Karl Kautsky

The Materialist Conception of History


Section Five: The Dialectic

Although written in 1927, when Kautsky was seventy-three, “The Materialist Conception of History is more nearly a work of the late 19th century or pre-World War I 20th, rather than of the 1920s, ... and should be read ... as a document illustrating the state of ... Marxism in the generation after Marx's death”, according to grandson and publisher John Kautsky, who also edited the work, published by Yale University Press 1988, to reduce its length.

Ego and Environment

... The question is by no means whether the mind is an active or passive element, but whether it can, as the only phenomenon in nature, function as its own cause, without having first experienced a determining impulse. Not the activity of the mind but only the nature and the origin of this activity are subject to question. In order to understand this clearly, we start out from the assumption that the mind is one of the tools of the animal organism in the struggle for existence ... From the beginnings of its functioning in the simplest animals in which it first appears, the mind encounters two factors: on the one hand, the body of the organism, which produces the mental functions, a body with certain innate needs and capacities. Let us call it the “ego.” On the other hand, there is its environment ... It is this environment that poses the problems the mind has to solve. The more it understands its own needs and capacities as well as the differences and relationships among the objects in the environment, the better it solves them.

... The resolution of the antagonism between ego and environment consists in adaptation ... Either the ego adapts itself to the environment through certain changes or actions or it is able to shape certain parts of the environment in such a manner that they are adapted to its own purposes or, finally, some mutual adaptation takes place ... This is not to say that every change or movement of the organism called forth by external stimuli is or must be appropriate. Many can be quite indifferent and some even inappropriate. But only those organisms will develop and maintain themselves whose appropriate reactions to external stimuli preponderate over the inappropriate ones. The appearance of consciousness, of the awareness of the environment and of the organism’s own needs and capacities serves to make it easier for the reaction to external stimuli to occur in an appropriate manner.

The process of movement and development in the organic world outlined here is a dialectical process, that is, it is a process that begins with an affirmation, is continued by a negation, and is concluded by a negation of the negation, that is, an affirmation. It was in this sense that Hegel used the word, and Marx and Engels took it over from him. The starting point of each process of adaptation is an organism, the ego, the affirmation, the “thesis.” It is opposed by its environment, the “non-ego,” the negation of the organism, the “antithesis.” The final result is the overcoming of the opposition, the negation of the negation, the renewed affirmation of the organism through adaptation, the “synthesis.” Thereby the process returns to its starting point, the individual that maintains itself. It may have changed in the course of the process in such a way that the starting point is raised to a higher level. In that case, what occurs is not a circular movement but development.

It seems very doubtful to me that the movement of the entire world, the inorganic as well as the organic, fits into this scheme. To be sure, in the inorganic world, too, every new movement arises out of the antagonism or collision of opposed elements. However, the result ... is not always a synthesis and certainly not a return to the starting point.

The Dialectic of Self-Initiated Development

The dialectic described here agrees with the Hegelian one in form but is of an entirely different kind. For Hegel, thesis and antithesis are not, as are organism and environment, two quite different things affecting each other, but the thesis already contains its own contradiction, its negation. This negation grows and finally overcomes and transcends the thesis, the starting point of the process. But the negation, too, contains the seed of its own negation, which finally leads to the synthesis and the renewed affirmation of the thesis but on a higher level. Marx and Engels took over this conception of the dialectic from Hegel, but, as Engels put it in his essay on Feuerbach, they “turned [it] off its head ... and placed fit] upon its feet again.” To Hegel, the dialectic was a movement of the mind [or spirit] produced by the mind itself that sets the world in motion and effects historical development. Marx and Engels “materialised” it, they turned it into a law of motion of the material world as well as of thought.

