Anton Pannekoek (as J. Harper) 1942

Materialism And Historical Materialism

Written: 1942;
First Published: in English in the American journal New Essays, Vol VI No 2 Fall 1942;
Transcription\HTML Markup: by Andy Blunden, for 2003.
Source: John Gray's Archive.


The evolution of Marxism to its present stage can be understood only in connection with the social and political developments of the period in which it arose. With the coming of capitalism in Germany there developed simultaneously a growing opposition to the existing aristocratic absolutism. The ascending bourgeois class needed freedom of trade and commerce, favorable legislation, a government sympathetic to its interests, freedom of press and assembly in order to fight unhindered for its needs and desires. But the bourgeoisie found itself confronted instead with a hostile regime, an omnipotent police, and press censorship which suppressed every criticism of the reactionary government. The struggle between these forces, which led to the revolution of 1848, was first conducted on a theoretical level, as a struggle of ideas and a criticism of the prevailing ideology. The criticism of the young bourgeois intelligentsia was directed mainly against religion and Hegelian philosophy.

Hegelian philosophy in which the self-development of the Absolute Idea creates the world and then, as the developing world, enters the consciousness of men, was the philosophical guise suited to the Christianity of the Restoration after 1815. Religion, handed down by past generations, served as always as the theoretical basis and justification for the perpetuation of old class relations. Since an open political struggle was still impossible, the fight against the feudal oligarchy had to be conducted in a veiled form, as an attack on religion. This was the task of the group of young intellectuals of 1840 among whom Marx grew up and rose to a leading position.

While still a student Marx submitted, although reluctantly, to the force of the Hegelian method of thought and made it his own. That he chose for his doctoral dissertation the comparison of two great materialist philosophies of ancient Greece, Democritus and Epicurus, seems to indicate, however, that in the deep recesses of his consciousness Marx inclined towards materialism. Shortly thereafter he was called upon to assume the editorship of a new paper founded by the oppositional Rheinish bourgeoisie in Cologne. Here he was drawn into the practical problems of the political and social struggles. So well did he conduct the fight that after one year of publication the paper was banned by the state. It was during this period that Feuerbach made his final step towards materialism. Feuerbach brushed aside Hegel’s fantastic system, turned to the simple experiences of every day life, and arrived at the conclusion that religion was a man-made product. Forty years later Engels still spoke fervently of the liberating effect that Feuerbach’s work had on his contemporaries, and of the enthusiasm with which Marx embraced the new ideas despite some critical reservations. To Marx this meant a new turn in the social struggle: from attacking a heavenly image to coming to grips openly with earthly realities. Thus in 1843 in his essay A Criticism of the Hegelian Philosophy of Right he wrote:

“As far as Germany is concerned the criticism of religion is practically completed, and the criticism of religion is the basis of all criticism ... The struggle against religion is the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion ... . Religion is the moan of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion, as the illusory happiness of the people, is the demand for their real happiness. The demand to abandon the illusions about their conditions is a demand to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion therefore contains potentially the criticism of the Vale of Tears whose aureole is religion. Criticism has plucked the imaginary flowers which adorned the chain, not that man should wear his fetters denuded of fanciful embellishment, but that he should throw off the chain, and break the living flower ... Thus the criticism of heaven transforms itself into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of right, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.”

The task confronting Marx was to inquire into the realities of social life. His study of the French Revolution and French socialism as well as English economy and the English working class movement, in collaboration with Engels during their stay in Paris and Brussels, led towards further elaboration of the doctrine known as Historical Materialism. As the doctrine of social development by way of class struggles we find the theory expounded in “Poverty of Philosophy” (in French 1846), the “Communist Manifesto” (1847), and in the preface to “A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy” (1859).

