The world-renowned ethnologist—and former member of the KAPD—explains the basic principles of ethnology, i.e., “the study of classless primitive society”, in this series of lectures delivered at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in 1938-1939.
Ethnology, Historical Materialism and the Dialectical Method – Paul Kirchhoff 1
1. Ethnology, History and Science
This course is intended to provide a methodological preparation for the study of primitive classless society for two types of people: those who want to devote themselves to the study of classless society, that is, those persons known as ethnologists; and those who want to devote themselves to the study of the various stages of class society, that is, historians, as the word is commonly used.
We are therefore primarily interested in the transitional forms between classless society and class society. The American continent, and especially Mexico and Central and South America, offers precious data for the study of these transitional forms, and, in the most immediate and direct sense, the purpose of this course is to prepare the reader for the study of the indigenous cultures of Mexico, Central America, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
We define ethnology as the study of classless primitive society, that is, it is an integral part of the science of human society in general. This science is history. For the only way to study human society in all of its manifestations and interrelations is to study it in its continuous change, that is, in its development, its evolution, and its history, words that I shall use interchangeably.
According to our definition, ethnology is therefore an integral part of history. It deals with the same material, human society, and pursues the same goal as history (I am speaking of scientific history, not bourgeois history), that is to say, ethnology, as general history, is an attempt to discover historical laws, the understanding of which can guide us in our practical attitude towards current problems.
Despite this essential equality between history in general and its special part, the history of classless society (ethnology), there are some very important differences between them, although these differences are only matters of degree rather than of kind. The majority of the data utilized by the historian of class society consists of detailed, and most importantly, dated documents, whereas almost all the data utilized by the historian of classless society, the ethnologist, lacks these characteristics. Nonetheless, the historical reconstructions undertaken by both types of historian are merely hypothetical, even if the hypothetical reconstruction of the historian of class society attains a higher degree of probability than that of the historian of classless society, the ethnologist.
Those who go out of their way to concentrate their attention on extremes, for example, on the history of the Seris2 before the arrival of the Spaniards, and the history of the Díaz government, in order to demonstrate the difference between the data of ethnology and history, and to completely separate them, face an insoluble dilemma: How can a line of demarcation between the two disciplines which they have artificially separated, the discipline known as ethnology and the one known as history, ever be established? Which discipline, for example, is supposed to study the Greeks of Homer or the Aztecs? The historians or the ethnologists? In fact, this question, and the separation of ethnology from history, upon which it is based, are senseless: human society has one evolution, one continuous history, and its study, in all of its stages, is within the purview of one discipline, history.
If we accept the definition of ethnology as the study of primitive classless society, and therefore as an integral part of the history of human society in general, we must also accept historical materialism, which we recognize as the only scientific method in historical study in general, for the study of the data of ethnology.
We shall address the definition of the historical materialist method later in this course. For the moment, however, what interests us is the task of precisely defining the relations between theoretical studies, such as the kind that we are engaged in today, and real life, our practical attitude. In other words, we must ask ourselves: what is the value of the theoretical study of the history of human society, especially with regard to its most remote stages? Is it merely a “scientific” way to pass the time, or is it an effective and indispensable instrument for the orientation of our practical attitude? The (Marxist) response to this question was clearly enunciated by Lenin: “Without a correct theory, there can be no correct politics.”
This is not to say that we can first elaborate a pure theory, in order to subsequently apply it to practical life. Such a theory would be unreal, useless and false. Only by participating in contemporary struggles will we become capable of elaborating our theory on the basis of real life. Only a theory that is born from life itself, that is, from the struggle, can be a realistic theory, a theory that can be applied to this life, to this struggle. And it is this application alone that will prove whether our theory is realistic, whether it is practical, whether it is scientific.
In the class society in which we live there are not, nor can there be, any impartial sciences. All instances of scientific progress serve the triumph of one class or the defeat of another. In its struggle against feudalism and the church the bourgeois class needed and therefore utilized science to a degree never before seen, and no society has ever contributed more to scientific progress than capitalist society.
There is, however, an essential difference between the use to which science is put by capitalist society, and the use to which science will be put by the proletariat. The basic difference can be summarized as follows: The bourgeoisie cannot develop science completely, and above all it cannot perceive its own society in its totality, that is, in its origin and with all its contradictions, without destroying the ideological basis of its rule. This is why it separates theory and practice and considers one to be opposed to the other. Its scientific knowledge is applied exclusively to carefully chosen fields. It utilizes science in a strictly partial sense. It speaks of trees, but it does not dare to see the forest which they comprise.
The proletariat, on the other hand, is the first class in the history of humanity that cannot triumph without the scientific understanding of the conditions of its struggle, that is, of the totality of the society in which it lives, of its origins, its contradictions and its historical tendency. Science, scientific socialism, that is, communism, is an indispensable instrument of the struggle of the proletariat, and its abandonment or corruption leads directly to defeat, as we are now seeing all over the world.
Furthermore, it is only the proletariat which can free science from the chains in which it has been imprisoned by the bourgeoisie. Labor and science are natural allies. Capital and science are inveterate enemies. As a ruling class, however, the bourgeoisie have succeeded in bringing about the almost total subordination of science to its own class goals. Contemporary science is a falsified science, a castrated science. In fact, it is basically not even science, especially in regard to the historical sciences, including ethnology.
In its struggle against feudalism and the church, the bourgeoisie developed its own ideology that allowed it to have confidence in its historical mission and its victory. This ideology, however, was a false ideology, an error, a fraud. The world bourgeoisie, with all of its science, has never been able to understand the capitalist society that it has itself created. The first people to attain to such a scientific understanding were Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, and at the very moment that they understood it, they abandoned it completely and became its most outstanding enemies, and the leaders of the class that is destined to destroy it. The same was true of all the bourgeois intellectuals of capitalist society, and this fact alone bespeaks of the basic reason for this phenomenon, because it is impossible for the intellectual vanguard of the bourgeoisie to understand its own society: at the very moment when they come to understand it, they will know that its contradictions herald its destruction, and with this understanding they completely lose that faith, that confidence in its historical mission, without which no ruling class can maintain itself in power.
We could say that it would be fatal for the bourgeoisie—and therefore historically impossible for it—to scientifically understand its own society, its origins and its contradictions, whereas for the proletariat it is indispensable to understand the society that it must destroy, and in order to understand that society it must understand its roots in the past and therefore the societies that preceded it.
The ideology of the bourgeoisie is a false ideology and, historically, it can only be false. The ideology of the proletariat must be, and is capable of being, the true reflection of its position in the modern world, as the sole progressive class, and of its historical function. The bourgeoisie must deceive not just the oppressed classes, but itself as well. For the purposes of its struggle the proletariat needs the truth, that is, the scientific understanding of the world in which it lives and in which its struggle unfolds.
Perceiving society and its history in its totality can only mean analyzing its objective roots in production and exchange, and in the historical conditions that each society encounters, or as the legacy of previous societies, or as influences of contemporary societies from another historical stage. These societies must naturally be studied in the same way. The result is a universal materialist history.
It was precisely the elaboration of this universal history that Marx and Engels embarked upon. To give the proletariat a scientific basis for its struggle, they studied not only capitalist society, but also, although only in their general features, the historical societies that preceded it: feudal society, the ancient society of Greece and Rome, Oriental society and, finally, the various stages of the primitive classless society, back to its most remote origins. Thus, what is today called ethnology was from the very beginning an integral part of the scientific work of Marxism, an integral part of the preparation of the proletariat for its struggle against capitalism, against the bourgeoisie and for a classless society.
Whereas, for the Marxist, the study of feudalism possesses a special value due to the fact that feudalism was the society that was the immediate predecessor of capitalist society, the study of primitive classless society is no less important, although for completely different reasons. The primitive classless society, especially during its higher stages, allows us the opportunity to study the roots of two institutions that have totally dominated the history of modern peoples: social classes and the class-based State. This is why the book that examines primitive classless society from the Marxist point of view, the work by Engels entitled, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, occupies a most distinguished position in Marxist literature; this is demonstrated, for example, by the use that Lenin made of this book in his famous work on The State and Revolution.
There is, however, another way, perhaps even more convincing, to demonstrate the outstanding importance that the study of primitive classless society has for the critique of capitalist society and for the struggle against the latter. I am talking about the consistent, systematic and resolute battle waged by the bourgeoisie against Marxism on precisely this terrain. The literature of what is called ethnology, since the publication of the book by Engels, more than sixty years ago, has had no other purpose than to prove the falsehood of historical materialism in its application to primitive society. The bourgeoisie had a good understanding of the strategic role played by ethnological research for Marxist theory, and that is why it concentrated its work of confusion on this terrain above all. And it has, unfortunately, obtained an almost total victory. We must admit that, today, there is no distinctly Marxist ethnology. The Marxists have abandoned such research almost completely to the bourgeoisie. I cannot discuss studies published in Russian, because I cannot read that language, but the translations of Russian works from the last two decades do not include even one ethnological publication of a Marxist character.
The bourgeois critique of the book by Engels, and of Morgan’s book about Ancient Society, upon which Engels relied for the most part, naturally contains cogent points concerning ethnographic data which have been discovered in the period of over sixty years since the publication of those books. We can, however, state that this critique does not affect the basic position of historical materialism and, furthermore, we can also state that the new discoveries made since the days of Morgan and Engels not only do not contradict historical materialism, but vindicate it so overwhelmingly that the field known as ethnology could very well be one of the strongest bulwarks of Marxism.
In fact, however, the situation is entirely otherwise. Since Marxists have not continued the work of Marx and Engels on this extremely important terrain, many of them, although they accept historical materialism with regard to its applicability to capitalist society, do not believe that it is possible to apply it to all the stages of human society. But to accept historical materialism for only one society, or for only certain societies, and making an exception of others, means to negate its value as a scientific historical method. Thus, the bourgeoisie, concentrating its attack against a single point, has been victorious all along the line, undermining the faith of many Marxists in the validity of historical materialism in its application to all the stages of the evolution of human society. Our duty is to reestablish Marxist theory on the terrain of primitive society.
The bourgeoisie thought that ethnology was the most vulnerable part of the scientific edifice of historical materialism, and its victory seems to have proven that it was correct. In the final analysis, however, this is not at all the case. Ethnology, as we have already pointed out, should be one of the strongest positions of Marxism. Its temporary weakness is due to a combination of unfavorable circumstances. First, the error of the Marxists in not understanding that it is not enough to repeat what Morgan and Engels said, but that, with regard to ethnology, even more so than in later stages of society, it is a fatal mistake to ignore the results of the research of erudite bourgeois investigators, because, whereas during the time of Morgan and Engels very little research of this type was conducted, today there is a great deal of such research—certainly at least a hundred times more than was available to Morgan and Engels. And from this fact, the second unfavorable circumstance for the Marxists follows, one that largely incapacitated them for the task of continuing the work of Morgan and Engels: the available information rapidly became so voluminous and was dispersed among such a large number of books, and particularly in specialized journals published in a multitude of languages, that it was practically impossible for the Marxists—most of whom lacked the linguistic and academic aptitude necessary for this type of work—to subject this vast quantity of material to a scientific analysis, that is, to examine it using the method of historical materialism.
