The Materialist Conception of History [Engels]

The first of the important discoveries with which the name of Marx is associated in the history of science, is the conception of the world’s history. All conception of history previous to him is founded on the idea that the ultimate causes of all historic changes are found in the changing ideas of men, and again, that of all historic changes the political are the most important, controlling the whole of history. But whence these ideas are derived by men, and what are the moving causes of political changes, nobody had even enquired. Only in the recent school of French, and partly also of English, historians, the conviction had forced itself that at least since the Middle Ages the driving force in European history was the struggle of the developing bourgeoisie with the feudal nobility for the social and political supremacy. Marx, however, demonstrated that all history has been hitherto a history of class struggles, that all the numerous and intricate political struggles were carried on only for the sake of the social and political supremacy of different classes in society; for the maintenance of the supremacy by older, for the establishment of supremacy by newly rising classes.

Through what agency, now, do these classes rise and exist? Through the pressure of those material and physical conditions under which the society of a given time produces and exchanges its means of subsistence. The feudal reign of the Middle Ages was based on the self-sufficient and almost exchangeless management of small farming communities, producing nearly all their own necessities and receiving from the warlike nobility protection against external foes, and national, or at least political, coherence. When the towns arose and with them a separate branch of skilled industry and a trade first confined to the home market, but later on waxing international, then the civic element of the towns developed and, fighting the nobility, obtained even during the Middle Ages its admission as a likewise privileged class into the feudal order. But by the discovery of new lands outside of Europe in the middle of the fifteenth century, the bourgeoisie obtained a far more extended territory for its trade and hence a new incentive to industry; skilled labour was displaced in the most important branches by more factory-like production which, in its turn met the same fate through industrial organisation on a large scale made possible by the inventions of the 18th century, especially the steam engine. These industries reacted on trade by displacing manual labour in the more backward countries and creating in the further advanced countries the present new means of communication, steam-engines, railways, electric telegraphs. Thus the bourgeoisie united more and more the social wealth and the social power in its own hands, though for a long time it still remained excluded from the political power which still rested in the hands of the nobility, and the monarchy protected by the nobility. But at a certain stage—in France after the great revolution—it also conquered this power and now became in its turn the ruling class in opposition to the proletariat and the small farmer. Observed from this point of view, all historical transactions are very easily explained—with a sufficient knowledge of the contemporaneous economic state of society, unhappily wholly missing in our professional historians.; and in a most simple manner the conceptions and ideas of a given historical period are explained by the economic conditions of existence during that period, and by the social and political conditions dependent on those economic factors. History for the first time was placed on its real foundation ; the obvious fact hitherto totally neglected, that first of all men must eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, and therefore must work, before they can struggle for supremacy and devote themselves to politics, religion, philosophy, etc.—this obvious fact at last found historical recognition.

Engels’ biographic sketch of Marx.

[Extract from Engels, “Karl Marx”, 1877]

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