[Marxism] Engels on 'relative autonomy'

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Sat Apr 22 09:22:59 MDT 2006

Jim Farmelant :

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

CB; Isn't the "ultimately determining" moment the rare transitions,
revolutionary leaps, punctuations of equilibriums, between modes of
production ? In other words, the base ultimately determined the transition
from Roman slavery to feudalism ;and feudalism to capitalism. Those are the
only moments of ultimate determination.

During the course of the Roman empire, "economics" or economic class
structure was fixed and determined as slave-master/slave, and intermediate
gradations of class, rank and status. But the Roman superstructure , _beyond
this minimum limit_ , was relatively autonomous.

The revolutionary transition to feudalism is determined by contradictions in
the slave society class structure, slave and colonialists rebellions, i.e.
ultimately determined by "economics".

During feudalism, beyond this class structural minimum, lower limit,
economics does not determine the development of ideas about God or wizards,
or angels, as long as none of these threaten the ruling class.

And so on with the transition to capitalism from feudalism. "Ultimately",
the class struggles against the feudal lords and clergy burst asunder the
feudal class structure.

The economic class struggles determine CHANGES in the fundamental
STRUCTURES.  Most of the time the structures are in place, not changing. And
these structures determine the events within a mode of production's era.
This is "structure" and "event" in the Althusserian, Levi-Straussian sense,
by the way. Revolutions are changes of structure, superstructure,


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.

CB: Note Engels brings it back to the "necessary". Science must look for
what is necessary in the phenomenon under study. What is this "necessity" ?
Why is economic movement "necessary" ?


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.

CB: These ultimate "economic" causes being the necessity to keep the
exploited classes of Prussia from rebelling against the exploiting economic


 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

CB: "Hitherto". Herefore,the socialist revolution will be different, must be
different from previous revolutions in that the revolutionary classes cannot
act "as a whole unconsciously and without volition." It must be a conscious
revolution. Thus, Lenin's emphasis on a class and socialist conscious
working class and mass. The socialist revolution must be a highly
subjective, not natural-like or objective ,in the sense of not subjective,
process. It must take place objectively, but fully subjectively
simultaneously. We need a relativity of simultaneity of the subjective and
objective in the rev. :>)


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.

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