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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain (1991) Socialist Education Series - Engels and the Materialist Conception of History..

Between 1890 and 1894 Engels wrote a number of letters clarifying Marx’s theory of history, more popularly known as the materialist conception of history. These letters, five in all, were collected together under the title “LETTERS ON HISTORICAL MATERIALISM” and were published by progress publishers in 1980 from the MARX-ENGELS CORRESPONDENCE (Moscow 1975).

A warning should be given about treating these letters as Engel’s considered theoretical pronouncement. They were never meant for general circulation and publication. Engels, in fact, makes this point in his the letter to W. Borgius:

Please do not weigh each word in the above too scrupulously, but keep the general connection in mind; I regret that I have not the time to word what I am writing to you as exactly as I should be obliged to do for publication…”(p.27).

The importance of these five letters lays with the criticism Engels had of the oversimplification and vulgarisation of the materialist conception of history in some of the articles published in DIE NEUE ZEIT, the theoretical journal of the German Social Democratic Party.

Marx had previously criticised the writings of French “Marxists” (supporters of Lasselle), in the 1870’s, with the retort that “All I know is that I am not a Marxist”. Marx also took exception to those who used theory as “super-historical philosophy” in order to explain everything like some lazy philosopher writing a metaphysical system from his study.

Writing to Conrad Schmidt (August 5th, 1890) Engel’s questions the use of the term “materialistic” as used by “many of the younger writers in Germany” for a “mere phrase which anything and everything is labelled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of” (p.8).

He contrasts their debasement of the materialist conception of history with his and Marx’s own use of the theory:

…our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the Hegelian manner. All history must be studied afresh, the conditions of existence of the different formations of society must be examined in detail before the attempt is made to deduce from them the political, civil-law, aesthetic, philosophic, religious, etc., views corresponding to them” (ibid p. 8).

Engels believes that “economic history”; that is, a study of capitalism from a Marxist perspective, “is still in its swaddling clothes” and that Socialists should take the trouble “to study economics, the history of economics, the history of trade, of industry, of agriculture, of the social formations” (p.9).

Good Marxist writing demands research and hard work. To produce effective Socialist propaganda requires Socialist knowledge, which means, in turn, to be actively involved in the class struggle.

Engels continues this theme in his next letter to Joseph Bloch (September 21/22 1890). He writes:

Unfortunately,…, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado as soon as they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent “Marxists” from this reproach, for the most amazing stuff has been produced in that quarter, too…” (p.12).

The problem surrounding the materialist conception of history was not the attack on the theory from anti-Socialists but its poor understanding and application by those claiming to be Socialists. Not that Engels was dismissive of all that was being written. He wrote to Franz Mehring (London, July 14, 1893) praising his book “LESSING LEGEND” and its appendix on “HISTORICAL MATERIALISM”.

What did Marx and Engels understand the materialist conception to be? Are the social relationships between capital and labour the only real relationships? How does law, art and philosophy relate to the class struggle and the material conditions of human life?

Engel’s five letters adequately answer these questions. The reply to Bloch, for example, has become one of the primary Marxian texts in explaining the materialist conception of history and should be read along side Marx’s 1859 preface to the CONTRIBUTION TO THE CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY. Engels writes:

…According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Neither Marx nor I have ever asserted more than this. Hence if someone twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure-political forms of the class struggle and its results, such as the constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and especially the reflections of all these real struggles in the brains of the participants, political, legal, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogma-also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine their form in particular. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof than we can regard it as non-existent and neglect it), the economic movement is finally bound to assert itself. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree (p.10).

It is important to remember that Engels’ use of the word “economics” is deeper and more scientific than the restricted use of the word found in university economic departments, which restrict its use to money, markets, price and commodity production and exchange.

The economic relationship between the capitalist class and the working class carries with it political relations (the machinery of government to protect the institution of private property ownership and class privilege) and law (contract between buyers and sellers of labour power), the class struggle, trade unions, employers associations, class exploitation, a fetishism of commodities veiling social reality and true social relations and so on. This is implicit in Marx’s opening paragraph to the first volume of CAPITAL where he states:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities”, its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of the commodity” (p. 43).

