MARXIST INTERNET ARCHIVE |  Karl Kautsky

Karl Kautsky

Nature and Society

(December 1929)


Source: Natur und Gesellschaft, Die Gesellschaft, (Berlin), VI/2 No.12 (December 1929), pp.481-505.
Translated & abridged: John H. Kautsky. [1]
Published: International Journal of Comparative Sociology XXX, 1-2 (1989).
Transcribed: for marxists.org, August, 2002.


ABSTRACT

Kautsky discusses his attitude to Darwinism and neo-Lamarckism and claims, with the latter, to have linked biology and sociology. In his magnum opus, he used an investigation of basic human drives both as a starting point for his sociology and as a rebuttal of the doctrine that man is motivated only by economic interests. Social development is in the last analysis due not to class struggles but to technological Innovations, but technology alone does not account for economic and social institutions· Its advance under capitalism now guarantees the victory of the proletariat in its class struggle. – J.H.K.


... IT HAS BEEN SAID OF ME more than once that I have joined he Revisionists of Marxism. In a certain sense, that is quite correct. Only in a church, not in science can there be orthodoxy. I have never asserted that scientific development came to an end with Marx and Engels. But in the areas in which the Revisionists have hitherto been almost exclusively active, I have found hardly anything objectionable in Marx, neither in economics nor in philosophy ...

If in my book on the materialist conception of history, I deal so little with Capital, this is not because I appreciate it less than I once did, but only because I have nothing new to add to what I said about it in earlier decades. As with respect to Marx’s economics so with respect to his philosophy, I have nothing significant to “revise,” except for the dialectic. But in this respect, too, my “revision” does not go as far as could at first appear. Unfortunately, it would take me too far afield to deal with this matter here.

I could have kept the section of my book on philosophy quite brief, too, if a number of leading Marxists had not gone among the Revisionists with respect to Marx’s materialism, among them theorists who had strongly rejected Revisionism in the narrower sense. Under these circumstances, I felt obliged to stress sharply the incompatibility of Marx’ s philosophy with Kant’s. It was quite clear to me that I was swimming against the current here ... But once the proletariat has gained enough power to move decisively forward on the road of the transformation of existing society, the number of those among thinking and striving people for whom reality is sufficient and who need no thinking beyond it, no transcendence, will grow again.

I apply the method of natural science to the study of society, which I regard not as something outside nature, but as a part of nature. It has, to be sure, its own specific laws, just as organic nature is subject to specific laws that are not valid for inorganic phenomena, and in inorganic nature, in turn, specific laws are effective for each of the different aggregate states. These differences are not incompatible with the unity of nature. ...In my book, I argue several times against conceptions that simply draw conclusions with respect to society from real or presumed natural science knowledge ...

My present-day attitude toward Darwin is quite different from the one I held in the 1870s and 1880s. This becomes quite evident in my section on Heredity. Many saw agreement between Darwin and Marx in that each of them regarded struggle as the motor of development, one the class struggle, the other the struggle for existence. But there is a great difference between these two kinds of struggle! Class struggle is a struggle of masses of similarly constituted individuals who, living under- the same conditions and held together by the same interests, struggle together against other masses. The struggle for existence, as Darwin conceived of it, was, on the contrary, essentially a struggle between individuals of the same species for food. It was caused by the fact that in every species there are too many individuals for all of them to be able to find enough food.

For Marx, the mass is the carrier of development, for Darwin it is the individual, though not as exclusively as for many of his disciples. He by no means rejected the doctrine of Lamarck who regarded the progressive adaptation of organisms to the environment as the most important factor in their development. But the main thing for Darwin was not the same effect of the environment on all individuals of the same species, that is, a mass phenomenon, but the occasional and accidental peculiarities of particular individuals by which each of them is either favored or disadvantaged in the struggle for existence. A quite individualist conception which corresponded very well to the thought of liberalism that was all-powerful in Darwin’s time and which was therefore easily accepted.... In the past three decades, [Lamarckian] thoughts, modernized and adjusted to newer knowledge, have gained ... new strength ... These neo-Lamarckian ideas got a powerful hold on me. The more I concerned myself with them, the clearer it became to me that they could be reconciled with the materialist conception of history in quite another way than original Darwinism. A materialist neo-Lamarckism, freed not only of all of the naivete of its origins but also of all mysticism, which some of its followers seek to inject into it, seemed to me to assert in biology the same principles that Marx had revealed for society in the materialist conception of history. Neo-Lamarckism appeared only when Marx and Engels were dead. They therefore could riot link their conception of history with it. All the more did I feel compelled to do so the more recognized the correctness of neo Lamarckism ...

