quinta-feira, 17 de fevereiro de 2011

Entre a liberdade de imprensa e a proteção da reputação individual

Slander or the paradoxes of freedom of speech

by Antoine Lilti [24-11-2010]

Translated with the support of the
Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme

Books reviewed: Robert Darnton, The Devil in the Holy Water or the Art of Slander from Louis XIV to Napoleon, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press (2010).Charles Walton, Policing Public Opinion in the French Revolution. The Culture of Calumny and the Problem of Free Speech, New York, Oxford University Press (2009).

Unverifiable rumours, spread by pseudo-journalists held in low esteem by their colleagues, circulate about the sexual indiscretions of the President and his wife. While claiming to have contempt for such gossip, the public devours it with an unhealthy appetite; the government worries about it and launches an immediate police inquiry. Does this sound familiar? Yet what we are talking about is not the recent dealings of Nicolas Sarkozy with the media, excesses in the blogosphere, or even the continuing troubles of the British royal family with tabloids and their insatiable curiosity, but, during the Old Regime, the libels [1] that were freely circulating thinly disguised scandalous anecdotes, supposed or entirely made-up, about the French Court. You will find everything you wanted to know about these libels in Robert Darnton’s latest book, The Devil in Holy Water.

Grub Street Culture

For the last thirty years, Robert Darnton has cast a new light on the 18th century. Thanks to his history of the book and of reading, his continuing interest in the social world of authors, and his unfailing curiosity about the least canonical books of the literary world, we are able to examine the cultural origins of the French Revolution with a fresh eye. According to Darnton, it was not the masterpieces of Rousseau and Montesquieu that undermined the intellectual foundations of the Old Regime, but the erotic and political pamphlets of the literary bohemia that debunked the myths of the monarchy and undermined its prestige [2]. This analysis, which emphasizes the paradoxical situation of a generation of young writers living in “Grub Street”, attracted by the new found prestige bestowed on men of letters but forced to write scandalous pamphlets to survive, has given rise to considerable controversy. Some historians have criticized Darnton for neglecting the role of ideas in the genesis of the French Revolution; others have accused him of exaggerating the political effects produced by the circulation of these pamphlets, and still others have claimed that he has overemphasized the divide in the literary landscape between established philosophers and anti-establishment newcomers. Darnton himself has responded to these criticisms by refining his arguments, drawing up a list of the forbidden best-sellers of the 18th century, and showing that his method can also be applied to canonical works and mainstream authors: these are his classical studies of the history of the publication of the Encyclopédie or of readers’ responses to Rousseau [3]. Nevertheless, libels are at the heart of his work – not just the famous and well-studied pornographic attacks on Marie-Antoinette, but also the bestsellers of clandestine literature such as the Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse Du Barry, by Pidansat de Mairobert, or Le Gazetier cuirassé ou Anecdotes scandaleuses de la cour de France, by Charles Théveneau de Morande, published the same year, in 1771, in the midst of a political storm. Darnton has never ceased to study their transmission and to take a keen interest in the environment that had produced them. By publishing The Devil in Holy Water, he presents us with a kind of a reappraisal of this long term work.

Once again, the reader will encounter the charm of Darnton’s books: the fast pace of the narrative, a nose for archives and bibliographical discoveries, a predilection for colorful characters and fantastic adventures. But this time, the narrative balance has shifted: where the historian previously offered a clear-cut, and often provocative thesis backed up by a few, cleverly chosen and suggestive examples, the argument is more nuanced now, and leaves ample room for a systematic study of these polygraphs and the pamphlets that were written in such numbers.

From the Mazarinades of the 17th Century to Pre-Revolutionary Libels

There are many different ways to read such a comprehensive survey. The first one is to look for an answer to a famous question: do (bad) books make revolutions? On this issue, the reader is likely to be disappointed, because Darnton seems more cautious these days with his assertions. Admittedly, he insists that such a surge of public affronts to the elite of the Court must have strained the affective and political bonds between the monarchy and its people. But for all its nuances, the argument becomes somewhat hypothetical. In fact, the book shows that libels did not disappear with the Revolution – quite the opposite, in fact. When it came to it, the political culture of the Revolution did not hesitate to use the same methods of slanderous accusations and scandalous anecdotes.

Thus, the direct link between libels and the fall of the Old Regime recedes in favor of a more long-term analysis of the codes of satirical literature and its political usage. In fact, it seems that the historiographical discussion of the origins of the Revolution, which was so important at the time of the bicentenary, is now part of the past. After all, if we take a comparative approach, it has not prevented England, a country that enjoyed greater freedom of press and where slanderous attacks were also widespread at the turn of the century – even in daily newspapers –, from developing a strong patriotic attachment to its royal family.

A second take on this book, probably more in keeping with the goals of its author, is to dive with him into this world of libels and libelers (libellists), of which he paints a colorful portrait, with its codes, usage, its great men and renegades. Here, Robert Darnton has a great deal to offer with his incomparable knowledge of the protagonists of this small world. He even manages to discover a totally forgotten book, a novel written by a prolific author of libels, Anne Gédéon Lafitte, marquis de Pelleport, during his long captivity in the Bastille, a novel in which fictitious characters describe in great detail the habits of this literary bohemia [4]. A highly colorful character and fallen aristocrat, Pelleport is also the author of another roman à clés, the very Devil in the Holy Water from which Darnton has borrowed his title: this scandalous tale describes with fervor and an abundance of detail the unsuccessful attempts of the French police inspector Receveur to dismantle the network of libelers who have taken refuge in London as well as the betrayal by Théveneau de Morande, prince of libelers turned police informer.

Undeniably, one of the most fascinating aspects of Darnton’s account concerns the intricate links between the libelers from London and the French police who are responsible for their surveillance, and who arrange for the withdrawal of slanderous works. A complex game of bargaining and blackmailing emerges: police inspectors are sent to London on a mission to infiltrate the circle of French authors, who, in turn, demand money in exchange for not publishing their collections of scandalous anecdotes. However, these interchanges are ambiguous because some authors agree to work for the police while the inspector of the bookstore himself, Pierre-Antoine-Auguste Goupil, organizes a vast traffic of clandestine libels whose editing he oversees, revealing their dangers to his superiors and making them buy them back at great cost.

