Karl Marx and the Dialectic of History

Christopher Henry Dawson

THERE is a natural affinity and concordance between the spirit of Catholicism and the spirit of history, and it is no accident that the modern historical tradition should have been born and nourished in the Catholic Church. The founders of modern historical scholarship were not the brilliant literary historians of the Renaissance but priests or monks like Tillemont and Muratori and Mabillon whose historical work is inspired by the same conscientious and disinterested piety as their religion.

The new rationalist and liberal school of history arising in the eighteenth century owed an immense and unacknowledged debt to this tradition. It is not merely that Gibbon is a pupil of Tillemont and that Voltaire wrote his essay on universal history as a continuation of Bossuet’s Discourse on Universal History. The influence goes far deeper than this. It shows itself in the new doctrines of social progress and the education of humanity which are nothing but a secularization of the Catholic interpretation of history and a transposition of its essential motives to a new setting. “What,” writes Croce – himself the last of the Liberal philosophers of history – “are our histories of culture, of civilization, of progress, of humanity, of truth, save the form of ecclesiastical history in harmony with our times – that is to say, of the triumph and propagation of the faith, of the strife against the powers of darkness, of the successive treatments of the new evangel made afresh with each succeeding epoch?”

In fact, the Liberal interpretation of history has taken over from the Catholic tradition not only its universalism, its sense of a spiritual purpose which runs through the whole life of humanity, but also its dualism. The Liberal interpretation of history is also dominated by the image of the two cities. But it is now the Church which is the embodiment of those “reactionary forces” which are the liberal equivalent of the powers of darkness, while the children of this world have become the children of light.

This transposition was not, however, altogether a new thing. It has behind it a somewhat similar emotional attitude to that which had already appeared in the Protestant tradition. It is true that that tradition was not remarkable for its historic achievements. It produced no historians worthy of being compared to the great scholars of the Counter-Reformation and the age of Louis XIV. But it was responsible for one innovation in the Christian interpretation of history which had momentous results. This was its identification of Papal Rome with the Babylon of the Apocalypse, which became practically an article of faith – and a very central one – in all the Reformation Churches. It is difficult for us today to realize the existence of this belief which dominated Protestant Europe for three hundred years and which still remains as a subconscious undercurrent in Protestant thought. But it is easy to see that it entirely altered the nature of the Christian dualism by transforming it from an opposition between the Church and the World to a conflict between two forms of Christianity. And when this step had once been taken, when the institutional Church for a thousand years had been relegated to the dominion of Antichrist and the Albigensians and Waldenses had been identified with the persecuted saints of Scripture, it was easy enough for the Enlightenment to take one step further by sending the Protestant Churches to join the Church of Rome outside the pale and by canonizing the apostles of free thought as the saints of rationalism.

This procedure was at least more logical than the Protestant synthesis of apocalypticism and private judgment. But it still retained a large residuum of mysticism which was incongruous with the dominant rationalist element in the liberal tradition. The religion of progress demands a basis in theology, even if it be only the etiolated natural theology of the Deist or the Freemason. This is why the compound has never been altogether a stable one. First one element in the synthesis attains predominance, and we have the idealist philosophy of history which in the hands of Schelling and Krause tends to become a genuinely religious mysticism; then the rationalist basis re-emerges and we have a reaction against idealism and an attempt to combine the doctrine of progress with a thoroughgoing materialism. But even in the materialist form, the apocalyptic and millennial element in the theory is still clearly evident: indeed it is often at its strongest when the materialist basis is most pronounced.