In the study course we are now embarking upon, we shall try to pick up the thread of the work of Marx and Engels where they left off with regard to this strategically very important part of the application of historical materialism. I hope that I have convinced you that this project does not possess merely a purely academic value, but an eminently practical one, not only in a country like Mexico, with its indigenous population, but in every country, because it allows us to understand the roots of the most important institutions of the society in which we live: social classes and the class State. I also hope that what may at first sight seem to be a merely theoretical question—the definition of ethnology as the study of primitive classless society and therefore as an integral part of history in general—will now appear in its true role as the first step in our effort to snatch ethnology from the grasp of the bourgeoisie and to carry on with the work of the most outstanding leaders of historical materialism, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.
I do not have any illusions that all of you, or even a majority of those present today, will be able to devote yourselves to independent research in this field. However, I do hope that one or another of you will do so, while the others will cooperate effectively to make this course a truly collective project, especially by your participation in discussions.
2. The Various Schools of Ethnology
In the first lecture we spoke in general terms about the definition of ethnology and why we should study it. That is, we discussed its value for the struggle of the proletariat. We framed our definition of ethnology by saying that it was the study of primitive classless society and an integral part of history in general. Then we explained why the bourgeoisie attempted to completely separate ethnology from the history of class society.
Today we shall undertake an analysis of the various schools of bourgeois ethnology which have arisen since the publication of the books by Morgan and Engels cited in the previous lecture. We can say that, despite individual discoveries, the history of ethnology since the publication of those two books does not represent any progress at all, but, to the contrary, a continuous regression. Despite the particular errors of the two books by Morgan and Engels, they are the only ethnological works that deserve to be described as scientific. Despite its individual contributions, so-called modern ethnology has not produced a single book that is really scientific.
The scientific basis of Morgan’s famous book was evolutionism. The basis of the fight waged by the bourgeoisie against the scientific study of primitive classless society is anti-evolutionism.
Evolutionism, however, in its application to natural history and to the history of human society, is a product of bourgeois society. In its struggle against feudalism and the Church, the bourgeoisie used evolutionism as an ideological weapon. From the very moment that it consolidated its rule, however, it began to abandon and attack this doctrine. Why? Because evolutionism is the specific weapon of oppressed classes. It is in the interest of the oppressed class to prove that the situation in which it finds itself is not eternal. It has an overriding interest in revealing the historical roots of this situation, that is, the rule of one class and the oppression of another. In addition, it has an interest in proving that everything in nature, just as in human society, is undergoing perpetual change—it has an interest in showing that the society in which it lives has not always existed and therefore that the day will come when it will have to cease to exist, that just as it came into existence it will also come to an end, that every society is born, grows, matures and dies. Thus, what is of interest to an oppressed class is not the mere narration of historical facts—including the fact of its oppression—but an evolutionist interpretation of history and of the historical roots of its oppression.
A ruling class, to the contrary, has an interest in burying in oblivion as soon as possible the historical roots of its rule and the process that led to its victory. It has an interest in denying that there is any essential difference between the society it has created and the societies that preceded it. It has a overriding resolve to prove that the essential principles that characterize all societies are eternal. And finally, it has a profound interest in rejecting evolution, not only in the history of human society, but also in natural history.
However, since the ruling class cannot totally erase the idea of evolution, especially insofar as it had previously made use of it when it was itself an oppressed class, as in the typical case of the bourgeoisie, it has to corrupt the concept of evolution while simultaneously openly combating it. This two-front war, that is, an open and brutal struggle in combination with a labor of corruption, characterizes the bourgeoisie in the stage of its decline not only on the political terrain but also on the scientific—or more precisely, the anti-scientific—terrain. Modern ethnology is a perfect example of this combined method, used by a class that is afraid of giving up its ruling position.
When it was revolutionary, militant and progressive, the bourgeoisie based its critique of feudal society on evolutionism and even began to study the evolution of human society in the pre-feudal era. It had only made a beginning with regard to this work, however. With the consolidation of its rule it understood that the evolutionist study of the history of society could be transformed into a weapon of the class that had been born along with it: the proletariat.
The contradictions of capitalist society unfolded in such a radical manner that those who continued to utilize the weapon of evolutionism inevitably became enemies of that society. It was thus the case that Morgan was the only ethnologist who consistently applied evolutionism to the study of the remote stages of human society.
Marx and Engels immediately grasped the enormous importance of Morgan’s book, which was published in 1877. Engels said, concerning this book, that is was “one of the few epoch-making works of our time”.3
Seven years later, Engels published his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, in which he further elaborated, on the basis of Morgan’s research, the Marxist concept of the origin of social classes and the class State. Morgan, according to Engels, “had discovered afresh in America the materialistic conception of history”, and for this reason alone he was naturally rejected by mainstream ethnology.
Aware of the strategic position occupied by ethnology in the scientific structure of historical materialism, mainstream ethnology was transformed into a combat formation for the battle against Morgan, evolutionism and historical materialism.
The first thing that distinguishes bourgeois ethnology from Marxist ethnology, as we have already seen, is its definition of ethnology. The Marxist definition is a distinctly evolutionist definition, but it nonetheless clearly stands apart from the definition of the non-Marxist evolutionist ethnologists. The evolutionism of the evolutionist ethnologists who preceded Morgan was quite vague and primitive. They understood that human society develops in the form of well defined stages, but they did not understand the essential point that distinguishes the first stages from the more recent ones, that is, the existence or non-existence of social classes and the class State. Consequently, their definition of ethnology is merely “the study of the primitive stages of the evolution of human society”. We are not told what the term “primitive” means in the context of their definition. The Marxist definition is more precise: “it is the study of the stages of the evolution of human society that preceded the class State, that is, before the advent of fully developed class society”. Or, in a very concise but less satisfactory form: “it is the study of primitive classless society”. In this latter definition, the term “primitive” indicates no more than the distinction between the classless society that preceded class society and the classless society that will succeed it.
The Marxist definition has been fought by the bourgeois ethnologists in a most revealing manner: they simply do not even mention it. In a society in which the bourgeoisie possesses the monopoly of the means of dissemination and discussion of scientific theories, this method is extremely effective. At the same time, the use of this method reveals the inability of bourgeois ethnology to combat Marxist ethnology in any other way than that of total silence.
The Marxist definition is precise, concrete, and expresses the relations between ethnology and history in the ordinary meaning of this word. It is evolutionist in its content, and not only, like the bourgeois definition of ethnology as “the study of the primitive stages of human society”, in its form. The Marxist definition obliges those who accept it to concentrate their scientific attention upon those aspects of classless society that paved the way for, and already contained in embryo, class society.
We prefer to use the more precise, although more complicated, definition— “Ethnology is the study of the stages of the evolution of human society that preceded the class State, that is, before the advent of fully developed class society”—because this definition rules out the idea that the origin of classes and class society and the class State were sudden events, instead of what they really were: a historical process.
As we have already pointed out, we must distinguish various stages in this process. Our definition includes the study of all these stages up to the moment when the essential character of society consists in the existence of the class struggle and the presence of the class State.
Our definition of ethnology also prevents us from studying the data of ethnology in isolation from the data of history properly speaking. Indeed, it obliges us to study the former in a way that is closely linked with the latter; that is, each stage as an immediate predecessor and as preparation for a higher stage. Understood in this way, ethnology’s most outstanding scientific contribution is the study of the higher stages of classless society that already contain the seed of, which are already preparing for and are the immediate predecessors of, class society and the class State.
The defining feature of bourgeois ethnology is that it overlooks, and almost seems to be trying to ignore, precisely these higher stages. The reason for this is clear: the study of these stages reveals the secret of the two institutions that dominate all written history, including the history of our society, social classes and the class State. Thus, we can observe that it rejects the most important scientific contribution of ethnology: the analysis of the origin of classes and its State. Its interest is thus clearly laid bare: it consists in not understanding or uncovering this origin. Its class interest and its function is not to clarify, but to confuse. Thus, bourgeois ethnology forfeits its scientific importance and interest in order to be an instrument of ignorance, an anti-scientific weapon.
This tendency of bourgeois ethnology is intimately linked with the definition that frames the object of its study. This definition is nothing but the expression of this tendency, which we have already clarified by saying that it consists in its interest in not penetrating to the roots of the basis of capitalist society: classes and the class State.
That is why we are so interested in the definitions of the different ethnological schools. These definitions are the touchstones of their ideology.
All the definitions of the bourgeois ethnological schools have one element in common: they speak simply of “primitive” society or of “the primitive” in society, without providing a definition of what they mean by “primitive”. And we already know the reason for this: the “primitive” element that unites all these tribes and distinguishes them from the more advanced peoples is the absence or underdevelopment of social classes. And this is precisely what the bourgeoisie does not want to analyze.
Bourgeois Ethnological Schools
Contemporary ethnology has three national centers: one in Germany and Austria; one in England; and one in the United States. Each constitutes a well defined school. The ethnologists of the other countries follow one or another of these schools.
All three schools assert that there is a special method of ethnological analysis that is different from the historical method. All these schools accept the definition of history and of the historical method established by the bourgeoisie. For them, “history is the true narrative of past events and memorable things”. This definition, seemingly positive, is a weapon of war in the hands of the bourgeois class since it denies the scientific character of history by excluding—automatically—the specific intention of every science: to look for laws. For the bourgeoisie, history—the development of society—is nothing but the chronological sequence of events that are related to one another only by causes and effects.
Starting from the common basis of the same definition cited above, or a similar one, the bourgeois schools of ethnology accept, as if with one voice, the total separation of ethnology and history properly speaking. Each of them, however, offers a different definition of ethnology.
The Catholic School of Vienna
This school was the first to rally to the crusade against evolutionism in general and Marxism in particular. In fact, it did not directly attack the advanced evolutionism of Morgan and Engels, but the primitive and simplistic evolutionism that was rendered obsolete by the publication of the books by Engels and Morgan. This simplistic evolutionism depicted the life of society as being divided into many fragments—as if properly filed in their own folders—corresponding to religion, art, myth, technology, etc. It therefore studied, independently of the other cultural or social categories, not only myth and religion, art and technology, but even their most petty and arbitrarily assigned subdivisions.
For example, “the evolution of art” was studied by assessing it as a general category in all peoples, isolating each people from their concrete particular situations, and attempting to establish laws of a universally-valid character.
From each one of the “evolutionary paths” thereby delineated, which they call “elements”, they arbitrarily separate so-called “stages of society” in a particular moment of their evolution, and thus mechanistically unite and construct them.
This idea of “stages of society”, however, unlike scientific evolutionism, has the character of a sum of elements, rather than development, or the evolution of society taken as a whole.