These conniving games, as well as the novels in which the libelers themselves play a role and make fun of the efforts of the police, are fascinating for what they reveal about the administrative and controlling organs of absolute monarchy, and Darnton excels in making sense of it all. But these games also cast a doubt on the actual political importance of these libels, insofar as they seem to operate in a kind of enclosed self-referential system. What if the police were the only ones to believe in the dangers of libels? And what if the shortcomings of the police authorities and the paranoia of the existing powers had artificially fed the market for this kind of scandalous literature and made slanderous blackmailing a perilous, yet lucrative exercise? In this case, the police archives and the libels themselves, far from being two opposing sources that confront one another, mirror each other to form one single corpus that leads us to overestimate their impact.

Finally, a third possible approach is to take calumny seriously as an object of history. One of the most important contributions of Darnton’s analysis is to show that slander constitutes a literary and editorial genre in itself, born of the ambition to expose, more or less explicitly, the secrets of great men. Like any genre, slander is the product of a literary tradition, which can be traced back to the work of Pietro Aretino, whose reputation was deeply ambiguous at the time: disparaged as a master of calumny, Aretino was also praised for his courage against the power and the Church, to the point that Voltaire did not hesitate to claim to be one of his disciples.

Therefore, because of its literary pedigree and this context of absolutism, slander ceases to be sheer calumny and becomes a form of denunciation, of social and political criticism instead. In the second part of his book, Darnton provides a description of the “basic ingredients” of this literature – the short story and the portrait – based on the model of private lives in which scandalous anecdotes always have a political meaning. The difficulty, then, is to distinguish what is the product of a tradition of fairly codified writing – that can be found in Rome at the Renaissance, in the Paris of la Fronde, and in France during the Enlightenment – from what corresponds to a socio-cultural transformation that is unique to the disappearing Old Regime and was made possible by its encounter with British journalism and new printing methods for disseminating the news. In other words, are the libels that mock the behavior of Louis XV and his royal mistresses or denounce the loose morals of Marie-Antoinette different in nature from the pasquinades and the mazarinades of previous centuries?

The Liberation of Speech and the Democratic Transition

By some editorial coincidence – which may point to a current trend in historiography – another book dedicated to slander at the end of the 18th century has been published lately, almost at the same time. Charles Walton is Darnton’s former student, but his approach is quite different: he is interested in understanding how the intellectuals of the Enlightenment, and later the revolutionaries, were forced to bring the new principles of freedom of press in line with the protection of individual reputations. The confrontation is no longer between the police and the libelers, but between a new liberal and egalitarian order, established by the Revolution, and the culture of honor, so deeply engrained in the society of the Old Regime.

In this perspective, Walton abandons the exploration of libels as an editorial genre in order to combine three different approaches: an intellectual history of the debates about the freedom of press that lead to the article XI of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and was pursued during the Revolution; a cultural history of the logic of honor, which was still very important during the Old Regime and did not disappear with the society of order; and lastly, a sociopolitical history of the micro-conflicts that brought into play, during the Revolution, slanderous practices and threats to the honor of individuals. A strong thesis thus emerges from these three combined analysis, each conducted on a different scale: the Revolutionary violence, during the Terror in particular, can be explained by the sudden passage of a society structured by the culture of honor, and in which the social value of a person depends, before anything else, upon his reputation and in which slander is the worst possible crime, to a more liberal society, formally egalitarian, in which freedom of speech is theoretically ensured. The skillfulness of this demonstration consists in showing that it is not the Jacobean principles that are responsible for the revolutionary violence, but the liberal principles themselves, not because of some intrinsic defect, but because of the explosive charge inherent in their application to a society still very much structured by a hierarchical and moral conception of social relations.

Like any broad interpretation of the revolutionary radicalization and the reign of Terror, Walton’s thesis is likely to be discussed in the future, and perhaps challenged, but it has the undeniable merit of replacing specious alternatives (the theory of circumstances or the Jacobean ideology) and of giving central attention to the difficulties of any democratic transition. Above all, the reader will learn a great deal in the process about the challenges that the idea of freedom of speech itself entailed in the debates that took place during the Enlightenment and the Revolution. He will realize, for instance, that the most liberal philosophers of the Enlightenment, like Condorcet, were never in favor of complete freedom of the press – at least not in the way we understand it now: they were satisfied with the mere suppression of prior censorship and, at times, set strict limits to freedom of speech. The reader will also learn that truly libertarian positions – the claim that we must fully trust the judgment of public opinion and prohibit nothing – were actually defended by very few, even during the first years of the Revolution. Soon, the deputies themselves were confronted with the issue of their own respectability and vulnerability to calumny. So, in order to protect their own dignity, they invented a crime of lèse-nation, on the model of the crime of lèse-majesté.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 asserting that “the free communication of thoughts and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man: any citizen thus may speak, write, print freely, save [if it is necessary] to respond to the abuse of this liberty, in the cases determined by the law” (art. XI) was both establishing a right and setting its limits, thus keeping its future determination open. The abuses it mentioned could be of various kinds – from blasphemy to sedition – but most of the revolutionaries were aware, like Brissot – who had been a journalist and a writer before the Revolution – that “to punish calumny without undermining the freedom of press is the most difficult problem to resolve in politics”.

