Frederick Engels, speaking at Marx’s funeral, cited the proposition of historical materialism as the greatest of Marx’s achievements, along with the discovery of surplus value, and the capitalist system’s “laws of motion.” It is staggering to think that this excerpt, from the preface of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, was written in 1859. It is commonly seen as the most complete exposition of Marx’s proposition of historical materialism.
I present it here without annotation. If this is your first exposure to this piece you deserve the opportunity to engage it on your own terms. In a future post I will begin to mine its treasures and examine how it illuminates our understanding of the RoR.
Excerpts from the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, 1859:
The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle for my studies, can be summarized as follows. In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness…It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production… From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of a natural science, and the legal, political, religious, esthetic, or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out… this consciousness must be explained …from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production. No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation. In broad outlines Asiatic, ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society. The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production — antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from the social conditions of life of the individual; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation brings, therefore, the prehistory of human society to a close.