[Kautsky here quotes Engels’ Anti-Dühring, and comments:] In this description, the conception of the negation is particularly striking. The germinating of the seed and the growth of the animal out of the egg are conceived of as negations of the seed and the egg ... [But] every organism passes through a number of stages in the course of its existence and its forms change incessantly. If giving up its past form and assuming a new one constitutes a negation of the earlier form, then the individual is engaged in a continuous process of negation ... Even more questionable than the conception of the negation is that of the negation of the negation. Here a real negation of the individual is being referred to. The plant dies after it has borne seeds, the butterfly dies after it has laid its eggs. The newly produced seed or the newly laid egg constitutes the return to the starting point of the process, the seed or the egg, from which the individual had originated. But the production of seeds and eggs and the death of the organism that produced them by no means coincide temporally. The former always occurs earlier than the latter. The negation of the negation and the synthesis, the return to the thesis, are then, by no means identical, although they may follow one another in quick succession in the case of some organisms ...

... Here we investigate the question whether the processes of movement and development in the world really always assume the form of the Hegelian dialectic-thesis, antithesis, synthesis with return to the starting point. I consider this assumption to be correct for the organic world, but not at all in the way Engels illustrates it here. He regards movement and development not as the reciprocal effect of two factors, the individual and the environment, on one another but merely as the self-initiated movement of one factor, the individual, and he seeks the antithesis as well as the thesis in the same individual. Evidently, this is still a strong after-effect of the Hegelian model, which also explained movement in terms of only one factor, the mind, positing, out of itself, its own negation.

As a scheme to characterise some processes, but not as a general law, the dialectical negation of the negation in the Hegelian sense can, under certain circumstances, be quite appropriate. I have myself repeatedly applied it in this way but have become very cautious in doing so, because it is easily subject to a certain arbitrariness ...

With respect to the Hegelian scheme of the dialectic as the necessary form of the movement and development of all phenomena in the world, there arise grave doubts particularly after it has been subject to materialist “inversion.” But it is by no means settled that Marx and Engels regarded this scheme as a general, necessary law of motion of the world. [There follow two more quotations from Engels’ Anti-Dühring, from which Kautsky concludes:] That is to say, we need not at all to accept the dialectic everywhere a priori as the necessary scheme of development; rather, we must discover it where it does occur ... It became very fruitful for the Marxian conception of history, which by no means submitted to it slavishly ...

[Marx and Engels] were at pains to approach nature and history “free from preconceived idealist crotchets” [Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach]. The Hegelian dialectic therefore never seduced them to indulge in forced constructions and never misled them to substitute for research the invention, with the aid of the Hegelian “idealist crotchet,” of imaginary interrelationships. The [dialectic] served them merely to direct their attention to the contradictions and conflicts of society, which work toward new “syntheses,” and to facilitate their investigation. The Hegelian dialectic was for them merely a “heuristic principle,” not absolute truth ... They regarded it not as a routine to be followed mechanically that made all further research unnecessary, but as one of the lights that illuminate the path of research.

The Dialectic of Perfection

In Engels’ illustrations of the dialectic, we find, aside from self-movement, an element of an idealist rather than materialist nature, that of the steady perfection of the world through the dialectical process ... In the above-mentioned illustrations of the dialectic Engels points out, still without qualification, that it always means a further development of the organism due to its inherent nature, a development he even designated as perfection. [Kautsky then objects to Engels’ identification of a quantitative increase as perfection, as in his example of a plant that grew out of a single seed producing many seeds, and especially to Engels’ citing improvements in plants artificially produced by gardeners to meet human tastes or needs as an illustration of perfection in nature.]

Hegel could discover in the world steady progress toward growing perfection, because he saw a world-reason at work in it setting purposes. But where can materialist thinking find a world-purpose? And if there is none, what is the origin of the striving for steady perfection through the dialectical process? Man can set purposes for himself in nature and can adapt particular phenomena of his environment to his purposes, and he can see this as perfection from his point of view. But it would be anthropocentric thinking to regard this as perfection of the world ... In nature there is, certainly, constant development, but this is not synonymous with perfection or even always with upward development ...