Having started with an examination of the control of public opinion during the Revolution, Walton considers the problem of the necessary limits of freedom of speech: How can we guarantee freedom of speech and protect people’s reputation and dignity at the same time? This is a question that our contemporary liberal societies are still constantly confronted with. On this issue, our inheritance from the Enlightenment is far more complex, and far more interesting, than the famous sentence attributed to Voltaire (’I don’t agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”) – a sentence that is clearly apocryphal, as Walton reminds us opportunely – implied. Read in parallel, his and Darnton’s books delineate a public space that is quite different from the one that the specialists of the 18th century have explored in the last decades: not a Habermasian space of the rational usage of reason and harmonious sociability, but an ensemble of malevolent discourses and rumors, dependent upon countless social and political conflicts, and driven by a new fascination, fueled by the press, for the private lives of famous men and courtesans.Should we see in these two works signs of an evolution in historiography? We can, of course, read both of these books through the lens of standard questions, like the origins of the Revolution or the history of freedom of speech. Yet they seem to reveal a more salient aspect of our current relationship – both political and historiographical – to the Enlightenment: an ambiguous inheritance, constituted by a mixture of problems and contradictions rather than a stock of values that we must defend or reactivate. As an object of history, slander thus forces us to think historically about the complex relationships that exist between the institutions that guarantee freedom of speech, or its repression, the forms of writing that encourage political denunciation, and the increasingly public nature of the private lives of famous people.It seems therefore that the ambiguous relationship between the democratic ideal and the media can no longer be told as the history of a long drift from a public, critical space to a society of the spectacle threatened by a general preoccupation with the private lives of people. It is better to recognize, as these two books invite us to do, that the contradictions of freedom of speech are inherent in the cultural and political mutations that accompanied, during the long 18th century, the first democratization of European societies. First published in laviedesidées.fr. Translated from French by Pascale Torracinta with the support of Foundation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.

by Antoine Lilti [24-11-2010]

To quote this article :
Antoine Lilti, « Slander or the paradoxes of freedom of speech », Books & Ideas, 24 November 2010. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : http://www.booksandideas.net/Slander-or-the-paradoxes-of.html

[1] “The libelle (libel) [is] a scandalous account of public affairs and private life among the great figures and the court and capital. The term does not get much use in modern French, but it belonged to common parlance in the book trade of the Ancien Régime, and the authors of such works were listed in the files of the police as libelistes (libelers)”, Robert Darnton, The Devil in the Holy Water, p.2.

[2] This thesis was first established and developed in a series of articles published during the seventies and collected in The Literary Underground of the Old Regime, Harvard University Press (1982).

[3] See, for instance, Robert Darnton, The Business of Enlightenment: A Publishing History of the Encyclopédie, 1775-1800, Harvard University (1979). To get a better idea of the discussions it provoked, see The Darnton Debate: Books and Revolution in the 18th Century, Haydn T. Mason (ed.), Oxford, Voltaire Foundation, (1998). One of the most recent examples of such discussion is Simon Burrows’ book, Blackmail, Scandal, and Revolution : London’s French Libellistes, 1758-92, Manchester, Manchester University Press (2006), in which the author challenges with passion Darnton’s view of the role played by libels and libelers in the crisis of the Old Regime.

[4] Robert Darnton republishes this work which he presents as “an unknown literary chef-d’oeuvre”, which may be somewhat of an exaggeration: Marquis de Pelleport, Les Bohémiens, edited by R. Darnton, Paris, Mercure de France (2010) (1st edition, 1790).

