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4. He asserted that the historical process was essentially rational. It had an immanent logic which unfolded in a law-governed manner defined by the dialectical process. Each stage of the whole was a necessary product of the circumstances of its time and place.
5. Every essential element of each stage hung together as components of a unified whole which expressed the dominant principle of its age. Each stage makes its own unique contribution to the advancement of mankind.
6. The truth about history is concrete. As the Russian thinker Chernyshevsky wrote: “Every object, every phenomenon has its own significance, and it must be judged according to the circumstances, the environment, in which it exists … A definite judgment can be pronounced only about a definite fact, after examining all the circumstances on which it depends.”
7. History changes in a dialectical manner. Each stage of social development has had sufficient reasons for coming into existence. It has a contradictory constitution, arising from three different elements. These are the durable achievements inherited from its predecessors, the special conditions required for its own maintenance, and the opposing forces at work within itself. The development of its internal antagonisms supplies its dynamism and generates its growth. The sharpening of its contradictions leads to its disintegration and eventual dispossession by a higher and antithetical form which grows out of it by way of a revolutionary leap.
8. Thus all grades of social organisation are interlinked in a dialectically determined series from lower to higher.
9. Hegel brought forward the profound truth later developed by historical materialism that labour is imposed upon man as the consequence of his needs and that man is the historical product of his own labour.
10. History is full of irony. It has an overall objective logic which confounds its most powerful participants and organisations. Although the heads of states apply definite policies, and peoples and individuals consciously pursue their own aims, historical actuality does not fall into line or accord with their plans. The course and outcome of history is determined by overriding internal necessities which are independent of the will and consciousness of any of its institutional or personal agencies. Man proposes … the historical necessity of the Idea disposes.
11. The outcome of history, the result of its agonising labour, is the growth of rational freedom. Man’s freedom comes not from arbitrary, wilful intervention in events, but from growing insight into the necessities of the objective, universal, contradictory processes of becoming.
12. The necessities of history are not always the same; they change into their opposites as one stage succeeds another. In fact, this conflict of lower and higher necessities is the generator of progress. A greater and growing necessity is at work within the existing order negating the conditions which sustain it. This necessity keeps depriving the present necessity of its reasons for existence, expands at its expense, renders it obsolete and eventually displaces it.
13. Not only do social formations and their specific dominant principles change from one stage to the next but so do the specific laws of development.
This method of interpreting history was far more correct, all-encompassing and profound than any of its predecessors. Yet it suffered from two ineradicable flaws. First, it was incurably idealistic. Hegel pictured history as the product of abstract principles which represented differing degrees of the ceaseless contest between servitude and freedom. Man’s freedom was gradually realised through this dialectical development of the Absolute Idea.
Such a logic of history was an intellectualised version of the notion that God directs the universe and history is the fulfilment of His design, which in this case is the freedom of humanity. As envisaged by Hegel, this freedom was not realised through the emancipation of mankind from oppressive and servile social conditions but from the overcoming of false, inadequate ideas.
Second, Hegel closed the gates on the further development of history by having it culminate in fact with the German kingdom and the bourgeois society of his own era. The exponent of a universal and never-ending history concluded that its ultimate agent was the national state, a characteristic product of its bourgeois phase. And in its monarchical form, modified by a constitution! He mistook a transient creation of history for its final and perfected embodiment. By thus setting limits upon the process of becoming, he violated the fundamental tenet of his own dialectic.
These defects prevented Hegel from arriving at the true nature of social relations and the principal causes of social change. However, his epoch-making insights have influenced all subsequent thought and writing about history. With the indispensable revisions, they have all been incorporated into the structure of historical materialism.
Hegel, the idealist dialectician, was the foremost theorist of the evolutionary process as a whole. The French social thinkers and historians carried the materialist understanding of history and society as far as it could go in their day. But even within their own provinces both fell short. Hegel could not provide a satisfactory theory of social evolution and the materialists did not penetrate to the most basic moving forces of history.
Not until the truthful elements in these two contrary lines of thought converged and combined in the minds of Marx and Engels in the middle of the 19th century was a rounded conception of history produced that was solidly anchored in the dialectical development of the material conditions of social existence from the emergence of early man to contemporary life.
All the different types of historical explanation cast up in the evolution of man’s thought survive today. Not one has been permanently buried, no matter how outmoded, inadequate or scientifically incorrect it is. The oldest interpretations can be revived and reappear in modern dress to serve some social need or stratum.
