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New International, September–October 1934


Engels on Historical Materialism

From New International, Vol. I No. 3, September–October 1934, pp. 81–85.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The four letters by Friedrich Engels were written by him in his last years and represent the most mature statement and elucidation of the Marxian position on historical materialism. The notable increase of interest, and unfortunately of confusion, on this subject in the United States has prompted us to print them for the first time, to our knowledge, in an American periodical. The letters to Schmidt, Starkenburg and Bloch were first brought to light by Eduard Bernstein in his Documente des Socialismus in 1902; the one to Mehring is to be found in the second volume of the latter’s history of the German social democracy. They were first translated into English by Sidney Hook as an appendix to his Towards an Understanding of Karl Marx (N.Y. 1933. $2.50). We are indebted to the author and his publishers, The John Day Co., for their kind permission to reprint the letters. With one exception, the foot-notes are from the German edition edited by Dr. Hermann Duncker. By arrangement, we have made certain minor emendations in the translation on the basis of the original text. – Ed.

A Letter to Conrad Schmidt

London, October 27, 1890.

Dear Schmidt:

SEIZE the first free moment to write you. I think you would be well advised to accept the position at Zurich. [1] You can always learn considerably about economic matters there, especially if you bear in mind that Zurich is still only a third-rate money and speculation market, and that, consequently, the effects which make themselves felt there are weakened, and indeed deliberately falsified by double and triple-fold refraction. But one acquires a practical knowledge of the business and is compelled to follow first-hand market reports from London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Vienna – and the world market is then revealed in its reflected form as money and security market. Of the economic, political and other reflections the same thing is true as of the images in the human eye. They all pass through a convex lens and therefore appear upside down, standing on their head. Only the nervous system is lacking to set them right on their feet again. The money-market expert sees the movement of industry and the world market only in the inverted reflection of the money and security market, and takes the effect for the cause. I saw that take place as far back as the Forties in Manchester. The London market reports were absolutely useless as a guide to the development of industry and its periodic maxima and minima because m’lords wanted to explain everything as arising from the crises in the money market which were, after all, only symptoms. Behind the matter at that time was the desire to explain away the fact that industrial crises arose out of temporary overproduction; in addition there was a bias which invited distortion. This last is now irrelevant – once for all, at least for us; besides it is a fact, that the money market can also have its own crises, in which direct industrial disturbances play only a subordinate role or none whatever. In this connection there is still much to be ascertained and investigated especially in the last twenty years.

Wherever there is a division of labor on a social scale, there will also be found the growing independence of workers in relation to each other. Production is in the last instance the decisive factor. However, as soon as the commercial exchange of commodities separates itself from actual production it follows a movement which, although as a whole still dominated by production, in turn obeys in its particular details and within the sphere of its general dependence, its own laws. These flow from the nature of the new factor involved. This movement has its own phases and reacts in turn upon the course of production. The discovery of America resulted from the hunger for money, which had already driven the Portuguese to Africa (cf. Soetbeer’s Edelmetall-Produktion), because the tremendous expansion of European industry in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries together with the corresponding commercial activity demanded more means of exchange than Germany – the great silver country from 1450 to 1550 – could provide. The conquest of India by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English from 1500 to 1800 was undertaken for the sake of imports from India. At that time no one thought of exports. And yet what colossal counter-effects these discoveries and conquests which were determined purely by interests of trade, had upon exports to those countries and upon the development of large scale industry. The same is true for the money market. Just as soon as dealing in money is separated from commodity exchange, it acquires a development of its own, special laws determined by its particular nature, and its own phases. Yet they all take place within the given limits and conditions of production and commodity exchange. Where dealing in money is extended in the course of its further evolution to include securities that are not merely government consols but industrials and railroad stocks, and thereby wins direct control over a phase of the production which as a whole controls it, the reaction of the money market upon production becomes all the stronger and more complicated. The investment bankers are the owners of railroads, mines, steel mills, etc. These means of production take on a double aspect: business has to be run now with an eye to the interests of direct production, and now with an eye to the needs of the stock-holders in so far as they are money lenders. The crassest illustration of this is furnished by the activities of the North American railroads which depend completely, upon the immediate market operations of a Jay Gould, Vanderbilt and others – operations that are totally foreign to the road in question and its interests as a common carrier. And even here in England we have witnessed decades of struggle between different railway companies in competitive territories in which an enormous amount of money went up in smoke not in the interest of production and communication but solely because of a rivalry whose main function was to make possible market operations of the wealthy stock-holders.

