‘The Materialistic Conception of History and the Individual’ by Louis B. Boudin from ‘The Theoretical System of Karl Marx in the Light of Recent Criticism,’ 1907.

‘The Defense of the Commune- A woman directs the guns in the Place Taranne. 22 May.’
‘The Materialistic Conception of History and the Individual’ by Louis B. Boudin, Appendix II from ‘The Theoretical System of Karl Marx in the Light of Recent Criticism’ Charles H. Kerr Publishers, Chicago, 1907.

One of the points on which the Marxian interpretation of history is being most persistently misrepresented, is the question of the influence of the individual on the course of history. It is one of the favorite occupations of the Marx-critics of a certain sort to enlarge upon the supposed fact that the Marxian historical theory preaches fatalism and leaves no room for the activity of the individual with a view to influencing the course of events. It is either expressly stated or tacitly assumed that Marx imagined or represented History to be a sort of automatic machine running along a predestined and preordained course, propelled by a lever called the economic factor, without regard or reference to the will of the human beings whose intelligence it was affecting and whose institutions and destinies it was shaping. According to these gentlemen, Marx did not care a whit as to what the human beings whose doings fill up the pages of History thought or wanted with regard to the things that they were doing or were about to do. They assure us that according to Marx and his disciples the course of History is predetermined (although none of them ever suggested by whom),— and “economic determinism” is, therefore, their favorite appellation for the Materialistic Conception of History. The course of History being predetermined, and the “economic factor” being the motive-power which propels the car of History on this predetermined course, it follows of necessity that neither each individual member of society separately, nor all of its members collectively, can in any way, by anything he or they might do, affect or influence this fatal course of History. Man must cease all intelligent effort to alter, accelerate, or modify the course of History, and must patiently await the inevitable which Fate has decreed for him, and which will be brought about while he waits through the agency of the Economic Factor.

Having changed the Marxian conception of history into “economic determinism,” and having read fatalism into it, they proceed to show their determined opposition to Marxism on the ground that it is fatal to all intelligent human activity, particularly of the “idealistic” kind. Of course, it could easily be proven that neither Marx nor the Marxists seem to have been affected by the supposed fatalism of their doctrine, and have displayed an intelligent activity and an active intelligence in all spheres of human thought and action that is truly astonishing. Nay, the most astonishing part of it is that this activity is usually of the most “idealistic” kind imaginable! But, then, the Marxists have never been consistent. It behooves us, therefore, to see what basis there is for the claim of fatalism in the Materialistic Conception of History, and what are, according to that theory, the true possibilities and limitations of the individual member of society as a history-making factor.

And first of all as to determinism. It may be safely said that there is absolutely no warrant in anything that Marx himself wrote for the application of that term, in the sense in which it is used in this connection, to his historical theory. Neither the term itself, nor the idea for which it stands, are to be found in any of his writings. Furthermore, the idea is entirely foreign to the whole spirit of his theoretical system. While there is nothing in the idea of determinism which would make it impossible to couple it with materialism, it is nevertheless essentially part and parcel of a purely idealistic system such as Hegel’s, for instance.

The same is doubly true about fatalism; to say that the man who said: “Men make their own history” was a fatalist is such an incongruity that the claim would hardly merit attention were it not for the persistence with which it is put forward. We need not depend, however, on any stray utterance of Marx in order to determine his position in the matter. We have already seen in the foregoing discussion in the body of this book, particularly in the chapter on the Proletariat and the Revolution, the stupendous task assigned to the working class in bringing about the transformation of the present capitalist society into the socialist society of the future. That this role ascribed to the proletariat is entirely in keeping with the whole theoretical system is perfectly evident to all who have examined his system with any degree of care. There is absolutely nothing in his explanation of the development of the economic conditions of capitalist society which would suggest the possibility of the inauguration of the socialist system by purely mechanical agencies. Quite to the contrary: as far as the purely mechanical breakdown of capitalism is concerned, as has been fully explained in the text, it is not a physical breakdown, as would be necessary in order to exclude the necessary intervention of conscious human activity, but rather a moral bankruptcy. Certainly, there is absolutely nothing in the capitalist system to prevent it from relapsing into a sort of new feudalism or slavery, with the collective ownership of the means of production by an aristocracy of the capitalist class, instead of developing into a socialist-democratic system.

