Naming vs. Explanation. The Foundations of HistoricalMaterialism

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Tue May 2 13:56:36 MDT 2000

>>> Carrol Cox <cbcox at> 04/30/00 11:54AM >>>
For "Providence" one may substitute, for example, Human Nature. The
problem is that to say history flows from human nature is either
a trivial tautology, cats are black because they are black, or
a denial of history.


CB: In _The German Ideology_ Engels and Marx explain their understanding of the
relationship between human nature and human history.


First Premises of Materialist Method
The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises
from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real
individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both
those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These
premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.

The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human
individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of
these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature. Of course, we
cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural
conditions in which man finds himself -- geological, hydrographical, climatic and so
on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their
modification in the course of history through the action of men.

Men can be distinguished from animals by consciousness, by religion or anything else
you like. They themselves begin to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they
begin to produce their means of subsistence, a step which is conditioned by their
physical organisation. By producing their means of subsistence men are indirectly
producing their actual material life.

The way in which men produce their means of subsistence depends first of all on the
nature of the actual means of subsistence they find in existence and have to
reproduce. This mode of production must not be considered simply as being the
production of the physical existence of the individuals. Rather it is a definite form
of activity of these individuals, a definite form of expressing their life, a definite
mode of life on their part. As individuals express their life, so they are. What they
are, therefore, coincides with their production, both with what they produce and with
how they produce. The nature of individuals thus depends on the material conditions
determining their production.


History: Fundamental Conditions
Since we are dealing with the Germans, who are devoid of premises, we must begin by
stating the first premise of all human existence and, therefore, of all history, the
premise, namely, that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to "make
history". But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, a habitation,
clothing and many other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the
means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself. And indeed this
is an historical act, a fundamental condition of all history, which today, as
thousands of years ago, must daily and hourly be fulfilled merely in order to sustain
human life. Even when the sensuous world is reduced to a minimum, to a stick as with
Saint Bruno [Bauer], it presupposes the action of producing the stick. Therefore in
any interpretation of history one has first of all to observe this fundamental fact in
all its significance and all its implications and to accor!
d it its due importance. It is well known that the Germans have never done this, and
they have never, therefore, had an earthly basis for history and consequently never an
historian. The French and the English, even if they have conceived the relation of
this fact with so-called history only in an extremely one-sided fashion, particularly
as long as they remained in the toils of political ideology, have nevertheless made
the first attempts to give the writing of history a materialistic basis by being the
first to write histories of civil society, of commerce and industry.

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