[Marxism] Why does class struggle determine history ? (Do you agree or disagree with the following proposition) ?

Charles Brown cbrown at michiganlegal.org
Fri Mar 31 11:07:53 MST 2006

Engels addresses the central role of necessity in the following as well,
immediately below:

" Their efforts clash, and for that very reason all such societies are
governed by necessity, which is supplemented by and appears under the forms
of accident. The necessity which here asserts itself amidst all accident is
again ultimately economic necessity."

Marx-Engels Correspondence 1894

Engels to Borgius[1]



Source: Marx and Engels Correspondence;

London, January 25, 1894
Here is the answer to your questions!

(1) What we understand by the economic conditions which we regard as the
determining basis of the history of society are the methods by which human
beings in a given society produce their means of subsistence and exchange
the products among themselves (in so far as division of labour exists). Thus
the entire technique of production and transport is here included. According
to our conception this technique also determines the method of exchange and,
further, the division of products, and with it, after the dissolution of
tribal society, the division into classes also and hence the relations of
lordship and servitude and with them the state, politics, law, etc. Under
economic conditions are further included the geographical basis on which
they operate and those remnants of earlier stages of economic development
which have actually been transmitted and have survived--often only through
tradition or the force of inertia; also of course the external milieu which
surrounds this form of society.

If, as you say, technique largely depends on the state of science, science
depends far more still on the state and the requirements of technique. If
society has a technical need, that helps science forward more than ten
universities. The whole of hydrostatics (Torricelli, etc.) was called forth
by the necessity for regulating the mountain streams of Italy in the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. We have only known anything reasonable
about electricity since its technical applicability was discovered. But
unfortunately it has become the custom in Germany to write the history of
the sciences as if they had fallen from the skies.

(2) We regard economic conditions as the factor which ultimately determines
historical development. But race is itself an economic factor. Here,
however, two points must not be overlooked:

(a) Political, juridical, philosophical, religious, literary, artistic,
etc., development is based on economic development. But all these react upon
one another and also upon the economic base. It is not that the economic
position is the cause and alone active, while everything else only has a
passive effect. There is, rather, interaction on the basis of the economic
necessity, which ultimately always asserts itself. The state, for instance,
exercises an influence by tariffs, free trade, good or bad fiscal system;
and even the deadly inanition and impotence of the German petty bourgeois,
arising from the miserable economic position of Germany from 1640 to 1830
and expressing itself at first in pietism, then in sentimentality and
cringing servility to princes and nobles, was not without economic effect.
It was one of the greatest hindrances to recovery and was not shaken until
the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars made the chronic misery an acute one.
So it is not, as people try here and there conveniently to imagine, that the
economic position produces an automatic effect. Men make their history
themselves, only in given surroundings which condition it and on the basis
of actual relations already existing, among which the economic relations,
however much they may be influenced by the other political and ideological
ones, are still ultimately the decisive ones, forming the red thread which
runs through them and alone leads to understanding.

(b) Men make their history themselves, but not as yet with a collective will
or according to a collective plan or even in a definitely defined, given
society. Their efforts clash, and for that very reason all such societies
are governed by necessity, which is supplemented by and appears under the
forms of accident. The necessity which here asserts itself amidst all
accident is again ultimately economic necessity. This is where the so-called
great men come in for treatment. That such and such a man and precisely that
man arises at that particular time in that given country is of course pure
accident. But cut him out and there will be a demand for a substitute, and
this substitute will be found, good or bad, but in the long run he will be
found. That Napoleon, just that particular Corsican, should have been the
military dictator whom the French Republic, exhausted by its own war, had
rendered necessary, was an accident; but that, if a Napoleon had been
lacking, another would have filled the place, is proved by the fact that the
man has always been found as soon as he became necessary: Caesar, Augustus,
Cromwell, etc. While Marx discovered the materialist conception of history,
Thierry, Mignet, Guizot, and all the English historians up to 1850 are the
proof that it was being striven for, and the discovery of the same
conception by Morgan proves that the time was ripe for it and that indeed it
had to be discovered.

So with all the other accidents, and apparent accidents, of history. The
further the particular sphere which we are investigating is removed from the
economic sphere and approaches that of pure abstract ideology, the more
shall we find it exhibiting accidents in its development, the more will its
curve run in a zig-zag. So also you will find that the axis of this curve
will approach more and more nearly parallel to the axis of the curve of
economic development the longer the period considered and the wider the
field dealt with.

In Germany the greatest hindrance to correct understanding is the
irresponsible neglect by literature of economic history. It is so hard, not
only to disaccustom oneself of the ideas of history drilled into one at
school, but still more to rake up the necessary material for doing so. Who,
for instance, has read old G. von Gülich, whose dry collection of material
nevertheless contains so much stuff for the clarification of innumerable
political facts!

For the rest, the fine example which Marx has given in the Eighteenth
Brumaire should already, I think, provide you fairly well with information
on your questions, just because it is a practical example. I have also, I
believe, already touched on most of the points in Anti-Dühring I, Chapters
9-11, and II, 2-4, as well as in III, I, or Introduction, and then in the
last section of Feuerbach.

Please do not weigh each word in the above too carefully, but keep the
connection in mind; I regret that I have not the time to work out what I am
writing to you so exactly as I should be obliged to do for publication.


Also< Note Engels formulation in _Socialism_ (below):

"The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the
production of the means to support human life ..."

By "human life" he is referring to physiology, biology.

Again, it is dogmatic to try and discourage asking and investigating the
question, "why does class struggle determine history ? " What is one afraid
of in the asking of this question ? 



Frederick Engels 
Socialism: Utopian and Scientific 


[Historical Materialism] 



The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the
production of the means to support human life (emphasis added - CB) and,
next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all
social structure; that in every society that has appeared in history, the
manner in which wealth is distributed and society divided into classes or
orders is dependent upon what is produced, how it is produced, and how the
products are exchanged. From this point of view, the final causes of all
social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men's
brains, not in men's better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in
changes in the modes of production and exchange. They are to be sought, not
in the philosophy, but in the economics of each particular epoch. The
growing perception that existing social institutions are unreasonable and
unjust, that reason has become unreason, and right wrong 1)
<http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/soc-utop/ch03.htm#1> , is
only proof that in the modes of production and exchange changes have
silently taken place with which the social order, adapted to earlier
economic conditions, is no longer in keeping. From this it also follows that
the means of getting rid of the incongruities that have been brought to
light must also be present, in a more or less developed condition, within
the changed modes of production themselves. These means are not to be
invented by deduction from fundamental principles, but are to be discovered
in the stubborn facts of the existing system of production. 

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