The Two Epochs of Bourgeois Materialism
On Moleschott’s Centenary

Georg Lukács

At the start of his Brumaire, Marx quotes Hegel's statement ‘that all great deeds and persons in world history occur twice, so to speak’. He forgot to add: ‘first as tragedy, the second time as farce’. This phrase was coined with regard to the history of socio-political revolution, but it also seems true of the history of political 'revolutions'. For whereas 18th-century (bourgeois) materialism, Holbach's and Helvétius's materialism, was a revolutionary act in the true sense of the word, the rowdy 'materialism' of the 19th century (Ludwig Büchner, Vogt, Moleschott etc.) was a hollow echo of that great movement, an empty gesture by mediocrities turned unruly. This is already evident from a first, superficial glance at their doctrine: it contains not one solid proposition that had not been already advanced by the materialists of the previous century. In the meantime, however, there had occurred the greatest of developments in human thought, the discovery of the dialectical method and its conversion into a revolutionary-materialist dialectic—a development which materialism's rehashers either failed to acknowledge or did so with hostile incomprehension. Hence they did not turn to what was then already the most progressive stratum in the evolution of society: the proletariat. The materialism of the 18th century had been the mode of thought of the (then) revolutionary bourgeois classes. In its 19th-century version, it only found adherents in a bourgeoisie which had already grown reactionary.

This was no accident. For with regard to a doctrine’s historical topicality and social influence, what matters is not so much the abstract truth it may contain or the originality of its statements on 'ultimate things'. What matters is how far it can explain the grounds of men's socio-historical existence, how far and in which direction this explanation influences their social actions. The so-styled truths which the doctrine contains, statements on God, Nature and so forth, may be exactly the same in substance and yet exercise totally different functions at different points of development. The same doctrine may have a revolutionary influence on one occasion and a reactionary influence on another.

And that was the fate of the 19th-century version of materialism. Feuerbach's materialist-oriented rejection of Hegel and German idealism marked a watershed in the whole age's intellectual evolution. Either one had to build up the achievements of classical German philosophy, the dialectical method as a means of interpreting history, into a real, vital and effective knowledge of socio‑historical developments with this materialism's assistance (as Marx and Engels did), or one simply marked time and hence rejected a knowledge of men's socio-historical existence. This latter path was the one followed by bourgeois materialism, the materialism of Büchner, Moleschott and others.

That accounts for their intellectual failure in respect of the problems of society and history. In his excellent book on the history of materialism, Plekhanov pinpoints the inevitable limitations of the thinking of Holbach and Helvétius: their inability to attain to a dynamic interpretation of history and to grasp the relationship between human actions and occurrences in society. Either they interpreted society as simply the product of human thinking, 'public opinion' and so on, or they regarded man as the product of his social milieu. They were unable to complete the dialectical unity of the perception that men do make their own history, but that objective, social motivating forces nonetheless influence their actions.

All the same—in the 18th century, this doctrine was a revolutionary act. For what was at stake then was to remove the feudal barriers obstructing the bourgeois-capitalist production system. But conceptually, feudal forms of production were always expressed in religious forms. That is to say, the nature of the feudal relation between master and bondsman, master and apprentice—since it was a direct, concrete state of dependence of one man upon another and not, as in capitalism, an abstractly contracted, mediated relationship—­appeared to men's minds as a God‑given order, as the divine mercy of all authority, and as dutiful submission and obedience. Hence the dissolution, in concrete economic terms, of feudal economic forms had to be matched by the intellectual dissolution of these religious forms. As a result of the dissolution of the feudal production system and the transition to a capitalist system of wage labour, manufacture etc., these forms became more and more flimsy and abstract (we have only to recall the development from medieval religion to theism and deism). Nonetheless, these forms had to be countered clearly and directly with the concept of the new economic order so as to obtain the victory of the more advanced production system in the ideological realm as well. But this concept was the internal logic of everything that takes place. The doctrine, namely, that immanent, autonomous and permanent laws govern in a rational way all expressions of human life, without God and divine authority, but also without the human will's intervention; hence that this development—the capitalist economy—had only to be left to its own devices, and not to be hampered unreasonably by feudalism, in order to bring about a world order in accordance with reason and with universal happiness: capitalism.

But capitalism is basically founded upon a fatalism towards social forces ‘by which men are controlled instead of controlling them’; it finds expression in a ‘natural law based on the unconsciousness of the participants’ (Engels). Hence these laws took the form of natural laws, not of tendencies in the evolution of society. ‘Bourgeois materialism’, says Engels, ‘simply confronts man with Nature instead of the Christian God.’ So this outlook, which was bound to have a revolutionary effect as long and as far as the issue at stake was the removal of feudal concepts, was sure to turn reactionary the moment that men started becoming aware, in proletarian thinking, of their own social existence. For, on the one hand, the permanent natural logic of all existence did away with the Christian God, who was now redundant, and with the authority principle associated with this God. On the other hand, however, it replaced the old, God-given order with a new—and equally permanent—order: the logical and rational capitalist order.

Natural scientific materialism is an ideological form of the capitalist development (cp. Marx's acute comments, in Das Kapital, on the relation of Descartes's and Bacon's mechanist doctrine to the period of manufacture). Hence this materialism must fall where the bourgeoisie's most immediate ideological form, classical economics, had fallen: with the problem of history. It cannot account for the historical origin of capitalist society with all its ideological forms—because it does not want to draw the inevitable conclusion from a knowledge of its historical having come into being: its inevitable historical downfall. At that point where developments begin to outstrip capitalism, it thereby becomes just as much of an ideological obstacle to the historical process as the belief in God it had surmounted was an obstacle to developments in the 18th century. So the historical comedy expressed in the 19th-century revival of materialism lies in its exaggerated use of all the revolutionary gestures of the eighteenth century's truly revolutionary materialism, when its orientation and influence have grown entirely reactionary.

SOURCE: Lukács, Georg. “The Two Epochs of Bourgeois Materialism: On Moleschott’s Centenary,” in Reviews and Articles from Die rote Fahne, translated by Peter Palmer (London: The Merlin Press, 1983), pp. 67-70.

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