The non-Marxist evolutionists apply the principles of their arbitrary “evolutionism” to the lower stages of societies because in this way they can apply what is for them the only valid historical method: the chronological method. Thus, the kind of evolutionism against which the Catholic school launched its crusade was actually in no way superior to bourgeois-style history (that is, a narrative plus an analysis of causes and effects), but actually inferior. It was “evolutionism” because it could not be “historicism”. The evolutionism of Morgan and Engels, on the other hand, represents the supersession of the historicism of the bourgeoisie, that is, scientific generalization based on the research of particular events, the transformation of history into science.
In order to combat an imperfect and mechanistic evolutionism, the Catholic Church adopted a method that was no less imperfect and mechanistic; this explains the emergence of its ethnological method that borrowed from the primitive evolutionism precisely the worst elements because it accepted the arbitrary separation of the “elements”. However, in its battle against primitive evolutionism’s tendency to generalize stages, it established other classifications that formed groups with the empirical combinations of isolated “elements”, giving them the name “culture circles” (Kulterkreis).
In fact, all peoples exhibit combinations of “elements”, and these combinations vary from one people to another. What is arbitrary and dogmatic about this ethnological school is the fact that it fixes the “original circles” and on that basis undertakes its study of the dissemination and mixture of these same circles, thus replacing the chronological historical method with a mere study of geographical distribution, arbitrarily establishing the pathways and zones of dissemination of the “original circles”.
It is therefore bereft of that element of bourgeois history that comes closest to a scientific method, the chronological element, and its method embraces the worst of the principles of bourgeois history, that is, the mere narration of particular events.
Nonetheless, the Catholic ethnologists call their method the historical method, which can only mean that it is anti-evolutionist.
They admit that, among the “original circles”, some are more recent than others. And that is as far as they go. The logical consequence of this claim is that these circles are related to each other, in an evolutionary sense. But they avoid this logical recognition by not investigating the origin in the genetic sense, not only geographical, of each one of these combinations that are known as “culture circles”.
Why don’t they study the origin of these circles? Simply because this study is for them a theological theme. This is where they make things appear to be the work of God or the Devil, depending on whether the inventions of individuals or peoples are good or evil. This is where they situate the effort of human thought—considering it as a divine emanation—that is in its own way ultimately determined by the battle between the antagonistic powers of heaven and hell.
The separation of “elements” serves the same purpose, because viewing society in its totality is identical to viewing it on the basis of its real foundations in production and exchange, that is, it is identical to viewing it from the historical materialist point of view. The division of society into its “elements”, to the contrary, obliges us to study them by seeking their origin in individuals and their ideas and in the final analysis in the “personified idea”, God.
For the very same purpose of introducing the divine element, this ethnological school asserts that all inventions, customs, etc., have a single origin. This claim is absurd but it clearly expresses the interest the bourgeois ethnologists of this school have in proving that these inventions, institutions or customs, etc., insofar as they are not born from circumstances that are characteristic of certain modes of production and exchange, cannot be repeated in societies that have the same mode of production and exchange and therefore only have an ideal, single, divine origin.
It is also necessary to clarify the meaning of a concept that we have only tangentially touched upon until now: the concept of “culture waves”. In this school’s theory this concept plays the role that corresponds to stages of culture. There can be no doubt that these “culture waves” do in fact exist and that their study is important as an aid in reconstructing the history of tribes that have not left any documents that can be dated. One of the tasks of scientific ethnology is to investigate the circumstances in which these “waves” originate and the transformations to which they give rise. It is foolish, however, to claim that studying the dissemination of institutions, inventions, etc., of one tribe or another is equivalent to studying the history of these institutions and these tribes. The Catholic School deliberately confuses these two concepts. In reality, the concept of stages refers to transformations that result in a definite type of society, while the so-called “cultural waves” that lead to the inventions, institutions, customs, etc., of one or another tribe, one or another people, refer to their transmission not only to tribes or peoples at another stage of cultural development, but quite often at the same stage. This transmission may lead to a transformation of society into a higher stage, in the case of the transmission of an instrument of labor, for example, but in most instances this is not what happens.
Such is the case, for the most part; nonetheless, the evolution of a tribe to a higher stage can result in a “cultural wave” that disseminates not only the accidental but also the essential aspects of the new stage. The essential feature that distinguishes the one concept from the other is the fact that the “cultural wave” refers to isolated elements, even if they are disseminated in the form of “culture circles”, while “stage” refers to the totality of society and to what confers its essential character upon society. This is none other than the totality of its mode of production and exchange and its regime of property.
We can state that the productive evolutionism in ethnology, that is, the evolutionism that predates historical materialism, was in reality only evolutionism in its form but not its content. This evolutionism did not conceive society as a totality on the real basis of the production of life, but as an agglomeration of “elements of culture”.
The Catholic School did indeed definitively break with this primitive evolutionism that no one takes seriously today, but it did not even come close to the really scientific evolutionism, the one based on historical materialism.
The most characteristic feature of Catholic ethnology is the affirmation that the fundamental task, if not the only task, of ethnology consists in the study of the distribution of the so-called “elements of culture”, in order to reconstruct their dissemination from their points of origin. It is extremely significant that this essential and basic aspect of Catholic ethnology has spread not only among Catholic ethnologists, but also among large numbers of ethnologists who are considered to be sworn enemies of the Catholic Church. In fact, with the sole exception of the “functionalist” school of England, almost all the world’s ethnologists agree that the study of “culture” is the primordial task of ethnology, although they do not all agree with the particular way that the Catholic ethnologists study it.
How can we explain this phenomenon? By the central position occupied by the Catholic Church and the ideological struggle of the declining bourgeoisie. After the defeat of feudalism, the Catholic Church proved to be capable of an impressive adaptation to the demands of the new times, and once the decline of the bourgeoisie and its capitalist society began, it once again became the backbone of the ideological defense of a class and a society that are condemned to death. Today we can observe how, amidst the ongoing decomposition of capitalist society, the services of the Catholic Church are increasingly more indispensable for the class that in its early days had achieved victory by way of the struggle against this same Church, back when it represented the backbone of feudalism.
Even in the distinctly Protestant countries the bourgeoisie is currently availing itself of the ideological support of the Catholic Church, and thus the position of the bourgeoisie is further reinforced with each passing day.
The power of the Catholic Church consists, on the one hand, in its dogmatism tempered by an impressive flexibility and, on the other hand, in its centralization and its internationalism. The national Churches of the Protestant countries lack these qualities. The Catholic Church, even though it has greater resources in some countries than in others, offers its services to the ruling class in every country and every ruling class accepts its them, Catholic and Protestant, democratic and fascist. Naturally, its services are not accepted in toto, in accordance with the intentions and designs of the Church, but in their essential features they are accepted and put to use.
The same kind of thing happens in ethnology. The Catholic Church understood the strategic importance of ethnology for the system of historical materialism and organized the struggle against the latter and against evolutionism in general with a truly admirable skill. Its “theory” was taken from a Protestant professor, Fritz R. Graebner, because his theory seemed to be most suitable for its purposes. This fact alone proves that the contemporary ideological struggle of the Catholic Church is not essentially distinct from the struggle of the other bourgeois ideological tendencies. It embraced the theoretical position of a scholarly Protestant, re-worked it and placed the final product at the service of the entire world bourgeoisie, without any distinctions with regard to individual beliefs. The strength of its position on the terrain of ethnological studies consists precisely in the combination of those aspects that more generally characterize the Catholic Church, i.e., its centralized and international organization and the advantage conferred by the fact that the ethnological theory that it elaborated does not, at first sight, have anything particularly Catholic or even generally religious about it.
The priest Wilhelm Schmidt, the present director of the Papal Ethnological Museum in Rome, secured the collaboration of a large number of ecclesiastics and founded an ethnological journal that publishes articles in German, French, English, Italian and Spanish, which is currently one of the most important ethnological publications in the world and includes contributions from non-Catholic ethnologists. At the University of Vienna there is an Institute of Ethnology whose director is a member of this group of Catholic ethnologists. There is also an Institute of Ethnological Training for Missionaries under the direction of the same group.
It is a fact of great significance that the Catholic Church has concentrated the efforts of more people, all of whom are highly-educated scholars, on the study of ethnology than on any other field of knowledge. Ethnology is the only field in which the Catholic Church presents an organized tendency with its institutes, its own journal, etc.
3. The Laws of Dialectics
In our previous lecture we presented a brief review of the bourgeois ethnological schools. This review was necessary in order to evaluate them and to draw some conclusions. These conclusions are as follows: all the bourgeois ethnological schools, despite their differences, start from the false theoretical basis of the separation of theory from practice. This separation is common to all bourgeois scientific research. As we explained in our first lectures, it is a historically inevitable error. The bourgeoisie separates practice from theory because it did, not nor could it, ideologically defend its society and its class rule.
Another total separation carried out by the bourgeoisie is the separation established between ethnology and history. This, too, is an inevitable error for the ruling class of today’s society. If both ethnology and history were to be studied in their evolutionary connections this would lead to the discovery of the origin of classes, that is, the mechanism of class society.
The data contributed by bourgeois ethnologists are very important, but it is very hard to use them effectively. Besides their false interpretation they have attempted to construct a firebreak by ignoring the stages that are most important for us. That is, the higher stages of classless society, which already contain the seed of class society.
The general interest that has oriented the efforts of the bourgeois ethnologists by means of this special organization of their data is that of finding arguments against evolutionist theories. They have not, however, been able to avoid the evidence. We shall therefore make use of their data only after severe criticism and discrimination.
Bourgeois ethnological theories are of no use for our study because they lack any real scientific character. Real science—the kind used by the proletariat—will establish its principles by deriving them from reality, as it is capable of passing the test by virtue of its scientific character at the moment it is applied to that same reality. Real science is practical science.
Engels was entirely correct when he said:
“If we deduce world schematism not from our minds, but only through our minds from the real world, if we deduce principles of being from what is, we need no philosophy for this purpose, but positive knowledge of the world and of what happens in it; and what this yields is also not philosophy, but positive science.”
Science searches for principles or laws. This search must be pursued not in the head of the individual, but in reality itself. It is true, of course, that the indispensable instrument for this task is human consciousness, i.e., thought. Real scientific work is the search for principles or laws, not their creation or invention.
“… The principles,” as Engels said in Anti-Dühring, “are not the starting-point of the investigation, but its final result; they are not applied to nature and human history, but abstracted from them, it is not nature and the realm of man which conform to these principles, but the principles are only valid in so far as they are in conformity with nature and history.”
This postulate is a basic affirmation of dialectical materialism, as opposed to the idealist position. Not all materialism, however, is scientific materialism. Mechanistic materialism has in common with idealism the fundamental error of not understanding the real relation between matter and the idea, thought and consciousness. Both completely separate matter from consciousness, and view them as opposed by their very nature. Both separate matter from consciousness to such an extent that they even attempt to ignore one of these two terms. There are idealists that go so far as to assert that nothing exists, that everything is the reflection of our consciousness. There are materialists who uphold a no less absurd postulate, by asserting that nothing exists except matter, that consciousness does not exist.