What bourgeois nation has not proclaimed in time of war that “God is on our side”, guiding its destiny? The Great Man theory strutted about under the swastika in the homage paid to Hitler. Spengler in Germany and Toynbee in England offer their re-editions of the cyclical round of history. The school of geopolitics makes geographical conditions in the shape of the heartland and the outlying regions into the paramount determinant of modern history.
Nazi Germany, Verwoerd’s South Africa and the Southern white supremacists exalt the master race into the dictator of history in its crudest form. The conception that human nature must be the basis of social structure is the last-ditch defence of the opponents of socialism as well as the point of departure for the utopian socialism of the American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm and others.
Finally, the notion that reason is the motive force in history is shared by all sorts of savants. The American anthropologist Alexander Goldenweiser stated in Early Civilisation: “Thus the whole of civilisation, if followed backward step by step, would ultimately be found resolvable, without residue, into bits of ideas in the minds of individuals.” Here ideas and individuals are the creative factors of history.
In describing his philosophy, the Italian thinker Croce wrote: “History is the record of the creations of the human spirit in every field, theoretical as well as practical. And these spiritual creations are always born in the hearts and minds of men of genius, artists, thinkers, men of action, moral and religious reformers.” This position combines idealism with elitism, the spirit using geniuses, or the creative minority, as the agency which redeems the masses.
These diverse elements of historical interpretation can appear in the most incongruous combinations in a given country, school of thought or individual mind. Stalinism has provided the most striking example of such an illogical synthesis. The votaries of “the personality cult” sought to fuse the traditions and views of Marxism, the most modern and scientific philosophy, with the archaic Great Man version of the contemporary historical process.
Except in Maoist China, this odd and untenable amalgam of ideas has already crumbled. Yet it demonstrates how generalised thought about the historical process can retrogress after making an immense leap forward. The history of historical science proves in its own way that progress is not even or persistent throughout history. Thucydides, the narrator of the Peloponnesian Wars in the fourth century BC, had a far more realistic view of history than did St. Augustine, the celebrator of the City of God, in the fourth century AD.
Marxism has incorporated into its theory of social development not only the verified findings of modern scientific research but all the insights into history of its philosophical predecessors, whether materialist, idealist or eclectic, which have proved valid and viable. To do otherwise would flout the mandate of its own method which teaches that every school of thought, every stage of scientific knowledge, is an outgrowth of the past work of men modified and sometimes revolutionised by the prevailing conditions and concepts of their existence. Scientific inquiry into history and society, like the process of history itself, has given positive, permanent and progressive results.
At the same time Marxism rejects all versions of antiquated theories which have failed to provide an adequate or correct explanation of the origins and evolution of society. It does not deny that historical idealisms contain significant ingredients of truth and can even exhibit a forward march. The main trend of their progression since the Greeks has been from heaven to earth, from God to man, from the imaginary to the real. Individuals, influential or insignificant, and ideas, innovating or traditional, are essential parts of society; their roles in the making of history have to be taken into account.
The idealists rightly pay attention to these factors. Where they go wrong is in claiming decisive importance for them in the total process of historical determination. Their method confines their analyses to the outer layers of the social structure so that they remain on the surface of events. Science has to delve into the nuclear core of society where the real forces which determine the direction of history are at work.
Historical materialism turns away from the Divine Director, the Great Man, the Universal Mind, the Intellectual Genius, the Elite, and an unchanging and uniformly acting Human Nature for its explanation of history. The formation, reformation and transformation of social structures over the past million years cannot be understood by recourse to any supernatural beings, ideal agencies, petty personal or invariant causes.
God didn’t create the world and hasn’t superintended the development of mankind. On the contrary, man created the idea of the gods as a fantasy to compensate for lack of real control over the forces of nature and of society.
Man made himself by acting upon nature and changing its elements to satisfy his needs through the labour process. Man has worked his way up in the world. The further development and diversification of the labour process from savagery to our present civilisation has continued to transform his capacities and characteristics.
History is not the achievement of outstanding individuals, no matter how powerful, gifted or strategically placed. As early as the French Revolution Condorcet protested against this narrow elitist view which disregarded both what moves the mass of the human race and how the masses rather than the masters make history. “Up to now, the history of politics, like that of philosophy or of science, has been the history of only a few individuals: That which really constitutes the human race, the vast mass of families living for the most part on the fruits of their labour, has been forgotten, and even of those who follow public professions, and work not for themselves but for society, who are engaged in teaching, ruling, protecting or healing others, it is only the leaders who have held the eye of the historian”, he wrote.