The conflict between organism and environment, the adaptation of organs to the demands of, the environment that the organism, in its struggle with the latter, either experiences or carries out, this is, according to my conception, in the last analysis the driving force of any development both in organic nature and in society. Thus sociology is brought into agreement with biology.

The process of a progressive adaptation of an organism or of a species of organisms to a particular environment is not a process of constant development, however. It comes to an end as soon as the adaptation has been achieved. Further development becomes unnecessary and impossible as long as the environment does not change ... If the environment becomes ever more varied and complicated, then the process of adaptation also produces ever more complicated forms of organisms. In that sense, development becomes progress to higher forms.

Here we arrive at the point where I see the fundamental difference between natural and social development. When – before the intervention of man – the natural environment changes, this occurs independently of the volition and knowledge of the organisms inhabiting it. Their changes are in the last analysis to be explained by changes in the earth surface that are a result of the progressive cooling of the earth, perhaps also of some cosmic changes.

Man, on the other hand, finds himself in circumstances that, in the course of his development, Provide him with higher mental abilities than are to be found among the other animals. He arrives at the point where, to carry on his struggle with the environment, he adds to his natural organs artificial ones that he invents when conditions are favorable. These organs are not parts of his body, ... they function as his organs, but are part of his environment as are the products they help create. Thus man comes to change his environment.

As his organs, man employs his tools according to his volition and knowledge, just as their creation resulted from his volition and knowledge. But as part of the environment, the tools and their products become elements that exist independently of man and make demands of him not foreseen or intended by him. As a result, new problems of the environment arise for men that, in turn, require new inventions and institutions. Thus, these inventions and institutions become a driving force of human development that functions continuously and that does not exist among the other animals. Here begins the special realm of sociology.

This, in brief, is my conception with which, I believe, I have built the bridge between biology and sociology that Marx and Engels could not build, simply because the basis on which alone this bridge could be erected – revived and scientifically founded Lamarckism – developed only after their death ...

... In my investigation of the process of social development, I start out from an analysis of human nature, of the various drives that man inherited from his animal ancestors and that basically still move men today in spite of all the historical changes they have undergone ... A knowledge of the individual constitutes the precondition of a knowledge of society. Only the individual is tangible, society is a mental construct. It is, to be sure, a reality that often makes itself harshly felt, but a reality that does not confront us tangibly but can be grasped only through intellectual elaboration of observations made of cooperating individuals.

However, from the observation of the isolated individual not the least social knowledge is to be gained ... Man in isolation is a far less realistic mental construct than human society ... Only as a social being does man exist, only as such do we know him. ...On the other hand, society cannot be understood at all except through observation of the life and activity of socialized individuals, their needs and capacities....

Research into the human psyche is only the precondition of research into human society. It is merely the starting point of sociology. Psychology alone does not teach us to comprehend human society, let alone its historical development. For the innate human psyche, though it is changeable, too, is a constant element relative to the history of mankind. As such, it cannot by itself account for any changes. The generally human, important as it is for an understanding of any human behavior, fails to explain the particular in history.

When studying the particular, one can and must often disregard the general, the constant.... In historical or economic studies, one can, of course, ... presuppose that the human psyche is known ... We Marxists, too, have therefore in our work refrained from providing psychological introductions. But in my book, which is concerned with our entire conception of history, not merely with particular economic or political phenomena, I had to deal not only with the particular in history but also with the generally human. And I thought that I could not dispose of it quite briefly with a few words. For psychology straddles the boundary between sociology and biology and is as important for one as for the other.