Dialectical materialism, on the contrary, starting from the basic evolutionist principle, asserts that consciousness is nothing but a natural product of the evolution of the universe. There was a time when consciousness did not exist. As the universe evolved it was creating more perfected beings, the best of which, man, had the necessary elements that made possible the development of consciousness in him that, having arisen from nature itself, has never ceased to be part of him.
Why? Precisely what are consciousness and ideas, spirit and thought? We shall respond to this question with the words of Engels:
“Thought and consciousness … are products of the human brain and that man himself is a product of nature, which has developed in and along with its environment; hence it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis also products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature's interconnections but are in correspondence with them.”
This is why human consciousness can abstract from reality the laws that govern it. These laws change in accordance with the changes of the reality from which they originate. Not all changes in nature and society take place at the same pace. There are parts of nature in which changes take place very slowly. The field of validity of the laws applied to these parts therefore has a more general character.
It is very difficult, however, to find a truly general law; one of those general principles that have come to be called “eternal laws” or “eternal truths”.
Engels posed this problem when he said:
“But are there any truths which are so securely based that any doubt of them seems to us to be tantamount to insanity? That twice two makes four, that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, that Paris is in France, that a man who gets no food dies of hunger, and so forth? Are there then nevertheless eternal truths, final and ultimate truths?”
Engels answers this question by positing a classification of the sciences that is headed by those that are based on inanimate nature and that have a more particular and restricted character. He thus follows the path of evolution itself.
Speaking first of “sciences that deal with inanimate nature and are to a greater or lesser degree susceptible of mathematical treatment: mathematics, astronomy, mechanics, physics, chemistry”, Engels answers the question he posed above: “Certainly there are…. If it gives anyone any pleasure to use mighty words for very simple things, it can be asserted that certain results obtained by these sciences are eternal truths, final and ultimate truths; for which reason these sciences are known as the exact sciences. But very far from all their results have this validity.”
Later, speaking of the second variety of sciences,
“… the one which covers the investigation of living organisms,” he insists that the situation of these sciences is different and claims that, “in this field there is such a multiplicity of interrelationships and causalities that not only does the solution of each question give rise to a host of other questions, but each separate problem can in most cases only be solved piecemeal, through a series of investigations which often require centuries; and besides, the need for a systematic presentation of interconnections makes it necessary again and again to surround the final and ultimate truths with a luxuriant growth of hypotheses. What a long series of intermediaries from Galen to Malpighi was necessary for correctly establishing such a simple matter as the circulation of the blood in mammals, how slight is our knowledge of the origin of blood corpuscles, and how numerous are the missing links even today, for example, to be able to bring the symptoms of a disease into some rational relationship with its cause! And often enough discoveries, such as that of the cell, are made which compel us to revise completely all formerly established final and ultimate truths in the realm of biology, and to put whole piles of them on the scrap-heap once and for all. Anyone who wants to establish really genuine and immutable truths here will therefore have to be content with such platitudes as: all men are mortal, all female mammals have lacteal glands, and the like….
“But eternal truths”, Engels continues, “are in an even worse plight in the third, the historical, group of sciences, which study in their historical sequence and in their present resultant state the conditions of human life, social relationships, forms of law and government, with their ideal superstructure in the shape of philosophy, religion, art, etc. In organic nature we are at least dealing with a succession of processes which, so far as our immediate observation is concerned, recur with fair regularity within very wide limits. Organic species have on the whole remained unchanged since the time of Aristotle. In social history, however, the repetition of conditions is the exception and not the rule, once we pass beyond the primitive state of man, the so-called Stone Age; and when such repetitions occur, they never arise under exactly similar circumstances. Such, for example, is the existence of an original common ownership of the land among all civilised peoples, or the way it was dissolved. In the sphere of human history our knowledge is therefore even more backward than in the realm of biology. Furthermore, when by way of exception the inner connection between the social and political forms of existence in any epoch comes to be known, this as a rule occurs only when these forms have already by half outlived themselves and are nearing extinction. Therefore, knowledge is here essentially relative, inasmuch as it is limited to the investigation of interconnections and consequences of certain social and state forms which exist only in a particular epoch and among particular peoples and are by their very nature transitory. Anyone therefore who here sets out to hunt down final and ultimate truths, genuine, absolutely immutable truths, will bring home but little, apart from platitudes and commonplaces of the sorriest kind—for example, that, generally speaking, men cannot live except by labour; that up to the present they for the most part have been divided into rulers and ruled; that Napoleon died on May 5, 1821, and so on.”
As a result, by studying a consciousness where the repetition of situations are the exception rather than the rule, and noting that when such repetitions, when they do occur, “never arise under exactly similar circumstances”, we must first seek the laws that we can deduce from a small number of historical situations.
In political economy, for example, which “is therefore essentially a historical science. It deals with material which is historical, that is, constantly changing; it must first investigate the special laws of each individual stage in the evolution of production and exchange, and only when it has completed this investigation will it be able to establish the few quite general laws which hold good for production and exchange in general. At the same time it goes without saying that the laws which are valid for definite modes of production and forms of exchange hold good for all historical periods in which these modes of production and forms of exchange prevail. Thus, for example, the introduction of metallic money brought into operation a series of laws which remain valid for all countries and historical epochs in which metallic money is a medium of exchange”.
One of the general laws that historical materialism has elaborated is the one that says:
“… production and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or estates is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the products are exchanged.”
Another way of formulating this same law is expressed by Engels when he says:
“… distribution, in its decisive features, is always the necessary result of the production and exchange relations of a particular society, as well as of the historical conditions in which this society arose; so much so that when we know these relations and conditions we can confidently infer the mode of distribution which prevails in this society.”
We insist that the general character of this law is only valid if it is considered within the particular laws that correspond to historical stages, since it has a particular aspect when it refers to the history of human society.
From this “general” law of human society and from similar laws applied to other aspects of nature, even more general laws arise, fundamental laws that apply to the whole universe, including its most highly developed product, human consciousness.
Research must proceed in this sequence: from particular laws to general laws up to their highest degrees. In our course, by investigating concrete problems we shall follow this method. When we are engaged in a general introduction to our present topic, however, that is, in the exposition of the results achieved by others, we shall reverse this sequence, beginning with the presentation of the most general laws.
The general laws are the laws of dialectics—“Dialectics”, as Engels defines it, “… is nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society, and thought.”
The most general law of dialectics asserts that all development in the universe—nature, society, thought—takes place in a contradictory sense.
In his explanation of this concept, Engels says:
“As long as we regard things as static and without life, each by itself, separately, we do not run against any contradictions in them. We find certain qualities sometimes common, sometimes distinctive, occasionally contradictory, but in this last case they belong to different objects and are hence not self contradictory. While we follow this method we pursue the ordinary metaphysical method of thought. But it is quite different when we consider things in their movement, in their change, their life and their mutually reciprocal relations. Then we come at once upon contradictions. Motion is itself a contradiction since simple mechanical movement from place to place can only accomplish itself by a body being at one and the same moment in one place and simultaneously in another place by being in one and the same place and yet not there. And motion is just the continuous establishing and dissolving the contradiction…. But if simple mechanical motion contains a contradiction in itself still more so do the higher forms of motion of matter and to a high degree organic life and its development. We saw above that life consists chiefly in this that a being is at one and the same time itself and something different. Life itself then is likewise a contradiction contained in things and events, always establishing and dissolving itself, and as soon as the contradiction ceases life also ceases, death comes on the scene.”
The dialectical idea of contradiction, mentioned in the quotations presented above, cannot and must not be confused with the idea—which is characteristic of idealists and mechanistic materialists—of absolute contrasts. Such phenomena that exhibit absolute contrasts are few and far between, and extremely rare. They exist in very restricted fields. One such field is precisely the first group of sciences concerning which we spoke at the beginning of our lectures, those whose laws are often expressed in a mathematical form.
Even the concepts of true and false, and antitheses, beyond certain particular fields of inquiry, do not constitute absolute contrasts.
“As soon as we apply the antithesis between truth and error outside of that narrow field which has been referred to above it becomes relative and therefore unserviceable for exact scientific modes of expression, and if we attempt to apply it as absolutely valid outside that field we really find ourselves altogether beaten: both poles of the antithesis become transformed into their opposites, truth becomes error and error truth…. Really scientific works therefore, as a rule, avoid such dogmatically moral expressions as error and truth….”
One of the most general scientific laws is the one that asserts that, “quantitative change suddenly passes at certain points into qualitative transformation”. Engels cites, in support of this law, one of the most famous examples: “… water, which under normal atmospheric pressure changes at 0° C from the liquid into the solid state, and at 100°C from the liquid into the gaseous state, so that at both these turning-points the merely quantitative change of temperature brings about a qualitative change in the condition of the water.”
Among the hundreds of facts taken from nature and human society that we could adduce to illusrate this law, we shall present one taken from Napoleon’s wars. Describing the way his cavalry fought, who were poor horsemen but very disciplined, against the Mamelukes, who were excellent horsemen but undisciplined, he says:
“Two Mamelukes were undoubtedly more than a match for three Frenchmen; 100 Mamelukes were equal to 100 Frenchmen; 300 Frenchmen could generally beat 300 Mamelukes, and 1,000 Frenchmen invariably defeated 1,500 Mamelukes.”
Thus, according to Engels,
“… with Napoleon a detachment of cavalry had to be of a definite minimum number in order to make it possible for the force of discipline, embodied in closed order and planned utilisation, to manifest itself and rise superior even to greater numbers of irregular cavalry, in spite of the latter being better mounted, more dexterous horsemen and fighters, and at least as brave as the former.”
In the above example, like the first one, we see the validity of the general dialectical law that holds that “quantitative change suddenly passes at certain points into qualitative transformation”.
In the next lecture we shall continue with our presentation—and illustration with simple examples—of the general laws of dialectics, the basis of our entire study.
4. The Negation of the Negation
In today’s lecture we shall continue with our explanation of the general laws of dialectics, which, as we said, are the laws that comprise “the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society, and thought”.
The second general law of dialectics is the so-called “law of negation”. According to Engels, this is “An extremely general—and for this reason extremely far-reaching and important—law of development of nature, history, and thought; a law which, as we have seen, holds good in the animal and plant kingdoms, in geology, in mathematics, in history and in philosophy….”
The negation of the negation is, according to Engels,
“A very simple process which is taking place everywhere and every day, which any child can understand as soon as it is stripped of the veil of mystery in which it was enveloped by the old idealist philosophy…. Let us take a grain of barley. Billions of such grains of barley are milled, boiled and brewed and then consumed. But if such a grain of barley meets with conditions which are normal for it, if it falls on suitable soil, then under the influence of heat and moisture it undergoes a specific change, it germinates; the grain as such ceases to exist, it is negated, and in its place appears the plant which has arisen from it, the negation of the grain. But what is the normal life-process of this plant? It grows, flowers, is fertilised and finally once more produces grains of barley, and as soon as these have ripened the stalk dies, is in its turn negated. As a result of this negation of the negation we have once again the original grain of barley, but not as a single unit, but ten-, twenty- or thirtyfold. Species of grain change extremely slowly, and so the barley of today is almost the same as it was a century ago. But if we take a plastic ornamental plant, for example a dahlia or an orchid, and treat the seed and the plant which grows from it according to the gardener’s art, we get as a result of this negation of the negation not only more seeds, but also qualitatively improved seeds, which produce more beautiful flowers, and each repetition of this process, each fresh negation of the negation, enhances this process of perfection.”