Marx, sem materialismo histórico e dialético


Historical and dialectical materialism are terms con-
ventionally employed to describe two aspects of the
theoretical structure known as Marxism. Although
logically independent of each other, the two concepts
are historically linked by virtue of the fact that they
evolved from a common intellectual stem. For practi-
cal purposes it is also relevant that Marx and Engels
are widely regarded as joint creators of a unified system
of thought encompassing nature and history. The fact
that this interpretation is erroneous does not render
it less significant. Insofar as the term “Marxism” has
come to stand for a systematic doctrine elaborated by
Engels and others after the death of Marx, the latter's
original intentions may be said to have been “devel-
oped” or “misinterpreted,” depending upon one's
viewpoint. Irrespective of where one stands on this
issue, it is a comparatively simple matter to distinguish
the historical materialism of Marx from the dialectical
materialism of Engels. In tracing this distinction, we
begin with Marx's writings on history, and then pro-
ceed to a consideration of the materialist ontology
outlined by Engels and subsequently institutionalized
in the dogmatic system of Marxism-Leninism. This
approach inverts the familiar procedure wherein his-
torical materialism is treated as the application to
history of the general doctrine of dialectical materi-
alism. Since no such view was at any time entertained
by Marx, we are on safe grounds in disregarding it.
1. Marx's Historical Materialism. A consideration
of this topic can usefully start out from an early work,
The Holy Family (1845), in which Marx draws a dis-
tinction between two divergent currents stemming
from the rationalist philosophy of the French eight-
eenth-century Enlightenment. On the one hand, the
philosophes had opposed what Marx called “mechani-
cal materialism” to the metaphysics of Descartes,
Spinoza, and Leibniz, thereby preparing the way for
the emancipation of natural science from Cartesian
metaphysics. Having successfully divorced Descartes'
physics from his metaphysics, this “Cartesian materi-
alism” eventually merged with “French natural sci-
ence.” The heritage of Descartes—who in his lifetime
had already encountered opponents in Gassendi (“the
restorer of Epicurean materialism”) and in Hobbes—
was, however, gradually dislodged by doctrines rooted
in Locke and was eventually given a new form by
Condillac and Helvétius. According to Marx, “As
Cartesian materialism merges into natural science
proper, the other branch of French materialism leads
direct to socialism and communism” (Marx, Holy Fam-
ily [1845], p. 175). Its ultimate source was an anthro
pological doctrine which emphasized the goodness of
There is no need of any great penetration to realize that
the teaching of materialism on the original goodness and
equal intellectual endowment of men, the omnipotence of
experience, habit and education, and the influence of envi-
ronment... is necessarily connected with communism and
socialism. If man draws all his knowledge, sensation, etc.,
from the world of the senses and the experience gained in
it, the empirical world must be arranged so that in it man
experiences... what is really human and... becomes
aware of himself as man (ibid., p. 175, slightly revised).
This Marxian humanism, as formulated in the Holy
Family, the Theses on Feuerbach (1845), and the
German Ideology (1845-46), was a development of
eighteenth-century French materialism, minus its
Cartesian physics and the related epistemological
problem, in which he took no interest. The basic orien-
tation of this materialism was practical, and its appli-
cation to social life was seen by Marx to follow in-
evitably from insight into the human condition. “If man
is shaped by his surroundings, his surroundings must
be made human” (Holy Family, p. 176). This conclusion
followed without question for anyone who had incor-
porated the ethics of the French Enlightenment in his
own assumptions about the world. Marx was never
conscious of a moral problem in this respect, because
his values formed part of a commitment to the belief
that the humanization of nature (including that part
of “human” nature which was in fact pre-human, i.e.,
a heritage of man's animal past) was both possible and
desirable. In this sense, historical materialism from the
start incorporated a particular value-system: that of
the Enlightenment. At the same time the doctrine had
a specific theoretical content which differentiated it
from contemporary liberalism: it rejected the then
fashionable disjunction between society and the indi-
vidual. When he wrote in his sixth Thesis on Feuerbach
that “The essence of man is no abstraction inherent
in each separate individual. In its reality it is the en-
semble of social relations,” Marx reemphasized a notion
already stressed in the passage from The Holy Family
cited earlier: “If man is social by nature, he will de-
velop his true nature only in society, and the power
of his nature must be measured not by the power of
separate individuals, but by the power of society”
(Holy Family, p. 176).
The difference between the liberal and the socialist
position then, as Marx perceived it in the 1840's, re-
duced itself to this: the socialists (or communists),
having taken seriously the proposition that man is the
sum total of his social relations, were concerned to
remake society, whereas liberal rationalism postulated
Page 451, Volume 2
a fixed and stable individual human essence which
could be relied upon to find adequate expression in
appropriate social institutions—always supposing that
no artificial barriers were placed in the way. In prac-
tice, liberalism identified human rationality with en-
lightened self-interest, and the desirable social order
with one in which private initiative was permitted free
play. In this respect the liberals went back to the
philosophers of the eighteenth century, but then so did
Marx, with the difference that he rejected the individ-
ualism of the Scottish moralists and of Adam Smith,
in favor of the collectivism inherent in the French
materialists. It is important to realize that in its origins
“historical materialism” was an anthropological doc-
trine before it became a sociological one. Its signifi-
cance for Marx lay in the fact that it enabled him to
treat socialism (or communism) as the consistent appli-
cation to society of general principles extracted from
the philosophical study of human nature. Once this
nature was perceived as “social,” in the sense that it
always and everywhere refracted the character of the
cultural environment which men had constructed, the
“socialist” conclusion followed from the “materialist”
assumption. Or rather, it followed for Marx because
he took for granted the value-system of writers like
Holbach and Helvétius, for whom true self-love was
inconceivable in abstraction from human solidarity.
The notion that this anthropological naturalism is
anchored in a general theory of the universe, which
represents the world as a process of “dialectical”
movement from one stage to another, finds no support
in Marx's writings. For him, the only “nature” that
enters into practical consideration is man's own nature.
The external world, as it exists in and for itself, is
irrelevant to a thinker who approaches history with
a view to establishing what men have made of them-
selves and are still capable of becoming. It is the more
irrelevant because on Marx's assumptions about the
active role of consciousness in constituting our picture
of reality, the world is never simply “given,” any more
than that man is the passive receptacle of sense-