Marxism builds on this insight that history is the result of the collective actions of multitudes, of mass effort extending over prolonged periods within the framework of the powers of production they have received and extended and the modes of production they have created, built up and revolutionised.
It is not elites but the many-membered body of the people who have sustained history, switched it in new directions at critical turning points, and lifted humanity upward step by step.
History has not been generated nor has its course been guided by preconceived ideas in any mind. Social systems have not been constructed by architects with blueprints in hand. History has not proceeded in accord with any prior plan. Socio-economic formations have grown out of the productive forces at hand; its members have fashioned their relations, customs, institutions and ideas in accordance with their organisation of labour.
Human nature cannot explain the course of events or the characteristics of social life. It is the changes in the conditions of life and labour which underlie the making and remaking of our human nature.
In the introduction to the English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific Engels defined historical materialism as “that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes, and in the struggles of these classes against one another”.
These are the prime principles from which the rest of Marxist theory about the historical process is derived. They have come from two and half millennia of inquiry into the laws of human activity and social development. They represent its most valid conclusions. Historical materialism is itself the synthetic product of historically elaborated facts and ideas which are rooted in the economy and come to fruition in the science of society taken in the full span of its development.
This essay aims to give a connected and comprehensive explanation of one of the fundamental laws of human history — the law of uneven and combined development. This is the first time, to my knowledge, that this has been undertaken. I shall try to show what this law is, how it has worked out in the main stages of history, and also how it can clarify some of the most puzzling social phenomena and political problems of our age.
The law of uneven and combined development is a scientific law of the widest application to the historic process. This law has a dual character or, rather, it is a fusion of two closely connected laws. Its primary aspect deals with the different rates of growth among the various elements of social life. The second covers the concrete correlation of these unequally developed factors in the historic process.
The principal features of the law can be briefly summarised as follows. The mainspring of human progress is man’s command over the forces of production. As history advances, there occurs a faster or slower growth of productive forces in this or that segment of society, owing to the differences in natural conditions and historical connections. These disparities give either an expanded or a compressed character to entire historical epochs and impart varying rates and extents of growth to different peoples, different branches of economy, different classes, different social institutions and fields of culture. This is the essence of the law of uneven development.
These variations amongst the multiple factors in history provide the basis for the emergence of exceptional phenomena in which features of a lower stage are merged with those of a superior stage of social development. These combined formations have a highly contradictory character and exhibit marked peculiarities. They may deviate so much from the rule and effect such an upheaval as to produce a qualitative leap in social evolution and enable a formerly backward people to outdistance, for a certain time, a more advanced. This is the gist of the law of combined development.
It is obvious that these two laws, or these two aspects of a single law, do not stand upon the same level. The unevenness of development must precede any combinations of the disproportionately developed factors. The second law grows out of and depends upon the first, even though it reacts back upon it and affects its further operation.
The discovery and formulation of this law is the outcome of over 2500 years of theoretical investigation into the modes of social development. The first observations upon which it is based were made by the Greek historians and philosophers. But the law itself was first brought into prominence and consistently applied by the founders of historical materialism, Marx and Engels, over a century ago. This law is one of Marxism’s greatest contributions to a scientific understanding of history and one of the most powerful instruments of historical analysis.
Marx and Engels derived the essence of this law in turn from the dialectical philosophy of Hegel. Hegel utilised the law in his works on universal history and the history of philosophy without, however, giving it any special name or explicit recognition.
Many dialectically minded thinkers before and since Hegel have likewise used this law in their studies and applied it more or less consciously to the solution of complex historical, social and political problems. All the outstanding theoreticians of Marxism, from Kautsky and Luxemburg to Plekhanov and Lenin, grasped its importance, observed its operations and consequences, and used it for the solution of problems which baffled other schools of thought.
Let me cite an example from Lenin. He based his analysis of the first stage of the Russian Revolution in 1917 upon this law. In his “Letters From Afar”, he wrote to his Bolshevik collaborators from Switzerland: “The fact that the (February) revolution succeeded so quickly … is due to an unusual historical conjuncture where there combined, in a strikingly favourable manner,
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