Bukharin’s new work serves the long-felt need for a systematic Marxist summary of historical materialism. Nothing of this kind has been attempted within Marxism since Engels’ Anh-Dühring(except for Plekhanov’s small volume). Summaries of the theory have been left to the opponents of Marxism, who have generally only understood it very superficially. Therefore Bukharin’s attempt is to be welcomed even though its methods and results must be criticized. It should be said that Bukharin has succeeded in drawing together into a unified, systematic summary that is more or less Marxist all the significant problems of Marxism; and further, that the presentation is generally clear and easily understood, so that the book admirably fulfils its purpose as a textbook.

As Bukharin’s aim is only to produce a popular textbook, the critic must be indulgent towards particular statements especially in rather obscure areas. This, and the difficulty of obtaining the relevant literature in Russia, also excuses the fact that in his handling of art, literature and philosophy Bukharin draws almost completely on secondary sources, ignoring most recent research. But this intensifies Bukharin’s risk of simplifying the problems themselves in the effort to write a popular textbook. His presentation is brilliant and clear, but at the same time it obscures many relations rather than explaining them. But we must never accept a simplified presentation that simplifies the problems and solutions themselves, rather than the historical constellations of problems and solutions, especially as Bukharin’s tendency to simplification is not confined to marginal ideological creations, but encroaches on central questions. For example, Bukharin sets out a precise parallel between the hierarchy of power in the structure of economic production on the one hand and that of the the State on the other. He closes with the remark: ‘Thus we see here that the structure of the state apparatus reflects that of the economy— i.e. the same classes occupy the same positions in both.’ This is undoubtedly correct as a developmental tendency. It is also true that a long-run, major contradiction between the two hierarchies usually leads to a revolutionary upheaval. But concrete history will not fit into Bukharin’s over-schematic, simplified formula. For it is perfectly possible that a balance of economic power between two classes in competition may produce a state apparatus not really controlled by either (if it must secure many compromises between them) so that the economic structure is by no means simply reflected in the State. This is true for example of the absolute monarchies at the beginning of the modern era. A class may even reach economic power without being in a position to mould the state apparatus completely to its own interests, or to stamp it with its class character. Mehring has convincingly demonstrated that the German bourgeoisie was so afraid of proletarian assistance in its bourgeois revolution that, even in the energetic struggle for bourgeois reforms at the time of its most rapid economic advance, it left the Junkers’ state apparatus alone and quietly accepted the survival of its feudal-absolutist power structure. Of course, a textbook cannot be expected to deal with these questions in depth. But the absence even of a hint of the importance of such exceptions to the model makes Bukharin’s presentation somewhat suspect. Plekhanov and Mehring have frequently demonstrated in more specialized works how a popular presentation is compatible with a basically scientific approach. Bukharin has accepted the timely and important task of summarizing all the problems of Marxism; but in many respects he does not attain the standard reached by Plekhanov and Mehring.

But we must not confine ourselves to details. More important than such oversights, Bukharin deviates from the true tradition of historical materialism in several not inessential points, without thereby proving his points or improving on the highest level reached by his predecessors; indeed, he hardly even reaches that level. (It goes without saying that we consider his achievement, remarkable even in its errors, to partake of the best tradition of Marxism; popularizers rarely deal with such matters). This remark applies particularly to the introductory philosophical chapter, where Bukharin is suspiciously close to what Marx aptly called bourgeois materialism. Bukharin apparently does not know of the critique of this theory by Mehring and Plekhanov, not to mention Marx and Engels themselves, which sharply restricts its validity for an understanding of the historical process because of the particular place of history in historical, dialectical materialism. When every ‘idealist’ from Bernstein to Cunow has inverted this real centre of Marxism, it is understandable and, in the last analysis, healthy, that there should be a reaction. But in his philosophical remarks, Bukharin rejects all the elements in Marxist method which derive from classical German philosophy, without realizing the inconsistency this involves. Of course, Hegel is mentioned from time to time, but the essential comparison of his and Marx’s dialectic is absent. Characteristically, the only reference to Feuerbach is to note that with him ‘matter came to the fore’; ‘his influence on Marx and Engels assisted the development of the true theory of dialectical materialism.’ He completely ignores the problem of the relation between Feuerbach’s humanism and the Marxist dialectic.

This point has been particularly stressed because it clearly reveals the essential error in Bukharin’s conception of historical materialism. The closeness of Bukharin’s theory to bourgeois, natural-scientific materialism derives from his use of ‘science’ (in the French sense) as a model. In its concrete application to society and history it therefore frequently obscures the specific feature of Marxism: that all economic or ‘sociological’ phenomena derive from the social relations of men to one another. Emphasis on a false ‘objectivity’ in theory leads tofetishism.