In these few intimations of my conception of the relation between production and commodity exchange, and of both to the money market, I have already answered in essence your questions concerning historical materialism in general. The matter can most easily be grasped from the standpoint of the division of labor. Society gives rise to certain public functions which it cannot dispense with. The people who are delegated to perform them constitute a new branch of the division of labor within society. They acquire therewith special interests in opposition even to those who have designated them; make themselves independent of them, and the state is here. And now the same thing takes place as in commodity exchange and later in money exchange: while the new independent power must, on the whole, submit to the movement of production, in turn it also reacts, by virtue of its immanent, i.e., its once transmitted but gradually developed relative independence, upon the conditions and course of production. There is a reciprocity between two unequal forces; on the one side, the economic movement; on the other, the new political power which strives for the greatest possible independence and which having once arisen is endowed with its own movement. The economic movement, upon the whole, asserts itself but it is affected by the reaction of the relatively independent political movement which it itself had set up. This political movement is on the one hand the state power, on the other, the opposition which comes to life at the same time with it. Just as the money market reflects, on the whole, with the qualifications indicated, the movement of the industrial market, but naturally in an inverted fashion, so there is reflected in the struggle between government and opposition, the struggle between already existing and contending classes but again in an inverted form, no longer direct but indirect, not as a class struggle but as a struggle for political principles. So inverted is this reflection that it required thousands of years to discover what was behind it.

The reaction of the state power upon economic development can take a three-fold form. It can run in the same direction, and then the tempo of development becomes accelerated; it can buck up against that development in which case today in every large nation the state power is sure to go to smash for good; or it can block economic development along some directions and lay down its path along others. This last case is ultimately reducible to one of either of the foregoing two. It is clear that in the second and third cases the political power can do great damage to the course of economic development and result in a great waste of energy and materials.

We must add to the above the case of conquest and brutal destruction of economic resources in which under certain circumstances it was possible in the past for a local or national economic development to be completely destroyed. Today cases of this kind usually produce opposite effects, at least among the large nations. Often it is the conquered who in the long run wins more economically, politically and morally than the conqueror.

The same is true for law. Just as soon as the necessity arises for the new division of labor which creates professional jurists, another new independent domain is opened which, for all its dependence upon production and trade in general, still possesses a special capacity to react upon these fields. In a modern state, law must not only correspond to the general economic situation and be its expression; it must also be its coherently unified expression, free from glaring internal inconsistencies. In order to achieve this, the fidelity with which the law reflects economic conditions constantly diminishes. This is all the truer, the more rarely it happens, that the legal code expresses the harsh, unrelieved and naked fact of class rule. For that contradicts the very “concept of law”. The pure and consistent jural concept of the revolutionary bourgeoisie of 1792–96 already appears falsified in many respects in the Code Napoleon. And in so far as it is incorporated it is subject to daily modifications of all kinds because of the growing power of the proletariat. That doesn’t prevent the Code Napoleon from serving as a legal model for new codifications of law in all parts of the world. The course of “legal development” consists, in large part, first in the attempt to erect an harmonious system of law by eliminating the contradictions flowing from the direct translation of economic relations into jural propositions; and then in the fact that the influence and compulsion exerted by the further economic development keeps on upsetting the system and plunging it into new contradictions. (I speak here for the time being only of civil law.)

