G.V. Plekhanov: The Materialist Conception of History

We must confess that it was with no little prejudice that we took up the book of this Roman professor. We had been rather frightened by certain works of some of his compatriots – A. Loria, for example (see, in particular, La teoria economica della constituzione politica). But a perusal of the very first pages was enough to convince us that we had been mistaken, and that Achille Loria is one thing and Antonio Labriola another. And when we reached the end of the book we felt that we would like to discuss it with the Russian reader. We hope that he will not be annoyed with us. For after all, “So rare are books that are not banal!”

Labriola’s book first appeared in Italian. The French translation is clumsy, and in places positively infelicitous. We say this without hesitation, although we have not the Italian original before us. But the Italian author cannot be held responsible for the French translator. At any rate, Labriola’s ideas are clear even in the clumsy French translation. Let us examine them.

Mr. Kareyev, who, as we know, very zealously reads and most successfully manages to distort every “work” having any relation at all to the materialist conception of history, would probably inscribe our author in the list of “economic materialists.” But that would be wrong. Labriola firmly, and fairly consistently, adheres to the materialist conception of history, but he does not regard himself as an “economic materialist.” He is of the opinion that this title applies more fittingly to writers like Thorold Rogers than to himself and those who think like him. And that is perfectly true, although at a first glance it may not seem quite clear.

Ask any Narodnik or subjectivists what is an economic materialist, and he will answer that an economic materialist is one who attributes predominant importance to the economic factor in social life. That is how our Narodniks and subjectivists understand economic materialism. And it must be confessed that there undoubtedly are people who attribute to the economic “factor” a predominant role in the life of human society. Mr. Mikhailovsky has more than once cited Louis Blanc as one who had spoken of the predominance of this factor long before a certain master of certain Russian disciples. But one thing we do not understand: Why did our venerable subjective sociologist pick on Louis Blanc? He should have known that in this respect Louis Blanc had many predecessors. Guizot, Minier, Augustin Thierry and Toqueville all recognised the predominant role of the economic “factor,” at least in the history of the Middle Ages and of modern times. Consequently, all these historians were economic materialists. In our days, the said Thorold Rogers, in his Economic Interpretation of History, also revealed himself as a convinced economic materialist; he too recognised the predominant importance of the economic “factor.”

ATHENAEUM LIBRARY OF PHILOSOPHY

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