Yet another reason caused me to deal at some length with the psychological conceptions that are the starting point for the materialist conception of history. The strangest misunderstandings about it exist not only among many of its antagonists but also among some of its adherents ... The doctrine that all changes in our ideas are to be traced back to economic changes was transmuted into the assertion that men were basically motivated only by personal economic interests, that they were looking only for their personal advantage. Human history becomes much more understandable and clearer if one investigates for each period the economic conditions and tendencies that characterize and dominate it. But that economic interests are the only ones that motivate man is a preposterous exaggeration of which no respectable Marxist has been guilty. To dispel this prejudice, I thought it was urgently necessary to show that we Marxists recognize in man not only egoistic but also social drives, not only economic but also erotic ones as well as drives seeking beauty and knowledge ...

I went into this at length also because the materialist conception of history is often charged with having a very narrow focus. It is supposed to recognize only a single impulse in human society and hence to be incapable of grasping its total process in its tremendous variety. So it seemed necessary to me to show what abundance of motives and drives of social behavior move man already in his primeval state. Our conception of history not only does not obstruct but rather demands and promotes the discovery of this inborn psychic abundance and the further development of its variety in the course of historical evolution.

Incidentally yet another motive led me to my discussion of human nature as it was inherited from animals. Present-day philosophers, especially Kantians, are fond of regarding certain mental phenomena – ethics, aesthetics, the urge to inquire, that is, the quest for truth, beauty, goodness – as something that lifts man out of nature and is comprehensible only as an emanation of a supernatural deity. As against this, it seemed to me appropriate to point out that the beginnings of expressions of this kind of divine essence are already to be found among animals. This was nothing new. Darwin had made a number of important observations along these lines ...

Social life is a result of men’s drives and needs. On the other hand, this life also conditions these drives and needs. But as the constant starting point of this life, they cannot explain changes in it. If my view of drives sought to explain the appearance of new problems in society by reference to men’s inherited drives, then it would destroy the coherence of the materialist conception of history ...

...Not men’s drives, but the development of technology is for me the motor of social development. This development itself is caused by man’s struggle with his environment, of the necessity to adapt his organs to it, which man, in contrast to animals, does consciously by the invention of artificial organs that in turn, partly directly, partly through their effects, produce a new environment with new problems and new means to their solution. Thus, there results an infinite process of human development ...

...By technology we understand not only the sum total of all available technical implements but also their application; only through it do they become forces of production. Men cannot apply them without entering into social relations with each other. The nature of these social relations is conditioned by the nature of the forces of production they dispose of.... The social conditions are produced and conditioned by a certain state of technology whatever may be the economic forms under which they are being applied ...

Technology by itself, however, does not suffice to explain the entire working of society. One must not understand what I just said to mean that the same mode of production and the same form of society always and under all circumstances correspond necessarily to a certain technology ... I specially emphasize the difference between technology and the economy and that different economic formations can be linked to the same technology ... A large-scale enterprise can assume different economic forms that are independent of its technology: it can be the enterprise of an individual capitalist or of a corporation or of the state or of a workers’ cooperative. How a particular technical apparatus is applied at any one time depends not only on its technical characteristics but also on the nature of the society in which it appears ...

A knowledge of a particular technology is not sufficient for our understanding of a particular form of society. But it is always technical innovations that provide the impetus for a movement of the society. What is new in society is in the last analysis always traceable to a new technology that produces new economic conditions and social relations. In society and its economy there is no moving force through which it could by itself continue to develop without the impetus of technical innovations....

...It is wholly mistaken to regard as specifically Marxist the conception that the development of society proceeds only in the form of class struggle, that without it social development is therefore impossible. The decisive question is, of course, not what Marx and Engels thought about it, but what in fact happens. How little class struggle is capable of explaining the entire social development of mankind is demonstrated by the following consideration: Class society is as old as the state. Only in the state are there class antagonisms and, under certain circumstances, class struggles, [but] the duration of the pre-state stage of mankind is certainly more than ten times, perhaps a hundred times as long as that of the existence of states. On the other hand, we assume that we now stand on the threshold of a new classless society, a new epoch of world history ...