The reflection of economic relations as principles of law is necessarily also an inverted one. The process takes place without the participants becoming conscious of it. The jurist imagines that he is operating with a priori propositions, while the latter are after all only reflections of the economic process. And so everything remains standing on its head. This inverted reflex so long as it is not recognized for what it is constitutes what we call ideological conceptions. That it is able to exert a reactive influence on the economic basis and within certain limits to modify it, seems to me to be self-evident. The foundations of the law of inheritance, corresponding stages in the development of the family being presupposed, are economic. Nonetheless it would be very hard to prove that, e.g., the absolute freedom of testamentary disposition in England, and the strongly restricted right in France. in all particulars have only economic causes. Yet both methods react in a very significant way upon the economic system in that they influence the distribution of wealth.

And now as concerns those ideological realms which tower still higher in the clouds – religion, philosophy, etc. – they all possess from pre-historical days an already discovered and traditionally accepted fund of – what we would today call idiocy. All of these various mistaken ideas of nature, of the very creation of man, of spirits, magical forces, etc., have as their basis, in the main, negative economic grounds. The primitive economic development of the pre-historical period is supplemented by false ideas of nature, but in places it is often also conditioned and even caused by them. However, even if economic need has been the chief driving force in the advance of natural knowledge, and has become even more so, it would be altogether pedantic to seek economic causes for all this primitive idiocy. The history of science is the history of the gradual elimination of this idiocy, i.e., its replacement by new, but always less absurd, idiocy. The people who supply it belong again to special spheres in the division of labor and imagine that they are working up an independent domain. And in so far as they constitute an independent group within the social division of labor, their products, inclusive of their errors, exerts a counter-acting influence upon the entire social development, even upon the economic. Nonetheless they still remain under the dominant influence of economic development. For example, in philosophy this is easiest to demonstrate for the bourgeois period. Hobbes was the first modern materialist (in the spirit of the eighteenth century) but an absolutist at a time when in the whole of Europe absolute monarchy was enjoying the height of its power and in England had taken up the struggle against the people. Locke was, in religion as in politics, a son of the class-compromise of 1688. The English Deists, and their more consistent followers, the French materialists, were the genuine philosophers of the bourgeoisie – the French, even of the bourgeois revolution. In German philosophy from Kant to Hegel the German philistine makes his way – now positively, now negatively. But as a definite domain within the division of labor, the philosophy of every age has as its presuppositions a certain intellectual material which it inherits from its predecessors and which is its own point of departure. That is why philosophy can play first violin in economically backward countries: France in the eighteenth century as opposed to England upon whose philosophy her own was based; and later Germany as opposed to both. But in France as in Germany, philosophy, like the general outburst of literary activity of that time, was a result of an economic upswing. The final supremacy of economic development even in these realms is now established but it takes place within the conditions which are set down by the particular realm: in philosophy, e.g., through the effect of economic influences (which in turn exert influence through disguised political, etc., forms) upon the existing philosophical material which our predecessors have handed down. Of itself economics produces no effects here directly; but it determines the kind of change and development the already existing intellectual material receives, and even that, for the most part, indirectly, since it is the political, jural and moral reflexes which exercize the greatest direct influence upon philosophy.

I have said what is necessary about religion in the last section on Feuerbach.

If Barth imagines that we deny all and every retroaction of the political, etc., reflexes of the economic movement upon that movement itself, he is simply contending against windmills. He ought at least take a glance at Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, which almost restricts itself to the treatment of the special role that political struggles and events play, naturally within the sphere of their general dependence upon economic conditions; or in Capital, e.g., the section on the working day, where legislation, which certainly is a political act, operates so decisively; or the section on the history of the bourgeoisie (Chap. 24). Or else, why are we struggling for the political dictatorship of the proletariat, if political power has no economic effects? Force (i.e., the state power) is also an economic power!

But I have no time at present to criticize the book. The third volume must first come out, and besides I believe that, for example, even Bernstein can do the job quite well.

What all these gentlemen lack is dialectics. All they ever see is cause here, effect there. They do not at all see that this is a bare abstraction; that in the real world such metaphysical polar opposites exist only in crises; that the whole great process develops itself in the form of reciprocal action, to be sure of very unequal forces, in which the economic movement is far and away the strongest, most primary and decisive. They do not see that here nothing is absolute and everything relative. For them Hegel has never existed. Yours, etc.



