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Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)
by Karl Marx
Preface to "A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy" (1859)
by Karl Marx
Estimated Reading Time: 5 min

One of the key ideas of Marxism is the idea of "Historical Materialism." Like a lot of this theory, it has been subject to debate and discussion since first being introduced. We'll have a few readings on Historical Materialism. Alex Callinicos is as good as anyone to give an introductory summary of what exactly Historical Materialism is:
"If production is the most fundamental human activity, it follows that when we analyze society, we should give most attention to the way in which production is organized. Thus Marx concentrates his attention on the “social relations of production,” the exploitative relationship between lord and serf or capitalist and worker.
If production is a social activity, then it follows that changes in the organization of production will bring about changes in society, and therefore, since “the essence of man is the ensemble of the social relations,” changes also in people’s beliefs, desires and conduct. This is the core of Marx’s materialist conception of history...

Contrast this with how Callinicos describes the process of history from Hegel:
Hegel identified reason with God, calling it the Absolute. History was, for him, simply the story of the Absolute’s gradual journey toward consciousness of itself, a process whose climax was the Protestant Reformation.
Marx learned a lot from Hegel as he ran with a crew known as the Young Hegelians who appreciated Hegel's method, but didn't entirely agree with his system of thinking. Hegel's method? The dialectic, offered a pattern of Thesis (the way things are), Antithesis (the challenge of the new), and then the synthesis (how the new way absorbs and is absorbed by the challenges of the new, this becoming the new thesis, different from before but often still with trace residues).
This Preface below contains an important introductory statement from Marx on the basic principles of Historical Materialism.

Although I studied jurisprudence, I pursued it as a subject subordinated to philosophy and history. In the year 1842-43, as editor of the Rheinische Zeitung, I first found myself in the embarrassing position of having to discuss what is known as material interests. 1. As a second footnote to the Communist Manifesto, Engels wrote in 1888:
"In 1847, the pre-history of society, the social organization existing previous to recorded history, [was] all but unknown. Since then, August von Haxthausen (1792-1866) discovered common ownership of land in Russia, Georg Ludwig von Maurer proved it to be the social foundation from which all Teutonic races started in history, and, by and by, village communities were found to be, or to have been, the primitive form of society everywhere from India to Ireland. The inner organization of this primitive communistic society was laid bare, in its typical form, by Lewis Henry Morgan's (1818-1861) crowning discovery of the true nature of the gens and its relation to the tribe. With the dissolution of the primeval communities, society begins to be differentiated into separate and finally antagonistic classes. I have attempted to retrace this dissolution in The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, second edition, Stuttgart, 1886."
Thus, as the science of understanding pre-history progressed (pre-history being that time before written records of human civilization exist), Marx & Engels changed their understanding and descriptions accordingly. In the above text, Marx mentions “Asiatic” modes of production. In the idea of an Asiatic mode of production, Marx and Engels were following Hegel’s schema). They later dropped the idea of a distinctive Asiatic mode of production, and kept four basic forms: tribal, ancient, feudal, and capitalist.
The deliberations of the Rhenish Landtag on forest thefts and the division of landed property; the official polemic started by Herr von Schaper, then Oberprasident of the Rhine Province, against the Rheinische Zeitung about the condition of the Moselle peasantry, and finally the debates on free trade and protective tariffs caused me in the first instance to turn my attention to economic questions. On the other hand, at that time when good intentions “to push forward” often took the place of factual knowledge, an echo of French socialism and communism, slightly tinged by philosophy, was noticeable in the Rheinische Zeitung. I objected to this dilettantism, but at the same time frankly admitted in a controversy with the Allgemeine Augsburger Zeitung that my previous studies did not allow me to express any opinion on the content of the French theories. When the publishers of the Rheinische Zeitung conceived the illusion that by a more compliant policy on the part of the paper it might be possible to secure the abrogation of the death sentence passed upon it, I eagerly grasped the opportunity to withdraw from the public stage to my study.

The first work which I undertook to dispel the doubts assailing me was a critical re-examination of the Hegelian philosophy of law; the introduction to this work being published in the Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher issued in Paris in 1844. My inquiry led me to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended whether by themselves or on the basis of a so-called general development of the human mind, but that on the contrary they originate in the material conditions of life, the totality of which Hegel, following the example of English and French thinkers of the eighteenth century, embraces within the term “civil society”; that the anatomy of this civil society, however, has to be sought in political economy. The study of this, which I began in Paris, I continued in Brussels, where I moved owing to an expulsion order issued by M. Guizot. The general conclusion at which I arrived and which, once reached, became the guiding principle of my studies can be summarised as follows.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.

In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as one does not judge an individual by what he thinks about himself, so one cannot judge such a period of transformation by its consciousness, but, on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained from the contradictions of material life, from the conflict existing between the social forces of production and the relations of production. No social order is ever destroyed 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.

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,1 feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production may be designated as epochs marking progress in the economic development of society. The bourgeois mode of production is 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 bourgeois society create also the material conditions for a solution of this antagonism. The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation.

Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)
Communism Is How We Forcibly Break Apart the Organized Power of the Capitalist Class
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