1. ‘’The Materialistic Theory of History’’
This chapter reveals the sad state of Russell's knowledge of Marxist theory but is reflective of what the best and the brightest of what non Marxist thinkers at the time exhibited in the way of familiarity with the fundamental texts of Marx and Engels. To be fair, some of these texts were not available to Russell, having become generally known only in the 1930s so he has that as an excuse for some of his misinterpretations of basic Marxist ideas. But that excuse fails with his 1948 ratification of this 1920 text.
Russell begins by stating that the materialistic conception of history "means that all mass phenomena of history are determined by economic motives." This is a poor beginning as all major Marxist writers, not just Marx and Engels, have denounced the concept of "economic determinism" when applied to history and have maintained that this is a mechanical view of historical development characteristic of bourgeois historians and having very little to do with the Marxist theory of Historical Materialism.
Russell defines materialism as a philosophy holding that "all apparently mental occurrences either are really physical, or at any rate have purely physical causes." All Marxists accept this view. Russell says this may or may not be true but is independent of Historical Materialism ("economic causes are fundamental in politics")-- an example is Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862) who says climate is a "decisive factor" which goes along with materialism but not economic determinism.
Economic causes "operate through men's desire for possessions and would be supreme if this desire were supreme, even if desire could not, from a philosophical point of view, be explained in materialistic terms." Thus there is "no logical connection" between the philosophy of materialism and the theory of Historical Materialism.
What is going on here? Russell has said Historical Materialism = Economic Determinism = Men's desire for possessions-- i.e., Marxists think the motive force in history is human desire for goodies. Of course humans need goodies to live and desire goodies. But what is Marxism really saying?
Humans find themselves living in nature and in relations with each other and those relations are conditioned by the society they live in and their relations to their mode of living and finding the goodies necessary for life. Are they hunters, gatherers, farmers, slaves, are there classes, do they live in industrial or pre-industrial conditions? These relations and conditions of life influence how they look at the world, at each other and at other societies. These conditions also influence what desires they have and how they satisfy them.
Engels said he and Marx stressed the economic factors in their early writings because they were making a new theory, but that of course there were feed- back mechanisms and the ideas, philosophies and religions, etc., that evolved in the course of history fed back on and influenced the way people looked at the world from the point of view of the different societies they found themselves in and this also influenced the economic base.
This seems to be just what Russell himself believes, for he says, and I think Marx and Engels would heartily agree, "Treated as a practical approximation, not as an exact metaphysical law, the materialistic conception of history has a very large measure of truth." So Russell is more of a Marxist than he thinks! He gives a very good example of what he calls the "truth" of Historical Materialism i.e., ‘’the influence of industrialism upon Ideas’. He writes: "it is industrialism, rather than the arguments of Darwinians and Biblical critics, that has led to the decay of religious belief in the urban working class." Marx and Engels would, however, allow for a reinforcement feedback influence from Darwinians and Biblical critics upon the working class, especially its more class conscious elements. They were not unidirectional causationists.
Russell gives another example. Plato, Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) all argued for the equality of women but World War I forced women into industrial employment to free men for the front and "traditional sexual morality collapsed, because its whole basis was the economic dependence of women upon their fathers and husbands." Nevertheless, Marxists would not discount the big women's movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as playing an important role in preparing public opinion for the eventual (partial) emancipation of women in the West, however oppressed and enslaved their sisters in the East may in some places remain.
All of this leads Russell to exclaim, "Such facts as these justify Marxians in speaking as they do of 'bourgeois ideology,' meaning that kind of morality which has been imposed upon the world by the possessors of capital." Russell is coming perilously close to becoming a comrade!
He finally arrives at a conclusion which is completely in line with the views of Marx, Engels and Lenin! "But in spite of the fundamental importance of economic facts in determining ["conditioning" would be a better term] the politics and beliefs of an age or nation, I do not think that non economic factors can be neglected without risks of errors which may be fatal in practice." A commonplace of Marxist thought.
Russell's ignorance of Marxism now causes him to go off on a ridiculous tangent. He says Marxists think humans are governed by a "herd instinct" and the herd of workers will band together based on class interests. Neither Marx, nor any Marxists, have talked about workers being governed by a herd instinct. They have rather discussed how human consciousness reflects the concrete living conditions of the surrounding world and it is life experiences rather than some vague primitive "herd instinct" that will lead to the development of class consciousness in working people.
Russell is determined to refute Marx, however, not on the basis of what Marx actually thought, but on the basis of ideas he never had. To refute the idea that the herd instinct is conditioned by class Russell points out that "Religion has been the most decisive factor in determining a man's herd throughout long periods of the worlds history." But this begs the question. There are concrete historical and socioeconomic factors to be discussed when writing about the philosophy of religion but it is more likely that religion is a reflection in the consciousness of human population groups and their experiences rather than the determining factor in their composition.
Russell tells us what, "in the last analysis" the theory of Historical Materialism boils down to. That is, one desire must consume "every politically conscious" person which is to accumulate as many goodies as possible not only for himself or herself but his or her class as well. This conclusion is one arrived at by someone with no comprehension at all of what Marx and Engels were trying to achieve with the theory of Historical Materialism. They did not intend that the proletariat engage in one long and gigantic shopping spree.
The theory was constructed to explain the alienation and dehumanization of modern life due to money and profit having become the be all and end all of human existence at the expense of all other human values. The economic laws of the capitalist mode of production were found to be responsible for this outcome and Historical Materialism explained how this had come about and how a different society could be constructed and human beings could live without exploitation, slavery and dehumanization. It has nothing to do with a desire to accumulate the greatest amount of commodities for oneself and one's class. It has to do with abolishing an economy based on commodity production itself.
Russell thinks that psychoanalysis must be applied to politics. In his next chapter, "Deciding Forces in Politics" he promises to give a political psychology which he thinks will allow us to understand the world better than the psychology of Marx.
Coming Up: Chapter Two of Part Two
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.