Lucien Sanial 1902

Prefatory Note to Frederick Engels’
Historical Materialism

Source: Historical Materialism, published by the Socialist Labor Party, 1902;
Transcribed: by Adam Buick.

The following essay was written by Frederick Engels in 1892, as an introduction to the first English edition of a previous work from his pen, entitled Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, which had already been published in nine of the languages spoken in Europe: namely, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Russian, Polish, Danish, Dutch, and Roumanian. That its publication in English came so late was no mere accident. It was, on the contrary, a very significant circumstance, sufficiently remarkable to provoke comment and require explanation. While the book had found interested readers among all classes of people in every part of the Continent, there had been no inquiry for it in England, even among the learned.

Manifestly, the tardiness of the British mind in taking up the philosophic study of Socialism could not be accounted for solely by the fact that the propagation of its doctrine had not yet resulted in Great Britain, as it had elsewhere, in a great working-class movement, ominous of disaster to the capitalist fabric, but promiseful of happiness to mankind. Observers of social phenomena are expected to look beyond their immediate environment in space and time; for they are supposed to know that national boundaries, national institutions, and national prejudices oppose no longer impassable barriers to “foreign ideas.” Insomuch, then, as the British philosophers, statesmen, economists, journalists, and other reputed thinkers or light-bearers of “the Empire” were in duty — if not to the common people, at least to the ruling classes — bound to watch the development of new conceptions and new forces abroad, they seemed in this instance to have been singularly remiss or wilfully blind. Not until a mighty wave of Socialism tore away from the German Ship of State the strongest helmsman of the age, did some of them begin to consider the nature of the force that could manifest itself with so much power. Their inquiry, however, was very superficial, and has remained so to this day. It is not indeed very long since the most eminent and best emancipated of the English thinkers, namely, Herbert Spencer, illustrated in his own person — issued from the middle class and moving in its highest circles — his own theory of the influence of environment upon evolution, by working out a misconception of Socialism superlatively characteristic of all the ignorance and presumption of that class. And as we write it is safe to say that in England, outside a very small circle of class-conscious, obscure proletarians, who acquired their knowledge in the international movement, there is hardly a man who can claim to have studied and mastered the scientific propositions upon which Socialism is resting.

In the following pages Engels gives the true cause of this mental sluggishness in a country otherwise noted for its production of active intellects. The Materialist Conception of History is a fundamental requirement for the comprehension of Socialism as a scientific doctrine and of the Socialist Movement as a living fact. But, for reasons ably stated by our author, that is, owing to moral conditions, which are themselves a product of the historical materialism of England, such a conception is highly repugnant to the “feelings” — and to the interests — of the British “respectability.”

Of course, whether it be on the European Continent or in the British Isles, or in America, and whatever opinion or lack of opinion upon any subject may happen to be respectable among the exploiters of labor and their mouthpieces, the proletarian class can expect no aid from its oppressors in accomplishing its own emancipation. It must rely upon itself alone, and therefore be possessed of knowledge; such knowledge as it needs to carry it safely through the class struggle to final success; a “positive” knowledge, the foundation of which is the Materialist Conception of History.

Lucien Sanial
New York, January 1902.