The following is from Friedrich Engels' letter to Franz Mehring of 14 July 1893: London, 14 July 1893 Dear Mr. Mehring, It has taken me until today to get round to thank you for the Lessing-Legende you were so kind as to send me. I did not wish merely to send you a formal note acknowledging receipt of the book, but also and at the same time to say something about it - its contents. Hence the delay. Let me begin at the end - with the appendix, 'II ber den historischen Materialismus' in which you have brilliantly collated the essentials in a manner that must convince any impartial reader. If I have any criticism to make, it is that you accord me more merit than I deserve, even if one takes account of what I may, perhaps, have found out for myself - in course
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The following is from Friedrich Engels' letter to Franz Mehring of 14 July 1893:
London, 14 July 1893
Dear Mr. Mehring,
It has taken me until today to get round to thank you for the Lessing-Legende you were so kind as to send me. I did not wish merely to send you a formal note acknowledging receipt of the book, but also and at the same time to say something about it - its contents. Hence the delay.
Let me begin at the end - with the appendix, 'II ber den historischen Materialismus' in which you have brilliantly collated the essentials in a manner that must convince any impartial reader. If I have any criticism to make, it is that you accord me more merit than I deserve, even if one takes account of what I may, perhaps, have found out for myself - in course of time - but which Marx, with his swifter coup d'oeil and greater discernment, discovered much more quickly. If one has been fortunate enough to spend forty years collaborating with a man like Marx, one tends, during one's lifetime, to receive less recognition than one feels is due to one; when the greater man dies, however, the lesser may easily come to be overrated - and that is exactly what seems to have happened in my case; all this will eventually be put right by history, and by then one will be safely out of the way and know nothing at all about it.
Otherwise only one point has been omitted, a point which, however, was never given sufficient weight by Marx and myself in our work, and in regard to which we are all equally at fault. For we all of us began, as we were bound to do, by placing the main emphasis on the derivation of political, legal and other ideological conceptions, as of the actions induced by those conceptions, from economic fundamentals. In so doing we neglected the formal in favour of the substantial aspect, i.e. the manner in which the said conceptions, etc., arise. This provided our opponents with a welcome pretext for misinterpretation, not to say distortion, Paul Barth being a notable case in point.
Ideology is a process which is, it is true, carried out consciously by what we call a thinker, but with a consciousness that is spurious. The actual motives by which he is impelled remain hidden from him, for otherwise it would not be an ideological process. Hence the motives he supposes himself to have are either spurious or illusory. Because it is a mental process, he sees both its substance and its form as deriving solely from thought - either his own or that of his predecessors. He works solely with conceptual material which he automatically assumes to have been engendered by thought without inquiring whether it might not have some more remote origin unconnected therewith; indeed, he takes this for granted since, to him, all action is induced by thought, and therefore appears in the final analysis, to be motivated, by thought.
The historical ideologist (here historical is used as an omnibus term for political, legal, philosophical, theological, in short, for all spheres appertaining to society and not merely to nature) - the historical ideologist, then, possesses in every sphere of science a material which has originated independently in the thought of previous generations and has undergone an independent course of development of its own in the brains of these successive generations. True, external facts appertaining to one sphere or another may also have helped to determine that development but according to what has been tacitly assumed, those facts, themselves are merely the fruits of a mental process, and thus we still find ourselves in the realm of pure thought which would appear to have succeeded in assimilating even the most recalcitrant facts.
What has above all deluded the majority of people is this semblance of an independent history of political constitutions, legal systems and ideological conceptions in each individual sphere. When Luther and Calvin ‘overcome' the official Catholic faith, when Hegel 'overcomes' Fichte and Kant, or when, with his republican Contrat social, Rousseau indirectly 'overcomes' the constitutionalist Montesquieu, the process is one which remains within the confines of theology, philosophy and political science, which represents a stage in the history of these spheres of thought and never emerges from the sphere of thought. And since the advent of the bourgeois illusion of the eternity and ultimacy of capitalist production, even the overcoming of the Mercantilists by the Physiocrats and Adam Smith has come to be regarded merely as a victory of the concept, not as the conceptual reflection of changed economic facts, but as the correct perception, now at last achieved, of actual conditions as they have always and everywhere existed. If Richard Coeur-de-Lion and Philip Augustus had introduced free trade instead of becoming involved in the Crusades, we should have been spared five hundred years of misery and folly.