The classical example of this is Marxian socialism and the materialistic interpretation of history which is its fundamental doctrine. There is no doubt about the pedigree of this doctrine. It is the child of the Revolutionary tradition on the one hand and on the other of German idealism, which in turn was the offspring of an illicit connection between the philosophy of the Enlightenment and the religion of Protestant Pietism. Thus it goes back on both sides to a Catholic ancestry, since the philosophy of the Enlightenment derives its historic universalism from the Catholic tradition, while the tradition of Pietism goes back through the spiritual Reformers and millenniarism and the spiritual Franciscans to the ground stock of Christian millenniarism and apocalyptic. Moreover the other parent of Marxism, the revolutionary tradition, has obvious links with the more sectarian and anti-Catholic forms of the same apocalyptic tradition. All these various elements are represented in the Marxian philosophy, and the real force that combines them is not so much the internal logic of his thought as the prophetic fervour and the burning conviction that inspired his message. For Karl Marx was of the seed of the prophets, in spite of his contempt for anything that savoured of mysticism or religious idealism. He was one of those exiles of Israel like Spinoza, whose isolation from the religious community of their fathers only serves to intensify their proud consciousness of prophetic mission.

Thus the apocalyptic tradition which in its secularized form tended to degenerate into a vague idealism recovered its power and concrete reality by this renewed contact with the Jewish mind. The Messianic hope, the belief in the coming destruction of the Gentile power and the deliverance of Israel, were to the Jew not mere echoes of Biblical tradition; they were burnt into the very fibre of his being by centuries of thwarted social impulse in the squalid Ghettos of Germany and Poland. And in the same way the social dualism between the elect and the reprobate, between the people of God and the Gentile world power, was a fact of bitter personal experience of which even the most insensitive was made conscious in the hundred petty annoyances of Ghetto life.

Now the Revolution and the coming of liberalism had put an end to this state of things. The Jews had come out of the Ghetto into the world and had received rights of citizenship in the new bourgeois civilization. It was at this point in Jewish history that Karl Marx makes his appearance. He had lost his membership of the Jewish community, for he was the son of a Christian convert, but he could not deny his Jewish heredity and Jewish spirit and become the obedient servant of the Gentile civilization as his father had done. His whole soul revolted against the standards and ideals of the petty bourgeois society in which he had been brought up: yet he had tasted the forbidden fruit of the new knowledge and he could not go back to the Talmud any more than he could return to the Ghetto. The only way of escape that remained open to him was by the revolutionary tradition, which was then at the height of its prestige and popularity. In this he found satisfaction at once for his conscious hostility to bourgeois civilization and for the deeper revolt of his repressed religious instincts.

The three fundamental elements in the Jewish historical attitude: – the opposition between the chosen people and the Gentile world, the inexorable divine judgment on the latter and the restoration of the former in the Messianic kingdom – all found their corresponding principles in the revolutionary faith of Karl Marx. Thus the bourgeois took the place of the Gentiles and the economic poor – the proletariat – took the place of the spiritual poor of the Old Testament.

In the same way the approaching cataclysm of social revolution which was brought about not by human power and will, but by the immanent dialectic of history, corresponds to the Day of Jahweh and the judgment of the Gentiles; while the Messianic Kingdom finds an obvious parallel in the dictatorship of the proletariat which will reign till it has put down all rule and authority and power and in the end will deliver up its kingdom to the classless and stateless society of the future which will be all in all.

This social apocalyptic is one part, and I believe by far the most important part, of Marx’s thought; the other part consists of the historical and philosophic theories which are its rational justification and which, whether they are in fact primary or secondary in the total system, must be judged on their own merits.

Now the Marxian interpretation of history is the most thoroughgoing system of historic materialism that has ever been invented. This is what Marx claimed for it, and in spite of the objections to the neo-Marxians, I believe that his claim was justified.