Marx and Engels themselves refer to this system of thought as materialism in opposition to the idealism of Hegel and the neo-Hegelians. What do they understand by materialism? Engels, discussing the fundamental theoretical problems of historical materialism in his Anti-Dühring and in his booklet on Feuerbach, states in the latter publication:

“The great basic question of all philosophy, especially of modern philosophy, is that concerning the relation of thinking and being ... Those who asserted the primacy of the spirit to nature and, therefore, in the last instance, assumed world creation in some form or other – comprised the camp of idealism. The others, who regarded nature as primary, belong to the various schools of materialism:”

That not only the human mind is bound up with the brain, but also that man with his brain and mind is part and parcel of the rest of the animal kingdom and the unorganic world, was a self-evident truth to Marx and Engels. This conception is common to all “schools of materialism.” What distinguishes Marxism materialism from other schools must be learned from its various polemical works dealing with practical questions of politics and society. To Marx materialistic thought was a working method. In his writing he does not deal with philosophy nor does he formulate materialism into a system of philosophy; he is utilizing it as a method for the study of the world and thus demonstrates its validity. In the essay quoted above, for example, Marx does not demolish the Hegelian philosophy of right by philosophical disputations, but through an annihilating criticism of the real conditions existing in Germany.

The materialist method replaces philosophical sophistry and disputations around abstract concepts with the study of the real material world. Feuerbach preceded Marx in this respect in so far as he was the first to point out that religious concepts and ideas are derived from material conditions. Let us take a few examples to elucidate this point. The statement “Man proposes, God disposes” the theologian interprets from the point of view of the omnipotence of God. The materialist on the other hand searches for the cause of the discrepancy between expectations and results and finds it in the social effects of commodity exchange and competition. The politician debates the desirability of freedom and socialism; the materialist asks: from what individuals or classes do these demands spring, what specific content do they have, and to what social need do they correspond? The philosopher, in abstract speculations about the essence of time, seeks to establish whether or not absolute time exists. The materialist compares the clocks to see whether it can be established unreservedly that two phenomena occur simultaneously, or follow one another.

Feuerbach, too, utilized the materialist method. He saw in living man the source of all religious ideas and concepts. The validity of his materialism, however, depended on whether he was successful in presenting a clear and comprehensive interpretation of religion. A materialism that leaves the problem obscure is insufficient and will lead back to idealism. Marx pointed out that the mere principle of taking living man as the starting point for investigation is not enough to lead to clarity. In his theses on Feuerbach in 1845 he formulated the essential difference between his materialist method and that of Feuerbach. We quote:

“Feuerbach resolves the religious essence into the human. But the human essence is no abstraction inherent in each single individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of the social relations.” (Thesis 6) “His work consists in the dissolution of the religious world into its secular basis. He overlooks the fact that after completing this work, the chief thing still remains to be done. For the fact that the secular foundation lifts itself above itself and establishes itself in the clouds as an independent realm is only to be explained by the self-cleavage and self-contradictions of this secular basis. The latter must itself, therefore, first be understood in its contradiction and then, by the removal of the contradiction, revolutionised in practice.” (Thesis 4)

Briefly, man can be understood only as a social being. From the individual one must proceed to society and dissolve the social contradictions out of which religion has evolved. The real world, that is the sensual and material world, where all ideology and consciousness have their origin, is human society – with nature in the background, of course, as the basis on which society rests and of which it is a part altered by man.

A presentation of these ideas is to be found in the book “The German Ideology,” written in 1845-46. The part that deals with Feuerbach, however, was first published in 1925 by Rjazanoff, then head of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. The complete work was not published until 1932. Here the theses on Feuerbach are worked out in greater length. Although it is apparent that Marx wrote quite hurriedly, he nevertheless gave a brilliant presentation of all essential ideas concerning the evolution of society which, later, found further illumination in the propaganda pamphlet “The Communist Manifesto” and in the preface to “The Critique of Political Economy.”

The German Ideology is directed first of all against the theoretical view which regarded creative consciousness and ideas developing from ideas as the only factors that determine human history. Marx has nothing but contempt for this point of view, “The phantoms formed in the human brain,” he says on page 14, “are necessary sublimates of their material, empirically-verifiable life process bound to material premises.” It was essential to put emphasis on the real world, the material and empirically-given world as the source of all ideology. But it was also necessary to criticise the materialist theories that culminated in Feuerbach. As a protest against ideology the return to biological man and his physical needs is correct, but taking the individual as an abstract being does not offer a solution to the question of how and why religious ideas originate. Human society in its historical evolution is the only reality controlling human life. Only out of society can the spiritual life of man be explained. Feuerbach, in attempting to find an explanation of religion by a return to the “real” man did not find the real man, because he searched for him in the individual, in the human being generally. From this approach the world of ideas cannot be explained. Thus he was forced to fall back on the ideology of universal human love. “Insofar as Feuerbach is a materialist,” Marx said, “ he does not deal with history, and insofar as he considers history, he is not a materialist.” (The German Ideology, pp. 37-38).