1. Conrad Schmidt had written Engels that he intended to take over the commercial section of a Zurich newspaper. – H.D.

A Letter to J. Bloch

London, September 21, 1890

Dear Sir:

YOUR letter of the 3rd inst. was forwarded to me at Folkestone; but as I did not have the book in question there, I could not answer you. Returning home on the 12th I discovered such a pile of urgent work waiting for me, that only today have I found the time to write you a few lines. This in explanation of the delay which I hope you will kindly pardon.

To Point I. [2] First of all you will please note on p. 19 of the Origin that the process of development of the Punaluan family is presented as having taken place so gradually that even in this century marriages of brother and sister (of one mother) have taken place in the royal family of Hawaii. And throughout antiquity we find examples of marriages between brother and sister, e.g., among the Ptolemies. Secondly, we must here distinguish between brother and sister deriving from the side of the mother, or deriving only from the side of the father; adelphos, adelphse come from delphos, womb, and originally signified, therefore, only brother and sister on the side of the mother. The feeling had survived a long time from the time of the mother-right that the children of the same mother who have different fathers, are more closely related than the children of the same father who have different mothers. The Punaluan form of the family excludes only marriages between the first group, but by no means between the second who according to the existing notion are not even related (since mother-right rules). As far as I know, the cases of marriage between brother and sister in ancient Greece are restricted either to those individuals who have different mothers or to those about whom this is not known, and for whom, therefore, the possibility is not excluded; hence, they are absolutely not in contradiction to the Punaluan usage. You have overlooked the fact that between the time of the Punaluan family and the time of Greek monogamy there lies the jump from the matriarchate to the patriarchate, which alters matters considerably.

According to Wachsmuth’s Hellen. Altertumern, in the heroic age of Greece, “there is no sign of any concern about the too close blood relationship of husband and wife, except for the relation of parent and child” (III, p. 156). “Marriage with one’s own sister was not disapproved of in Crete” (ibid., p. 170). The last also according to Strabo, Bk. X, for the moment however, I cannot find the passage because of the absence of chapter divisions. – By one’s own sister I understand, until there is proof to the contrary, sisters on the father’s side.

To Point II. [3] I qualify your first major proposition as follows: According to the materialistic conception of history, the production and reproduction of real life constitutes in the last instance the determining factor of history. Neither Marx nor I ever maintained more. Now when someone comes along and distorts this to mean that the economic factor is the sole determining factor, he is converting the former proposition into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase. The economic situation is the basis but the various factors of the superstructure – the political forms of the class struggles and its results – constitutions, etc., established by victorious classes after hard-won battles – legal forms, and even the reflexes of all these real struggles in the brain of the participants, political, jural, philosophical theories, religious conceptions and their further development into systematic dogmas – all these exercize an influence upon the course of historical struggles, and in many cases determine for the most part their form. There is a reciprocity between all these factors in which, finally, through the endless array of contingencies (i.e., of things and events whose inner connection with one another is so remote, or so incapable of proof, that we may neglect it, regarding it as nonexistent) the economic movement asserts itself as necessary. Were this not the case, the application of the history to any given historical period would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.

We ourselves make our own history, but, first of all, under very definite presuppositions and conditions. Among these are the economic, which are finally decisive. But there are also the political, etc. Yes, even the ghostly traditions, which haunt the minds of men play a role albeit not a decisive one. The Prussian state arose and developed also through historical, in the last instance, economic causes. One could hardly, however, assert without pedantry that among the many petty principalities of North Germany, just Brandenburg was determined by economic necessity and not by other factors also (before all, its involvement in virtue of its Prussian possessions, with Poland and therewith international political relations – which were also decisive factors in the creation of the Austrian sovereign power) to become the great power in which was to be embodied the economic, linguistic and, since the Reformation, also the religious differences of North and South. It would be very hard to attempt to explain by economic causes, without making ourselves ridiculous, the existence of every petty German state of the past or present, or the origin of the shifting of consonants in High-German, which reinforced the differences that existed already in virtue of the geographical separating wall formed by the mountains from Sudeten to Taunus.