Engels also attacks the erroneous belief held by critics of Marx that the materialist conception of history is either determinist or fatalist. “We make history ourselves” he writes, “but, in the first place, under very definite antecedents and conditions” (p10). He recommends to Bloch Marx’s THE EIGHTEENTH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE, which he believes is “a most excellent example” of the theory’s application to the interaction of ideas, to the political class struggle and to material conditions. Engels also offers two books of his own, ANTI-DUHRING and LUDWIG FEURERBACH AND THE END OF CLASSICAL GERMAN PHILOSPHY. And he concludes his letter with an honest admonishment:

Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principles vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other factors involved in the interaction. But when it comes to presenting a section of history, that is, to applying the theory in practice, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible” (p.12).

Engels continues the theme of relating the economic relations of society to ideas, laws, art and religion in the remaining letters. In another reply to Conrad Schmidt (October 27, 1890), he writes:

On the whole, the economic movement prevails, but it has also to endure reactions from the political movement which itself set up and endowed with relative independence, from the movement of the state power, on the one hand, and of the opposition simultaneously engendered, on the other. Just as the movement of the individual market is, in the main and with the reservations already indicated, reflected in the money market and, of course, in inverted form, so the struggle between the classes already existing and fighting with one another is reflected in the struggle between government and opposition, but likewise in inverted form, no longer directly but indirectly, not as a class struggle but as a fight for political principles, and it is so distorted that it has taken us thousands of years to get to the bottom of it” (p13-14).

Engels gives an example of the way in which legal systems develop as a result of a particular economic system with reference to the Code Napoleon. He concludes:

Thus to a great extent the course of the development of the “development of law” simply consists in first attempting to eliminate contradictions which arise from the direct translation of economic relations into legal principles, and to establish a harmonious system of law, and then in the repeated breaches made in this system by the influence and compulsion of further economic development, which involves it in further contradictions…

The reflection of economic relations in the form of legal principles is likewise bound to be inverted: it goes on without the person who is acting being conscious of it; the jurist imagines he is operating with a priori propositions, whereas they are really only economic reflections; everything is therefore upside down. And it seems to me obvious that this inversion, which, so long as it remains unrecognised, forms what we call ideological outlook, influences in its turn the economic basis and may, within certain limits, modify it
(p.17).

Engels warns Schmidt not to pursue ideological hares. A lot of ideas were generated by “the false conceptions of nature” and “it would be pedantic to try to find economic causes for all this primitive nonsense” (p17). And he concludes:

The ultimate supremacy of economic development is for me an established fact in these spheres too, but it operates within the terms laid down by the particular sphere itself: in philosophy, for instance, by the actions of the economic influences (which in their turn generally operate only in their political, etc., make up) upon the existing philosophic material which has been handed down by their predecessors. Here economy creates nothing new, but it determines the way in which the body of thought found in existence is altered and further developed, and that too for the most part indirectly, for it is the political, legal and moral reflexes which exert the greatest direct influence on philosophy (p.18).

THE 18TH BRUMAIRE OF LOUIS BONAPARTE and CAPITAL, says Engels, are sufficient answer to those who say that the materialist conception of history denies the impact of political struggles and events on economic relations. If this were so why should Socialists bother to tell workers to take political action to replace capitalism with Socialism? And he chides such superficial critics with the remark that “What these gentleman all lack is dialectics. They always see only cause here, effect there…the whole vast process goes on in the form of interaction…”(p.19). Similar themes are to be found in the letter to Franz Mehring (July 14, 1893) and W. Borgius (January 25, 1894).

In conclusion, the key to understanding change in society lies in understanding how human beings cope with the problem of producing and reproducing their food, shelter and clothing. That was Marx’s starting point. But it does not mean than improvements in technology or new ideas will change society by themselves. Marx rejected this view, as did Engels. A social system of production can only last as long as it helps, or at least does not prevent, the full use of the productive forces of society, and must give way when it becomes an impediment.

The only force, which can remove this impediment, is human agency. Not any human agency acting in any old way. And this particularly applies to the establishment of Socialism. The human agency has to be aware of its actions and those actions have to be political. Or, in other words, a working class majority taking conscious political action to replace capitalism with Socialism.

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