When Marx began to write, the metaphysical idealism of the great Romantic age had already gone out of fashion and science and positivism were becoming the order of the day. It was the age not only of Comte and Feuerbach but of thoroughgoing materialists like Buchner and Moleschott. Nevertheless it was also a great age of ethical and social idealism. Men might deny their God and scoff at all religious beliefs; they might even treat the idealist metaphysic as nothing else but sophisticated theology. But for all that, they still believe in the supremacy of spiritual values, and the power of moral ideals. Feuerbach, who had a decisive influence on the development of Marx’s thought, was typical in this respect. He believed in the omnipotence of feeling and the illimitableness of the human heart and taught that even when faith in Christ has disappeared Christ’s true essence remains in existence wherever love reigns. All this was highly antipathetic to Marx. And his hostility was not merely due to the natural contempt of a hard mind for soft ones, but to the knowledge that all this talk about moral ideals, this sloppy enthusiasm for a reign of universal love, was interfering with the coming of a real revolution which required hatred rather than love and hard knocks rather than lofty sentiments. Consequently Marx’s objection to the materialists of his time is somewhat different from that of many of his followers today. The latter criticize the old materialism as too mechanical in its conceptions, and in a sense as too materialistic. Marx, on the other hand, criticized them on account of their residual idealism, i.e. because they were not materialistic enough. It was no use disproving the metaphysical truth of Christianity if you still remained in bondage to its moral ideals.

The chief failure of all materialism hitherto [he writes] including the materialism of Feuerbach, is that it conceives Reality or the sensible things only in the form of object or theory, but not as sensible human activity or Praxis, not as subject. Hence the active side develops in an abstract way in the opposition of Materialism to Idealism, which naturally knows no real sensible activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensible objects really different from objects of thought: but he does not conceive human action itself as material activity. Consequently in his Essence of Christianity he regards only the theoretic relation as the truly human one, while action or Praxis is conceived and remains fixed only in its dirty Jewish form. Hence he does not realize the meaning of revolutionary or practical-critical activity.

For Marx there was no such thing as an essence of Christianity which could survive its outward forms, indeed strictly speaking there was no such thing as Christianity at all. All such phenomena were only the ideological reflections of actual social relations, and they could no more survive the passing of their sociological basis than a shadow on the hill can remain after the cloud passes by. In the same way there is no such thing as human nature in itself or spiritual consciousness, there is only the sum of economic relations which are the basis not only of social activity but of social being and social consciousness. “This sum of forces of production, capital and material circumstances which each individual and each generation finds already in existence as something given, is the real ground of that which appears to the philosophers as ‘substance’ and Being of Man, and which they have apotheosized and striven about, a real foundation which is not in the least weakened in its influence and effects on the development of men, because these philosophers set us instead self-consciousness or the One.”

Thus there is nothing absolute or transcendent in human life and thought and religion – everything is the product of history and all history is the history of the economic process. Moreover the economic process itself is not a stationary one. It consists in a series of revolutionary cycles, which bring them corresponding changes in social and political institutions and in ideas. The great illusion of Liberalism, as seen in the bourgeois political economy, is that it is possible to base economic life on eternal and necessary laws and thus to transcend the category of history.

As Marx writes in his Poverty of Philosophy, “The economists regard bourgeois institutions as natural and based on eternal laws, and feudal institutions as artificial. Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any.” Against this static conception Marx sets up his revolutionary theory of social dialectic, in which the element of conflict and social antagonism finds the very essence of the social process. “Feudal institutions,” he writes, “have a good as well as a bad side. But it is the bad side that produces the movement of history by constituting the struggle.” If it were possible to have eliminated the bad elements – serfdom, privilege, violence – and kept the good – patriarchalism, chivalry, guild organization – what would have been the result? “All the elements that constituted the struggle would have been annihilated and the development of the bourgeoisie would have been stifled in the germ. They would have set themselves the absurd task of eliminating history.” Thus in order to judge fairly of feudal production, it is necessary to consider it as a system of production based on antagonism. It is necessary to show how wealth was produced within this antagonism, how the production forces were developed at the same time as the antagonism of the classes, how one of the classes, the bad side, the inconvenience of society continued always to grow until the material conditions necessary for its emancipation arrived at maturity.

Here we see the Marxian interpretation of history in its strongest and most incisive form. It recalls, as Marx himself was the first to emphasize, the Darwinian theory of evolution by struggle and the survival of the fittest. “From the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object that we are capable of conceiving, namely the production of the higher animals, directly results.”