Secondly, history is so made that the end-result always arises out of the conflict of many individual wills, in which every will is itself the product of a host of special conditions of life. Consequently there exist innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite group of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant product – the historical event. This again may itself be viewed as the product of a force acting as a whole without consciousness or volition. For what every individual wills separately is frustrated by what every one else wills and the general upshot is something which no one willed. And so the course of history has run along like a natural process; it also is subject essentially to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals – who desire what the constitution of their body as well as external circumstances, in the last instance economic (either personal or social) impel them to desire – do not get what they wish, but fuse into an average or common resultant, from all that one has no right to conclude that they equal zero. On the contrary, every will contributes to the resultant and is in so far included within it.

I should further like to beg of you to study the theory from its original sources and not at second hand. It is really much easier. Marx hardly wrote a thing in which this theory does not play a part. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Bonaparte is an especially remarkable example of its application. There are many relevant passages also in Capital. In addition, permit me to call your attention to my own writings, Herrn E. Dühring’s Umwälzung der Wissenschaft and L. Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassischen deutschen Philosophie where I give the most comprehensive exposition of historical materialism which to my knowledge exists anywhere.

Marx and I are partly responsible for the fact that at times our disciples have laid more weight upon the economic factor than belongs to it. We were compelled to emphasize this main principle in opposition; to our opponents who denied it, and there wasn’t always time, place and occasion to do justice to the other factors in the reciprocal interaction. But just as soon as it was a matter of the presentation of an historical chapter, that is to say, of practical application, things became quite different; there, no error was possible. Unfortunately it is only too frequent that a person believes he has completely understood a new theory and is capable of applying it when he has taken over its fundamental ideas – but it isn’t always true. And from this reproach I cannot spare many of the recent “Marxists”. They have certainly turned out a rare kind of tommyrot.

To Point I again. Yesterday (I am writing now on the 22nd of September), I found the following decisive passage, in Schoe-mann’s Griechische Altertümer (Berlin, 1855, I, p.52), which completely confirms the view taken above: “It is well known, however, that marriages between half-brothers or sisters of different mothers was not regarded as incest in late Greece.”

I hope that the appalling parenthetical expressions which, for brevity’s sake, have slipped from my pen, won’t frighten you off, and I remain.


Yours sincerely,
F. Engels



2. Bloch had asked how it came about that even after the disappearance of the consanguine family, marriages between brother and sister were not forbidden among the Greeks, as may be concluded from Nepos. – H.D.

3. Bloch had asked how the fundamental principle of the materialistic conception of history was understood by Marx and Engels themselves; whether the production and reproduction of real life constituted the sole determining factor or were only the foundation upon which all other relations developed a further activity of their own. – H.D.

A Letter to Hans Starkenburg [1*]

Dear Sir:

HERE are the answers to your questions [4]: 1. By economic relations, which we regard as the determining basis of the history of society, we understand the way in which human beings in a definite society produce their necessities of life and exchange the products among themselves (in so far as division of labor exists). Consequently the whole technique of production and transportation is therein included. According to our conception, this technique determines the character and method of exchange, further, the distribution of the products and therewith, after the dissolution of gentile society, the division into classes, therewith, the relationships of master and slave, therewith, the state, politics, law, etc. Under economic relations are included further, the geographical foundations upon which they develop and actually inherited remains of earlier economic stages of development which have, persisted, often through tradition only or vis inertia, and also, naturally, the external milieu surrounding this social form.

If the technique, as you properly say, is for the most part dependent upon the state of science, then so much the more is science dependent upon the state and needs of technique. If society has a technical need, it serves as a greater spur to the progress of science than do ten universities. The whole of hydrostatics (Torricelli, etc.) was produced by the need of controlling the mountain streams in Italy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We only acquired some intelligible knowledge about electricity when its technical applicability was discovered. Unfortunately, in Germany, people have been accustomed to write the history of the sciences as if the sciences had fallen from the sky.

2. We regard the economic conditions as conditioning, in the last instance, historical development. But race is itself an economic factor. But there are two points here which must not be overlooked.