impressions. An external environment, true knowledge
of which is possible in abstraction from man's role in
shaping the world, is a fantasy, at any rate so far as
society is concerned. The only world we know is the
one we have constituted: that which appears in our
individual and collective experience. Man is indeed
part of nature, so that the distinction between natural
and historical science can only be relative, not absolute.
But “historical materialism” has to do with “anthro-
pological nature,” not with nature in the abstract. At
the same time, the emphasis upon the “historical”
aspect of the new viewpoint served to distinguish it
from the naturalistic approach of the eighteenth-
century French philosophes (and of Feuerbach), which
virtually ignored the historical process. A materialist
critique of the prevailing social and political conditions
presupposed an understanding of the manner in which
they had come into being, the forces which upheld
them, and the tendencies pointing beyond them. The
Theses on Feuerbach in particular represent a break
with “contemplative” materialism, and the adoption
of a “practical” standpoint which is revolutionary by
its very nature.
Historical materialism in this sense had a “dialec-
tical” element built into its conceptual structure from
the very first. It was at one and the same time an
analysis of the historical process, and the theoretical
underpinning of a particular viewpoint (the socialist
one) which implied a critique of liberal individualism
and its objective correlative: civil (or bourgeois) soci-
ety. This introduction of an activist element into a
doctrine of society proved baffling to most of Marx's
critics who accepted the positivist interpretation of
history as an ongoing process analyzable in strictly
factual terms. Historical events, on this view, were
analogous to the facts of natural science. They were
simply there to be studied in as dispassionate a manner
as possible, and the task of the historian (in Ranke's
words) was to explain “what really happened” (wie es
eigentlich gewesen).
Marx by the later 1840's was sufficiently close to
positivism to reject Hegel's philosophy of history, and
by implication the entire notion of a philosophy (as
distinct from a theory) of history: an enterprise whose
theological purpose had become evident to him, once
he had emancipated himself from Hegel and absorbed
the impact of Anglo-French materialism. At the same
time he differed from Comte (whose principal work
he first read in 1866, and then dismissed as rubbish)
in refusing to treat history as an accretion of data
which could be studied on the model of the natural
sciences. History to Marx was a self-activating totality
ultimately rooted in the “production and reproduction
of material life.” Its objectivity was not of the kind
that could be discerned by the study of “facts,” and
for the same reason it did not lend itself to the fram-
ing of general laws analogous to Newtonian physics:
the model of Comte's “social physics.” The materialist
approach was outlined by Marx in the German Ide-
ology of 1845-46, and subsequently confirmed in the
well-known Preface to the Critique of Political Econ-
omy (1859):
The mode of production of material life conditions the
social, political and intellectual life-process in general. It
is not the consciousness of men that determines their being,
but on the contrary their social being that determines their
Page 452, Volume 2
It has for its counterpart the activist note struck in
the Communist Manifesto (1848):
The history of all hitherto existing society is a history of
class struggles.
These two modes of perception are held in balance
by the notion that the “materialist conception of his-
tory” is both a theory of the historical process and a
means towards its mastery. Men become masters of
their fate in the measure in which they become con-
scious of the mechanism whereby history is set in
motion and kept going. In turning their insight to
practical account, they do not for this reason abandon
the scientific standpoint. Rather, they employ their
insight into the antagonistic character of the historical
process—specifically of its ultimate stage: contem-
porary bourgeois society—for the purpose of over-
coming the antagonism. Marx's historical materialism
differs from Comte's positivism in that it incorporates
practical (political or ethical) postulates within its very
conceptual structure. He does not formulate general
laws on the basis of a dispassionate study of “objective”
data; he conceptualizes the historical process, and in
this very act unifies (critical) theory and (revolutionary)
Although Marx never employed the term “sociol-
ogy” (possibly because he held Comte's work in low
esteem), it has become customary to treat the approach
briefly sketched out in the 1859 Preface, and exten-
sively developed in Capital (1867), as a sociological
doctrine analogous to that of Comte. Within the
Marxist school itself this fashion was inaugurated by
Engels, who in his Anti-Dühring (1878) attributed to
Marx “two great discoveries,” one of them being “the
materialist conception of history.” This was described
by Engels as the doctrine “that the production (of the
means to support human life) 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 orders is dependent
upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how
the products are exchanged.” Marx, who had read the
Anti-Dühring in manuscript, did not bother to correct
this simplified exposition of his very complex approach,
presumably because he regarded the book as a popular
tract destined for a semi-literate public. In consequence
it came to be widely believed that “scientific socialism”
(another term coined by Engels) had for its theoretical
foundation a species of economic determinism valid
for all stages of recorded history. In the light of this
quite unfounded assumption, the relationship of the
so-called “economic base” to the “political” or
“ideological” superstructure assumed the status of a
major theoretical difficulty whose solution kept a small
army of exegetes ceaselessly employed. The “materi-
alist” standpoint was understood in terms of Engels'
statement (in the passage already cited) as signifying
that “the final causes of all social changes and political
revolutions are to be sought... not in the philosophy,
but in the economics of each particular epoch” (Engels,
In point of fact, the problem of relating the “politi-
cal superstructure” to its “material foundation” had
originally (in 1842-44) presented itself to Marx as an
aspect of his critique of Hegel's political philosophy,
notably as formulated in the latter's Philosophy of Right
(1821). While already conscious of the distinction be-
tween “state” and “society,” Hegel had assigned a
subordinate role to the latter. Marx's “materialism,”
by contrast, took for its starting point the autonomy
of a society which had manifestly developed a dynamic
of its own: Western European bourgeois society, itself
propelled forward by the mechanism of what he
termed the “capitalist mode of production.” To this
extent his approach was in tune with the procedure
common among the classical economists, notably the
founders of that discipline of “Political Economy”
which had grown up in Western Europe between 1770
and 1830. The novelty he introduced lay in the fusion
of what was later termed “economics” with “sociol-
ogy” and “history.” An introduction to some bulky
1857-58 manuscripts (first published in 1939-41) de-
fines the subject of his investigations as the sphere of
“material production.” He goes on to suggest that,
within the totality of production-distribution-consump-
tion, one element—namely production—predominates.
