Letter to Schmidt

Chris Burford cburford at gn.apc.org
Sun Dec 11 18:27:00 MST 1994

In the last instance.

I don't think the question from Chris Barnes is unimportant. Again I
wonder if language is significant. Perhaps in German "instance" is more
immediately resonant as a court of law or authority. (There is an old
pub in Berlin called "Zur Letzen Instanz" where, so visitors like me
are told, prisoners used to drink before finally being condemned to

After a fascinating browse I tracked it down through the 1991 second
edition of  A  Dictionary of Marxist Thought, published by Blackwell,
in the interesting entry on  Base and Superstructure (which gives
references at the end to both Hall and Williams).

It is in Engels letter to Schmidt Oct 27th 1890. "In the last instance
production is the decisive factor."

But the next word is "But..."

Engels then describes the relative independence of various sectors
including politics. The law may also react back on production partly
because it has to be internally coherent .

He even refers to "definite thought material" and "existing philosophic
material" handed down by predecessors, (not usually considered to be
part of the "materialist conception of history")

He ends,
"If therefore Barth supposes that we deny any and every reaction of the
political, etc, reflexes of the economic movement upon the movement
itself, he is simply tilting at windmills...

What these gentlemen all lack is dialectics. They always see only here
cause, there effect. That is a hollow abstraction, that such metaphysical
polar opposites exist in the real world  only during crises, while the
whole vast process goes on in the form of interaction  - though of very
unequal forces, the economic movement being by far the strongest, most
primeval, most decisive - that here everything is relative and nothing
absolute - this they never begin to see. Hegel has never existed for

A fine denunciation of mechanical determinism!


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