Marx Engels Correspondence 1892

Friedrich Engels to Franz Mehring
In Berlin

Source: Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Selected Correspondence (Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1975). Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

28 September 1892

Dear Mr Mehring

Kautsky sent me a part of one of your letters with a query addressed to me. If you believe you cannot very well write to me because many years ago I once left two of your letters unanswered, I have no right to complain on that score. At that time however we were in different camps, the Anti-Socialist Law was in force and this compelled us to act according to the rule: he who is not for us is against us. Besides, if I remember rightly, you yourself said in one of the letters that you could not expect an answer. But that was a long time ago. Since then we have come to be in the same camp and you have published excellent works in the Neue Zeit and I have been by no means stingy in my appreciation of them, in letters to Bebel for instance. It is therefore with pleasure that I take the opportunity of answering you direct.

The claim that the discovery of the materialist outlook in history should be attributed to the Prussian romanticists of the historical school is indeed something new to me. I have Marwitz’s [1] Nachlass myself and read the book through a few years ago but I discovered nothing in it except superb things about cavalry and an unshakeable belief in the miraculous power of five blows of the whip when administered by nobleman to plebeian. Apart from that I have remained an entire stranger to this literature since 1841-42 – I have only very superficially glanced over it – and I certainly owe absolutely nothing to it in the field in question. In his Bonn and Berlin days Marx had read Adam Müller and Mr von Haller’s [2] Restauration, etc; he spoke only with considerable contempt of this insipid, bombastic, verbose imitation of the French romanticists Joseph de Maistre and Cardinal Bonald. [3] But even if he had come across passages like the one cited from Lavergne-Peguilhen [4] they could not have made the slightest impression upon him at that time if he understood at all what those people wanted to say. Marx was then a Hegelian and that passage was pure heresy to him. He knew nothing whatever about political economy and could not have had any idea about the meaning of a term like ‘economic form’. Hence the passage in question, even if he had known it, would have gone in one ear and come out the other without leaving a perceptible trace in his memory. But I greatly doubt whether traces of such views could have been found in the works of the romantic historians which Marx read between 1837 and 1842.

The passage is of course very remarkable but I would like to have the quotation verified. I do not know the book, but its author is familiar to me as an adherent of the Historical School. The passage deviates in two points from the modern conception: 1) in deducing production and distribution from the form of economy instead of conversely deducing the form of economy from production; and 2) in the role which it assigns to the ‘appropriate utilisation’ of the form of economy, which one may take to mean anything conceivable until one learns from the book itself what the author has in mind.

However the most peculiar thing is that the correct conception of history is to be found in abstracto among the very people who have been distorting history most in concreto, theoretically as well as practically. These people might have seen in the case of feudalism how there the form of state evolves from the form of economy because things are as it were quite plain and obvious there. I say they ‘might’ because apart from the above unverified passage – you say yourself it was given to you – I have never been able to discover more about it than that the theoreticians of feudalism are of course less abstract than the bourgeois liberals. If now one of these goes further and generalises this conception of the interconnection between the spread of culture and the form of state on the one hand and the form of economy within feudal society on the other by extending it to all forms of economy and state, how explain after that the total blindness of the same romanticist as soon as other forms of economy are at issue, for instance, the bourgeois form of economy and the forms of state corresponding to its various stages of development: mediaeval guild commune, absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, republic? It is certainly difficult to explain this. And the man who regards the economic form as the basis of the entire social and political organisation belongs to a school to which the absolute monarchy of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries already signifies the fall of man, a betrayal of the true political doctrine.

But it also says that the political form results just as inevitably from the economic form and its appropriate utilisation as the child from the sexual union of man and woman. In consideration of the universally-known doctrine of the school to which the author belongs I can explain this only as follows: the true economic form is the feudal one. But since the malice of man conspires against it, it must be ‘appropriately utilised’ in such a way that its existence is protected from these attacks and preserved for all eternity and that the ‘political form’, etc, always corresponds to it, accordingly it must as far as possible be brought back to the form it had in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Then the best of all worlds and the finest of historical theories would equally be realised and the Lavergne-Peguilhenian generalisation would be reduced again to its true content: that feudal society produces a feudal political system.

For the present I can only assume that Lavergne-Peguilhen did not know what he wrote. Proverbially certain animals also find pearls occasionally and these animals are strongly represented among Prussian romanticists. Incidentally, their French prototypes should also be compared to see whether this is not borrowed, too.

To you I can only express thanks for having called my attention to this point, which unfortunately I cannot go into further at the present moment.

Yours sincerely
F Engels


1. Friedrich August Ludwig Marwitz (1777-1837) – Prussian general and politician, author of military-historical memoirs – Progress Publishers.

2. Adam Heinrich Müller (1779-1829) – German publicist and economist, representative of so-called romantic school in German economic science, which reflected feudal aristocracy’s interests, opponent of Adam Smith’s economic doctrines. Karl Ludwig von Haller (1768-1854) – Swiss lawyer and historian, apologist of serfdom and absolutism – Progress Publishers.

3. Joseph Marie de Maistre (1753-1821) – French writer, monarchist, ideologist of aristocratic and clerical reaction, rabid enemy of French Revolution. Louis Gabriel Ambroise Bonald (1754-1840) – French statesman and publicist, monarchist, ideologist of aristocratic and clerical reaction during Restoration – Progress Publishers.

4. Engels refers to Lavergne-Peguilhen, Grundzüge der Gesellschaftswissenschaft (Elements of Sociology). Moritz von Lavergne-Peguilhen (1801-1870) – German historian and economist, representative of reactionary romantic school of history – Progress Publishers.