What Feuerbach did not accomplish was accomplished by the historical Materialism of Marx: an explanation of the development of man’s ideas out of the material world. The historical development of society is brilliantly rendered in the following sentence: “ ... Men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking.” (German Ideology, p. 14). We know reality only through experience which, as the external world, comes to us through the medium of our senses. A philosophical theory of knowledge will then be based on this principle: the material, empirically given world is the reality which determines thought.

The basic epistemological problem was always what truth can be attributed to thinking. The term “critique of knowledge,” used by the professional philosophers for “theory of knowledge,” already implies a view point of doubt. In his second and fifth theses on Feuerbach Marx refers to this problem and again points out that the practical activity of man is the essential content of his life.

“The question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, i. e., the reality and power, the “this-sidedness” of his thinking:” (Thesis 2) ... “Feuerbach, not satisfied with abstract thinking, appeals to sensuous contemplation, but he does not conceive sensuousness as a practical, human-sensuous activity.” (Thesis 5).

Why practical? Because man in the first place must live. His biological organism, his faculties and his abilities and all his activity are adapted to this very end. With these he must adapt himself to and assert himself in the external world, i. e. nature, and as an individual in society, as well as with his faculty of thinking, the activity of the organ of thought, the brain, and with thought itself. Thinking is a bodily faculty. In every phase of life man uses his power of thought to draw conclusions from his experiences on which expectations and hopes are built and which regulate his mode of living and his actions. The correctness of his conclusions, a condition for his survival, is determined by the very fact of his being. Thinking is a purposeful adaptation to life, and therefore truth can be attributed to it though not truth in an absolute sense. But on the basis of his experiences, man derives generalizations and laws on which his expectations are based. They are generally correct as is witnessed by his survival. In particular instances, however, false conclusions may be derived and hence failure and destruction. Life is a continuous process of learning, adaptation, development. Practice alone is the unsparing test of the correctness of thinking.

Let us first consider this in relation to natural science. Here thought finds in practice its purest and most abstract form. This is why philosophers of nature accept this form as the subject for their observations and pay no attention to its similarity to the thought of every individual in his every day activity. Yet thinking in the study of nature is only a highly developed special field of the entire social labor process. This labor process demands an accurate knowledge of natural phenomena and its integration into laws, in order to be able to utilize them successfully in the field of technics. The determination of these laws through observation of special phenomena is the task of specialists. In the study of nature it is generally accepted that practice, in this instance experiment, is the test of truth. Here, too, it is accepted that observed regularities, known as “natural laws,” are generally fairly dependable guides to human practice, and although they are frequently not altogether correct and even disappointing, they are improved constantly and elaborated upon through the progress of science. If at times man is referred to as the “lawmaker of nature,” it must be added that nature very often disregards these laws and summons man to make better ones.

The practice of life, however, comprises much more than the scientific study of nature. The relation of the natural scientist to the world, despite his experimentation, remains sensous-observational. To him the world is an external thing. But in reality people deal with nature in their practical activities by acting upon her and making her part of their existence: Through his labor man does not oppose nature as an external or alien world. On the contrary, by the toil of his hands he transforms the external world to such an extent that the original natural substance is no longer discernable, and while this process goes on, man changes, too. Thus, man creates his own world: human society in a nature changed by him. What meaning, then, has the question of whether his thinking leads to truth? The object of his thinking is that which he himself produces by his physical and mental activities and which he controls through his brain. This is not a question of partial truths such as, for instance, those of which Engels wrote in his book on Feuerbach that the artificial production of the natural dye alizarin would prove the validity of the chemical formula employed. [1] This is not, to repeat, a question of partial truths in a specific field of knowledge, where the practical consequence either affirms or refutes them. Rather the point in question here is a philosophical one, namely, whether human thought is capable of encompassing the real, the deepest truth of the world. That the philosopher, in his secluded study, who is concerned exclusively with abstract philosophical concepts, which are derived in turn from abstract scientific concepts also formulated outside of practical life experiences, should have his doubts in the midst of this world of shadows is easily understood. But for human beings who live and act in the real every day world the question has no meaning. The truth of thought, says Marx, is nothing other than power and mastery over the real world.

