1920s >> 1920 >> no-186-february-1920

The Materialist Conception of History. by Frederick Engels

Translated for “The Proletarian” by Prof. J. I. Cheskis, of the University of Michigan.


[The letter printed below is interesting to students of Socialism as one of the instances that show how false is the charge of the superior persons of the Labour Party and the I.L.P., of the “dogmatism” of Marx and Engels. It should also be remembered that a fight was being waged at the time the letter was written between the followers of Marx and the Anarchists of Germany, in which the latter were attempting to stretch some of the phrases of Marx and Engels on the Class War into a support of street fighting and barricades as the essential method of working-class emancipation. Similar tales are sometimes told in this country, and it is a significant fact that every new translation of Marx’s and Engels’ writings shows still further the falsity of these tales, and how all through their propaganda it was the capture of political power they insisted upon, as the essential that the working class must rely upon for their escape from slavery.—Ed. Com., “S.S.”]


In the course of a discussion that followed a public lecture, given at a seminary, a student asked Engels to give him precise explanations of the two following points:


  1. To what extent do economic conditions act as a causative influence ?
  2. What part is played by the race and by the individual according to the “historical materialism” of Marx and Engels ?


Engels replied:


London. Jan. 25, 1895. 
122 Regents Park Road, N.W. 


Dear Sir,—Following is the reply to your two questions :


1. The economic conditions, which we consider as the determinative basis in the history of society, we understand to be the manner in which men in a given society produce their means of subsistence and the ways in which they effect the exchange of products among themselves (this as long as division of labour exists). The entire technique of production and transportation is here included. According to our conception this technique determines the mode of exchange, of distribution of products, and—after the disintegration of the tribal system—the division of society into classes, the conditions of master and slave, of State, of politics, law, etc. Further, among the economic conditions under which these phenomena obtain, must be included the geographical environment, and also the actual remains of former phases of economic evolution which often persisted by force of tradition, inertia, or because of circumstances which surrounds that form of society.


Even if, as you say, technique largely depends on the conditions of science, yet, in a greater measure, does the latter depend on the conditions of and the need for technique. If society is in the need of the development of a certain technique, this helps science more than ten universities. The science of hydrostatics was the sole result of the need that Italy felt in the 16th and 17th centuries of controlling the course of her torrents in the mountains. We began to understand the science of electricity only when we discovered its practical application. In Germany, however, they have become accustomed to treat the history of science as though it had fallen out of the sky.


2. We hold, that in the final analysis, economic conditions constitute the determinative factor in historical evolution. Here, therefore, we must hold in view two points:


(A). That the political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc. evolutions are based on the economic evolution. They all re-act upon each other and upon the economic basis. It does not mean that the economic factor is the sole active cause and all the others merely passive effects. But the whole situation presents a mutual interaction among the various forces on the basis of economic necessity, which latter force ultimately prevails. The State, for instance, exerts an influence by means of protective tariffs, free exchange, good or bad revenue laws; and even the boundless stupidity and impotence of the German petty Bourgeoisie—which grew out of Germany’s economic misery during the period from 1648 to 1830, and which first manifested itself in piety, then in sentimentality and fawning servility before the nobles and princes— was not without its economic consequences. It was one of the greatest obstacles to the renaissance and was not shaken off until the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars made the economic wretchedness unbearable. History is not as some would imagine for the sake of their greater convenience, an automatic effect of the economic situation, but men themselves make their own history. Certain it is, however, that men act in accordance with the prevailing conditions that dominate their field of action. And among these the economic circumstances, however much influenced by political and ideological forces, are always of chief importance. In the final reckoning they constitute the decisive factor and form the golden thread which guides the student to the correct, all-comprehensive, understanding of the subject.


(B). Men make their own history, but not as the result of a general volition nor in accordance with some general plan,—not even in a given limited social group. Men’s aspirations oppose each other. Out of this circumstance, in every similar group, arises an imperative need whose chance concomitant or accidentality is at once the complement and the form of its manifestation. The need or necessity which here underlies every chance appearance is in the end the economic necessity. The so-called great man appears. But the fact that it happens to be a certain great man, appearing at a certain time and at a certain given place, is simply mere chance. But if we eliminate him there arises an immediate demand for a substitute, and this substitute in time found, tant bien que mal. That Napoleon became a military dictator —of which the French republic, exhausted by civil wars, stood in need—was merest chance ; but that in the event of Napoleon’s non-appearance there would have been another to occupy his place is proven by the fact that in every instance in which there was such a need the man was found—Caesar, Augustus, Cromwell, etc. If it happened to be Marx who discovered the law of historical materialism, yet Thierry, Mignet, Guizot, who up to 1850 were writing English histories, proves that such a notion already existed, and the discovery of the same idea by Morgan further proves that the times were ripe for such an event and the discovery was an imperative need.


And so it is with every other true or apparent accidentality in history. The farther the field that we may be examining recedes from the economic, and the nearer it approaches the merely abstract ideologic, the more we shall find—in its evolution—such accidentalities appearing on the scene, and the more does the curve of its evolution fluctuate. If one should attempt, however, to trace the axis of this curve, one should find that the longer the time period observed and the larger the field thus treated, the more nearly does this axis run parallel to the axis of the economic evolution.


In Germany the great hindrance to a true understanding of these things lies in the inexcusable neglect of this subject by the writers of economic history. It is so difficult to rid oneself of the historical conceptions inculcated by schools, and still more difficult to collect the necessary materials. Who, for example, has read old J. V. Julich, who includes in his dry collections so many explanations of various political phenomena!


Moreover, it seems to me the beautiful example given us by Marx in his “Eighteenth Brumaire” furnishes a sufficient answer to your questions—the more so because it is a practical illustration. And I believe myself to have touched upon those points in “Anti-Duehring,” I., chapters 9-11, II., chapters 2-4, and III., chapter 1, and also in the introduction and in the last chapter of “Feuerbach.”


I would ask you not to pass judgment on this letter, but to consider only the thoughts it conveys. I am sorry I have not the time to write you with that exactness I should employ when writing for the public.


Kindly give my regards to Mr. _____ and thank him for the . . . which has given me much pleasure.


With profound respect,
Most devotedly yours,


F. Engels.