Karl Marx, Preface to Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)
The following extract is often seen as Marx’s synthesis of historical materialism:
“No social order [social formation] is ever destroyed [ever perishes] before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society [have been brewed in the womb of the old society itself]. Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation. In broad outline, the Asiatic, ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society [as progressive epochs of the economic formation of society]. The bourgeois mode of production is [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 an antagonism that emanates from the individuals’ social conditions of existence – but the productive forces developing within [the womb of] bourgeois society [simultaneously] create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.”
Note: Between square brackets: Our corrections according to MEW, Vol. 13, Dietz Verlag, Berlin, 1971 p.7-11. Notice that the English translation taken from Progress Publishers shows some remarkable inaccuracy and even takes the liberty of replacing a central notion of Marx’s theoretical framework, that of an “economic formation of society” (“ökonomische Gesellschaftsformation”) by “social order”, respectively by “the economic development of society”. (H.C., March 2021)
Extracts from F. Engels, “Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science”
With regards to the discussion on the question of capitalism’s decadence that is pursued on the topic pages, we present extracts from two chapters of the ‘Anti-Dühring’, sustaining that the historical materialism developed by Marx and Engels concerns historical modes of production in general, and that their conclusions are not limited to the “cyclical” or periodic crises of capitalism in particular, nor hindered by them, as one of the participants seems to imply.
“The connection between distribution and the material conditions of existence of society at any period lies so much in the nature of things that it is always reflected in popular instinct. So long as a mode of production still describes an ascending curve of development, it is enthusiastically welcomed even by those who come off worst from its corresponding mode of distribution. (…) Only when the mode of production in question has already described a good part of its descending curve, (1) when it has half outlived its day, when the conditions of its existence have to a large extent disappeared, and its successor is already knocking at the door – it is only at this stage that the constantly increasing inequality of distribution appears as unjust, it is only then that appeal is made from the facts which have had their day to so-called eternal justice. From a scientific standpoint, this appeal to morality and justice does not help us an inch further; moral indignation, however justifiable, cannot serve economic science as an argument, but only as a symptom. The task of economic science is rather to show that the social abuses which have recently been developing are necessary consequences of the existing mode of production, but at the same time also indications of its approaching dissolution, – and to reveal within the already dissolving economic form of motion, the elements of the future new organisation of production and exchange which will put an end to those abuses.” (Part II: Political Economy. I. Subject Matter and Method)
“Since the historical appearance of the capitalist mode of production, the appropriation by society of all the means of production has often been dreamed of, more or less vaguely, by individuals, as well as by sects, as the ideal of the future. But it could become possible, could become a historical necessity, only when the actual conditions for its realisation were there. Like every other social advance, it becomes practicable, not by men understanding that the existence of classes is in contradiction to justice, equality, etc., not by the mere willingness to abolish these classes, but by virtue of certain new economic conditions. (…) But if (…) division into classes has a certain historical justification, it has this only for a given period, only under given social conditions. It was based upon the insufficiency of production. It will be swept away by the complete development of modern productive forces. And, in fact, the abolition of classes in society presupposes a degree of historical evolution at which the existence, not simply of this or that particular ruling class, but of any ruling class at all, and, therefore, the existence of class distinction itself has become an obsolete anachronism. It presupposes, therefore, the development of production carried out to a degree at which appropriation of the means of production and of the products, and, with this, of political domination, of the monopoly of culture, and of intellectual leadership by a particular class of society, has become not only superfluous but economically, politically, intellectually a hindrance to development.” (Part III: Socialism. II. Theoretical)
1 Verbatim, here Engels speaks of an ascendant, respectively a descendant “branch of a mode of production’s development”, which the latter apparently has to subsequently “traverse” in its history (rather than simply “describing a curve”), and the second one at least for “a good part”, before its surpassing by a superior mode of production is on the historic agenda.
Web transcription for M.I.A., August 1996: Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring. Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science. Source: Progress Publishers, 1947; Translated by Emile Burns from the 1894 edition.
German in: Karl Marx/ Friedrich Engels – Werke. (Karl) Dietz Verlag, Berlin. Band 20. Berlin/DDR. 1962. Web transcription: Friedrich Engels, Herrn Eugen Dühring’s Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, (Leipzig, 1878 (1); Stuttgart, 1894 (3)). Text according to the 3rd and last edition revised and augmented by Engels.