Materialism according to Engels (and according to us)

In our bulletin 19 (June 2003), we had made a response to a critical text that the IBRP had addressed us in relation to our analisis of the present period. The IBRP rejected as a manifestation of idealism ("inheritance" of the CCI whom we come from) our position according to which, since September 11th 2001, the ruling class goes "voluntarily and with a certain consciousness towards a new generalized war" and, for that purpose, it today adopts a preparation politics at all levels (economical, military, political, ideological...) which it seeks to impose to the whole society, in particular to the proletariat which is the only social force capable to display its gruesome plans.

The terrible events of Madrid, March 11th 2004, have come in our opinion to confirm the validity of our analisis, of its method and of the materialist conception which underlies it contrary to the IBRP reproach. We're not going to take back the argumentation we have developed in our previous text. But we want to reprint what Engels himself brings in this debate. For that purpose, we publish here extracts of the letter he addressed to Bloch in 1890 in which he defines again how Marx and himself understand historical materialism (against those who "torture" their conception). In our opinion, he develops in the same sense as we had developped in our first text.

Extracts of a F. Engels' letter to Joseph Bloch (September 21st 1890).

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.

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 (...).

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.

I would furthermore ask you to study this theory from its original sources and not at second-hand; it is really much easier. Marx hardly wrote anything in which it did not play a part. But especially The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is a most excellent example of its application. There are also many allusion to it in Capital. Then may I also direct you to my writings: Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, in which I have given the most detailed account of historical material which, as far as I know, exists. [The German Ideology was not published in Marx or Engels lifetime]

Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-á-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent "Marxists" from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too....

Internal Fraction of ICC -- Bulletin 24