The existence of the law of negation that we have seen Engels demonstrate in such a simple way may be discovered not only in plants and animals, but also can be applied to the life of society.
Engels provides, as proof, the following example:
“All civilised peoples begin with the common ownership of the land. With all peoples who have passed a certain primitive stage, this common ownership becomes in the course of the development of agriculture a fetter on production. It is abolished, negated, and after a longer or shorter series of intermediate stages is transformed into private property. But at a higher stage of agricultural development, brought about by private property in land itself, private property conversely becomes a fetter on production, as is the case today both with small and large landownership. The demand that it, too, should be negated, that it should once again be transformed into common property, necessarily arises. But this demand does not mean the restoration of the aboriginal common ownership, but the institution of a far higher and more developed form of possession in common which, far from being a hindrance to production, on the contrary for the first time will free production from all fetters and enable it to make full use of modern chemical discoveries and mechanical inventions.”
The above example touches upon, although only in a very general way, issues that relate to our own concern, which is ethnology. The stage of society that has been most studied, however, and which therefore provides the most clear and detailed examples, the products of prolonged and meticulous studies, is capitalist society. This is why, in order to introduce the method to the student, we shall give another example of this stage, despite the fact that it is so remote and so different from the stages of the society that is the object of our study.
The example is taken from Marx’s seminal work, Capital, from Part 8, entitled, “So-called Primitive Accumulation”, concerning which Engels provides a brief summary:
“On page 791 and the following pages”, Engels tells us, “he sets out the final conclusions which he draws from the preceding fifty pages of economic and historical investigation into the so-called primitive accumulation of capital. Before the capitalist era, petty industry existed, at least in England, on the basis of the private property of the labourer in his means of production. The so-called primitive accumulation of capital consisted there in the expropriation of these immediate producers, that is, in the dissolution of private property based on the labour of its owner. This became possible because the petty industry referred to above is compatible only with narrow and primitive bounds of production and society and at a certain stage brings forth the material agencies for its own annihilation. This annihilation, the transformation of the individual and scattered means of production into socially concentrated ones, forms the prehistory of capital. As soon as the labourers are turned into proletarians, their conditions of labour into capital, as soon as the capitalist mode of production stands on its own feet, the further socialisation of labour and further transformation of the land and other means of production, and therefore the further expropriation of private proprietors, takes a new form.”
[Engels then provides an excerpt from the corresponding passage from Capital:]
“That which is now to be expropriated is no longer the labourer working for himself, but the capitalist exploiting many labourers. This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the concentration of capitals. One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this concentration, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever extending scale, the co-operative form of the labour-process, the conscious technical application of science, the methodical collective cultivation of the soil, the transformation of the instruments of labour into instruments of labour only usable in common, the economising of all means of production by their use as the jointly owned means of production of combined, socialised labour. Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. Capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Concentration of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.”
The claims made above, as Engels made clear a few paragraphs ago, are not by any means arbitrary generalizations, dreamed up in someone’s head; to the contrary, they are the logical conclusions of assiduous, rigorously historical study, whose materials Marx explains on many previous pages.
It is clear that in the concepts discussed above, Marx discovered the mechanism of a historical process that obeys the general law of negation. He concludes his discussion of this study with the following concepts that summarize all his observations:
“The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisition of the capitalist era: i.e., on cooperation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.”
By individual property, Marx means property in consumer goods.
“Thus, by characterising the process as the negation of the negation, Marx does not intend to prove that the process was historically necessary. On the contrary: only after he has proved from history that in fact the process has partially already occurred, and partially must occur in the future, he in addition characterises it as a process which develops in accordance with a definite dialectical law.”
It is not enough to establish the general law that governs a particular natural historical process. The main thing is to point out the particular laws that these same processes obey.
To state that a process obeys the law of the negation of the negation—given its very general character—is to contribute very little to the clarification of the process in its particular and concrete aspects. Engels himself, in his explanation of this law, insists on its general character, saying:
“It is obvious that I do not say anything concerning the particular process of development of, for example, a grain of barley from germination to the death of the fruit-bearing plant, if I say it is a negation of the negation.”
To assert, in this manner, as we have done by referring to the evolution of private property, that this evolutionary process obeys the law of the negation of the negation, does not make any concrete contribution to the analysis of this social phenomenon. Dialectics has established in a general way that all processes, social as well as natural, obey this law. The concrete task of the scientific researcher is to analyze the concrete form in which this law is fulfilled.
“Every kind of thing therefore has a peculiar way of being negated in such manner that it gives rise to a development, and it is just the same with every kind of conception or idea.”
The task of science—we stated this at the beginning of our exposition—is to seek laws. This search will have to be directed first of all to the discovery of particular laws. Hence, the knowledge of the general laws of dialectics, once they are discovered, does not have any greater value than to serve as a useful method of research, but the knowledge of these general laws will by no means provide us with a complete and concrete analysis of the phenomenon.
The task of science is therefore to seek, by utilizing the effective and scientific method of research of historical materialism, the particular and general laws that govern natural as well as social processes.
Historical materialism is not a philosophy, it is not an arbitrary construct created by consciousness, but a method of research derived from the study of the universe, starting from the basis of positive and real knowledge. Dialectical materialism, we repeat, is not a philosophy or doctrine, but a positive science.
Underlying dialectical materialism—contrary to the claims of its detractors—there are no dogmatic assertions, one only finds two essential principles in it: 1) the priority of matter over consciousness, and 2) the dialectical process as the basis of development of the universe in all its aspects.
The priority of matter over consciousness is a concept that was employed by materialism in order to “comprehend the real world—nature and history—just as it presents itself to everyone who approaches it free from preconceived idealist crotchets. It was decided mercilessly to sacrifice every idealist fancy which could not be brought into harmony with the facts conceived in their own and not in a fantastic interconnection.”
The dialectical process is “the great basic thought that the world is not to be comprehended as a complex of readymade things, but as a complex of processes, in which the things apparently stable no less than their mind images in our heads, the concepts, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away, in which, in spite of all seeming accidentally and of all temporary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself in the end”.
The above formulation of dialectics corresponds to the materialist point of view. This idea was originally an idealist notion, most notably as conceived by Hegel, who was unable to pursue it to its logical consequences.
We have already said that man can discern laws from the reality around him because his consciousness is part of that same reality. Taking this concept one step further, we say that man can study and understand the dialectical processes of nature and society thanks to the fact that his consciousness also develops in a dialectical way. Both the external world as well as human thought obey the same general laws of motion, “… two sets of laws which are identical in substance, but differ in their expression in so far as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature and also up to now for the most part in human history, these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity, in the midst of an endless series of seeming accidents.”
This is why Engels could correctly maintain that, “men thought dialectically long before they knew what dialectics was, just as they spoke prose long before the term prose existed. The law of negation of the negation, which is unconsciously operative in nature and history and, until it has been recognised, also in our heads, was only first clearly formulated by Hegel.”
In his book Anti-Dühring, Engels provides, in support of the above statement, an example taken from Rousseau, the naturalist philosopher of the 18th century. Rousseau perceived the birth of inequality within primitive society as progress that implied a simultaneous regression. “Each new advance of civilisation is at the same time a new advance of inequality. All institutions set up by the society which has arisen with civilisation change into the opposite of their original purpose.”
Rousseau gives us the following example:
“It is an incontestable fact … that the peoples set up their chieftains to safeguard their liberty and not to enslave them….”
[Engels then points out that,]
“… nevertheless the chiefs necessarily become the oppressors of the peoples, and intensify their oppression up to the point at which inequality, carried to the utmost extreme, again changes into its opposite, becomes the cause of equality: before the despot all are equal—equally ciphers.”
Engels summarizes Rousseau’s thesis in the following manner:
“… And so inequality once more changes into equality; not, however, into the former naive equality of speechless primitive men, but into the higher equality of the social contract. The oppressors are oppressed. It is the negation of the negation. Already in Rousseau, therefore, we find not only a line of thought which corresponds exactly to the one developed in Marx’s Capital, but also, in details, a whole series of the same dialectical turns of speech as Marx used: processes which in their nature are antagonistic, contain a contradiction; transformation of one extreme into its opposite; and finally, as the kernel of the whole thing, the negation of the negation.”
The example taken from Rousseau is one of the best demonstrations of the truth established by Engels when he said that even before they knew what dialectics was men were already thinking dialectically.
But that which takes the form of an unconscious although natural process in Rousseau and in many other writers, and even many of our contemporaries, after Hegel and even more markedly after its materialist elaboration by Marx and Engels, becomes a precise, accurate and effective method whose application and validity in human history we shall demonstrate in upcoming lectures.
5. Dialectical Materialism
Summarizing our last two lectures we shall say that our study must not be based on idealism, but on materialism: not on metaphysics but on dialectics; and that we do not need a philosophy apart from the other sciences, but only a scientific method for the investigation of reality as it is presented to our consciousness, a way of thinking and research that corresponds to the real movement of matter. This method is dialectical materialism.
To paraphrase Engels, dialectics as a way of thinking is in its essence something so simple and natural that a child can use it and that in fact man has thought dialectically before he even knew what dialectics was.
Engels also insists, however, that what was, up until the time of Hegel and Marx, an imperfect and unconscious mode of thought, then became, after the discovery of the fundamental laws of dialectics by Hegel, but most especially after their scientific formulation [by Marx, a method]4 whose application requires serious and assiduous study. The application of historical materialism is a true art.
With reference to the naturalists, but implicitly referring to the historians, Engels says in relation to the use of the dialectical method applied to particular fields of research:
“The recognition that these antagonisms and distinctions, though to be found in nature, are only of relative validity, and that on the other hand their imagined rigidity and absolute validity have been introduced into nature only by our reflective minds—this recognition is the kernel of the dialectical conception of nature. It is possible to arrive at this recognition because the accumulating facts of natural science compel us to do so; but one arrives at it more easily if one approaches the dialectical character of these facts equipped with an understanding of the laws of dialectical thought. In any case natural science has now advanced so far that it can no longer escape dialectical generalisation. However it will make this process easier for itself if it does not lose sight of the fact that the results in which its experiences are summarised are concepts, that the art of working with concepts is not inborn and also is not given with ordinary everyday consciousness, but requires real thought, and that this thought similarly has a long empirical history, not more and not less than empirical natural science.”
Engels, in his oft-quoted book, gives us an interesting summary of this long historical experience, that is, the contradictory development of human thought, from Greek philosophy to dialectical materialism.
For those who wish to study this historical development in depth, I would recommend the pamphlet by Engels entitled, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.