(a) The political, legal, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic, etc., development rest upon the economic. But they all react upon one another and upon the economic base. It is not the case that the economic situation is the cause, alone active, and everything else only a passive effect. Rather there is a reciprocal interaction with a fundamental economic necessity which in the last instance always asserts itself. The state, e.g., exerts its influence through tariffs, free trade, good or bad taxation. Even that deadly supineness and impotence of the German philistine which arose out of the miserable economic situation of Germany from 1648 to 1830 and which expressed itself first in pietism, then in sentimentalism and crawling servility before prince and noble, were not without their economic effects. They constituted one of the greatest hindrances to an upward movement and were only cleared out of the way by the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars which made the chronic misery acute. Hence, it is not true, as some people here and there conveniently imagine, that economic conditions have an automatic effect. Men make their own history, but in a given, conditioning milieu, upon the basis of actual relations already extant, among which, the economic relations, no matter how much they are influenced by relations of a political and ideological order, are ultimately decisive, constituting a red thread which runs through all the other relations and enabling us to understand them.

(b) Men make their own history but until now not with collective will according to a collective plan. Not even in a definitely limited given society. Their strivings are at cross purposes with each other, and in all such societies there therefore reigns a necessity, which is supplemented by and manifests itself in the form of contingency. The necessity which here asserts itself through all those contingencies is ultimately, again, economic. Here we must treat of the so-called great man. That a certain particular man and no other emerges at a definite time in a given country is naturally pure chance. But even if we eliminate him, there is always a need for a substitute, and the substitute is found tant bien que mal; in the long run he is sure to be found. That Napoleon – this particular Corsican – should have been the military dictator made necessary by the exhausting wars of the French Republics that was a matter of chance. But that in default of a Napoleon, another would have filled his place, that is established by the fact that whenever a man was necessary he has always been found: Caesar, Augustus, Cromwell, etc. Marx, to be sure, discovered the materialistic conception of history – but the examples of Thierry, Mignet, Guizot, the whole school of English historians up to 1850 show they were working towards it; and the discovery of the same conception by Morgan serves as proof that the time was ripe for it, and that it had to be discovered.

So with all other accidents and apparent accidents in history. The further removed the field we happen to be investigating is from the economic, and the closer it comes to the domain of pure, abstract ideology, the more we will find that it reveals accidents in its development, the more does the course of its curve run in zig-zag fashion. But fit a trend to the curve and you will find that the longer the period taken, the more inclusive the field treated, the more closely will this trend run parallel to the trend of economic development.

The greatest obstacle to the correct understanding of the theory in Germany is the irresponsible neglect of the literature of economic history. It is hard not only to get rid of historical conceptions which have been drummed into one’s head at school but even more so to gather together the material necessary to do it. Who has even read, e.g., old G. v. Gülich, whose dry accumulation of material nonetheless contains so much stuff which explains innumerable political facts?

In addition I believe that the fine example which Marx himself gives in his Eighteenth Brumaire ought to give you considerable information on your questions just because it is a practical illustration. I also believe that in the Anti-Dühring, ch. I, 9–11, and II, 2–4, as well as III, 1, or the introduction, and then in the final section of Feuerbach, I have already treated most of the points.

I beg of you not to weigh gingerly each separate word of the above by itself but to take the connections into account. I am sorry that I have not the time to work things out and write you with the same exact detail that I would have to do for publication.

Please pay my respects to Mr. ... and thank him for me for sending along the ..., which cheered me up greatly.


F. Engels



4. 1. To what extent are economic relations causally effective (are they sufficient causes, occasions or permanent conditions etc., of social development)? 2. What roles do the factors of race and historical personality play in Marx-Engels’ conception of history? – H.D.

Footnote by ETOL

1*. In the 1968 edition of Marx and Engels’ Collected Works Progress publishers included the following note;

This letter was first published without any mention of the addressee in the journal Der socialistische Akademiker No. 20, 1895, by its contributor H. Starkenburg. As a result Starkenburg was wrongly identified as the addressee in all previous editions.