“From it, the process continually recommences....
There is interaction between the various elements. This
is the case in every organic whole.” Nowhere does
Marx assert that production is “in the last analysis”
the causal factor “determining” the shape of society,
still less that “economics”—in the vulgar sense of eco-
nomic interest—“determines” the political process.
These notions were introduced by his interpreters,
beginning with Engels (1878), in an attempt to gen-
eralize a principle of investigation into an all-embrac-
ing causal explanation.
It is equally worth noting that Marx does not speak
of a “materialist conception of history,” contenting
himself with the more modest term “materialistic and
thus scientific method.” The conversion of his critical
method into a determinist social philosophy was pri-
marily the work of Engels, who after the death of
Marx in 1883 assumed the role of exegete. The next
step consisted in transforming the Marxian critique of
society into a comprehensive doctrine embracing both
nature and history. This process too was set in motion
Page 453, Volume 2
by Engels, and continued (after his death in 1895) by
the orthodox school, primarily represented by Karl
Kautsky, G. V., Plekhanov, and Antonio Labriola. It
will be considered in the following section. Here it
remains to be noted that in its original Marxian form
the “materialist conception of history” had a twofold
character: (1) As a general principle of historical inves-
tigation, or conceptualization, it remained a mere
sketch, although of great potential fertility for the
social sciences, a circumstance clearly recognized by
Max Weber, whose own work bore the imprint of his
lifelong preoccupation with the problems raised by
Marx. (2) As a finished theory of the actual historical
process, the new method had originally been employed
for the critical analysis of one particular social forma-
tion only: bourgeois society. Capital (1867-94) con-
tained an historical sketch of the rise of capitalism in
Western Europe, but did not attempt to answer the
question why no corresponding development had oc-
curred elsewhere. As for the pre-capitalist formations
briefly considered in the Grundrisse of 1857-58, the
analysis, while “materialist” enough, did not point to
“internal contradictions” similar to those which (in
Marx's view) were at work in contemporary bourgeois
In fairness to all concerned, it may be said that
Marx's theoretical approach in the crucially important
Preface of the 1859 Critique, as well as in his earlier
and later writings, lent itself to an equivocation. On
the one hand, he had inherited from his prede-
cessors—notably Adam Smith and David Ricardo—the
notion of an autonomous economic sphere interacting
with the remainder of society (including the political
and cultural “superstructure”). On the other hand, he
had taken over from Hegel the conception of history
as a self-activating totality within which all the seem-
ingly independent elements were “organically” linked.
By fusing these two modes of thought, he arrived at
a vision of modern society as a uniquely determined
totality of social relations, dynamically propelled by
an equally unique and unprecedented mode of produc-
tion. The “historical” element in this “historical mate-
rialism” lay in the fact that he described as “bourgeois”
the social relations (or production relations) which
Smith and Ricardo had treated as “natural.” The “ma-
terialism” lay in his ascription to the “relations of
production” of a higher degree of reality than had been
accorded to them by Hegel and the other “idealist”
German philosophers. But if the “relations of produc-
tion” were virtually synonymous with “society,” there
was no specificity of the economic sphere, and the
distinction between base and superstructure broke
down. It cannot be said that Marx ever quite managed
to solve the problem, or even to state it in an entirely
unambiguous manner. Had he done so, both his follow-
ers and his critics would doubtless have been saved
a great deal of trouble.
2. The Dialectical Materialism of Engels. In contrast
to the “historical materialism” of Marx which, what-
ever its inadequacies, represents a momentous intel-
lectual achievement, the “dialectical materialism” of
Engels cannot be regarded as an important contri-
bution to philosophy. Its significance lies in the fact
that, for historical reasons, it has become the keystone
of an institutionalized system of thought binding upon
the adherents of what is officially known as Marxism-
Leninism. This philosophy having obtained official
status in the USSR and in Eastern Europe (not to
mention China, where it has undergone a further proc-
ess of barbarization and banalization), every discussion
of the subject necessarily assumes an unwelcome
quasi-political character. In what follows, these cir-
cumstances are disregarded as much as possible, and
attention is centered upon the intellectual substance
of the doctrine. The topical importance of what for
convenience may be termed “Soviet Marxism,” or
“Marxism-Leninism,” makes it necessary to direct the
reader's attention to the existence of an indigenous
literature on the subject; but it needs to be emphasized
that this literature holds little interest for anyone con-
cerned with the basic philosophical issues (Jordan,
Unlike Marx, who had undergone a rigorous aca-
demic training and possessed a comprehensive knowl-
edge of both ancient and modern philosophy, Engels
was self-taught in philosophic matters, a circumstance
which weighed heavily upon his subsequent attempts
to effect a synthesis of Hegelian logic and natural
science. A man of great talent, enormous versatility,
and inexhaustible capacity for work, he nonetheless
lacked the intellectual power which enabled Marx to
unify history, sociology, and economics into a coherent
system of thought. At the same time, the example set
by his senior associate, and his own profound attach-
ment to the Hegelian tradition—of which in a sense
he remained a lifelong prisoner—activated a dormant
ambition which he shared with other German writers
of his time: the desire to bring about a reconciliation
between the “natural philosophy” of the romantic
school and the positive sciences which had developed
under the quite different impact of Cartesian and
Hobbesian “mechanical materialism.” The resultant
synthesis—sketched in outline by Engels in his writings
of the 1870's and 1880's, and eventually termed
“dialectical materialism” by Plekhanov—became the
philosophical foundation of what from the 1890's on-
wards was very generally described as “Marxism”; the
term encompassing at one and the same time the
Page 454, Volume 2
historical materialism of Marx (as interpreted by
Engels), and the pseudo-ontological doctrine con-
structed by Engels from the debris of the Hegelian
While it has been noted that Marx's naturalistic
approach from the start contained a “dialectical” ele-
ment, in that it left room for the interaction of human
consciousness and a nonhuman environment, the mate-
rialism of Engels could be described as “dialectical”
for reasons much more closely connected with the
enduring legacy of Hegel's system. Hegel had seen in
nature and history the unfolding of a metaphysical
substance which he termed “Spirit”; ultimately a theo-
logical conception, although Hegel for the most part
stayed closer to Aristotelianism than to Neo-Platonism.
For Marx there was no such universal principle of
motion. What he inherited from Hegel was rather a
species of holism which placed the idea of totality at
the center of all theoretical conceptualizations. From
this he deduced the methodological rule that the ele-