For our purposes, it will be sufficient to give the short summary set forth by Engels in his introduction to Anti-Dühring:
“When we consider and reflect upon nature at large or the history of mankind or our own intellectual activity, at first we see the picture of an endless entanglement of relations and reactions in which nothing remains what, where and as it was, but everything moves, changes, comes into being and passes away. This primitive, naive but intrinsically correct conception of the world is that of ancient Greek philosophy, and was first clearly formulated by Heraclitus: everything is and is not, for everything is fluid, is constantly changing, constantly coming into being and passing away.
“But this conception, correctly as it expresses the general character of the picture of appearances as a whole, does not suffice to explain the details of which this picture is made up, and so long as we do not understand these, we have not a clear idea of the whole picture. In order to understand these details we must detach them from their natural or historical connection and examine each one separately, its nature, special causes, effects, etc. This is, primarily, the task of natural science and historical research: branches of science which the Greeks of classical times on very good grounds, relegated to a subordinate position, because they had first of all to collect the material. The beginnings of the exact natural sciences were first worked out by the Greeks of the Alexandrian period, and later on, in the Middle Ages, by the Arabs. Real natural science dates from the second half of the fifteenth century, and thence onward it has advanced with constantly increasing rapidity. The analysis of nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organic bodies in their manifold forms—these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of nature that have been made during the last four hundred years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constants, not as essentially variables, in their death, not in their life. And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the preceding centuries.
“To the metaphysician, things and their mental reflexes, ideas, are isolated, are to be considered one after the other and apart from each other, are objects of investigation fixed, rigid, given once for all. He thinks in absolutely irreconcilable antitheses. ‘His communication is 'yea, yea; nay, nay'; for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil.’ For him a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another, cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis one to the other.
“At first sight this mode of thinking seems to us very luminous, because it is that of so-called sound common sense. Only sound common sense, respectable fellow that he is, in the homely realm of his own four walls, has very wonderful adventures directly he ventures out into the wide world of research. And the metaphysical mode of thought, justifiable and even necessary as it is in a number of domains whose extent varies according to the nature of the particular object of investigation, sooner or later reaches a limit, beyond which it becomes one-sided, restricted, abstract, lost in insoluble contradictions. In the contemplation of individual things it forgets the connection between them; in the contemplation of their existence, it forgets the beginning and end of that existence; of their repose, it forgets their motion. It cannot see the wood for the trees.
“For everyday purposes we know and can say, e.g., whether an animal is alive or not. But, upon closer inquiry, we find that this is, in many cases, a very complex question, as the jurists know very well. They have cudgeled their brains in vain to discover a rational limit beyond which the killing of the child in its mother's womb is murder. It is just as impossible to determine absolutely the moment of death, for physiology proves that death is not an instantaneous momentary phenomenon, but a very protracted process.
“In like manner, every organic being is every moment the same and not the same, every moment it assimilates matter supplied from without, and gets rid of other matter; every moment some cells of its body die and others build themselves anew; in a longer or shorter time the matter of its body is completely renewed, and is replaced by other atoms of matter, so that every organic being is always itself, and yet something other than itself.
“Further, we find upon closer investigation that the two poles of an antithesis positive and negative, e.g., are as inseparable as they are opposed and that despite all their opposition, they mutually interpenetrate. And we find, in like manner, that cause and effect are conceptions which only hold good in their application to individual cases; but as soon as we consider the individual cases in their general connection with the universe as a whole, they run into each other, and they become confounded when we contemplate that universal action and reaction in which causes and effects are eternally changing places, so that what is effect here and now will be cause there and then, and vice versa.
“None of these processes and modes of thought enters into the framework of metaphysical reasoning. Dialectics, on the other hand, comprehends things and their representations, ideas, in their essential connection, concatenation, motion, origin, and ending. Such processes as those mentioned above are, therefore, so many corroborations of its own method of procedure.
“Nature is the proof of dialectics, and it must be said for modern science that it has furnished this proof with very rich materials increasing daily, and thus has shown that, in the last resort, nature works dialectically and not metaphysically. But the naturalists who have learned to think dialectically are few and far between, and this conflict of the results of discovery with preconceived modes of thinking explains the endless confusion now reigning in theoretical natural science, the despair of teachers as well as learners, of authors and readers alike.”
Thus, even with the progress made by the natural sciences, like that of the historical sciences, the need arose for a general method of thought that is not metaphysical but dialectical. Such a method, however, did not exist. 18th century French philosophy constituted progress in the sense of having been materialist, but at the same time it was also metaphysical in the sense we defined above, because it considered things and their ideal reflections, concepts, as objects presented, once and for all, to investigation: separate, stable and rigid objects, which must be studied in succession, each in isolation from the others. Thus, compared to Greek dialectical philosophy, the French materialist philosophy of the 18th century constituted a regression at the same time that it represented an advance with respect to other aspects. It was in this context that German idealist philosophy developed as a reaction against French materialism. In its idealist aspect, it constituted a regression, but at the same time it constituted an enormous advance due to the fact that it opposed not only the materialist aspect of French philosophy, but also its metaphysical and mechanistic aspect as well. It is the contribution of this German philosophy to have once again rehabilitated, in a higher form, the dialectical mode of thought of the Greek philosophers, as a more perfect mode of human thought.
“This new German philosophy,” Engels wrote in 1878, “culminated in the Hegelian system. In this system—and herein is its great merit—for the first time the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process, i.e., as in constant motion, change transformation, development; and the attempt is made to trace out the internal connection that makes a continuous whole of all this movement and development. From this point of view the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable at the judgment-seat of mature philosophic reason and which are best forgotten as quickly as possible, but as the process of evolution of man himself. It was now the task of the intellect to follow the gradual march of this process through all its devious ways, and to trace out the inner law running through all its apparently accidental phenomena.”
Hegel was unable to do more than pose this problem, but he could not resolve it, because he was an idealist:
“… To him the thoughts within his brain were not the more or less abstract pictures of actual things and processes, but, conversely, things and their evolution were only the realised pictures of the "Idea", existing somewhere from eternity before the world was. This way of thinking turned everything upside down, and completely reversed the actual connection of things in the world. Correctly and ingeniously as many individual groups of facts were grasped by Hegel, yet, for the reasons just given, there is much that is botched, artificial, laboured, in a word, wrong in point of detail. The Hegelian system, in itself, was a colossal miscarriage—but it was also the last of its kind….
“The perception of the fundamental contradiction in German idealism led necessarily back to materialism, but, nota bene, not to the simply metaphysical, exclusively mechanical materialism of the eighteenth century. In contrast to the naively revolutionary, simple rejection of all previous history, modern materialism sees in the latter the process of evolution of humanity, it being its task to discover the laws of motion thereof. With the French of the eighteenth century, and with Hegel, the conception obtained of nature as a whole, moving in narrow circles, and forever immutable, with its eternal celestial bodies, as Newton, and unalterable organic species, as Linnaeus, taught. Modern materialism embraces the more recent discoveries of natural science, according to which nature also has its history in time, the celestial bodies, like the organic species that, under favourable conditions, people them, being born and perishing. And even if nature, as a whole, must still be said to move in recurrent cycles, these cycles assume infinitely larger dimensions. In both cases modern materialism is essentially dialectic, and no longer needs any philosophy standing above the other sciences. As soon as each special science is bound to make clear its position in the great totality of things and of our knowledge of things, a special science dealing with this totality is superfluous. That which still survives, independently, of all earlier philosophy is the science of thought and its laws—formal logic and dialectics. Everything else is subsumed in the positive science of nature and history.”
Dialectics, we repeat, is neither a system of knowledge, nor a philosophy, but rather a method of thinking for investigation in accordance with the immanent laws of motion of the universe. For dialectical materialism, however, this universe constitutes a totality with its necessary concatenations, that is, it constitutes a system.
“The perception that all the processes of nature are systematically connected drives science on to prove this systematic connection throughout, both in general and in particular. But an adequate, exhaustive scientific exposition of this interconnection, the formation of an exact mental image of the world system in which we live, is impossible for us, and will always remain impossible. If at any time in the development of mankind such a final, conclusive system of the interconnections within the world—physical as well as mental and historical—were brought about, this would mean that human knowledge had reached its limit, and, from the moment when society had been brought into accord with that system, further historical development would be cut short—which would be an absurd idea, sheer nonsense. Mankind therefore finds itself faced with a contradiction: on the one hand, it has to gain an exhaustive knowledge of the world system in all its interrelations; and on the other hand, because of the nature both of men and of the world system, this task can never be completely fulfilled. But this contradiction lies not only in the nature of the two factors—the world, and man—it is also the main lever of all intellectual advance, and finds its solution continuously, day by day, in the endless progressive development of humanity, just as for example mathematical problems find their solution in an infinite series or continued fractions. Each mental image of the world system is and remains in actual fact limited, objectively by the historical conditions and subjectively by the physical and mental constitution of its originator.”
[Engels also said that:]
“A system of natural and historical knowledge, embracing everything, and final for all time, is a contradiction to the fundamental law of dialectic reasoning. This law, indeed, by no means excludes, but, on the contrary, includes the idea that the systematic knowledge of the external universe can make giant strides from age to age.”
The central aspect of this scientific progress of humanity is the development of the art of materialist and dialectical thought, that is, in increasingly greater accordance with the immanent laws of motion of matter. Both aspects, the materialist and the dialectical, are essentially inseparable. This is why dialectical materialism is not an artificial contrivance, but, to the contrary, a natural product of the progress of human thought. This progress, however, like all progress, is contradictory and therefore comprehends a long and arduous transformation. This development follows two paths: that of research and concrete and particular discoveries, and that of attempts towards systematization and speculative anticipation by means of philosophy, which in that stage of development of humanity played a useful and necessary role.
Greek philosophy does not at all represent a primitive stage of human thought, but, to the contrary, is the product of a long and difficult evolution. From Greek philosophy to the abolition of all philosophy by dialectical materialism, the development of human thought has followed an extremely contradictory path, whose contradiction culminated in the opposition between metaphysical materialist philosophy and dialectical idealist philosophy. As a product of this opposition, dialectical materialism arose. With it, man not only abandoned the mysticism of idealism, but also the rigid and absolute divisions and antitheses of the metaphysical way of thinking.
6. General Laws, Particular Laws, Phases of Phenomena
In our previous lectures we explained the three most fundamental laws of the dialectical process: the turning from quantity into quality and vice-versa, the radical transformation of phenomena into their opposites, and the negation of the negation, that is, the law of contradictory progress.
Once these dynamic general laws were discovered, that is to say, once they are derived from the reality itself, from the history, of the universe in its natural, social and conscious aspects, they serve us as a method in our search for particular, historical laws, which we have to derive from the study of concrete historical developments. At the same time all these concrete analyses and all these particular historical laws serve us as the proofs of the general laws we discussed earlier in this course.
Dialectical materialism recognizes only these dynamic laws—that is, the laws that govern the motion of matter in its most general form, including its highest product: human consciousness.