Perfection is basically nothing other than appropriateness to a purpose ... Every organism has its own purposes, which in the last analysis can be traced back to the purpose of its preservation and reproduction. In this sense, an organism will be all the more perfect, the better it is adapted to this purpose of self-preservation of the individual and of the species. Now, it is impossible to say that this adaptation and perfection grow in the course of the evolution of organisms, that the more highly developed ones ... are better adapted and more capable of living and of maintaining themselves than those more simply constructed ... One cannot possibly say that the human species is better adapted for its preservation than the species of earthworms. It is, therefore, not correct that the process of development always means an advancement to ever-greater perfection.

And likewise one cannot say that the negation of the negation in the Hegelian sense always leads back to the starting point-on a higher level, to be sure – of the dialectical process. In society, it is true, every change of a social institution amounts to its negation ... But ... there are institutions to which men never return after they have once gone beyond them ... And the same is true of the development that the individual plant or animal organism goes through from the moment of its conception to its demise. Even if one chooses to call each of the stages of this development a negation of the preceding ones, nowhere in it can a return to an earlier stage be discovered ...

It is evident that the Hegelian dialectical scheme is not generally, but often only in a very forced manner and frequently not at all, applicable to nature and society if one simply “inverts” it. For its materialist application, it is not enough merely to turn it off its head and place it upon its feet, but one must also completely change the path which the feet follow. We achieve agreement of the thought with the facts only if we seek what is dialectical in the scheme, not in the direction of the development, but in the motive-force of the development of organisms and regard as such the dialectical reaction of the individual organism to its environment ...

The Conservative Nature of the Mind

... Although in a different sense than Hegel, we regard the dialectical process primarily as a mental one, as the struggle of an aware and consciously acting being with its environment. At least only this kind of dialectical process need concern us here, where we are dealing with the materialist conception of history.

The mind is a very highly active, restless element, but no change of direction, no new goal or ideal, no new thought or new knowledge, arises in it without a cause ... without an impulse from without. Because the environment is constantly undergoing change and unceasingly presents us with problems we must solve if we want to maintain ourselves, for that reason the mind is in continuous, restless movement ... The active nature of our mind does not, however, go so far that it spontaneously engenders problems that the external world does not offer it ... If it has found a solution of a problem, then it remains faithful to it ... as long as no new facts turn up that cause it to appear as mistaken or at least as inadequate. Most of the problems that everyday life poses for us recur anew in the same way again and again ... Under constant conditions, the same solution is found again and again for such problems. This solution becomes a habit that one accepts from one’s ancestors and considers, without further reflection, as self-evident. Man passionately resists any modification of it as a violation of his essential being. Very compelling new facts must turn up that are incompatible with the old ideas before these are abandoned ... The human mind, or rather the mind of animals generally, does not hanker after innovations but is conservative ...

Every change in the relationship of man to the external world creates new problems. Such changes are effected not only through a change in the external world, but also through a change in the animal or human organism itself... However, these changes in the organism are of two kinds. Either they occur necessarily in certain phases in the course of every normal individual of the same species. Then the problems that arise from [these changes] are new for the individual but not for the species ... Or it is a matter of phenomena that are peculiar not to the species, but only to particular individuals. Such phenomena, like sicknesses, can represent new phenomena and call forth new problems that require new solutions. Such changes ... will, however, as a rule, be traceable in the last analysis to particular influences of the external world on the individual or its ancestors.

Problems always arise for the individual from the relationship between its innate character and the external world, and new problems arise only from a modification of this relationship, never from a change of the mind coming out of itself. There are no innovations without the mind. Without new ideas there is no new conscious practice. But the impetus to the new ideas, if they are new not merely for the individual but for the species, is given by the external world ... The mind becomes revolutionary only where its environment has already been revolutionised.

