Development Of History

How Engels Interpreted Historical Materialism

Ramkrishna Bhattacharya

Engels's study of The Peasant War in Germany [1850/1870],' says Terrell Carver, 'was the first Marxist work of history' (Engels, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, p.33). He had also enumerated the notable features in this work by Engels: 'Engels demonstrated that in what appear to be religious struggles all was not resolved in theological terms, and that behind 'a religious screen' lay the 'interests, requirements and demands' of various classes' (1981, 33).

Engels also argued that the 1789 revolution in France 'was more than "a somewhat heated debate" on the advantages of constitutional monarchy over absolutism'. Referring to similar revolutions Engels wanted to reveal that the political struggles were nothing but 'economic concerns of social classes'. (MECW, Vol. 10, 1978, pp. 411-12) Thus Carver concludes: 'The methods and terms of Marxist historiography were largely set by Engels in this pioneering work' (1981, 34).

Engels provided not only a practical example of the Marxist study of history but also spoke of the theory behind his works in a number of letters to his fellow Marxists, written mostly in the last few years of his life. They are highly illuminating and definitely speak against any mechanistic approach to history. For example, in his letter to Paul Ernst (June 5, 1890), he cautions:

As regards your attempt to handle the matter in a materialist way, I should say first of all that the materialist method turns into its opposite if, in an historical study, it is used not as a guide but rather as a ready-made pattern in accordance with which one tailors the historical facts. (MECW, Vol. 48, 2001, p. 503)

Such cautionary note is repeated in a letter to Conrad Schmidt (August 5, 1890):

...if the material mode of existence is the primumagens [prime mover], this does not preclude the ideal fields from in turn exerting a reciprocal but secondary influence upon it, then he cannot possibly have understood the subject he is writing about. But as I have said, this is all at second hand and little Moritz is a friend one can well do without. Nor, today, has the materialist view of history any lack of such friends to whom it serves as a pretext for not studying history. As Marx said of the French Marxists in the late seventies: 'Tout ce que je sais, c'est que je ne suis pas Marxist' [All I know is that I'm not a Marxist] (MECW, Vol. 49, 2001, p. 07).

In the same letter, he makes his idea of history clear:

Our view of history, however, is first and foremost a guide to study, not a tool for constructing objects after the Hegelian model. The whole of history must be studied anew, and the existential conditions of the various social formations individually investigated before an attempt is made to deduce there from the political, legal, aesthetic, philosophical, religious, etc., standpoints that correspond to them.

In this connection one may recall Marx's letter to the Editor of a Russian journal, Notes on the Fatherland (end of 1877):

Thus events strikingly analogous, but occurring in different historical milieux, led to quite disparate results. By studying each of these evolutions on its own, and then comparing them, one will easily discover the key to the phenomenon, but it will never be arrived at by employing the all-purpose formula of a general historico-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical. (MECW, Vol 24, 1989, p 201)

How important it was for Marx and Engels to notice differences when speaking of different societies rather than provide an omnibus view is also borne out by a passage in the Manifesto of the Communist Party. At the end of Chapter 2, speaking of measure to be adopted against property, they write:

These measures will of course be different in different countries'.

Nevertheless, in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable:

1.   Abolition ' of property in land and application of all rents of and to public purposes.
2.   A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3.   Abolition of all right of inheritance etc. (MECW, Vol 6, 1976, p 505)

Let us now go back to Engels's letter to Schmidt:

Little has been done along these lines hitherto because very few people have seriously set their minds to it (sc. economic history). Here we could do with any amount of help; it is a truly immense field and anyone who is prepared to apply himself to it seriously could achieve much and make a name for himself. Instead, the only use to which the cliché (anything can be turned into a cliché) of historical materialism has been put by all too many younger Germans is hastily to run up a jerry-built system out of their own relatively inadequate historical knowledge–for economic history is as yet in its infancy–thus becoming great prodigies in their own eyes. And then a Barth can come along and attack the thing itself which has, of course, been debased to a mere cliché in his own milieu (MECW, Vol. 49, 2001, p. 08).

Engels's letter to Bloch in Königsberg (September 21-22, 1890) was occasioned by Bloch's letter to Engels concerning some of the formulations in Engels's Origin of the Family, Private Property and The State (1884). By way of explaining the issue of marriage between brothers and sisters in both ancient society and in Hawaiian royal family prevailing in his time, Engels first explained what he meant by the 'materialist conception of history'. The whole letter is worth quoting but we shall split it up into several sections and comment a little on each of them:

According to the materialist view of history, the ultimately determining factor in history is, in the final analysis, the production and reproduction of actual life. More than that was never maintained either by Marx or myself. Now if someone distorts this by declaring the economic moment to be the only determining factor, he changes that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, ridiculous piece of jargon. The economic situationis the basis, but the various factors of the superstructure–political forms of the class struggle and its consequences, namely constitutions set up by the ruling class after a victorious battle, etc., forms of law and, the reflections of all these real struggles in the minds of the participants, i.e. political, philosophical and legal theories, religious views and the expansion of the same into dogmatic systems–all these factors also have a bearing on the course of the historical struggles of which, in many cases, they largely determine the form. It is in the interaction of all these factors and amidst an unending multitude of fortuities (i.e. of things and events whose intrinsic interconnections are so remote or so incapable of proof that we can regard them as non-existent and ignore them) that the economic trend ultimately asserts itself as something inevitable. Otherwise the application of the theory to any particular period of history would, after all, be easier than solving a simple equation of the first degree. (MECW, Vol 49, 2002, pp 34-35)

