Elementary Principles of Philosophy
by Georges Politzer

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AS SOON as the question, “Where do our ideas come from?” is raised, the need for pursuing our research further becomes apparent. If we reasoned in the manner of the 18th century materialists, who thought that “the mind secretes thought as the liver secretes bile,” we could answer this question by saying that it is nature which produces the mind and that, consequently, our ideas are the product of nature and the product of our minds.

It could then be said that history is made by the action of men driven by their will, the latter being the expression of their ideas which are themselves derived from their brains. But watch out!

1. An error to avoid

If we explained the French Revolution by saying that it was the result of the application of the ideas which arose in the minds of philosophers, this would be a narrow and insufficient explanation and a poor application of materialism.

What must be seen is why the ideas launched by the thinkers of this period were adopted by the masses. Why was Diderot not alone in conceiving of them and for what reason were the great majority of minds since the 16th century developing the same ideas? Is it because these minds suddenly had the same weight, the same convolution? No. There were changes in ideas, but no change took place inside the skull.

This explanation of ideas by the brain seems like a materialist explanation. But to speak of Diderot’s brain is really to speak of the ideas in Diderot’s brain. Hence, this is a falsified and improper materialist theory, in which we witness the revival of the idealist tendency to give primary importance to ideas.

Let us go back to the sequence: history—action—will—ideas. Ideas have a meaning, a content. The working class, for example, struggles for the elimination of capitalism. This is an idea held by the struggling workers. They think because they have brains, certainly, and the brain is therefore a necessary condition for thinking; but it is not a sufficient condition. The brain explains the material act of having ideas, but it does not explain why one has certain ideas rather than others. “Everything which sets men in motion must go through their minds; but what form it will take in the mind will depend very much upon the circumstances.” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 50.)

How can we then explain the content of our ideas, that is, how does the idea of overthrowing capitalism come to us?

2. “Social being” and consciousness

We know that our ideas are the reflection of things. The goals which our ideas contain are also the reflection of things, but which things?

In order to answer this question, we must see where men live and where their ideas appear. We find that men live in a capitalist society and that their ideas appear in this society and are derived from it. “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.” (Karl Marx, “Preface,” Critique of Political Economy, New York: International Publishers, 1970, p. 21.)

In this definition, what Marx calls “their being,” signifies what we are; “consciousness” is what we think, what we desire.

We are struggling for an ideal profoundly rooted in us, it is generally said, and as a result of this, it is our consciousness which determines our being. We act in a certain way because we think in a certain way, because we want to.

It is a grave error to speak this way, for in reality it is our social being which determines our consciousness.

A proletarian thinks like a proletarian, and a bourgeois thinks like a bourgeois (we shall see later why this is not always the case). But, generally speaking, “A man thinks differently in a palace and in a hut.” (Engels, Feuerbach, p. 38.)

3. Idealist theories

Idealists say that a proletarian or a bourgeois is one or the other because he thinks like one or the other.

We say, on the contrary, that, while one may think like a proletarian or a bourgeois, this is because one is one or the other. A proletarian has a proletarian class consciousness because he is a proletarian.

We should pay close attention to the practical consequences of this idealist theory. Accordingly, if one is a bourgeois, it is because one thinks like a bourgeois. Hence, in order to stop being one, it is sufficient to change the way of thinking in question; and in order to halt bourgeois exploitation, it is sufficient to make the bosses change their convictions. This is a theory defended by Christian socialists; it was also shared by the founders of utopian socialism.

Moreover, it is also held by the fascists who fight against capitalism, not to eliminate it, but to make it more “rational”! As soon as management understands that it exploits workers, they say, it will no longer do so. Here we have a completely idealist theory whose dangers are obvious to us.

4. “Social being” and the conditions of existence

Marx speaks of “social being.” What does he mean by this?

“Social being” is determined by the material conditions of existence in which men live in society.

It is not the consciousness of men which determines their material conditions of existence, but these material conditions which determine their consciousness.

What are the material conditions of existence? In society, there are rich people and poor people, and their way of thinking is different, their ideas on the same subject are different. Taking the subway, for someone poor and unemployed, is a luxury, but it is a disgrace for someone rich who has a car.

Does a poor person entertain these ideas about the subway because he is poor or because he takes the subway? Because he is poor. Being poor is his condition of existence.