The Adaptation of Thoughts to One Another

The conflicts between the ego and its environment are not the only ones the mind must overcome ... The more diverse the sense organs are, the more diverse are also the impressions that the organism, the “ego,” receives from the same point of the external world. But it is not only the senses that become ever more diverse in the course of evolution, but also the organs of movement ... Only such higher kinds of organisms are capable of life in which, along with the organs’ division of labour, there also develops a central organ. It combines the impressions the various senses receive from the same object into a unitary image in [the organisms] consciousness. On the other hand, it subjects the different organs of movement to a unitary volitional impulse that brings about their unified cooperation for a common end ... The adaptation, without contradiction, of impressions and movements to one another is, from its beginnings, one of the tasks of the mind, that is, of the central organ of the sensory and motor nerves, of the brain. This task emerges, just as those discussed in the preceding sections, from the nature of the mind as a tool of the organism in the fight for its self-preservation. To the extent that this task remains confined to the functioning of the sensory and motor organs, it is carried out completely instinctively, without the organism becoming conscious of it ...

Memory is among the most important faculties of the mind. The more experiences are collected in my memory, the less is my thinking and willing determined by the momentary impulses from the external world and the more are these impulses controlled by the totality of my experiences ... But, this totality of my experiences, even more than the sense impressions of the moment, would form a wild chaos, if the mind did not order it and integrate all experiences, to the extent that they have been kept alive in consciousness, into a total complex free of contradiction. This operation cannot be unconscious. Here consciousness must work and here it has to perform the most difficult labour. To create Order, it must join what is similar, separate what is different, abstract what is common from similar phenomena, and order these abstractions, too, to subsume finally all of them under one or a very few principles. For man, this activity takes on enormous dimensions ... To order, without contradiction, all the huge research material [made available by language, writing, and technology] is a gigantic task. And yet the human mind works at it indefatigably, for every contradiction in its own thoughts is intolerable to it, in accordance with the natural disposition of the mind that is present even in the animal.

To be sure, Engels declares, drawing here, too, on Hegel, that contradictions are present not only in our thinking but also in reality. [Kautsky quotes Engels, saying in his Anti-Dühring, p.132, that “motion itself is a contradiction,” and proceeds to deny it.] The word “contradiction” can be understood in two ways. On the one hand, as the expression of a conflict, on the other, as the expression of the incompatibility of two phenomena or thoughts. That there are conflicts in the world, no one denies ... The only question is whether a contradiction, as something incompatible, is also possible. The determination that two phenomena are or are not compatible with one another is, however, a judgment, and judgments exist only in my consciousness, which can make mistakes, not in the external world. The contradiction to which Engels referred was contained in his definition of motion ... This contradiction in the definition gives us a reason for seeking another definition, but not for claiming that in reality something can not merely appear to be but actually be simultaneously compatible and incompatible with something else ...

[The] process of logical thinking is as much a dialectical one as that of the overcoming of the conflicts between the ego and its environment. It, too, ends with a synthesis ...Both processes, however, are fundamentally different, because in one the environment confronts the ego, whereas the other takes place merely in our consciousness ... To be sure, the impressions, sensations, and-thought that the mind orders are called forth by the external world. But they are shaped by the mind, and the more comprehensive the domain of experiences and the further advanced the process of their ordering is, the more distant one becomes from the external world. [One is removed from it] through the growing pyramid of abstractions that is built up on the basis of the totality of experiences, so that the point reaching toward the heavens often no longer knows anything of the ground on which it rests. In this second kind of dialectic, the ideas seem to be alone among themselves. Here we seem to be in the realm of pure reason, which brings forth its new knowledge from itself... From there it is no longer far to the assumption that the mind, in contrast to all other phenomena of this world, has the ability to move itself of its own accord and to transpose this, its own movement, onto the world, to impart impulses to the latter without itself receiving any from it, to be merely cause and not also effect ...

That is not to deny that the ideas and the mental creations of men in general, hence also their social institutions, do have the tendency to make themselves independent of the external world. However, when the idea attains such an independent life, its-development ceases, it petrifies. Engels points to the state and religion as examples of such independence. “ They have a great historical role even when they are independent of society, but then they function not as a driving-force but as a hindrance of development. They constitute a driving force of development only when they are very closely connected with newly emerging social conditions and receive their impulses from the external world. This is due to the conservative nature of the mind mentioned above, which manifests itself in the adaptation of thoughts to one another as well as in the adaptation of thoughts to facts ...

