[Marxism] Engels on 'relative autonomy'

Jim Farmelant farmelantj at juno.com
Sat Apr 22 05:57:38 MDT 2006

On Sat, 22 Apr 2006 12:00:37 +0100 "Ian Pace" <ian at ianpace.com> writes:
> I have been looking through lots of Engels' late letters on the 
> question of the relative autonomy of art (and science, philosophy, 
> etc.). Plenty of information here on this dialectical formation 
> (arguably made more so by 20th century Western Marxists - Adorno, 
> Gramsci, Althusser, etc.). But I can't find the specific phrase 
> 'relative autonomy' - can anyone direct me to the specific 
> letter/text where Engels uses this phrase, if indeed he does (and 
> point out the German original, if he was writing in German at the 
> time)? 

I don't think that Engels ever used that specific phrase.
I think that you are confusing Althusser with Engels
(more about that below).

What I think that you have in mind is Engels' 1890 letter
to J. Bloch, where he wrote:
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. The Prussian state also arose and developed from
historical, ultimately economic, causes. But it could scarcely be
maintained without pedantry that among the many small states of North
Germany, Brandenburg was specifically determined by economic necessity to
become the great power embodying the economic, linguistic and, after the
Reformation, also the religious difference between North and South, and
not by other elements as well (above all by its entanglement with Poland,
owing to the possession of Prussia, and hence with international
political relations — which were indeed also decisive in the formation of
the Austrian dynastic power). Without making oneself ridiculous it would
be a difficult thing to explain in terms of economics the existence of
every small state in Germany, past and present, or the origin of the High
German consonant permutations, which widened the geographic partition
wall formed by the mountains from the Sudetic range to the Taunus to form
a regular fissure across all Germany.

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 force, 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....

Louis Althusser in his 1962 essay, "Contradiction and Overdetermination,"
referred to Engels' letter to Boch, in order to support his case
concerning relative autonomy.

> Also, various opinions by posters to this group on the most 
> important of both Marx and Engels' writings on degrees of 
> superstructual autonomy would be most appreciated (apart from the 
> obvious ones like the Preface to the Contribution to a Critique of 
> Political Economy and The German Ideology).
> Solidarity,
> Ian

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