But unfortunately this strong and logical theory is never carried out with full consistency. When we come to the next cycle, to that of the proletarian revolution, Marx’s historical sense deserts him and history. The dictatorship of the proletariat, or rather the withering away of the state that follows it, is literally the end of history. The class conflict ceases, social antagonism disappears and with it the dynamic element in history goes too. There is no longer any force of change remaining, and the social dialectic has worked itself out to its final conclusion.

How are we to explain this apparent inconsistency? Clearly it is due to the victory of the Marxian apocalyptic over the Marxian philosophy. It is the essence of apocalyptic to look to the end of history and it can never be content with an endless movement of cyclical change. And the apocalyptic hope meant more to Marx than all his rational theories. That was the absolute of his thought, and the end of his action.

If he had followed out his theory dispassionately to its natural end, it is clear that he would have arrived at quite a different conclusion. The supreme significance of history would not have been found in any class, but in class conflict itself. No class could be the bearer of absolute values, for apart from the fact that such values do not exist in Marx’s philosophy, the intrusion of absolute values would have been fatal to the principle of progress. As Marx shows in the passage I had just quoted, the “bad” element in society is just as necessary to life as the good. And consequently it is not bad in any absolute sense, it is merely the negative pole in the historic process. Marx himself fully admitted this complete moral relativity in theory. He condemned the absolute ethical categories of the idealist as capitalistic fetishism. In this respect Bukharin is a good Marxian when he writes:

“Ethics will ultimately in the case of the proletariat be transformed into simple and easily understood rules of conduct, such are required for communism, and thus it will really cease to be ethics at all. For the essence of ethics is the fact that it involves norms enveloped in a fetishistic raiment. Fetishism is the essence of ethics: when fetishism disappears, ethics also will disappear. For example, no one would think of designating the constitution of a consumer’s store, or a party as ‘ethical’ or moral, for anyone can the significance of these things.”

But if this is so, it is clear that every class and every economic order has its own morality and that the essential principle of morality is not to be found in any of these group or class ethics but rather in the conformity of the individual to the spirit of his own class and order. There is no such thing as a good man, there is only a good bourgeois or a good proletarian. And one is as good as the other, since each is a necessary factor in social progress. Thus too there is no absolute justice, since class interest is the ultimate criterion, and consequently it is no less just that the employer should exploit the worker in a capitalist society, than that the proletariat should liquidate the bourgeois in a communist state. Hence it would seem that the only real immorality is to betray the interests of one’s own class, and that a man like Karl Marx himself, or F. Engels, who serves the interests of another class even if it be the class of the future, is no social hero, but an apostate and a traitor. He has become a bad bourgeois but he can never become a good proletarian unless he is economically and sociologically absorbed into the proletariat.

Now it is quite possible to imagine a moral and political system founded on this relativism and historical materialism, but it would be something entirely different from any existing form of socialism, it would entirely abjure the demon of the absolute and would take refuge in a philosophic detachment. It would recognize that conflict is the law of life and that men cannot do other than follow the dictates of class interest. It would recognize that revolution was not, as the liberals believed, the vindication of absolute rights and the liberation of humanity from the bondage of superstition and injustice but a part of the necessary cycle of change which governs the life of society, the destruction of the old order giving birth to a new one which will in turn pass away when its time is ripe. And this recognition of the naturalness and inevitability of social conflict and change would, in proportion as it was recognized, tend to purge the struggle of its bitterness. Men would recognize that their opponents were not inhuman monsters who were deliberately opposing the victory of truth, but that they were men like themselves, bound by circumstances to act as they did, and the more worthy of respect because they were loyal to their class and their order. And the philosopher himself would cease to share the naive passions of the mob and would turn like Heracleitus to the contemplation of the unseen harmony which runs through the apparent strife and confusion of life, since the harmonious structure of the world depends on its opposite tension, like that of the bow and the lyre, and if we could remove strife from the world, we should bring it to an end, since “strife is justice” and “war is the father and king of Gods and Men.”

