Gustav Bang, Historical Materialism

Gustav Bang
Historical Materialism
first published in 1909
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this article was included in the pamphlet
Gustav Bang, Crises in European History

Looking back over the history of the human race, one perceives a continuous development, an uninterrupted chain of fundamental changes in all social relations. The political and juridical institutions, the intellectual culture, the customs and habits, moral concepts -- in fine, everything which conjointly forms the common civilization of a given society in a continuous process of change -- birth, growth, development, decay and finally supplanting by new forms.

We not only live differently in the age of factories, railroads, telephones and automobiles than did our grandparents, but we also think and act quite differently; we are absorbed in entirely new interests, guided by new ideas, fighting for new aims. Times are changing and people change with them. What a span of development lies between the mighty modern manufacturer and the modest master craftsman of the Middle Ages; and who can measure the chasm which separates the culture of our time from the way of living and thinking of the man of the Stone Age?

The history of the human, accordingly, forms itself as a continuous development, and a succession of great periods in this movement are to be distinguished.

Greco-Roman antiquity has its peculiar aspect; the Middle Ages and our modern time theirs. But the movement does not proceed forward smoothly and imperceptibly; from time to time violent clashes occur -- catastrophes during which the old culture is destroyed and a new one is seen to appear. These crises, however, do not come as a bolt from a clear sky; a close observation of the movement in the preceding epoch will show how the revolutionary periods are gradually formed, how new forces appear and gain in strength until they finally burst the existing social relations.

It is further seen how each revolutionary crisis itself forms the beginning of a period of evolution, which again in the future leads to new catastrophes. The historical process of society is thus effected by a change of epochs with an even and steady development, and scenes of a violent and stormy character -- but these two forms of evolution do not stand in opposition to each other any more than the "revolutionary" act of childbirth is in opposition to the slow growth of the embryo in the mother's womb.

What, then, is this ever-acting force which produces the historical process of transformation? The solution to this riddle was given more than half a century ago by the great socialist thinker, Karl Marx.

Marx found that the fundamental cause of the historical development in social and intellectual life was to be sought in the changes which took place in the methods of production with which man acquired newer and more appropriate means to procure the necessaries of life and satisfy his various needs. The productive forces which at a given time are at the disposal of the people constitute a power to which the race is subjected; man is compelled to adapt his life in conformity with these, and he does so quite instinctively, as if yielding to a natural power.

The sum of all these productive forces forms the basis of society. They determine at any given time the prevailing political institutions, the property and juridical relations; they affect the moral, the religious, the artistic conceptions and views; all social life, all cultural life obtains its nourishment from the material relations of production and the corresponding economic conditions of life.

But gradually as the productive forces become developed through new inventions and discoveries, an antithesis appears. The property relations, the juridical and political relations no longer correspond to the basis upon which they rest. New demands manifest themselves, new ideas crop up; at first vague and indistinct, but later on with an ever-growing strength and clearness.

The productive forces no longer find room for a continued development within the framework of the old society; they threaten to burst the trammels and to introduce entirely new social conditions. The antithesis assumes the form of a conflict between various classes, some of which, by virtue of their economic position, strive to maintain, others, because of their peculiar economic conditions, to overthrow the existing social order; and these latter classes become ever stronger and their interest becomes more and more dominant.

Now commences a period of social revolution, during which the property relations of the old society, with their juridical and political organizations, with their social and moral consciousness, are destroyed and supplanted by a society which responds to the new demands and furnishes and unobstructed course for a continued development of the productive forces. Thus, world history is developed in close concordance with the ever-progressing technique of production, through which man seeks to satisfy his needs to as great an extent and with as little effort as possible.

It is the simplest, purely economic relations which at any time form the fundamental basis of all social life and give it its own peculiar character. Each particular epoch of the history of the human race carries within itself the germs of the revolution which will destroy it, and also of the new society which must supercede it.

A social system cannot be overthrown arbitrarily; it is not destroyed until the productive forces which it contains are fully developed and burst the shell. And a new society cannot be introduced arbitrarily; it must come as a historical necessity, when the conditions for its appearance have been developed in the womb of the old society.

This is the kernel of the socialist conception of history. It is a conception revolutionary in its scope; it preaches revolt against the existing, the capitalist, society, and points toward the new, the socialist, republic.

For, if the social relations continually change in accordance with the development of the productive forces, then it follows that capitalist society is but a passing phase in human history, destined to collapse and give way to a new historical epoch, based on entirely different principles. It contains no "condemnation" of the present mode of production; it is strictly objective and does not present any moral viewpoint; but it carries with it the death sentence of this system; it points to the proletariat as that revolutionary power which must execute this sentence, and it shows the socialist society as the necessary, as the only possible, successor to capitalism.

The socialist conception of history is a scientific hypothesis. Its correctness cannot be proven in the same absolute manner in which a mathematical proposition is proven with absolute certainty that it is the earth which revolves around the sun and not vice versa. It can only be maintained to the extent that it stands the test of historical facts.

But we find then that wherever it is tested it agrees with all ascertainable facts, and furnishes the only reasonable explanation of conditions that, without its aid, would be utterly incomprehensible. Only through it does historical research raise itself above the separate phenomena and make clear the inner connection between them, enabling us to arrive at a complete and satisfactory explanation of such social events and movements which at various times occur in the history of the race, and of the mighty social changes which form the boundaries of the different historical periods. Only through the socialist conception of history can we come to an understanding of, not only what happens, but also why it happens.