We have all, I believe, neglected this aspect of the matter, which I can only touch on here, to a greater extent than it deserves. It's the same old story - initially, form is always neglected in favour of substance. As I have said, I, too, have done this, never realising my mistake until after the event. Far be it from me, therefore, to reproach you on that score - as the senior culprit I am in no way entitled to do so, quite the contrary - but rather I would draw your attention to this point with a view to future occasions.
Hand in hand with this goes the ideologists' fatuous conception that, because we deny independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a role in history, we also deny them any historical efficacy. Underlying this is the ordinary, undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, quite regardless of any interaction. The gentlemen forget, often almost deliberately, that an historical element, once it is ushered into the world by other, ultimately economic, causes, will react in its turn, and may exert a reciprocal influence on its environment and even upon its own causes. Cf. Barth, for example, on the priestly caste and religion, your p. 475. 1 was delighted by the way you dismissed this quite incredibly superficial Johnnie. And they go and make the chap professor of history at Leipzig! Old Wachsmuth used also to be there; he too was not a little shallow-pated but he had a tremendous feeling for facts - a very different sort of chap.
For the rest I can only remark of this book what I said more than once about the articles when they appeared in the Neue Zeit, namely that it is by far the best account of the genesis of the Prussian state that exists, indeed I might even say the only good one, being in most cases an accurate and minutely detailed exposition of correlations. One can only regret that, while you were about it, you did not feel able to include the whole course of events up till Bismarck; nor can one help hoping that you may some day do so and present the whole picture, from the Elector Frederick William to old William, in context. You have, after all, already done the preliminary studies which you have all but completed at any rate so far as the essentials are concerned. And, after all, it has got to be done some time, before the rickety contraption collapses. The exploding of the monarchist-patriotic myths, if not exactly a necessary prerequisite for the elimination of that bulwark of class rule, the monarchy (a purely bourgeois republic in Germany having already become an anachronism before it has ever existed) is nevertheless one of the most effective means to that end.
You would then also be better off as regards space and opportunity when you come to depict local Prussian history as part of the whole German misère. This is a matter upon which my views differ here and there from your own, notably as regards the conditions responsible for the dismemberment of Germany and the failure of the German bourgeois revolution in the 16th century. If I get round to revising the introduction to my Peasant War, as I hope to do next winter, I shall be able to enlarge on the points in question. Not that I consider those you adduce to be incorrect, but I should include some others and marshal them rather differently.
I have always found, when studying German history - which is one long, continuous misère - that a true perspective can only be obtained by comparing it with the same periods in France, because what happens there is the exact opposite of what happens in Germany. There we have the establishment of the national state from the disjecta of the feudal state at the very time of our worst decline. There, a rare kind of objective logic permeates the whole course of events; in our case, a barren and ever more barren haphazardness. There, the English conqueror of the Middle Ages, who intervenes in favour of the Provençal nationality as opposed to North French nationality, represents foreign intervention; the English wars are, as it were, the equivalent of the Thirty Years' War which, however, ended with the ejection of foreign intervention and the subjection of the South by the North. Next comes the struggle between the central power and its Burgundian vassal, supported by his foreign possessions and playing the part of Brandenburg-Prussia, a struggle which, however, ends in victory for the central power and puts the seal on the establishment of the national state. And at the selfsame time in Germany, the national state (in so far as the 'German Kingdom' within the Holy Roman Empire can be called a national state) collapses completely, and the wholesale plundering of German territory begins. It is a comparison that is exceedingly humiliating to Germans, but all the more instructive for that, and now that our working men have again placed Germany in the van of the historical movement, it may be somewhat easier for us to swallow the ignominy of the past.
But what is of particular significance so far as developments in Germany are concerned is the fact that the two member states, which eventually partitioned the whole of the country between them, were neither of them purely German but were colonies on captured Slav territory - Austria a Bavarian, and Brandenburg a Saxon, colony; also the fact that they acquired power in Germany only with the support of foreign, non-German possessions - Austria with that of Hungary (not to mention Bohemia), Brandenburg with that of Prussia. Nothing of the kind happened on the western frontier, more at risk than anywhere else; on the northern frontier it was left to the Danes to protect Germany against the Danes, while in the South there was so little to protect that the frontier guards, the Swiss, were actually able to detach themselves from Germany!
But I am divagating - my loquacity can, at any rate, serve you as proof of the extent to which your book has stimulated me.
Once again, many thanks and warm regards from