Engels then embarks on another issue which occur in the writings of Marx, Engels and later Marxists very often: How history is made. The founding fathers first gave a hint to their idea of history in The Holy Family (1844): "It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; "history" is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims." (MECW. Vol 4, 1975, p 93). This formulation is found in a more elaborate form in Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852):

Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Caussidière for Danton, Louis Blanc for Robespierre, the Montagne of 1848 to 1851 for the Montagne of 1793 to 1795, the Nephew for the Uncle. And the same caricature occurs in the circumstances attending the second edition of the eighteenth Brumaire!

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living. And just when they seem engaged in revolutionising themselves and things, in creating something that has never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle-cries and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language. (MECW, Vol 11, 1979, pp 103-104).

Engels echoes these words in his letters.

We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite assumptions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are ultimately decisive. But the political ones, etc., and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one. (MECW, Vol 49, 2001, p 35)

As always, he had explained it more lucidly in his Ludwig Feuerbach and The End of Classical German Philosophy (1886):

Men make their own history, whatever its outcome may be, in that each person follows his own consciously desired end, and it is precisely the result of these many wills operating in different directions and of their manifold effects upon the world outside that constitutes history. Thus it is also a question of what the many individuals desire. The will is determined by passion or deliberation. But the levers which immediately determine passion or deliberation are of very different kinds. In part they may be external objects, in part ideal motives, ambition, "enthusiasm for truth and justice", personal hatred or even purely individual whims of all kinds. (MECW, Vol 26, 1990, pp 387-388)

Engels further explained by way of raising a question and answering it subsequently:

But, on the one hand, we have seen that the many individual wills active in history for the most part produce results quite other than those desired-often quite the opposite; that their motives, therefore, in relation to the total result are likewise of only secondary importance. On the other hand, the question also arises: What driving forces in turn stand behind these motives? What are the historical causes which transform themselves into these motives in the minds of the actors?

Engels distinguishes between the old (pre-Marxian) materialism and Marxian materialism in the following way:

The old materialism never asked itself this question. Its conception of history, as far as it has one at all, is therefore essentially pragmatic; it judges everything according to the motives of the action; it divides men who act in history into noble and ignoble and then finds that as a rule the noble are defrauded and the ignoble are victorious. Hence, it follows for the old materialism that nothing very edifying is to be got from the study of history, and for us that in the realm of history the old materialism becomes untrue to itself because it takes the ideal driving forces which operate there as ultimate causes, instead of investigating what is behind them, what are the driving forces of these driving forces. The inconsistency does not lie in the fact that ideal driving forces are recognised, but in the investigation not being carried further back from these into their motive causes.

Engels here acknowledges his (and Marx's) debt to Hegel:

On the other hand, the philosophy of history, particularly as represented by Hegel, recognises that the ostensible and also the actually operating motives of men who act in history are by no means the ultimate causes of historical events; that behind these motives are other motive powers, which have to be explored. But it does not seek these powers in history itself, it imports them rather from outside, from philosophical ideology, into history. Hegel, for example, instead of explaining the history of Ancient Greece out of its own inner coherence, simply maintains that it is nothing more than the bringing out of "forms of beautiful individuality", the realisation of a "work of art" as such. He says much in this connection about the Ancient Greeks that is fine and profound, but that does not prevent us today from refusing to be palmed off with such an explanation, which is mere empty talk. (MECW, Vol 26, 1990, pp 388-89)

As an 'aside', one may mention how Lenin counteracted question put by Mikhailovsky, a critique of Marxism. Mikhailovsky asked, "In which of his works did Marx set forth his materialist conception of history?" Lenin replied: "Anybody acquainted with Marx would answer this question by another: In which of his works did Marx not set forth his materialist conception of history?" (LCW, Vol 1, 1960, p 143).

Citing some examples from German history, Engels admits that besides economic conditions, political and religious elements also played their part. Nevertheless, he asserts that the economic conditions were ultimately decisive. Then he moves to another consideration:

In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a host of particular conditions of life. Thus there are innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant—the historical event. This may again itself be viewed as the product of a power which works as a whole unconsciously and without volition. For what each individual wills is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus history has proceeded hitherto in the manner of a natural process and is essentially subject to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals—each of whom desires what he is impelled to by his physical constitution and external, in the last resort economic, circumstances (either his own personal circumstances or those of society in general)–do not attain what they want, but are merged into an aggregate mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that they are equal to zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this extent included in it. (MECW, Vol 49, 2001, pp 35-36).