Since not all men have the same mental endowments and the same opportunities for observation, the new facts that are incompatible with the old edifice of ideas will always be noted at first only by isolated pre-eminent minds. But the mere recognition that the old conceptions do not suffice would not be enough to bring about their end. In order to effect that, the thinkers who have recognised the untenability of the old structure of ideas must also be able, without contradiction, to relate the new facts to the old ones to the extent that the old facts are recognised as valid by the innovators; that is, these thinkers must be able to erect a more or less comprehensive new system of thought ... [The innovator needs great knowledge, rich imagination disciplined by critical ability, and a strong character to face the resistance of ideas that had become independent of the environment.] Unfortunately, admiration of the bearers of the new thought easily makes one overlook its original source. A new idea will arise and succeed in obtaining recognition only when the external world through a. change gives an impulse for it, and one that is sufficiently strong. With this statement we have arrived at the fundamental idea of historical materialism, but in so doing we have anticipated some things, since we have not yet dealt with the relationship between man and society, but only with that between a conscious organism and its environment ...

Not only cognition but also volition is among the mental phenomena. Its basis is given before all experience, thus a priori, with the organism and its innate drives. But how this volition expresses itself in every given case vis-á-vis the external world depends as much on the latter as on the organism. The individual acts of the will are therefore determined as much by our knowledge of the external world as by our physical constitution.” The more varied the external world and the more numerous the problems it confronts us with, the more numerous and diverse the purposes that the individual’s will sets itself. The more necessary is it then to order them without contradiction, in a coherent system of purposes, if the organism’s powers are not to exhaust themselves in actions that contradict, cancel, paralyse one another.

The whole labour of knowing the external world, of adapting thoughts to facts and thoughts to each other, would be useless if it did not lead to a system of purposes. In the case of the social animals, this process is made more complicated by the fact that they have not only purposes of the individual, but also purposes of the society to which they belong. These, too, are basically purposes of individuals, for only a thinking organism can set purposes, and society is not an organism with a central thinking organ. But the social purposes are not the purpose of an isolated individual, but rather of a collectivity of united individuals. They do not confront the individual as commandments of his own will, but of an overwhelming will that stands above him. Often it is clearly evident how this will comes to be, for example, in the case of laws passed by a legislative assembly ... Often, however, these commandments originate unconsciously or they stem from a remote time, of which there is no record. Thus the commandments of the society often take on a mystical appearance, and the same thing is true of the authority from which they originate. Not only ethics, but also the state offers numerous occasions for and inducements to mystical transfiguration.

Like the purposes of the individual, the laws of the state and moral precepts run the danger of contradicting each other when their number increases and the areas regulated by them become more varied with the progress of society. This danger becomes all the greater, as the conservative nature of the mind manifests itself especially strongly in these areas. Society and the state outlast the individual ... Certain commandments of society can maintain -themselves even for centuries, for millennia-one need think only of the ten commandments of the Bible ... The old commandments that have not been annulled are joined by new ones, since new circumstances require consideration, and the work of legislation does not stand still.

Detailed scientific work is required in order to integrate without contradiction this infinite wealth of very different kinds of obligation. The sciences of this kind, jurisprudence and ethics, do not search for causal but rather for teleological relations ... Their usefulness can become questionable when they isolate themselves from the other sciences and from life and believe that they can create new knowledge out of themselves, apart from all experience ... Only when the sciences of what ought to be in society seek their foundation in the social sciences that search for causal relations, such as political economy and ethnology, and when they consider their own area as the origins and changes of what ought to be, only then will they be capable of enriching our knowledge. The starting point of all knowledge remains experience. And once, in a given state of affairs, the ordering of hitherto acquired experiences in a complex free of contradictions has been successfully achieved, any progress to new knowledge is possible only when a change of the environment or of the organism’s cognitive means brings new experiences in its train.


Last updated on 27.1.2004