrs. the Narodniks and subjectivists that the genuine and consistent materialists arrived at this conviction. The objections these gentlemen raise to the domination of the economic factor are only calculated to evoke hilarity among the genuine and consistent materialists. What is more, these objections of our friends, the Narodniks and subjectivists, are rather belated. The inappropriateness of asking which factor predominates in social life became very noticeable even in the time of Hegel. Hegelian idealism precluded the very possibility of such questions. All the more is precluded by modern dialectical materialism. Since the appearance of the Critique of Critical Criticism, and especially since the publication of Marx’s well known Critique of Political Economy, only people backward in theory are capable of wrangling about the relative importance of the various historico-social factors. We are quite aware that Mr. Kudrin is not the only one who will be surprised at this, and so we hasten to explain.

What are the historico-social factors? How does the idea of them originate?

Let us take an example. The Gracchi tried to check the process of appropriation of the public domain by the wealthy Romans which was so fatal to Rome. The wealthy Romans resisted the Gracchi. A struggle ensued. Each of the contending sides passionately pursued its own aims. If I wanted to describe this struggle, I might depict it as a conflict of human passions. Passions would thus appear as “factors” in the internal history of Rome. But in this struggle both the Gracchi and their adversaries took advantage of the weapons furnished them by Roman public law. I would not fail, of course, to speak of this in my narrative, and thus Roman public law would also appear as a factor in the internal development of the Roman republic.

Further, the people who opposed the Gracchi had a material interest in preserving a deep-rooted abuse. The people who supported the Gracchi had a material interest in abolishing it. I would mention this circumstance, too, and as a result the struggle I am describing would appear as a conflict of material interests, as a conflict of classes, a conflict of the poor and the rich. And so I already have a third factor, and this time the most interesting of all: the famous economic factor. If you have the time and inclination, dear reader, you may discuss at length which of the factors in the internal development of Rome predominated over the rest; you will find in my historical narrative sufficient data to support any opinion on this subject.

As for myself, as long as I stick to the role of simple narrator, I shall not worry much about the factors. Their relative importance does not interest me. As a narrator my one task is to depict the given events in as accurate and lively a manner as possible. For this purpose I have to establish a certain, even if only outward, connection between them, and to arrange them in a certain perspective. If I mention the passions that stirred the contending parties, or the system prevailing in Rome at the time or lastly , the inequality of property that existed there, I do so with the sole purpose of presenting a connected and lively account of the events. If I achieve this purpose, I shall be quite satisfied, and shall unconcernedly leave it to the philosophers to decide whether passions predominate over economics, or economics over passions, or, lastly, maybe, that nothing predominates over anything, each “factor” following the golden rule: Live and let live!

All this will be so as long as I stick to the role of simple narrator to whom all inclination to “subtle speculation” is foreign. But what if I do not stick to this role, and start philosophising about the events I am describing? I shall then not be satisfied with a mere outward connection of events; I shall want to disclose their inherent causes; and those same factors – human passions, public law and economics – which I formerly stressed and gave prominence to, guided almost exclusively by artistic instinct, will now acquire a new and vast importance in my eyes. They will appear to me to be those sought-for inherent causes, those “latent forces,” to whose influence events are to be attributed. I shall create a theory of factors.

And, indeed, one or another variety of such a theory is bound to arise whenever people who are interested in social phenomena pass from simply contemplating and describing them to investigating the connections that exist between them.

The theory of factors, moreover, grows with the growing division of labor in social science. All the branches of this science – ethics, politics, jurisprudence, political economy, etc investigate one and the same thing: the activity of social man. But each investigates it from its own special angle. Mr. Mikhailovsky would say that each of them “controls” a special “chord.” Each of the “chords” may be regarded as a factor of social development. And, in fact, we may now count almost as many factors as there are distinct “disciplines” in social science.

We hope that what is meant by the historico-social factors and how the idea of them originates will now be clear.

A historico-social factor is an abstraction, and the idea of it originates as the result of a process of abstraction. Thanks to the process of abstraction, various sides of the social complex assume the form of separate categories, and the various manifestations and expressions of the activity of social man – morals, law, economic forms, etc. – are converted in our minds into separate forces which appear to give rise to and determine this activity and to be its ultimate causes.

Once the theory of factors had come into being, disputes were bound to arise as to which factor was to be considered the predominant one.