Concerning other laws, laws that are supposed to be eternal, Engels says, in his work The Dialectics of Nature:
“The eternal laws of nature also become transformed more and more into historical ones…. Our whole official physics, chemistry, and biology are exclusively geocentric, calculated only for the earth…. if we wish to speak of general laws of nature that are uniformly applicable to all bodies–from the nebula to man–we are left only with gravity and perhaps the most general form of the theory of the transformation of energy, known as the mechanical theory of heat. But, on its general, consistent application to all phenomena of nature, this theory itself becomes converted into a historical presentation of the successive changes occurring in a system of the universe from its origin to. its passing away, hence into a history in which at each stage different laws, i.e., different phenomenal forms of the same universal motion, predominate, and so nothing remains as absolutely universally valid except–motion.”
Motion is the fundamental aspect of the existence of the universe. For this reason, fundamental and truly general laws refer only to motion in its general aspect, and this motion of the universe obeys, in its particular and concrete aspects, that is, in its historical manifestations, particular historical laws. We thus see that the concatenation of the world system in which we live is expressed in the entire hierarchy of laws, from the most general to the most particular. These laws have no existence apart from phenomena and processes; they form part of a whole.
Laws are born, develop and die with the phenomena and processes that they govern. Before our earth existed, the physical, chemical, etc., laws that govern its motion were not in force. Before the evolution of living nature there were no biological laws. And before the definitive separation of man from the rest of the animal kingdom and the definitive evolution of his own characteristic way of life, that is, before the origin of society and human consciousness, we cannot speak of laws of human evolution. Nor did the laws that pertain to a society based on commodity production ever govern anything, before human society attained to that economic and social structure. The same argument also applies to the special phases within the general stage of commodity production, especially its most highly-developed phase: capitalist society.
It is therefore clear that capitalist society is ruled not just by the particular laws of this stage of development of society, but also by the general laws that apply to the entire stage of commodity production, all the laws—even the most general—of human society since the beginning of production of the characteristically human type, the laws that govern all of living nature, the laws that govern the motion of matter in our world and, finally, the most general laws that govern the motion of the universe as a whole. Likewise, in society before the advent of commodity production, all the above mentioned laws were in force, except for the ones that originated in later stages.
It would be a major error, however, to deduce from these two examples that all historical laws, once in effect, continue to be in effect in all the following stages, so that, for example, the laws of commodity production would also be valid in the future communist society. It is obvious that this cannot be true. When commodity production disappears, so too will the laws of that mode of production. In the same way, the laws of feudal production have disappeared along with the feudal mode of production.
Since, however, the particular laws of the feudal stage of commodity production do not stand apart from the general laws of the whole stage that falls under the rubric of commodity production, but are only the latter’s particular, that is, historical, manifestation, with the disappearance of the laws of feudal production the general laws of commodity production did not also disappear, but only took on a different form.
The comparison of the lower stages of commodity production with its highest stage, that of capitalist production, teaches us another extremely important principle. The lower stages, including the feudal stage, even though they technically comprise stages of commodity production, are nonetheless only stages of commodity production in a much less intense sense than capitalist production. It is in the latter that all the features of commodity production have been developed to their highest degree, so that not only is commodity production the general form of production, but even labor power has been converted into a commodity, a conversion that constitutes one of the cardinal features of the capitalist mode of production.
Starting from the principle that only capitalist production is commodity production par excellence, it becomes apparent that the laws of commodity production also find their complete development only in capitalist production—in other words, there are very different degrees of enforcement of the rule of the general laws of commodity production. Taking, for example, one of its most general laws that says that “the producers do not dominate its most general laws”, the one that says that “the producers do not dominate their social relations”, it is clear that the degree of enforcement of the rule of this law must be different in a society in which commodity production, even if it is the dominant form of production, is not yet the source of almost every product, not just almost every material product, but even labor power, which comes to possess the character of a commodity.
To the extent that the commodity character is not fully generalized, many of its general laws remain “semi-dormant”. From this we may conclude that, until a social phenomenon or process becomes generalized, the laws that are inherent to it do not attain their complete force and effect.
Commodity production serves as an illustration of two other important principles.
First: every process, upon its completion, turns into its opposite, due to its inherent contradictions. Thus, commodity production, upon attaining its highest point of development in capitalist society, lays the groundwork for its conversion into its opposite, that is, production for use. This principle is merely one of the dynamic general laws that we discussed earlier.
The second principle is the following: because there was commodity production before that mode of production began to dominate economic life, that is, before we could speak of a society based on that mode of production, this is also the case with respect to all phenomena and processes: all of them pass through an embryonic phase, in which their laws also have an embryonic form, that is, they are not yet fully dominant.
We can distinguish three phases in the development of all processes or phenomena: the embryonic phase, which as its name indicates represents the stage in which the manifestations of the phenomenon are not independent, as they are subject to another more general phenomenon that contains them. They do exist, but only in a germinal state. They are not manifested in the characteristic forms of the corresponding social stage.
The second phase—in which we have said that the laws remain semi-dormant—is the one that immediately precedes the peak of development. Now, in this phase the phenomenon is the dominant phenomenon of its stage, but it is not yet completely developed. The third phase is that of the peak, in which the phenomenon has successfully manifested itself completely, to such an extent that it characterizes the stage in which it unfolds. This phase immediately precedes the termination of the phenomenon, the period of decomposition that begins once it has reached its culmination.
The task of evolutionist research in the historical materialist sense consists precisely in combining the study of phenomena and processes at the zenith of their development with the study of their ascending phases. We can state that a process that we know only from the peak of its development cannot be understood completely. The same process, however, can be explained to a much more intense degree than processes of which we are totally ignorant of their complete development. An example will illustrate both assertions: the analysis of capitalist society would not have been possible before it had attained the full development of its most essential aspects, that is, until the phase of large-scale machine industry; but this analysis also required a detailed study of what we may call the prehistory of capitalism prior to the properly capitalist manufacturing phase, that is, the study of the history of commodity production, capital, labor and wage labor in their pre-capitalist forms.
Before it was the dominant mode of production, commodity production already existed, that is, as an exception—just as there was banking and commercial capital, before capital became an essential element of production and circulation, in the form of industrial and financial capital. There was also wage labor, such as, for example, in the textile manufactories of the colonial epoch in Mexico before wage labor constituted the dominant form of labor. Commodity production, capital and wage labor only become the fundamental ingredients of the economic foundation of society at a particular moment, that is, they come to form the essential aspects of a new mode of production.
This distinction between the phase in which a phenomenon occurs only as an exception, and the phase in which it has become generalized and characteristic, separates the Marxists from all the other researchers, that is, it separates the dialectical evolutionists from the mechanical evolutionists and the anti-evolutionist historians. The latter never understand phenomena and processes because they either do not distinguish these two evolutionary phases or they do not see that, despite their differences, they are phases of a single process. The study of the origin of social classes and the State will provide us with the most eloquent examples of this incapacity of bourgeois science to see things as they are in reality, in motion and perpetual change—it cannot understand that quantitative changes, at a culminating point, are transformed into qualitative changes. It either confuses the embryonic forms of social classes and the State, when they are still the exception, with their definitively developed forms, or it falls into the opposite error of considering them as completely separate and different phenomena.
The most illustrative example of the realist manner in which Marxists study historical processes is their formulation of the most general law of human society. To apply it to the study of the higher stages of the development of humanity, the formulation quoted above is sufficient: “Production and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure….” It is absolutely indispensable, however, in the study of lower stages of human society, to explain just what is meant by “production”. In the mainstream view accepted not only among the anti-Marxists but also, unfortunately, among many of those who consider themselves to be Marxists, “production” means simply economic production, the production of consumer goods and instruments of production. Lenin characterized this popular view as a distortion of the position of historical materialism. What, then, is the position of Marxism? We shall respond with the words of Engels, taken from the introduction to his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State.
“According to the materialistic conception, the decisive element of history is pre-eminently the production and reproduction of life and its material requirements. This implies, on the one hand, the production of the means of existence (food, clothing, shelter and the necessary tools); on the other hand, the generation of children, the propagation of the species. The social institutions, under which the people of a certain historical period and of a certain country are living, are dependent on these two forms of production; partly on the development of labor, partly on that of the family.”
This concept of “production”, which constitutes the theoretical basis of the entire book, and more generally, of Marxism as a whole, has a very interesting history. Most of the people who read this famous book did not grasp the concept of “production” in this broad sense, despite the fact that Engels was quite clear on this point. Others did understand it, but did not see that this formulation is not only not in conflict with the shorter formulation that is usually used by Marx and Engels, but that it is actually a more correct, more scientific and more transparent formulation. In other words, it is not at all consistent with the false interpretation of historical materialism that views it as “historical economism”.
It is precisely this distortion of historical materialism, however, that has been used as the basis for the attacks directed by certain self-styled Marxists against Engels. They accuse him of having strayed from the path of Marxism(!). Presenting themselves as the real disciples of Marx, they claim that there was a difference of opinion between the two founders of scientific socialism. In fact, those who have used such an argument to criticize Engels for being a revisionist are precisely the revisionists, and not just with regard to this theoretical point, but also with regard to their politics, such as, for example, the social democratic Cunow, the author of the most well-known critiques of Engels’ book.
We have already mentioned Lenin as an example of the real disciples of Marx and Engels, who defended Marxism against the distortions of those who claim that economic production alone is the base of human society. The revisionists who criticize Engels attach great importance to what seems to them to be a very significant fact, that Engels published his book after Marx’s death. Marx himself, however, in collaboration with Engels, had already said the same thing about production almost forty years before in a work that was first published in 1926 (?) by the Marx-Engels Institute, The German Ideology, in which he spoke of “the production of life, both of one's own in labour and of fresh life in procreation.”
In fact, we do not need these testimonials. The issue is absolutely clear without any further interpretations. Our task is not to prove the correctness of Marxist claims with quotations taken from Marx, Engels or Lenin, but to test them in their application to reality itself. We have seen in the course of our ethnological studies that, in the formulation cited above, Engels is in such close concordance with reality that only by using his formulation can we understand reality. Just to provide a glimpse of what we shall explain in a detailed manner and with numerous concrete examples in a future lecture, we may say the following:
Man is the product of evolution of the animal kingdom. In the latter, the production of objects is the exception rather than the rule. Among the species from which man descended, such production was probably non-existent, as we may now observe with respect to our closest relatives, the anthropoid apes. The development of their groups appears to be more dominated by the production of their sexual life than of their economic life, that is, their manner of obtaining food, etc. Man is distinguished from his animal relatives most of all by the development of his hands and his brain: he produces and reproduces not only by way of procreation, but also by way of labor, that is, by way of economic production. But this does not mean that he ceases to produce by way of procreation; he has continued to do so until this very day, and he will continue to do so in the future. Until the advent of our society, human bonds arising from procreation were of enormous importance; today, of course, they are completely subordinated to human bonds that have arisen from the process of economic production. If this is true, however, how do we explain the evolutionary connection between the animal, which only engages in production by way of procreation, and man, who, besides procreation, also has economic production? Only by assuming that man has passed through a phase of his development in which production by way of procreation dominated his social life, as is the case among the animals, while economic production existed only in an embryonic form. And this assumption finds its confirmation in the examples of the primitive societies that still exist, which we can study.