By far the largest part of human development must be explicable without any class struggle. I believe that my conception provides this explanation, [but it explains also] why from a certain point of technical developmental onward, that of the technical differentiation between warlike nomadic pastoralists and peaceable sedentary agriculturalists, the formation of the state and the rise of classes and class struggles became inevitable. But I am now of the opinion that in class society, just as in classless society, social development is in the last analysis conditioned by technical progress and not by the class struggle ...

However huge the dimensions class struggles may assume in class societies and however far-reaching effects they may have on state and society ... they bring about the decline and finally the downfall of society if no technical progress of a kind occurs that makes a new higher mode of production possible. If, without such progress, the exploiting classes are victorious in the class struggle, they ruin society by increasing the exploitation of the labor force and of the means of production, especially the soil. If the exploited are victorious, they know no better than to return to the old forms of a free peasant economy, out of which the state had arisen. Given this alternative, all of ancient society finally decayed. If today the proletariat has far better prospects in its class struggles than demos and plebs in antiquity, that is due to the fact that technical progress today creates social conditions that were lacking then. The productivity of labor grows rapidly and with it the wealth of society increases. Only now does it become possible to make the achievements of state civilization accessible to all members of society, to raise them all to a higher level of culture than that of barbarians or of primitive peasants.

But with the progress of technology not only the material means are born that make socialism possible but also the driving forces that bring it about. This driving force is the proletarian class struggle ... It must finally be victorious due to the continuous progress of technology, of the large-scale industrial enterprise. This progress causes the wage workers to become more and more preponderant in the state and in society and at the same time it shapes their inborn drives and talents in such a way that they become not only willing but also able to employ the tremendous motor forces of modern technology in the interest of the workers. Class struggle by itself does not move society forward, only class struggle under certain technical conditions does ...

In the few centuries of the rule of industrial capital, there has occurred the greatest technical and economic transformation mankind has hitherto experienced.... In this short period, modern industry has created conditions that permit the abolition not only of capitalist exploitation but of any kind of exploitation and that put society throughout the world on a basis far superior to all the forms it had achieved in tens of thousands of years ... When we consider the historical development of the pre-capitalist period, we see it proceeding at a deadly slow pace and we see the failure of all attempts to develop a higher form of society out of the particular class rule existing at the time – if, indeed, such attempts are being made at all.

In contrast, the fabulous expansion of the capitalist mode of production in the past hundred years leads us to expect that its transformation into socialist forms will also occur extremely quickly everywhere where the necessary economic and psychic conditions have been created by the successful employment of modern technology. We may count on extremely rapid socialist progress once the present-day unsatisfactory period has been overcome in which any significant progress is obstructed, on the one hand, by a condition of balance or mutual paralysis of the capitalist and proletarian forces and, on the other hand, by the impoverishment of states due to the World War and its consequences.

But to be able to comprehend fully the brilliant prospects that the present-day status of technology and its social consequences offer to the rapid progress of socialism, it is extremely important to recognize clearly in what respects the capitalist mode of production differs from the pre-capitalist modes of exploitation ... The more we place it in the context of the total historical development of mankind and of organic nature in general, the more agreements and peculiarities we thus recognize, the better we will understand the world in which we have to move and which we have to master.

 

Note

1. This article, Natur und Gesellschaft, Die Gesellschaft, (Berlin), VI/2 No. 12 (December 1929), pp.481-505, was written by Kautsky in response to a review of his Materialistische Geschichtsauffassung by Alexander Schifrin, K. Kautsky und die Marxistische Soziologie, ibid., No. 8 (August 1929), pp.149-169. It is here abridged to less than half of its original length, mostly by the omission of passages replying directly to Schifrin, and translated by John H. Kautsky. Published in International Journal of Comparative Sociology XXX, 1-2 (1989).

 


Last updated on 12.12.2003