But not only the transition from capitalism to socialism requires the active agency of conscious and purposeful human effort. The whole Marxian theory of the evolution of society through a series of class-struggles brought about by a conflict of conditions of production with social institutions is so conceived by Marx as to make the intervention of human effort for the amelioration of society an absolutely necessary and integral part of the “conflict.” It is only necessary to remind the reader of the circumstance, pointed out in the text, that Marx does not speak of the revolutions as the result of the impossibility of continuing production under the old institutions, but of production being “fettered” by them, a condition implying a moral valuation and volition of an active human agent.


That the Marxian theory was so understood by his disciples, can hardly be doubted. The opinions of the best known among them on the subject of practical idealism, quoted by us above in the first appendix, proves that beyond the possibility of a doubt. We will therefore refer our readers to those expressions of opinion, in order to avoid unnecessary repetition, as to the authors there quoted, and will only add some expressions of opinion from the pen of Marx’s great Russian disciple, George Plechanoff. We deem it of importance to offer this “cumulative evidence” of Plechanoff not only because of the great esteem in which his views are held among Marxists, but also because he is more circumstantial at this particular point than any one of the authors already quoted by us, and does not only show the mere fact that the Marxists admit the “individual factor” in history but also the limitations they place on it.

In the first place Plechanoff admits that there is some justification for the wide-spread opinion that Marxists deny to the individual any influence on the course of History. Not, of course, in anything contained in the writings of Marx or his immediate disciples, but in some loose talk and inaccurate expressions of some alleged Marxists. He says:

“While some subjectivists, in their efforts to magnify the role of the ‘individual’ in history, refused to acknowledge any historical laws in the process of the social development of humanity, some of their newest opponents, in their efforts to accentuate the evolutionary process of this development, evidently forgot that History is made by men, and that therefore the activities of the individuals must necessarily influence it. They considered the individual quantité négligeable. Theoretically, however, such a view is no more permissible than that of the extreme subjectivists.”

And then, after going into a detailed examination of this question and analyzing some historical examples which bear upon the subject, he comes to the following conclusion:

“It follows, that some individuals, owing to the peculiarities of their character, may influence the historical course of events. Sometimes this influence is quite considerable. But the possibility of such influence, as well as its magnitude, is limited by the organization of society, by the relation of its forces. The character of the individual appears as a factor of social development only in such places, at such times, and to such an extent, where, when, and to the extent that, the social relations permit it.

“It will probably be suggested that the extent of the influence which an individual may exert on the course of history depends also on the abilities of the individual. To this we may readily accede. But the individual can display his abilities only after he shall have assumed the necessary position in the social organization. . . . It is this organization, therefore, which limits, at any given time, the role— and consequently the social influence— which may fall to the lot of gifted or mediocre individuals.”

Louis B. Boudin.

The raising of the individual to the dignity of a historical factor raises the question of the influence of chance or accident in history, which is intimately connected with it. And he proceeds to elucidate it, thus:

“Hegel says that in all things finite there is an element of chance. In science we have to do with the finite only; it may therefore be properly said that in all the processes which she makes the objects of her study there is an element of the accidental. Does this exclude the possibility of the scientific study of phenomena? Not at all. Chance is a relative matter. It appears only at the crossing of necessary processes. The appearance of the Europeans in America was a matter of accident for the inhabitants of Mexico and Peru, in the sense that it was not the result of the social development of those countries. But the passion for sea-voyages which took hold on the Europeans towards the end of the Middle Ages was not a mere accident; nor was it a mere accident that the Europeans easily overpowered the aborigines. Nor, again, were the results of the conquest of Mexico and Peru by the Europeans a mere matter of accident. These results were in the last analysis caused by the resultant of two forces: the economic conditions of the conquering nations on the one hand, and of the conquered nations on the other. And these forces as well as their resultant, can be fully investigated according to the laws of scientific research.”