This is no unworthy conclusion, but it is not the conclusion which Marx himself drew from his doctrine, or any of his followers with the exception of Georges Sorel. As soon as Marx turns to action all his philosophy goes by the board and he adopts the naive absolutism of the fanatic. The exploitation of the proletariat arouses a genuinely moral indignation: he regards it not as a necessary phase in economic evolution, but as a sin that cries to heaven for vengeance. The cause of the proletariat is the cause of social justice in the most absolute sense. It is a cause for which the Communist is ready to suffer and die and to cause the suffering and death of others. All that is the fruit not of his philosophy or of his materialism but of his underlying religious impulse which finds expression in the revolutionary apocalyptic. It is a spiritual passion which has lost its theological object and has attempted to find independent justification in a purely rational theory. And the intrusion of this spiritual force falsifies Marx’s whole theory by imparting to it an absolutism that is foreign to its real nature. This his historical relativism becomes contaminated by an apocalyptic determinism – a doctrine of the End of History, – and his ethical relativism passes away before a Puritanical rigorism of a strictly dualist type. And this is why Marxism is characterized by a certain inhumanity which does not belong either to the religious apocalyptic tradition or to rationalism but which arises from the union of intense apocalyptic convictions with a materialist philosophy.

Now the Christian philosophy of history resembles that of Marxism in so far as it also has a revolutionary view of the historical process and an apocalyptic conception of the End of History. Like Marxism it rejects the static idealism of the Liberal tradition and the naive optimism of the humanitarian ethic. But on the other hand, while the historical dialectic of Marxism is essentially materialistic, that of Christianity is essentially spiritual, a dialogue between God and man, and the end of history is not found in history itself, but arises from the raising of history to a supertemporal plane.

Moreover, since the Christian dualism is a spiritual one, it does not find its solution in the class conflict or in any of the temporal conflicts of history, but in the mystery of the Cross which reverses the material values of history and gives a new meaning to victory and defeat. The true makers of history are not to be found on the surface of events among the successful politicians or the successful revolutionaries: these are the servants of events. Theirs masters are the spiritual men whom the world knows not, the unregarded agents of the creative action of the Spirit. The supreme instance of this – the key to the Christian understanding of history – the presence of the maker of the world in the world unknown to the world. And though this divine intervention in the course of history seems at first sight to empty secular history of all ultimate significance, in reality it gives history for the first time an absolute spiritual value. The Incarnation is itself in a sense the divine fruit of history – of the fullness of time – and it finds its extension and completion in the historic life of the Church.

For the redemption of humanity is not, as Protestantism tended to maintain, an isolated act which stands outside history and which involves on the part of humanity only the bare act of justifying faith. It is a vital process of regeneration which manifests itself in the corporate reality of a divine society. And the formation of this divine society – the creation of a new humanity – gives the historic process that absolute value and that transcendent end which Marxism vainly seeks in a social millenniarism which has no real relation to the materialistic theory on which it professes to base itself.

Thus there is no reconciliation possible between Marxian materialism, even in its most idealized form, and the Christian faith in God, the creator of heaven and earth, the Maker and Redeemer of man, the Lord and Giver of Life. Where that faith is absent, as it is widely in the modern world, man is divorced from reality, he is living in the dark and all his intellectual and political systems become distorted and unreal. This is the case with Communism which, more than any other system in history, has attempted to build its new world in the dark. And consequently I believe that the ultimate verdict on Communism will be that the house it is building for the new humanity is not a palace but a prison, since it has no windows. For what man still needs and in his heart desires is the coming of a “a dayspring from on high to give light to them that sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

– “Karl Marx and the Dialectic of History”, Section II Chapter 4, Dynamics of World History, Christopher Dawson, pages 370-380.

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