ments of a social structure could not be dissociated
from each other: they had to be regarded as parts
forming an organic, interconnected whole. While in
principle there was no reason why this rule should not
be extended to the domain of nature, Marx did not
in fact attempt to outline a general logic applicable
to nature and history alike. His doctrines relating to
societal evolution were not deduced from a general
principle, nor did he infer from his reading of Hegel's
Logic (cf. Wissenschaft der Logik, 1812-16) that par-
ticular changes in society were traceable to the opera-
tion of a universal law of motion. Least of all was he
concerned with the concept of an eternal material
substance underlying the phenomena. “The anthropo-
logical realism of Marx precluded the adherence to
absolute materialism of any sort, including dialectical
materialism” (Jordan, p. 93).
In contrast to Marx, who had genuinely abandoned
the Hegelian search for an all-embracing logic of (ma-
terial or spiritual) development, Engels revived the
notion that an objective process of this kind was
actually discoverable. Moreover, he undertook to show
that the dialectical principle—self-transcendence by
way of internal conflict to higher levels of develop-
ment—was operative in human history, conceived as
a singularity within the domain of nature. The basic
assumption of the dialectical method, on his reading,
was that:
The world is not to be understood as a complex of ready-
made things, but as a complex of processes, in which the
things apparently stable, no less than their mental images
in our heads (Gedankenabbilder), the concepts, go through
an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing
away, in which despite all seeming accidentality and tem
porary retrogression, a progressive development asserts itself
in the end (Ludwig Feuerbach, in Selected Works, II, 351).
This speculative hypothesis in turn became the
foundation of an evolutionary doctrine applicable to
nature and history alike. In contrast to the prevailing
positivist evolutionism which was popular among lib-
erals because it specified an uninterrupted forward
movement from “barbarism” to “civilization,” Engels'
quasi-Hegelian approach emphasized the self-contra-
dictory nature of the process; dialectical motion im-
plied progress through conflict between opposing
forces. In its application to society this principle was
invoked by Engels' followers to account both for the
necessity of class conflict and for the inevitablity of
socialism as the resolution of one particular conflict
between classes. This presentation of the subject was
not understood as an imaginative metaphor—as such
it might have had some limited usefulness—but as the
“scientific” description of an ongoing process, one that
possessed a logic quite indifferent to the subjective
volition of its human representatives. As in Hegel's
philosophy of history, the Idea (the hidden rationality
of the Whole) triumphed at the expense of its own
agents, who might include entire classes, nations, or
generations. This reversion to Hegel's metaphysical
construction of world history was dubbed “dialectical
materialism” for no better reason than that Engels
substituted “matter” for “spirit” as the ontological
substance underlying the motion of the phenomena.
In practice his approach represented an abandonment
of Marx's revolutionary humanism and a return to the
Hegelian standpoint.
While Engels' partiality to the romantic Naturphi-
losophie inaugurated by Schelling, Carus, and other
German writers of Hegel's time had no practical con-
sequences, his adoption of a determinist approach in
the field of history opened the door to the subsequent
introduction by Kautsky of an evolutionism virtually
indistinguishable from that of Auguste Comte and
Herbert Spencer. The irony lay in the circumstance
that this mode of thought was positivist rather than
speculative. But having once introduced a determinist
monism in the name of “dialectical materialism,” it
proved comparatively easy to extrude the Hegelian
element while retaining the determinism. This became
the distinguishing mark of the Social-Democratic
variant of “orthodox Marxism.” In contrast to this
evolutionism, which went with democratic optimism
in politics, Lenin from about 1914 onwards system-
atically reintroduced the Hegelian emphasis upon con-
flict and contradiction as the motivating force. Before
that date he had been content to expand Engels' hints
into a “materialist” philosophy of science which was
Page 455, Volume 2
not particularly “dialectical,” but rather concerned to
defend the “objective” reality of the external world
against the “subjectivism” of Kant and his followers
(Jordan, pp. 208ff.).
In purely philosophical terms, the difference be-
tween Engels' ontological, or metaphysical, materi-
alism, and the doctrine of Plekhanov and Lenin is not
without interest. Plekhanov, and following him Lenin,
eliminated from the concept of “dialectical materi-
alism” the ontological notion of “matter” as an absolute
substance or constituent element of the universe. In
its place they introduced the rather more common
sensible use of “matter” as a logical concept signifying
little more than the externality of the world for the
reflective consciousness. In other words, they substi-
tuted for Engels' metaphysical monism an ordinary
epistemological realism which at least had the advan-
tage of being compatible with the procedure of the
natural sciences. The locus classicus of this trans-
formation (which was never described as such) is
Lenin's Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1909), a
work which after 1917 obtained canonical status in the
USSR and for the Marxist-Leninist school generally.
Unfortunately, the philosophers of this school have
simultaneously had to cope with Engels' own quite
different (because fundamentally metaphysical) under-
standing of the term “materialism,” as well as with
Lenin's quasi-Hegelian logical speculations in his
Notebooks of 1915-16. The resulting conflicts and con-
tradictions have furnished material for exhaustive logi-
cal tournaments among philosophers in Eastern
Europe, without for that reason bringing any nearer
that fusion of dialectical logic with positive science
which remains the stated aim of the Marxist-Leninist
school. Insofar as the gradual change in the intellectual
atmosphere since the late 1950's has encouraged
greater independence of thought in the Soviet sphere,
there has been a tendency for two “revisionist” trends
to crystallize outside the official orthodoxy: existential-
ist humanism, oriented on the writings of the young
Marx, on the one hand, positivist scientism and em-
piricism on the other. In countering these trends, the
official dogmatism of the Leninist school, while retain-
ing its function as an integrative ideology or Weltan-
schauung for the benefit of the Communist party,
appears to have been placed on the defensive; a posi-
tion from which it is unlikely to emerge.
K. Marx, and F. Engels, The Holy Family (Moscow, 1956),
pp. 168-76. For the original text see Die Heilige Familie
(1845) in Marx-Engels Werke, (Berlin, 1959), 2, 132ff. T. B.
Bottomore and M. Rubel, Karl Marx—Selected Writings in
Sociology and Social Philosophy (London, 1956; New York,
1964), gives a selection of relevant passages on various
aspects of historical materialism. Although conventionally
attributed to both Marx and Engels, The Holy Family was
almost entirely composed by Marx, and the remarks cited
in the text represent a “materialist” and post-Hegelian view
on the subject of French naturalism as the ultimate source
of “socialism and communism”: the latter term carrying