Plechanoff then proceeds to show that aside from the fact that the influence of the individual is limited by the inner structure of the social organization and its relations to other societies, in the sense that the role assigned to individuals, and the kind of individuals it is assigned to depend on the character of the social organization, there is another limitation imposed upon the influence of the individual by the social organization, which means, in the last analysis, by the economic relations of society. And that is, that the direction of social development, the broad outlines of the evolution of social institutions, cannot be affected by the activity of any individual, or any set of individuals. Speaking of the possibility of certain accidents of the French Revolution not having occurred or others occurring, and the way such changes would have affected that great historical event, he says:—

“All such changes in the current events might have influenced to a certain extent the future political, and by means thereof the economic, life of Europe. But the ultimate outcome of the revolutionary movement would still not under any circumstances have been the reverse of what it actually was. Influential individuals, owing to peculiarities of mind and character, may change the individual appearance of events and some of their minor results, but they cannot change the general trend of events, which is outlined by other forces.”

Having thus circumscribed the sphere of the individual’s influence, having shown its limitations, Plechanoff then proceeds to show the possibilities of the activity of the individual within that sphere, and the real significance of his influence as thus limited. He says:—

“A great man is great not because his individual peculiarities give individual form to great historical events, but because of the fact that he possesses peculiarities which make him best able to serve the great social needs of his time, needs which have developed under the influence of general and special causes. Carlyle, in his “Heroes and Hero Worship,” calls great men ‘beginners.’ This is a very apt appellation. A great man is in fact a beginner, for he sees further than others and desires more intensely than others. He solves the scientific problems placed on the order of the day by the preceding intellectual development of society; he uncovers new social needs created by the preceding development of social relations; he takes upon himself the task of beginning the satisfaction of those needs. He is a hero. Not in the sense that he can arrest or modify the natural course of events, but in the sense that his activity is the conscious and free expression of that necessary and unconscious course. In that is his importance; in that his power. But that is a colossal importance,— a tremendous power.”

The Theoretical System of Karl Marx in the Light of Recent Criticism by Louis B. Boudin. Charles H. Kerr Publishers, Chicago 1907.

Contents: Preface, Karl Marx and His Latter-Day Critics, Materialist Conception of History and Class-Struggle, The Materialist Conception of History and Its Critics. Value and Surplus Value, The Labor Theory of Value and Its Critics, The Great Contradiction in the Marxian Theory of Value, Economic Contradictions and the Passing of Capitalism, The Concentration of Capital and the Disappearance of the Middle Class, The Proletariat and The Revolution, The Social Revolution, Conclusion, Appendix I, Appendix II.

Louis B. Boudin/Leib Budiansky (1874-1952), though hardly remembered today, was a major figure in the US left and his writings remain an important and serious contribution to the discussion of Marxism and the problems of class and revolution. Louis was born into a middle-class Jewish family in Ukraine and emigrated with his family to New York in 1891. Here, he worked as a shirtmaker and went to NYU, becoming a lawyer in 1898. A Socialist and Marxist, Boudin was a member of the Socialist Labor Party of America and a leader of its Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance. Boudin left the SLP in 1899, becoming a founding member of the Socialist Party in 1901. Boudin was an elected SP delegate to both the 1907 and the 1910 Congresses of the Second International and ran for judge many times on the SP ticket. An anti-revisionist, revolutionary Marxist, Boudin wrote the articles that make up ‘The Theoretical System of Karl Marx in the Light of Recent Criticism’ for International Socialist Review in 1905-6. After being published in 1907, it was routinely republished for many years and made Boudin’s name among a generation of activists and thinkers. Together with Ludwig Lore and Louis C. Fraina, Boudin was a founding editor of The Class Struggle, a Marxist theoretical magazine produced by the Socialist Propaganda League of America from 1917-1919, and was an important influence on the formation of the Left-Wing Section of the Socialist Party in 1919. Boudin left party politics in the fractious aftermath of the World War One, but taught in the Communist Party-sponsored Workers’ School and contributed to scholarly journals and practiced law, defending labor and civil liberties. His nephew was Leonard Boudin, a civil-liberties attorney who represented Daniel Ellsberg, Paul Robeson, Julian Bond, and William Sloan Coffin. Leonard’s children are federal judge Michael Boudin and Weather Underground member Kathy Boudin. Kathy’s son Chesa Boudin was the current district attorney of the city of San Francisco.

The Charles H Kerr publishing house was responsible for some of the earliest translations and editions of Marx, Engels, and other leaders of the socialist movement in the United States. Publisher of the Socialist Party aligned International Socialist Review, the Charles H Kerr Co. was an exponent of the Party’s left wing and the most important left publisher of the pre-Communist US workers movement.

PDF of full book: https://archive.org/download/cu31924002673667/cu31924002673667.pdf

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