From a Letter to Franz Mehring

YOU have expressed [5] the main facts admirably and for every open-minded person convincingly. If I were to take exception to anything, it would be to the fact that you ascribe more credit to me than I deserve, even if I include everything I could have possibly discovered in the course of time by myself; but which Marx with his quicker coup d’œil and greater breadth of view, discovered much sooner. When one has had the good fortune to work together for forty years with a man like Marx, one does not during his lifetime usually receive the appreciation one believes he deserves. But just as soon as the greater of the two dies, the lesser is easily overrated. That seems to be the case with me right now. History, however, will take care of all that and by that time one is happily here no longer and cares nothing at all about it.

Only one point is lacking which Marx and I did not stress systematically enough in our writings and in relation to which we are equally to blame. Namely, we both placed and had to place the chief weight upon the derivation of political, legal and other ideological notions, as well as the actions which they led up to, from fundamental economic facts. In consequence we neglected the formal side, i.e., the way in which these ideas, etc., arose, for the sake of the content. That gave our opponents a welcome occasion for misunderstanding. Paul Barth is a striking example.

Ideology is a process which of course is carried on with the consciousness of the so-called thinker but with a false consciousness. The real driving forces which move him, he remains unaware of, otherwise it would :not be an ideological process. He therefore imagines false or apparent driving forces. Because it is a thought process, he derives both its content and form from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with purely conceptual material which he unwittingly takes over as the product of thought and therefore does not investigate its relations to a process further removed from and independent of thought. Indeed this seems to him self-evident, for it appears to him that since all activity is mediated by thought, it is ultimately grounded in thought.

The historical ideologist (and historical here simply takes in political, jural, philosophical, theological, in short, all domains which belong to society and not merely to nature) – the historical ideologist is confronted in every scientific field by material which has been built up independently out of the thought of earlier generations, and which through the minds of these successive generations has undergone an independent development peculiar to itself. External facts from this or other fields may have contributed to determine this development but these facts, according to the tacit presupposition made, are themselves mere fruits of a thought process. And so we still remain in the realm of pure thought which has succeeded so well in digesting even the toughest facts. It is this appearance of an independent history of state constitutions, systems of law, of ideologies in every special field, which, above all, has blinded so many people. When Luther and Calvin “transcend” the official Catholic religion; when Hegel “transcends” Fichte and Kant; and Rousseau, indirectly with his contrat social, the constitutionalist, Montesquieu – it is a process which remains within theology, philosophy and political science. It merely represents a stage in the history of these intellectual domains and never emerges from the field of pure thought at all. And ever since the illusion of the eternity and ultimacy of the system of capitalist production has been added, even the refutation of the Mercantilists by the physiocrats and A. Smith has been regarded not as the intellectual reflection of altered economic realities, but only as a victory of thought, as a correct insight, won at last, into actual conditions existing always and everywhere. If only Richard the Lion-hearted, and Philip Augustus, had introduced free trade, instead of involving themselves in crusades, five hundred years of misery and stupidity would have been spared us.

This side of the matter, which I can here only indicate, we have all neglected, I think, more than it deserved. It’s the old story. In the beginning the form is always neglected for the content As already said, I myself have made that error and it has always occurred to me only post festum. I am far from reproaching you with it. As an old sinner in this respect I have hardly the right, just the contrary. But I do wish to call your attention to this point for the future.

This is bound up with the stupid conception of the ideologists. Because we denied that the different ideological spheres, which play a part in history, have an independent historical development, we were supposed therewith to have denied that they have any historical efficacy. At the basis of this is the ordinary undialectical notion of cause and effect as fixed, mutually opposed, polar relations, and a complete disregard of reciprocity. These gentlemen forget, almost intentionally, that an historical factor, once it has been brought into the world by other – ultimately economic facts – thereupon also reacts upon its surroundings and even affects its own causes. Thus Barth, e.g., in connection with priesthood and religion, on p.475 in your book ...


Friedrich Engels



5. The reference is to Mehring’s On Historical Materialism which appeared as an appendix to the first edition of his Lessing-Legende in 1893; in it he settled accounts with the then lecturer on philosophy at Leipzig, Paul Barth, mentioned by Engels elsewhere in these letters. – Ed.

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Last updated on 25 February 2016