The discussion of the role of technique in social development highlights these remnants of undissolved quiddity (unaufgelõster Dinghaftlichkeit) and false ‘objectivity’. Bukharin attributes to technology a far too determinant position, which completely misses the spirit of dialectical materialism. (It is undeniable that quotations from Marx and Engels can be found which it is possible to interpret in this way.) Bukharin remarks: ‘Every given system of social technique determinesfootnote1 human work relations as well.’ He attributes the predominance of a natural economy in classical times to the low level of technical development. He insists: ‘If technique changes, the division of labour in society also changes.’ He asserts that ‘in the last analysis’ society is dependent on the development of technique, which is seen as the ‘basic determinacy’ of the ‘productive forces of society’, etc. It is obvious that this final identification of technique with the forces of production is neither valid nor Marxist. Technique is a part, a moment, naturally of great importance, of the social productive forces, but it is neither simply identical with them, nor (as some of Bukharin’s earlier points would seem to imply) the final or absolute moment of the changes in these forces. This attempt to find the underlying determinants of society and its development in a principle other than that of the social relations between men in the process of production (and thence of distribution, consumption, etc)— that is in the economic structure of society correctly conceived— leads to fetishism, as Bukharin himself elsewhere admits. For example, he criticizes Cunow’s idea that technique is bound to natural conditions, that the presence of a certain raw material is decisive for the presence of a certain technique, on the grounds that Cunow confuses raw materials and the subject of labour, forgetting ‘that there must be a corresponding technique for which wood, ore, fibres, etc., can perform the role of raw materials . . . the influence of nature in the sense of material requisites is itself a product of the development of technique’. But should we not apply this valid criticism to technique itself? Is the conclusion that the development of society depends on technique not just as much a false ‘naturalism’ as Cunow’s theory, just as much a somewhat refined version of the ‘environmental’ theories of the 18th and 19th centuries? Naturally, Bukharin avoids the crude error of this ‘naturalism’: the attempt to explain change by a fixed principle. For technique indeed changes in the course of social development. His explanation of change is thus correct from the point of view of formal logic, in that it explains change by a variable moment. But technique as the selfsufficient basis of development is only a dynamic refinement of this crude naturalism. For if technique is not conceived as a moment of the existing system of production, if its development is not explained by the development of the social forces of production (and this is what needs clarification), it is just as much a transcendent principle, set over against man, as ‘nature’, climate, environment, raw materials, etc. Nobody doubts that at every determinate stage of the development of the productive forces, which determine the development of technique, technique retroactively influences the productive forces. Bukharin emphasizes this in reference to all ideology (Engels’ later theoretical insights are relevant here); but it is altogether incorrect and unmarxist to separate technique from the other ideological forms and to propose for it a self-sufficiency from the economic structure of society.

This is a serious error, for if technique is seen as even only mediately determinate for society, the remarkable changes in the course of its development are completely unexplained. Take for example the difference between classical and medieval technique. However primitive medieval technique may have been in performance, however much it may have represented a retreat from the well-known technical achievements of antiquity, medieval technique’s principle was development on a higher level: i.e. the rationalization of the organization of labour as compared with classical society. Labour performance remained unrationalized, and the rationalization of the organization of labour was achieved rather through the ‘door of social violence’footnote2 than through the development of technical rationality. But this laid the basis for the possibility of modern techniques, as Gottl has clearly demonstrated for the water-mill, mines, firearms, etc. This crucial change in the direction of technical development was based on a change in the economic structure of society: the change in labour potentialities and conditions. One of the essential co-determinate causes of the breakdown of classical society was, of course, its inability to support the social basis of its productive organization: the wasteful exploitation of inexhaustible slave material. The middle ages laid the general basis of the new form of social organization necessary. Max Weberfootnote3 has convincingly demonstrated that the coexistence of slaves and freemen in antiquity hindered the development of guilds and hence of the modern state—another contrast between the Orient or Antiquity, and modern society. Medieval social organization arose in quite opposite circumstances (shortage of labour, etc.) which then determined the essential course of technical development. So when Bukharin asserts that ‘a new technique made slave labour impossible; as slaves ruin complex machinery slave labour no longer pays’, he turns the causal relation on its head. Slavery is not made possible by a low level of technique; rather slavery as a form of the domination of labour makes the rationalization of the labour process, and hence a rational technique, impossible. Little work has yet been done on slavery as a relatively isolated enclave in a world economy based on wage labour, so we know little about the modifications it introduces.footnote4

This inverted relationship appears even more clearly if we turn to the transition from medieval production to modern capitalism. Marx explicitly stresses that the transition from guild handwork to manufactures involved no change in technique: ‘With regard to the mode of production itself, manufacture in its strict meaning is hardly to be distinguished, in its earliest stages, from the handicraft trades of the guilds, otherwise than by the greater number of workmen simultaneously employed by one and the same individual capital. The workshop of the medieval master handicraftsman is simply enlarged. At first, therefore, the difference is purely quantitative.’ (Capital I p. 322). It is the capitalist division of labour and its power relations, which give rise to the social preconditions for a mass market (dissolution of the natural economy) which produces a qualitative change. The social preconditions of modern mechanized techniques thus arose first; they were the product of a hundred-year social revolution. The technique is the consummation of modern capitalism, not its initial cause. It only appeared after the establishment of its social prerequisites; when the dialectical contradictions of the primitive forms of manufacture had been resolved, when ‘At a given stage of its development, the narrow technical base on which manufacture rested, came into conflict with requirements of production that were created by manufacture itself.’ (Capital I p. 368). It goes without saying that technical development is thereby extraordinarily accelerated. But this reciprocal interaction by no means surpasses the real historical and methodological primacy of the economy over technique. Thus Marx points out: ‘This total economy, arising as it does from the concentration of means of production and their use en masse . . . originates quite as much from the social nature of labour, just as surplus-value originates from the surplus-labour of the individual considered singly.’ (Capital III p. 79).