The “factors” are subject to reciprocal action: each influences the rest and is in its turn influenced by the rest. The result is such an intricate web of reciprocal influences, of direct actions and reflected reactions, that whoever sets out to elucidate the course of social development begins to feel his head swim and experiences an unconquerable necessity to find at least some sort of clue out of the labyrinth. Since bitter experience has taught him that the view of reciprocal action only leads to dizziness, he begins to seek for another view: he tries to simplify his task. He asks himself whether one of the historico-social factors is not the prime and basic cause of all the rest. If he succeeded in finding an affirmative answer to this basic question, his task would indeed be immeasurably simplified. Let us suppose that he reaches the conviction that the rise and development of all the social relations of any particular country are determined by the course of its intellectual development, which, in its turn, is determined by the attributes of human nature (the idealist view). He will then easily escape from the vicious circle of reciprocal action and create a more or less harmonious and consistent theory of social development. Subsequently, as a result of a further stud of the subject he may perhaps perceive that he was mistaken, and that man’s intellectual development cannot be regarded as the prime cause of all social movement. Admitting his mistake, he will probably at the same time observe that his temporary conviction that the intellectual factor dominates over all the rest was after all of some use to him, for without it he could never have escaped from the blind alley of reciprocal action and would not have advanced a single step to. wards an understanding of social phenomena.

It would be unfair to condemn such attempts to establish some hierarchy among the factors of historico-social development. They were just as indispensable in their time as the appearance of the theory of factors itself was inevitable. Antonio Labriola, who has given a fuller and better analysis of this theory than any other materialist writer, quite rightly remarks that “the historic factors indicate something which is much less than the truth, but much more than a simple error.” The theory of factors has contributed its mite to the benefit of science. “The separate study of the historico-social factors has served, like any other empirical study which does not transcend the apparent movement of things, to improve the instrument of observation and to permit us to find again in the facts themselves, which have been artificially abstracted, the keystones which bind them into the social complexus.” Today a knowledge of the special social sciences is indispensable to anyone who would reconstruct any portion of man’s past life. Historical science would not have got very far without philology. And the one-sided Romanists – who believed that Roman law was dictated by Reason itself – was it any mean service they rendered to science?

But however legitimate and useful the theory of factors may have been in its time, today it will not stand the light of criticism. It dismembers the activity of social man and converts its various aspects and manifestations into separate forces, which are supposed to determine the historical movement of society. In the development of social science this theory has played a part similar to that played by the theory of separate physical forces in natural science. The progress of natural science has led to the theory of the unity of these forces, to the modern theory of energy. In just the same way, the progress of social science was bound to lead to the replacement of the theory of factors, that fruit of social analysis, by a synthetic view of social life.

This synthetic view of social life is not peculiar to modern dialectical materialism. We already find it in Hegel, who conceived the task to be to find a scientific explanation of the entire historico-social process in its totality, that is, among other things, including all those aspects and manifestations of the activity of social man which people with an abstract cast of thought pictured as separate factors. But as an “absolute idealist,” Hegel explained the activities of social man by the attributes of the Universal Spirit. Given these attributes, the whole history of mankind is given an sich, and its ultimate results as well. Hegel’s synthetic view was at the same time a teleological view. Modern dialectical materialism has completely eliminated teleology from social science.

It has shown that man makes his history not in order to march along a line of predetermined progress, and not because he must obey the laws of some abstract (metaphysical, Labriola calls it) evolution. He does so in the endeavour to satisfy his own needs, and it is for science to explain how the various methods of satisfying these needs influence man’s social relations and spiritual activity.

The methods by which social man satisfies his needs, and to a large extent these needs themselves, are determined by the nature of the implements with which he subjugates nature in one degree or another; in other words, they are determined by the state of his productive forces. Every considerable change in the state of these forces is reflected in man’s social relations, and, therefore, in his economic relations, as part of these social relations. The idealists of all species and varieties held that economic relations were functions of human nature; the dialectical materialists hold that these relations are functions of the social productive forces.

It therefore follows that if the dialectical materialists thought it permissible to speak of factors of social development with any other purpose than to criticise these antiquated fictions, they would first of all have to rebuke the so-called economic materialists for the inconstancy of their “predominant” factor; the modern materialists do not know of any economic system that would be alone conformable to human nature, all other social economic systems being the result of one or another degree of violence to human nature. The modern materialists teach that any economic system that is conformable to the state of the productive forces at the given time is conformable to human nature. And, conversely, any economic system begins to contradict the demands of human nature as soon as it comes into contradiction with the state of the productive forces. The “predominant” factor is thus found to be itself subordinate to another “factor.” And that being the case, how can it be called “predominant”?

