Why "Historical Materialism"?

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Sat Dec 23 13:54:51 MST 2000

>Why do comrades on this list always talk of historical materialism
>when providing a synonym for Marxism, but almost never of scientific
>Does the answer to this question imply rewriting the whole history
>of Marxism, or to put it more precisely: the history of both the
>fight against the trivialization of scientific socialism and the
>fight for its reconstruction?

I'd use the terms historical materialism & scientific socialism
interchangeably if it were not for the problem of arrogantly claiming
the status of science for my take on socialism while denying it to

I don't speak for others on this list, but I think that within the
(broadly defined) Marxist tradition there have been various
approaches to the question of history.  When I say "historical
materialism," I imply, among others, the distinction between it and
historicism, which Walter Benjamin makes (see below):

*****   XIII

Every day our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter.

Wilhelm Dietzgen, Die Religion der Sozialdemokratie

Social Democratic theory, and even more its practice, have been
formed by a conception of progress which did not adhere to reality
but made dogmatic claims.  Progress as pictured in the minds of
Social Democrats was, first of all, the progress of mankind itself
(and not just advances in men's ability and knowledge).  Secondly, it
was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility
of mankind.  Thirdly, progress was regarded as irresistible,
something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course.
Each of these predicates is controversial and open to criticism.
However, when the chips are down, criticism must penetrate beyond
these predicates and focus on something that they have in common.
The concept of the historical progress of mankind cannot be sundered
from the concept of its progression through a homogenous, empty time.
A critique of the concept of such a progression must be the basis of
any criticism of the concept of progress itself....


The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history
explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment
of their action.  The great revolution introduced a new calendar.
The initial day of a calendar serves as a historical time-lapse
camera.  And, basically, it is the same day that keeps recurring in
the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance.  Thus the
calendars do no measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of a
historical consciousness of which not the slightest trace has been
apparent in Europe in the past hundred years.  In the July revolution
an incident occurred which showed this consciousness still alive.  On
the first evening of fighting it turned out that the clocks in towers
were being fired on simultaneously and independently from several
places in Paris.  An eye-witness, who may have owed his insight to
the rhyme, wrote as follows:

Who would have believed it!
we are told that new Joshuasat
the foot of every tower,
as though irritated with
time itself, fired at the dials
in order to stop the day.

Qui le croirait! on dit,
qu'irrités contre l'heure
De nouveaux Josués
au pied de chaque tour,
Tiraient sur les cadrans
pour arrêter le jour. *


A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present
which is not a transition, but in which time stands still and has
come to a stop.  For this notion defines the present in which he
himself is writing history.  Historicism gives the 'eternal' image of
the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with
the past.  The historical materialist leaves it to others to be
drained by the whore called 'Once upon a time' in historicism's
bordello.  He remains in control of his powers, man enough to blast
open the continuum of history.


Historicism rightly culminates in universal history.  Materialistic
historiography differs from it as to method more clearly than from
any other kind.  Universal history has no theoretical armature.  Its
method is additive; it musters a mass of data to fill the
homogeneous, empty time.  Materialistic historiography, on the other
hand, is based on a constructive principle.  Thinking involves not
only the flow of thoughts, but their arrest as well.  Where thinking
suddenly stops in a configuration pregnant with tensions, it gives
that configuration a shock, by which it cristallizes into a monad.  A
historical materialist approaches a historical subject only where he
encounters it as a monad.  In this structure he recognizes the sign
of a Messianic cessation of happening, or, put differently, a
revolutionary chance in the fight for the oppressed past.  He takes
cognizance of it in order to blast a specific era out of the
homogenous course of history -- blasting a specific life out of the
era or a specific work out of the lifework.  As a result of this
method the lifework is preserved in this work and at the same time
canceled*; in the lifework, the era; and in the era, the entire
course of history.  The nourishing fruit of the historically
understood contains time as a precious but tasteless seed.


...Historicism contents itself with establishing a causal connection
between various moments in history.  But no fact that is a cause is
for that very reason historical.  It became historical posthumously,
as it were, though events that may be separated from it by thousands
of years.  A historian who takes this as his point of departure stops
telling the sequence of events like the beads of a rosary.  Instead,
he grasps the constellation which his own era has formed with a
definite earlier one.  Thus he establishes a conception of the
present as the 'time of the now' which is shot through with chips of
Messianic time.

(Walter Benjamin, "On the Concept of History," at

I'd also emphasize the difference between historical materialism and
"mechanical determinism" that Antonio Gramsci criticizes, which I
cited in my post titled "Gramsci & 'Spirituality'"; the difference
between Hegel's & Marx's dialectics that Roy Bhaskar explains in
_Plato Etc._ for instance (see my post titled "Bhaskar on
Objectification & Alienation [Before He Found God]").


More information about the Marxism mailing list