So, we must see why there are rich people and poor people in order to be able to explain men’s conditions of existence.

In the economic process of production, a group of people occupying an analogous place (i.e., in the present capitalist system, possessing the means of production—or, on the contrary, working on the means of production which do not belong to them), and consequently having to a certain extent the same material conditions of existence, form a class. However, the notion of class is not simply that of wealth or poverty. A proletarian may earn more than a bourgeois. He is, nonetheless, a proletarian because he is dependent on a boss and because his life is neither secure nor independent The material conditions of existence consist not only of money earned, but also of social function. Therefore, we have the following sequence:

People make their history through their actions according to their will, which is the expression of their ideas. The latter are derived from their material conditions of existence, i.e., their membership in a class.

5. Class struggle, the motor of history

People act because they have certain ideas. They owe these ideas to their material conditions of existence, because they belong to one class or another. This does not mean that there are only two classes in society. There are a number of classes, of which two are principally in conflict: the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

Hence, beneath ideas there are classes.

Society is divided into classes which struggle against each other. Thus, if we examine the ideas which man has, we see that these ideas are in conflict, and that, beneath these ideas, we find classes which are themselves in conflict as well.

Consequently, the motor forces of history, i.e., the explanation of history, is class struggle.

If we take the permanent deficit of the budget, for example, we see that there are two solutions: one consists of continuing what is called financial orthodoxy: savings, loans, new taxes, etc.; the other solution consists of making the rich pay.

We observe a political struggle around these ideas. Generally, one is “sorry” that one cannot reach an agreement on this matter. The Marxist, however, wants to understand and looks for what is underneath the political struggle. He then discovers the social struggle, i.e., class struggle. Struggle between those who favor the first solution (capitalists) and those who favor making the rich pay (middle classes and proletariat). Engels says:

Thus we have another link to add to the sequence we have used to explain history. We now have: action, will, ideas, beneath which are found classes and, behind classes, is the economy. Hence, it is indeed class struggles which explain history, but it is the economy which determines classes.

If we wish to explain a historical fact, we must examine which ideas are in conflict, look for the classes beneath these ideas and, finally, define the economic mode which characterizes these classes.

One may still wonder where classes and the economic mode come from (and dialecticians are not afraid of asking all these successive questions because they know that we must find the source of everything). This is what we shall study in detail in the next chapter, but we can already say:

In order to know where classes come from, one must study the history of society, and then one will see that the existing classes have not always been the same. In Greece: slaves and masters: in the Middle Ages: serfs and lords; next, to simplify the enumeration, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

In the above description, we find that classes change, and, if we look for the reason why they change, we shall see that it is because the economic conditions have changed (by economic conditions we mean: the structure of production, of distribution, of exchange, of the consumption of goods, and, as the ultimate condition of all the rest, the way of producing, or technology).

Here follows a text by Engels:

Hence, in the last analysis, we see that we may represent the motor forces of history by the following sequence:

To clarify in what forms and under what conditions this sequence takes place, let us say that:


K. Marx and F. Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party (link to MIA)

K. Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, pp. 5-23 (link to MIA)

H. Selsam, D. Goldway, H. Martel, eds., Dynamics of Social Change, A Reader in Marxist Social Science (New York: International Publishers, 1970), pp. 19-42.


WE HAVE seen that, in the last analysis, the motor forces of history are classes and their struggles determined by economic conditions.

This may be expressed by the following sequence: people have ideas in their heads which make them act. These ideas are derived from the material conditions of existence in which they live. These material conditions of existence are determined by the social place they occupy in society, i.e., by the class to which they belong, and classes are themselves determined by the economic conditions in which society evolves.

But it remains for us to see what it is which determines economic conditions and the classes they create. This is what we propose to study below.

1. The first great division of labor

By studying the evolution of society and taking into account the events of the past, the first observation one makes is that the division of society into classes has not always existed. Dialectics demands that we search for the origin of things. Now we find that, in a far-distant past, there were no classes. In The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels tells us:

All men participate in production; the individual instruments of labor are private property, but those which are used in common belong to the community. The division of labor exists at this lower stage only between the sexes. Man hunts, fishes, etc.; woman takes care of the house. There are no “private” interests at stake.

But men did not remain in this period; the first change in the life of men will be the division of labor in society. “But the division of labor slowly insinuates itself into this process of production.” (Frederick Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, New York: International Publishers, 1942, p. 233.)