If that is so, then it is evident that a veritable gulf divides the dialectical materialists from those who not without justification may be called economic materialists. And to what trend do those altogether unpleasant disciples of a not altogether pleasant teacher belong whom Messrs. Kareyev, N. Mikhailovsky, S. Krivenko and other clever and learned people quite recently attacked so vehemently, if not so happily? If we are not mistaken, the “disciples” fully adhered to the view of dialectical materialism. Why then did Messrs. Kareyev, N. Mikhailovsky, S. Krivenko and the other clever and learned people father on them the views of the economic materialists and fulminate against them for supposedly attaching exaggerated importance to the economic factor? It may be presumed that these clever and learned people did so because the arguments of the late lamented economic materialists are easier to refute than the arguments of the dialectical materialists. Again, it may be presumed that our learned opponents of the “disciples” have but poorly grasped the latter’s views. This presumption is even the more probable one.

It may be objected that the “disciples” themselves sometimes called themselves economic materialists, and that the term it “economic materialism” was first used by one of the French “disciples.” That is so. But neither the French nor the Russian “disciples” ever associated with the term “economic materialism” the idea which our Narodniks and the subjectivists associate with it. We have only to recall that in the opinion of Mr. N. Mikhailovsky, Louis Blanc and Mr. Y. Zhukovsky were “economic materialists” just like our present-day supporters of the materialist view of history. Confusion of concepts could go no further.


By entirely eliminating teleology from social science and explaining the activity of social man by his needs and by the means and methods of satisfying them, prevailing at the given time, dialectical materialism for the first time imparts to this science the “strictness” of which her sister – the science of nature – would often boast over her. It may be said that the science of society is itself becoming a natural science: “notre doctrine naturaliste d’histoire,” as Labriola justly says. But this does not mean that he merges the sphere of biology with the sphere of social science. Labriola is an ardent opponent of “Darwinism, political and social,” which “has, like an epidemic, for many years invaded the mind of more than one thinker, and many more of the advocates and declaimers of sociology,” and as a fashionable habit has even influenced the language of practical men of politics.

Man is without doubt an animal connected by ties of affinity to other animals. He has no privileges of origin; his organism is nothing more than a particular case of general physiology. Originally, like all other animals, he was completely under the sway of his natural environment, which was not yet subject to his modifying action; he had to adapt himself to it in his struggle for existence. In Labriola’s opinion races are a result of such – direct – adaptation to natural environment, in so far as they differ in physical features – as, for example, the white, black and yellow races – and do not represent secondary historico-social formations, that is to say, nations and peoples. The primitive instincts of sociability and the first rudiments of sexual selection similarly arose as a consequence of adaptation to natural environment in the struggle for existence.

But our ideas of “primitive man” are merely conjectures. All men who inhabit the earth today, like all who in the past were observed by trustworthy investigators, are found, and were found, already quite a long way removed from the moment when man ceased to live a purely animal life. The Iroquois Indians, for example, with their maternal gens studied and described by Morgan had already made a comparatively big advance along the road of social development. Even the present-day Australians not only have a language which may be called a condition and instrument, a cause and effect of social life – are not only acquainted with the use of fire, but live in societies possessing a definite structure, with definite customs and institutions. The Australian tribes have their own territory and their art of hunting; they have certain weapons of defence and attack, certain utensils for the preservation of supplies, certain methods of ornamenting the body; in a word, the Australian already lives in a definite, although to be sure, very elementary, artificial environment, to which he accordingly adapts himself from earliest childhood. This artificial social environment is an essential condition for all further progress. The degree of its development serves as a measure of the degree of savagery or barbarism of all other tribes.

This primary social formation corresponds to what is called the prehistory of man. The beginning of historical life presumes an even greater development of the artificial environment and a far greater power of man over nature. The complex internal relations of societies entering on the path of historical development are by no means due to the immediate influence of natural environment. They presuppose the invention of certain implements of labor, the domestication of certain animals, the ability to extract certain metals, and the like. These implements and means of production changed in very different ways in different circumstances; they showed signs of progress, stagnation, or even retrogression, but never have these changes returned man to a purely animal life, that is, to a life directly influenced by the natural environment.