7. Economic Production and Procreative Production
Summarizing what was said in previous lectures we shall once again point out that our study will be focused on processes, not on fixed and isolated things. These processes will consist of the development of seeds, engendered in previous stages, which we shall follow until their full flowering that precedes their decomposition. In our study we shall not pay heed to any fixed and rigid lines of demarcation, because such lines do not exist in reality.
We can no more precisely determine when man, in the process of his separation from his animal progenitors, became man, than we can say exactly when the individual attains existence separate from the maternal body. We can, however, delineate the content of this process of separation and development of the essential difference between man and the other animals. It consists in the development of production, on the one hand, and consciousness, on the other. The product of both of these factors taken together is what we call human society. Both are essentially social phenomena, intimately linked in their development, and both arise from the physical constitution of man. Of the two, the basic element is naturally production, without the development of which the development of consciousness is inconceivable. On the other hand, however, the development of consciousness, especially with regard to its concrete aspect, language, becomes an essential element of the development of production.
What is new and different about animal life in its form as human life makes it incumbent upon us to study the latter in its development from its seeds in animal life, but we have to study it in conjunction with what man and animal have in common, that is, procreation and the social relations that arise from procreation. These animal aspects of man are not stable, either, but are themselves undergoing continuous development at the same time as the specifically human aspects, that is, those related to economic production.
What characterizes the animal is above all its complete dependence on the rest of nature, including other animals. Human domination is based on the development of production and its effect on the development of consciousness. This progressive domination is an extremely contradictory progress, as we saw previously. What is of interest to us now, however, is to underscore the fact that this is progress, that is, that at first man was almost indistinguishable from the animals, in this respect as in others. What he had in common with the animals was, above all, the type of production, that is, the production of other beings by way of procreation. Economic production by way of labor was almost entirely non-existent.
Thus, the dependence of man, like that of the animal, on his natural surroundings and his own nature, his physical constitution, was enormous. Only to the extent that he developed economic production, did the importance of the production of man by man by way of procreation diminish, that is, the role of this procreation declined in importance with respect to the totality of human relations. At first, procreation constituted the essential basis of social relations. In today’s society these relations are completely subordinated to those relations that have arisen from economic production. Both aspects of production are still the foundations of the development of human society, but their respective significance has been reversed.
The production of man by man by way of procreation will always be the essential precondition of economic production, and historically preceded it. Over the course of human evolution, however, economic production was itself transformed into the essential precondition for procreative production. The two foundations of all human history are thus intimately linked, not as mere cause and effect, but as mutual cause and effect.
The growing importance of economic production and the corresponding diminution of the importance of procreative production comprises one of the central aspects of human evolution, and also accounts for its differentiation from animal evolution.
By diminishing man’s dependence on nature, both his own nature as well as external nature, his dependence on man as a whole, that is, his dependence on society, grows. So, too, by increasing the domination of man over nature—a phenomenon that has made its appearance thanks to social organization for economic production—the seeds of another kind of domination have germinated: that of man over man, which culminates, in the end, in the exploitation of one class by another. This is how the contradictory character of the progress of man’s domination over nature is manifested. Both aspects have their basis in the development of economic production and only the development of economic production creates, at a particular moment—capitalist production—the elements capable of providing a solution to this conflict, that is, the liberation of man from man himself.
At the beginning of his evolution, man found himself, just like the animals, facing natural forces and enemies that he had not created. By developing his economic production, man creates another world alongside the already-existing natural world—a world of products, forces of production and relations of production. Just as the natural world dominates the animal and the scarcely-humanized man, the world produced by man is beginning to dominate advanced man in such a way that to the degree that the latter is liberated from the natural world he only falls under the domination of the world that he has himself produced.
As long as the development of production did not attain the stage of commodity production, the domination of production over the product is relatively weak. Men “knew what became of their product: they consumed it; it did not leave their hands”. All of this undergoes a radical transformation, however, with the development of commodity production, which raises “incorporeal alien powers against them”.
“With commodity production, production no longer for use by the producers but for exchange, the products necessarily change hands. In exchanging his product, the producer surrenders it; he no longer knows what becomes of it. When money, and with money the merchant, steps in as intermediary between the producers, the process of exchange becomes still more complicated, the final fate of the products still more uncertain. The merchants are numerous, and none of them knows what the other is doing. The commodities already pass not only from hand to hand; they also pass from market to market; the producers have lost control over the total production within their own spheres, and the merchants have not gained it. Products and production become subjects of chance.
“But chance is only the one pole of a relation whose other pole is named ‘necessity’. In the world of nature, where chance also seems to rule, we have long since demonstrated in each separate field the inner necessity and law asserting itself in this chance. But what is true of the natural world is true also of society. The more a social activity, a series of social processes, becomes too powerful for men's conscious control and grows above their heads, and the more it appears a matter of pure chance, then all the more surely within this chance the laws peculiar to it and inherent in it assert themselves as if by natural necessity. Such laws also govern the chances of commodity production and exchange. To the individuals producing or exchanging, they appear as alien, at first often unrecognized, powers, whose nature Must first be laboriously investigated and established. These economic laws of commodity production are modified with the various stages of this form of production; but in general the whole period of civilization is dominated by them. And still to this day the product rules the producer; still to this day the total production of society is regulated, not by a jointly devised plan, but by blind laws, which manifest themselves with elemental violence, in the final instance in the storms of the periodical trade crises.”
It is economic production which therefore becomes independent of man and dominates him, not procreative production, since the latter does not contain as much dynamic power, that is, as many contradictions, as economic production. It is steadily losing importance at the same time that economic production is taking another step forward, falling more and more under its domination.
The relations between both aspects of production are admirably summarized in the words of Engels in the preface to the First Edition of his book:
“The lower the development of labor and the more limited the amount of its products, and consequently, the more limited also the wealth of the society, the more the social order is found to be dominated by kinship groups. However, within this structure of society based on kinship groups the productivity of labor increasingly develops, and with it private property and exchange, differences of wealth, the possibility of utilizing the labor power of others, and hence the basis of class antagonisms: new social elements, which in the course of generations strive to adapt the old social order to the new conditions, until at last their incompatibility brings about a complete upheaval. In the collision of the newly-developed social classes, the old society founded on kinship groups is broken up; in its place appears a new society, with its control centered in the state, the subordinate units of which are no longer kinship associations, but local associations; a society in which the system of the family is completely dominated by the system of property, and in which there now freely develop those class antagonisms and class struggles that have hitherto formed the content of all written history.”
We see that with the development of economic production, man fell, on the one hand, under the domination of production; on the other hand, under the domination of man himself. These two processes are actually nothing but two aspects of a single process. Commodity production, from which the domination of the product over the producer arises, has its principle basis in the division of labor, that is, one of the central aspects of the progress of production. This same division of labor and the commodity production to which it gave rise, is the principle basis of the formation of social classes, that is, of the domination of man over man. Both phenomena, commodity production and the formation of classes, develop together and mutually influence one another. With them a new epoch of humanity with essentially new characteristics begins.
The most important aspect of this new epoch of human society is the intensification of contradictions and the generalization of a whole new variety of contradictions, which had already been born in previous stages: the social classes. We have said that every process and therefore every stage of development of human society is a contradictory process, and that its ultimate solution gives rise to a higher stage. But it is evident that a society divided into classes contains within itself greater contradictions than an essentially homogeneous society. From the moment when an oppressed class begins to exist, every instance of progress of production is at the same time a step backward for the oppressed class, that is, for the great majority. Every profit for some people, is necessarily a debit for others; every degree of emancipation obtained by one class is a new element of oppression for the other. The most eloquent confirmation of this principle is provided by the introduction of machine production, with whose effects everyone is familiar.
The division of society into classes is only the most obvious aspect of the increasingly more contradictory character of the development of society. Because commodity production signifies an enormous intensification of the struggle between man and man, a struggle that from the moment of its inception is manifested above all as the struggle between class and class, so that within the epoch of commodity production which Morgan and Engels call the epoch of civilization, capitalist production signifies another extraordinary intensification of contradictions in general and the class struggle in particular. Here it will be sufficient to mention the most demonstrative symptoms, the periodic crises and the constantly increasing destruction of the forces of production. This refers to one aspect. On the other hand, capitalist society is characterized by the fact that it is the highest point of development of social classes. In this society, the classes are presented for the first time in their purest form, that is, as aggregates of men who are characterized only by the role they play in production—a characteristic not possessed by the classes of previous societies to such a high degree—and therefore the economic characteristics stand out as what is essential, for alongside them other characteristics exist, which influence them, such as the privileges or the lack of privileges of birth. This process consists in the growth of the importance that their position in production confers upon these social aggregates. Just as man, by way of biological and social development, is acquiring his essentially human characteristics, as well as commodity production, arising long before capitalist society only in…. [sentence not completed in the original].
At the same time that the classes have reached the high point of their evolution, however, they are also at the final point of their development. Capitalist society has created the conditions for the abolition of every class regime, for the abolition of classes.
We thus see that contradictions are intensified from one stage to the next within society until a culminating point is reached in capitalist society. This is why we can derive such advantage from the study of this most recent stage for the study of the most remote stages. The contradictions that existed only in embryo in those societies have unfolded completely in capitalist society. Engels could therefore say that wage labor, which existed as an exception in remote stages, already contained within itself the seeds of the whole capitalist mode of production and of all its contradictions.
It is the complete development of wage labor and its transformation into the very axis of the mode of production that allows us to analyze this social phenomenon in its stages of growth and of its incomplete development.
The same thing is true of other social phenomena such as the division of labor and commodity production, which only develop all of their contradictions in capitalist society. The understanding of the capitalist stage and its dynamic laws is consequently indispensable for the study of remote stages of human society.
Mexico City, 1938-1939
Translated in July 2015 from the Spanish text obtained online at: http://www.left-dis.nl/e/KIRCHHOFF_conferencias-libre.pdf.
- 1 A series of lectures—open to the public—delivered at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (1938-1939), published under the same title in the journal, Antropología y marxismo (Mexico, Ediciones Taller Abierto, May 1979, No. 1, pp. 11-38). The introduction entitled, “Paul Kirchhoff, the Provocateur”, written by Carlos García Mora, who edited the above text, appears on pages 7-10 (http://carlosgarcíamoraetnologo.blogspot.com/2011/04/paul-kirchhoff-el-instigador.html).
- 2 An indigenous people of northwest Mexico who still live on communal lands [translator’s note].
- 3 The Spanish language Soviet edition of Morgan’s book translates this quotation as “su libro es uno de los pocos de nuestros días que hacen época” (Marx-Engels 1969: 483).
According to the Soviet edition:
“For Morgan in his own way had discovered afresh in America the materialistic conception of history discovered by Marx forty years ago, and in his comparison of barbarism and civilization it had led him, in the main points, to the same conclusions as Marx”.
- 4 It appears that some text is missing at this point, which I have tried to reconstruct based on the context [translator’s note].