more specific implications concerning the abolition of pri-
vate property. See also Karl Marx—Early Writings, trans.
and ed. T. B. Bottomore, with a foreword by E. Fromm
(New York, 1964), passim. The rather overworked theme
of Marx's views on human “alienation” is best approached
by consulting the Economic & Philosophic Manuscripts of
1844 in the edition prepared and introduced by Dirk J.
Struik (New York, 1964) on the basis of Martin Milligan's
translation from the German text, as first published in
Marx-Engels, Gesamtausgabe (hereafter MEGA), Abt. I,
Band 3 (Berlin, 1932). An excellent analytical and critical
introduction to the topic of historical materialism in gen-
eral, and Marxian sociology in particular, is to be found
in Karl Korsch, Karl Marx (New York, 1963), passim.
Marx, Theses on Feuerbach (1845), posthumously pub-
lished by Engels as an Appendix to his own Ludwig Feuer-
bach (1888), now in Werke, Vol. 21 (Berlin, 1962), 263ff.
(without the Appendix); see MEGA, I, 5, 533ff., for the
original German text of the Theses. For an English-language
edition of Engels' essay and of the Theses, see Marx-Engels
Selected Works (Moscow, 1951), II, 324ff. For Marx's critique
of Feuerbachian materialism see The German Ideology, in
MEGA, I, 5, and the various translations. See also Marx's
letter to Engels of 24 April 1867 (MEGA, III, 3, 383), where
he observes that “the cult of Feuerbach” notable in the
Holy Family now seems rather out of date. It is fair to
say that Feuerbach's critique of religion was of greater
importance for Engels than for Marx, who took his materi-
alism straight from the British and French philosophers of
the eighteenth century. On this subject see Korsch, op. cit.,
pp. 172ff.; Sidney Hook, From Hegel to Marx (New York,
1950), pp. 220ff.
Marx, Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political
Economy (Berlin, 1859); see Marx-Engels, Selected Works
(Moscow, 1958), 1, 361ff. The subject is discussed from a
Marxist standpoint in Korsch, op. cit., pp. 183ff., and from
a positivist one in Z. A. Jordan, The Evolution of Dialectical
Materialism (London and New York, 1967), pp. 111ff. It is
undisputed that in the 1840's Marx received his decisive
intellectual stimulus towards what was later called the
materialist conception of history from Henri de Saint-Simon
and his pupils. The latter had once included A. Comte,
whose Cours de philosophie positive (1830-42) was then
unknown to Marx and made no impression on him when
he finally read it, many years later, in Littré's edition of
1864. Jordan (op. cit., pp. 125ff.) suggests that the Comtean
notion of social physics has its counterpart in the Marxian
approach, and that for Marx—as for Comte—“society is the
true reality, and the individual the abstraction” (p. 132).
The present writer is unable to accept these conclusions.
Neither does it seem to him that the 1859 Preface constitutes
a retreat from the sociological realism of Marx's earlier
Page 456, Volume 2
writings in favor of a neo-Hegelian philosophy of history
(Jordan, op. cit., p. 299).
F. Engels, Anti-Dühring. Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolu-
tion in Science (Moscow, 1954), p. 369. For the original
German text see Werke (Berlin, 1962), 20, 248ff. For an
account of what Marx intended by his “materialist” method
of investigation see Korsch, op. cit., pp. 167ff.; Bottomore,
Karl Marx—Selected Writings..., op cit., pp. 14ff. For
an extensive specimen of Marx's actual historical investi-
gations, see Karl Marx: Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations,
trans. Jack Cohen, edited and introduced by E. J. Hobsbawm
(London, 1964). This presents a brief extract from the bulky
manuscript composed by Marx in 1857-58 in preparation
for Capital (1867-94). While part of this material was used
by him for his Critique of Political Economy (1859), and
some minor excerpts appeared in Kautsky's Neue Zeit in
1903-04), the entire manuscript saw the light only in
1939-41, when it was published in Moscow under the title
Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Ükonomie. Virtually
ignored at the time, it was republished in its entirety in
Berlin in 1953 (in a volume running to over 1,000 printed
pages) and translated into Italian in 1956. Its importance
for the concept of historical materialism lies in the fact that
in it Marx, for the first and last time, dealt at some length
with the structure of non-European societies. He thus sup-
plied a basis for some of the startling generalizations of the
1859 Preface. Antedating Capital by a few years, the
Grundrisse already belong to his mature period, and their
study is essential for an understanding of his peculiar fusion
of history, sociology, and economics. They also cast some
light on the concept of the “Asiatic mode of production”
briefly adumbrated in the 1859 Preface, and subsequently
ignored in Soviet literature for reasons apparent to anyone
conversant with the circumstances of the Stalinist era. For
a dispassionate critique of the Marxian approach from an
empiricist standpoint, strongly marked by the influence of
Max Weber, see J. A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism,
and Democracy (New York, 1942), passim. This work, how-
ever, antedates the publication of the Grundrisse in an
edition available to Westerners, and thus does not entirely
come to grips with the problems raised by Marx's investi-
Z. A. Jordan, The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism:
A Philosophical and Sociological Analysis (London, 1967)
is the best introduction to this subject. Starting from the
now generally accepted distinction between the original
approach of Engels and that of Marx, the author traces in
considerable detail the exfoliation of Engels' unsystematic
essays into the fully developed system of “dialectical mate-
rialism” first outlined by G. V. Plekhanov and subsequently
codified by Lenin and his successors, down to and including
Stalin. Gustav A. Wetter, Dialectical Materialism: A Histori-
cal And Systematic Survey of Philosophy in the Soviet Union
(London, 1958), offers an equally learned, but differently
organized, account of the topic, the author giving little
space to Marx and Engels, while centering attention upon
the evolution of Soviet philosophy since 1917. Unlike
Jordan, he deals at some length with Bukharin, Deborin,
and some lesser figures. For a critique of Engels' philo
sophical writings see Sidney Hook, “Dialectic and Nature,”
in his Reason, Social Myths and Democracy (New York,
1950), pp. 183ff. For the impact of Leninism on the philo-
sophical and scientific discussions in the USSR before the
full rigor mortis of Stalinism set in, see David Joravsky,
Soviet Marxism and Natural Science 1917-32 (London, 1961).
For a more recent and less technical discussion of Marxism-
Leninism as a pseudo-ontological system of speculation
about nature and history see A. James Gregor, A Survey
of Marxism (New York, 1965). The brief reading list ap-
pended to this work provides a guide to official Soviet
literature on the subject, as well as to works by Western
authors and a few “revisionist” critics of Leninism who have
retained the Hegelian-Marxist approach antedating the
formulation of Soviet orthodoxy in the 1930's. For a brief
but pregnant discussion of this latter theme, see Eugene
Kamenka, “Philosophy in the Soviet Union,” Philosophy
(Journal of the Royal Institute of Philosophy), 38, No. 143
(Jan., 1963).
GEORGE LICHTHEIM e also Determinism v2-02 v2-03 ; Economic History v2-06 ; Enlightenment v2-10 ; Evolutionism v2-21 ; Ideology v2-60 v2-61 ; Marxism v3-18 ; Positivism v3-67 v3-68 v3-69 ; Revolution v4-22 ; Romanticism, Post-Kantian v4-28 ; Social Democracy. v4-35 ]