Here too, Engels is decidedly in favour of the economic factors, since it is 'in the last resort' the most operative one. This phrase, 'in the last resort' or 'in the final analysis', does not deny the roles of other factors, particularly political and religious, at one stage or the other of development. What he cautions against is to be deluded by the intermediate stages, forgetting or not paying enough attention to the economic base. In fact, the materialist conception of history is founded upon the understanding that, whatever be the course of development, and whichever features may arise in its course, the economic considerations are the decisive ones.

This is what Marx formulated in his Preface to the Contributions to the Critique of Political Economy, by employing the image of the base and the superstructure. A reference from Capital may also throw light on what is meant by 'in the last resort':

I seize this opportunity of shortly answering an objection taken by a German paper in America, to my work, ZurKritik der Pol. Oekonomie, 1859.' In the estimation of that paper, my view that each special mode of production and the social relations corresponding to it, in short, that the economic structure of society, is the real basis on which the juridical and political superstructure is raised, and to which definite social forms of thought correspond; that the mode of production determines the character of the social, political, and intellectual life generally [see present edition, Vol. 29, p. 263], all this is very true for our own times, in which material interests preponderate, but not for the Middle Ages, in which Catholicism, nor for Athens and Rome, where politics reigned supreme. In the first place it strikes one as an odd thing for anyone to suppose that these well-worn phrases about the Middle Ages and the ancient world are unknown to anyone else. This much, however, is clear, that the Middle Ages could not live on Catholicism, nor the ancient world on politics. On the contrary, it is the mode in which they gained a livelihood that explains why here politics, and their Catholicism, played the chief part. For the rest, it requires but a slight acquaintance with the history of the Roman republic, for example, to be aware that its secret history is the history of its landed property. On the other hand, Don Quixote long ago paid the penalty for wrongly imagining that knight errantry was compatible with all economic forms of society. (MECW, Vol 35, 1996, pp 92-93).

Engels closes this letter (more an essay than a letter) with a self-critical note:

If some younger writers attribute more importance to the economic aspect than is its due, Marx and I are to some extent to blame. We had to stress this leading principle in the face of opponents who denied it, and we did not always have the time, space or opportunity to do justice to the other factors that interacted upon each other. But it was a different matter when it came to depicting a section of history, i.e. to applying the theory in practice, and here there was no possibility of error. Unfortunately, people all too frequently believe they have mastered a new theory and can do just what they like with it as soon as they have grasped—not always correctly—its main propositions. Nor can I exempt from this reproach many of the more recent 'Marxists' who have, indeed, been responsible for some pretty peculiar stuff.

By way of example of this trend (which, unfortunately has not been laid to rest even in 2020) Engels quotes from a passage from a German journal:

I yesterday discovered (I am writing this on 22 September) in Schoemann's Griechische Alter-thümer, Berlin, 1855, I, p.52, the following vital passage which fully substantiates what I have said above. It runs:

'It is known, however, that marriage between half-brothers and sisters born of different mothers was not subsequently regarded as incest in Greece.' (MECW Vol 49, 2001, pp 36-37)

Marx and Engels actually stated their views concerning the priority of economic factors in the development of history in a satirical vein in the Manifesto of the Communist Party itself:

When people speak of ideas that revolutionise society, they do but express the fact, that within the old society, the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence.

When the ancient world was in its last throes, the ancient religions were overcome by Christianity. When Christian ideas succumbed in the 18th century to rationalist ideas, feudal society fought its death battle with the then revolutionary bourgeoisie. The ideas of religious liberty and freedom of conscience merely gave expression to the sway of free competition within the domain of knowledge.

Marx and Engels anticipate what the forces of Status Quo Ante would say:

"Undoubtedly," it will be said, "religious, moral, philosophical and juridical ideas have been modified in the course of historical development. But religion, morality, philosophy, political science, and law, constantly survived this change.

"There are, besides, eternal truths, such as Freedom, Justice, etc., that are common to all states of society. But Communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience."

To this they replied:

What does this accusation reduce itself to? The history of all past society has consisted in the development of class antago-nisms, antagonisms that assumed different forms at different epochs.

But whatever form they may have taken, one fact is common to all past ages, viz., the exploitation of one part of society by the other. No wonder, then, that the social consciousness of past ages, despite all the multiplicity and variety it displays, moves within certain common forms, or general ideas, which cannot completely vanish except with the total disappearance of class antagonisms. (This is written in 1848. But Engels came to understand that there was a pre-class society before the class societies after reading Morgan. He then added a long footnote on the first page of the Manifesto. The footnote made it clear that, 'all past societies', does not include the pre-historic societies that existed before written history.)

All the above extracts from his letters and parallel passages quoted from Marx, Engels and Lenin's works reveal that Engels was not afraid of self-criticism. He also blamed Marx along with himself for ignoring form for content, and over emphasising the economic factors in social change. Moreover, his insistence on reading 'all history anew' should make all the Marxists in India aware of the inadequacy of the study of history, whether of the whole of India, or of the linguistic regions, such as Andhra, Bengal, Chennai, etc.

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