Of course this statement embodies a contradiction: Thinking cannot be said to be true where the human mind does not master the world. Whenever – as Marx pointed out in Capital – the products of man’s hand grows beyond his intellectual power, which he no longer controls and which confronts him in the form of commodity production and capital as an independent social entity, mastering man and even threatening to destroy him, then his mental activity submits to the mysticism of a supernatural being and he begins to doubt his ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Thus, in the course of many centuries the myth of supernatural deity overshadowed the daily materialistic experiences of man. Not until society has evolved to a point where man will be able to comprehend all social forces and will have learned to master his environment – not until a communist society prevails, in short – will his ideas be in full accord with the realities of the world. Only after the nature of social production as a fundamental basis of all life and therefore of future development has become clear to man, only when the mind – be it only theoretically at first – actually masters the world, only then will our thinking be fully correct. And only then will materialism, the science of society as formulated by Marx, gain permanent mastery and become the only applicable philosophy. The Marxian theory of society in principle means the renewal of philosophy.

Marx, however, was not concerned with pure philosophy. “Philosophers have only interpreted the world differently, but the point is to change it,” he says in the theses on Feuerbach. The world situation pressed for practical action. At first inspired by the bourgeois opposition to feudal absolutism, later strengthened by the new forces that emanated from the struggle of the English and French proletariat against the bourgeoisie, Marx and Engels, thanks to their careful study of social realities, arrived at the conclusion that the proletarian revolution following on the heels of the bourgeois revolution would bring the real liberation of humanity. Their activity was devoted to this revolution, and in the Communist Manifesto they laid down the first directions for the workers’ class struggle.

Marxism has since been inseparably connected with the class struggle of the proletariat. If we ask what Marxism is, we must first of all understand that it does not mean everything Marx ever thought and wrote. The views of his earlier years, for instance, are representative only in part; they are developmental phases leading toward Marxism. While the role of the proletarian class struggle and the aim of communism is already outlined in the Communist Manifesto, the theory of surplus value is developed much later. All of Marx’s developing ideas are determined by the social relation, the character of the revolution, the part played by the state. And all these ideas had a different content in 1848 when the proletariat had only begun to develop than they had later or have today. Of vital importance, however, are Marx’s original scientific contributions. There is first of all the theory of historical materialism, according to which the development of society is determined by its productive forces that make for a certain mode of production, especially through the productive force of class struggles. There is the theory of the determination of all political and ideological phenomena of intellectual life in general by the productive forces and relations. And there is the presentation of capitalism as a historical phenomena, the analysis of its structure by the theory of value and surplus value, and the explanation of capitalism’s evolutionary tendencies through the proletarian revolution towards communism. With these theories Marx has enriched the knowledge of humanity permanently. They constitute the solid fundament of Marxism. From these premises further conclusions can be derived under new and changed circumstances. Because of this scientific basis Marxism is a new way of looking at the past and the future, at the meaning of life, the world and thought; it is a spiritual revolution, a new view of the world. As a view of life, however, Marxism is real only through the class that adheres to it. The workers who are imbued with this new outlook become aware of themselves as the class of the future, growing in number and strength and consciousness, striving to take production into their own hands and through the revolution to become masters of their own fate. Thus Marxism as the theory of the proletarian revolution is a reality, and at the same time a living power, only in the minds and hearts of the revolutionary proletariat.

Yet Marxism is not an inflexible doctrine or a sterile dogma. Society changes, the proletariat grows, science develops. New forms and phenomena arise in capitalism, in politics, in science, which Marx and Engels could not have foreseen or surmised. But the method of research which they formed remains to this day an excellent guide and tool towards the understanding and interpretation of new events. The proletariat, enormously increased under capitalism, today stands only at the threshold of its revolution and Marxist development; Marxism only now begins to play its role as a living power in the proletariat. Thus Marxism itself is a living theory which grows with the increase of the proletariat and with the tasks and aims of the class struggle.


1. This formula did not prove – as Engels believed – the validity of materialism as against Kant’s “Thing in itself.” The “Thing in itself” results from the incapacity of bourgeois philosophy to explain the earthly origin of moral law. The “Thing in itself” has thus not been contradicted and proven false by the chemical industry but by historical materialism. It was the latter that enabled Engels to see the fallacy in the “Thing in itself,” although he offered other arguments.