The materialist conception of history
By Frederick Engels, 1890
The following is an extract from a letter written in London by Frederich Engels on 21 September 1890 to Joseph Bloch, the editor of a socialist journal.
According to the materialist conception of history the determining element in history is ultimately the production and reproduction in real life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted.
If therefore somebody twists this into the statement that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms it into a meaningless, abstract and absurd phrase.
The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure – political forms of the class struggle and its consequences, constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc. – forms of law – and then even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the combatants: political, legal, philosophical theories, religious ideas and their further development into systems of dogma – 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 (i.e., of things and events, whose inner connection is so remote or impossible to prove that we regard it as absent so and can neglect it) the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history one chose would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.
We make our own history, but in the first place under very definite presuppositions and conditions. Among these the economic ones are finally decisive. But the political, etc, ones, and indeed even the traditions which haunt human minds also play a part, although not the decisive one…
…In the second place, however, history makes itself in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between many individual wills, of which each again 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 again may itself be viewed as the product of a power which, taken as a whole, works unconsciously and without volition.
For what each individual wills, is obstructed by everyone else, and what emerges is something that no one willed. Thus past history proceeds in the manner of a natural process, and is also essentially subject to the same laws of movement. But from the fact that individual wills – of which each 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 a collective mean, a common resultant, it must not be concluded that their value equals zero. On the contrary, each contributes to the resultant and is to this degree involved in it.
I would ask you to study this theory further 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 allusions in Capital. Then I may also direct you to my writings, Herr Eugen Duhring’s Revolution in Science and Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, in which I have given the most detailed account of historical materialism which, so far as I know, exists.
Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that younger writers sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasize this main principle in opposition to our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the lace or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights.
But when it was a case of presenting a section of history, that is of a practical application, the thing was different and there no error was possible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have mastered its main principles, and those even not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent “Marxists” from this reproach, for the most wonderful rubbish has been produced from this quarter too.