“Historical science has, then, as its first and principal object the determination and investigation of this artificial foundation, its origin, its composition, its changes and its transformations. To say that all this is only a part and prolongation of nature is to say a thing which by its too abstract and too generic character has no longer any meaning.”

Critical as he is of “political and social Darwinism,” Labriola is no less critical of the efforts of certain “amiable dilettantes” to combine the materialist conception of history with the theory of universal evolution, which, as he harshly but justly remarks, many have converted into a mere metaphysical metaphor. He also scoffs at the naivete of “amiable dilettantes” in trying to place the materialist conception of history under the patronage of the philosophy of Auguste Comte or Spencer: “which is to say that they wish to give us for our allies our most open adversaries,” he says.

The remark about dilettantes evidently refers, among others, to Professor Enrico Ferri, the author of a very superficial book entitled Spencer, Darwin and Marx, which has been published in a French translation under the title Socialisme et science positive.


Thus, man makes history in striving to satisfy his needs. These needs, of course, are originally imposed by nature; but they are later considerably modified quantitatively and qualitatively by the character of the artificial environment. The productive forces at man’s disposal determine all his social relations. First of all, the state of the productive forces determines the relations in which men stand towards each other in the social process of production, that is, their economic relations. These relations naturally give rise to definite interests, which are expressed in Law. “Every system of law protects a definite interest,” Labriola says. The development of productive forces divides society into classes, whose interests are not only different, but in many – and, moreover, essential – aspects are diametrically antagonistic. This antagonism of interests gives rise to conflicts, to a struggle among the social classes. The struggle results in the replacement of the tribal organisation by the state organisation, the purpose of which is to protect the dominant interests. Lastly, social relations, determined by the given state of productive forces, give rise to common morality, the morality, that is, that guides people in their common, everyday life.

Thus the law, the state system and the morality of any given people are determined directly and immediately by its characteristic economic relations. These economic relations also determine – but indirectly and mediately – all the creations of the mind and imagination: art, science, etc.

To understand the history of scientific thought or the history of art in any particular country, it is not enough to be acquainted with its economics. One must know how to proceed from economics to social psychology, without a careful study and grasp of which a materialist explanation of the history of ideologies is impossible.

That does not mean, of course, that there is a social soul or a collective national “spirit,” developing in accordance with its own special laws and manifesting itself in social life. “That is pure mysticism,” Labriola says. All that the materialist can speak of in this case is the prevailing state of sentiment and thought in the particular social class of the particular country at the particular time. This state of sentiment and thought is the result of social relations. Labriola is firmly persuaded that it is not the forms of man’s consciousness that determine the forms of his social being, but, on the contrary, the forms of his social being that determine the forms of his consciousness. But once the forms of his consciousness have sprung from the soil of social being, they become a part of history. Historical science cannot limit itself to the mere anatomy of society; it embraces the totality of phenomena that are directly or indirectly determined by social economics, including the work of the imagination. There is no historical fact that did not owe its origin to social economics; but it is no less true to say that there is no historical fact that was not preceded, not accompanied, and not succeeded by a definite state of consciousness. Hence the tremendous importance of social psychology. For if it has to be reckoned with even in the history of law and of political institutions, in the history of literature, art, philosophy, and so forth, not a single step can be taken without it.

When we say that a given work is fully in the spirit of, let us say, the Renaissance, it means that it completely corresponds with the then prevailing sentiments of the classes which set the tone in social life. So long as the social relations do not change, the psychology of society does not change either. People get accustomed to the prevailing beliefs, concepts, modes of thought and means of satisfying given aesthetic requirements. But should the development of productive forces lead to any substantial change in the economic structure of society, and, as a consequence, in the reciprocal relations of the social classes, the psychology of these classes will also change, and with it the “spirit of the times” and the “national character.” This change is manifested in the appearance of new religious beliefs or new philosophical concepts, of new trends in art or new aesthetic requirements.

Another thing to be borne in mind, in Labriola’s opinion, is that in ideologies a very important part is often played by the survivals of concepts and trends inherited from earlier generations and preserved only by tradition. Furthermore, ideologies are also influenced by nature.

As we already know, the artificial environment very powerfully modifies the influence of nature on social man. From a direct influence, it becomes an indirect influence. But it does not cease to exist for that. The temperament of every nation preserves certain peculiarities, induced by the influence of the natural environment, which are to a certain extent modified, but never completely destroyed, by adaptation to the social environment ...


Last updated on 21.7.2004