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George Novack's idea of history

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1. The most primitive attempts to explain the origin and development of the world and man are the creation myths to be found among preliterate peoples. We are best acquainted with the one in Genesis which ascribes the making of heaven and earth with all its features and creatures to a Lord God who worked on a six-day schedule.

2. The first really rational explanation of the historical process as a whole was given by the outstanding Greek historians from Herodotus to Polybius. This was the cyclical conception of historical movement. According to this view, society, like nature, passed through identical patterns of development in periodically repeated rounds.

3. The Great Man theory emerged from a dissociation of the dual components of the Great God theory. The immense powers attributed to the gods become transferred to and concentrated in some figure at the head of the state, the church or other key institution or movement. This exceptionally placed personage was supposedly endowed with the capacity for moulding events as he willed. This is the pristine source of the tenacious belief that unusually influential and able individuals determine the main direction of history.

4. A more sophisticated and philosophical variant of the Great God-Man line of thought is the notion that history is drawn forward or driven ahead by some ideal force in order to realise its preconceived ends. The Greek Anaxagoras said: “Reason (Nous ) governs the world.” Aristotle held that the prime mover of the universe and thereby the ultimate animator of everything within it was God, who was defined as pure mind engaged in thinking about itself.

Hegel was the foremost modern exponent of this theory that the progress of mankind consisted in the working out and consummation of an idea. He wrote: “Spirit, or Mind, is the only motive principle of history.” The underlying goal of the World Spirit and the outcome of its laborious development was the realisation of the idea of freedom.

5.  the Best Race, the favoured nation, the ruling class alone make history. The Old Testament assumed that the Israelites were God’s chosen people. The Greeks regarded themselves as the acme of culture, better in all respects than the barbarians. Plato and Aristotle looked upon the slave-holding aristocracy as naturally superior to the lower orders. – Marxism is a version of this theory. We believe that “an emerging class” is leading the development of history. While Marxism identified this with “workers”, I think that a refinement should be made. Not simply “workers” but “creators”. Creators of new and progressive (revolutionary) ideas, technologies, things, relationships. Creators are expansion of workers. Who are the modern creators?

6. The Human Nature Theory. Most persistent is the view that history in the last analysis has been determined by the qualities of human nature, good or bad. Human nature, like nature itself, was regarded as rigid and unchanging from one generation to another. – that’s how corruption in Ukraine is explained by vulgar economists. “This has always been so”.

the empiricist David Hume flatly asserts in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding : “Mankind are so much the same, in all times and places, that history informs us of nothing new or strange in this particular. Its chief use is only to discover the constant and universal principles of human nature.”

7. Giambattista Vico of Naples was the great pioneer among these thinkers. He asserted at the beginning of the 18th century that since history, or “the world of nations”, had been created by men, it could be understood by its makers. He emphasised that social and cultural phenomena passed through a regular sequence of stages which was cyclical in character.

He insisted that “the order of ideas must follow the order of things” and that the “order of human things” was “first the forests, after that the huts, thence the village, next the cities and finally the academies”.

8. The key thought of the English and French materialists of the 17th and 18th centuries was that men were the products of their natural and social environments. As Charles Brockden Brown, an American novelist of the early 19th century, put it: “Human beings are moulded by the circumstances in which they are placed.” In accord with this principle, they turned to the objective realities of nature and society to explain the historical process. – this is the idea of “behaviorists”, such as “Walden-II”

9. Montesquieu, for example, regarded geography and government as the twin principal determinants of history and society. The physical factor was most influential in the earlier and more primitive stages of human existence, although its operation never ceased; the political factor became more dominant as civilisation advanced.

He and his contemporary materialists largely ignored the economic conditions which stood between nature and the political institutions. The economic basis and background of political systems and the struggles of contending classes which issued from economic contradictions were beyond their field of vision.

10. The French historians of the early 19th century acquired a deeper insight into the economic conditioning of the historical process through their studies of the English and French revolutions. They had watched the French revolution go through a complete cycle. This started with the overthrow of the absolute monarchy, passed through the revolutionary regime of Robespierre and the bourgeois-military dictatorship of Napoleon and ended in the Bourbon Restoration. – key is understanding history as “revolution”, which has certain stages, going upward and downward.

11. Hegel:

approached all historical phenomena from the standpoint of their evolution, seeing them as moments, elements, phases in a single creative, cumulative, progressive and ceaseless process of becoming.

the historical process was essentially rational. It had an immanent logic which unfolded in a law-governed manner defined by the dialectical process. Each stage of the whole was a necessary product of the circumstances of its time and place.

The outcome of history, the result of its agonising labour, is the growth of rational freedom. Man’s freedom comes not from arbitrary, wilful intervention in events, but from growing insight into the necessities of the objective, universal, contradictory processes of becoming. – freedom as the goal of history

12. The necessities of history are not always the same; they change into their opposites as one stage succeeds another. In fact, this conflict of lower and higher necessities is the generator of progress. A greater and growing necessity is at work within the existing order negating the conditions which sustain it. This necessity keeps depriving the present necessity of its reasons for existence, expands at its expense, renders it obsolete and eventually displaces it.

13. Not only do social formations and their specific dominant principles change from one stage to the next but so do the specific laws of development.

12. Marx and Engels’ conception of history – shaped by class struggles, drives towards realization of freedom of humanity as a whole in the form of communist society.

Engels defined historical materialism as “that view of the course of history which seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes, and in the struggles of these classes against one another”.

13. The Great Man theory strutted about under the swastika in the homage paid to Hitler. Spengler in Germany and Toynbee in England offer their re-editions of the cyclical round of history. The school of geopolitics makes geographical conditions in the shape of the heartland and the outlying regions into the paramount determinant of modern history.

14. Italian thinker Croce wrote: “History is the record of the creations of the human spirit in every field, theoretical as well as practical. And these spiritual creations are always born in the hearts and minds of men of genius, artists, thinkers, men of action, moral and religious reformers.” This position combines idealism with elitism, the spirit using geniuses, or the creative minority, as the agency which redeems the masses. – this position is close to mine. But I think that these creative people lead the masses, organize for great struggles in their own interests.

15. Stalinism has provided the most striking example of such an illogical synthesis. The votaries of “the personality cult” sought to fuse the traditions and views of Marxism, the most modern and scientific philosophy, with the archaic Great Man version of the contemporary historical process.

(this shows that) … generalised thought about the historical process can retrogress after making an immense leap forward. The history of historical science proves in its own way that progress is not even or persistent throughout history. Thucydides, the narrator of the Peloponnesian Wars in the fourth century BC, had a far more realistic view of history than did St. Augustine, the celebrator of the City of God, in the fourth century AD.

(Law of Combined and Uneven Development)

The mainspring of human progress is man’s command over the forces of production. As history advances, there occurs a faster or slower growth of productive forces in this or that segment of society, owing to the differences in natural conditions and historical connections. These disparities give either an expanded or a compressed character to entire historical epochs and impart varying rates and extents of growth to different peoples, different branches of economy, different classes, different social institutions and fields of culture. This is the essence of the law of uneven development.

These variations amongst the multiple factors in history provide the basis for the emergence of exceptional phenomena in which features of a lower stage are merged with those of a superior stage of social development. These combined formations have a highly contradictory character and exhibit marked peculiarities. They may deviate so much from the rule and effect such an upheaval as to produce a qualitative leap in social evolution and enable a formerly backward people to outdistance, for a certain time, a more advanced. This is the gist of the law of combined development.

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