This first event occurs where men:

Hence we have, as the first mode of production: hunting and fishing; as the second mode of production: cattle raising, which gives rise to pastoral tribes.

This first division of labor is the basis for:

2. The first division of society into classes

Thus, at this moment, we have two classes in society: masters and slaves. Thereafter society will continue to live and to undergo new developments. A new class will appear and grow.

3. The second great division of labor
4. The second division of society into classes

In this way, the first great division of labor increases the value of human labor, and creates a growth of wealth, which again increases the value of labor and makes a second division of labor necessary: handicrafts and agriculture. At this moment, the constant increase of production and with it of the value of the human labor power makes slaves ‘‘indispensable” and creates commercial production and with it a third class: merchants.

Hence, at this moment in society, we have a triple division of labor and three classes: farmers, artisans, merchants. For the first time we see a class appear which does not participate in production, and this class, the merchant class, will dominate the other two.

Hence, we see the sequence which, beginning with primitive communism, leads us to capitalism.

Now we know where classes come from; it remains for us to study:

5. What determines economic conditions?

We should first review very briefly the different societies which have preceded us.

We lack documents with which to study in detail the history of societies which preceded those of antiquity. But we know, for example, that with the Greeks, masters and slaves existed and that the merchant class was already beginning to develop. Then, in the Middle Ages, feudal society, with its lords and serfs, enabled the merchants to gain more and more importance. They clustered near the castles, in the heart of the bourgs (whence the name “bourgeois”). Moreover, in the Middle Ages, before capitalist production, there were only small enterprises, whose primary condition was that the producer be the owner of his instruments of labor. The means of production belonged to the individual and were adapted only to individual use. Consequently, they were paltry, small, and limited. The historical role of capitalist production and the bourgeoisie was to concentrate and enlarge these means of production, transforming them into the powerful levers of modern production.

Hence, we see that, parallel with the evolution of classes (masters and slaves; lords and serfs), there is an evolution of the conditions of production, of distribution and of exchange of wealth, i.e., of economic conditions, and that this economic evolution follows step by step and coincides with the evolution of the modes of production. It is therefore the

6. Modes of production

that is, the condition of instruments and tools, their utilization, labor methods, in a word, the state of technology, which determines economic conditions.

Here we see that the evolution of modes of production totally transformed the productive forces. Now, while the tools of labor have become collective, the ownership of property has remained individual! Machines which can function only through collective implementation have remained the property of a single man. For this reason we see that

(The productive forces) press forward to… the practical recognition of their character as social productive forces…. (They command) the socialisation of great masses of means of production, which we meet with in the different kinds of joint-stock companies… this form also becomes insufficient… the official representative of capitalist society—the state—will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production…. (This) shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. (F. Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, pp. 65-67.)

Thus the contradictions of the capitalist system become clear to us:

There is a contradiction between work which has become social and collective and property which has remained private. And so, with Marx, we shall say:

From the forms of development of productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins a period of social revolution. (Marx, ‘‘Preface,” Critique of Political Economy, p. 21.)


Before ending this chapter, we must make a few comments and underline the fact that, in this study, we find all the characteristics and laws of dialectics which we have just studied.

Indeed, we have just very quickly traced the history of societies, of classes and of modes of production. We see how dependent each part of this study is on the others. We find that this history is essentially in motion and that the changes which occur at each stage of the evolution of society are provoked by an internal struggle between the different conservative and progressive elements, a struggle which ends in the destruction of one society and in the birth of a new one. Each society has a character and a structure quite different from the society which preceded it. These radical transformations occur after an accumulation of events which, in themselves, seem insignificant, but which, at a certain moment, create by their accumulation a situation which provokes an abrupt, revolutionary change.

Hence, here we recognize the characteristics and the great general laws of dialectics namely:


F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State

F. Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific (link to MIA)

H. Selsam and H. Martel, Reader in Marxist Philosophy: From the Writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin (New York: International Publishers, 1963) Part V.

Control Questions

Chapter 1
  1. 1. What explanation of history do idealists give us?
  2. 2. What is historical materialism?
  3. 3. What was the position of 18th century materialists with regard to the explanation of history?
Chapter 2
  1. 1. Where do classes come from?
  2. 2. What are the motor forces of history?

Written Assignment
  1. How does Marxism (historical materialism) apply dialectics to history?