The theory of historical materialism makes it possible to situate Marxism itself—just as much as market economics or normative sociology—in relation to capitalist development and the bourgeois revolution. Historical materialism emerged in the second half of the 1840s, in the heartlands of industrial capitalism. Its birthplaces were the major economic centres of Brussels, London and Manchester, and Paris—storm centre of the bourgeois revolutions of 1789 and 1830. It is true, of course, that Marx and Engels themselves were Germans, and the German determination of Marxism cannot be ignored. But it was only outside Germany that the new theory could come into being. All but one of the formative works of historical materialism were written outside Germany, the sole exception being Engels’s study of The Condition of the Working Class in England, the product of a 21-month stay in Manchester. After The Holy Family, the first product of the collaboration between Marx and Engels, written in Paris but published in Frankfurt in 1845, it was not until 1859, with the appearance of A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, that a crucial work of historical materialism was even published in Germany. The German Ideology found no publisher; Marx wrote The Poverty of Philosophy in French and had it published in Paris and Brussels; Engels’s Principles of Communism were not sent for publication, the Communist Manifesto appeared in London, and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte was written for a German-American periodical published in New York.

It was in Paris and Manchester respectively that Marx and Engels underwent the decisive experiences that led them to break with Left Hegelian philosophy and radical-liberal politics.footnote1 The latest surviving text in which Marx still distances himself from communism is a letter written to Arnold Ruge in September 1843, shortly before Marx left Germany for Paris.footnote2 In Paris he began to study political economy and the class struggles of the French Revolution, and it was in Paris, too, that he came into contact with revolutionary workers from the French and German secret communist societies. ‘When, in the spring of 1845, we met again in Brussels’, Engels wrote 40 years later, ‘Marx had already fully developed his materialist theory of history in its main features.’ Of his own experience, Engels wrote: ‘While I was in Manchester, it was tangibly brought home to me that the economic facts . . . are, at least in the modern world, a decisive historical force; that they form the basis of the origination of the present-day class antagonisms; that these class antagonisms, in the countries where they have become fully developed . . . are in their turn the basis of the formation of political parties and party struggles, and thus of all political history.’footnote3 Engels studied political economy in England. In London in the spring of 1843 he came to know ‘the first revolutionary proletarians whom I met’,footnote4 the leaders of the League of the Just—a clandestine society of German artisans. Somewhat later Engels made contact with the Chartists.

Their experience of the most advanced bourgeois societies left a decisive and lasting imprint upon the whole theoretical and political oeuvre of Marx and Engels. The focus on the development of the productive forces, the interest in technology, the importance attached to abstract economic theory, the clear distinction between the wage-earning proletariat and the socially and historically undifferentiated category of the poor,footnote5 the emphasis on the revolutionary role of the bourgeoisie,footnote6 the categorical refusal to make an unholy alliance with semi-feudal forces against the immediate exploiter of the proletariat, the ruthless hostility towards every form of romanticism, sentimentality and mysticism—all these well-known features of Marxism bear witness to its relationship to the Enlightenment, the Great French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.

Compared to England and France, Germany in the first half of the 19th century was both economically and politically a backward country. Industrial capitalism was in its infancy, and pre-bourgeois strata held power in the patchwork of petty states into which Germany was divided. In such a country historical materialism could not have materialized. The ‘German ideology’ was philosophical speculation—about freedom, reason, man, praxis, alienation, criticism, love, socialism—with no place in it for exploitation, revolutionary class struggle or a scientific theory of history. It is notable in this connection, on the other hand, that both Marx and Engels came from the most developed part of Germany, the Rhineland. Annexed to France from 1797 to 1814, the Rhineland had been deeply affected by the French Revolution. Progressive Germans, including the young Hegel,footnote7 had warmly supported French rule, and Marx’s father, too, was a francophile liberal. The Engels family, though pietist and reactionary in politics, belonged in another capacity to the most advanced section of German society. Friedrich Engels senior was a successful merchant-industrialist, whose firm had branches both in Germany and Manchester.

In the distinction that Engels drew in 1847, his family belonged to the bourgeoisie, ‘which now rules in the civilized countries’, and represents ‘world trade, the exchange of products of all zones, finance, and large-scale industry based on machinery—not to the miserable Kleinbürger (petty bourgeoisie) who represented ‘internal and coastal trade, handicraft production and manufacture based on handicraft’, and who as the junior partner of the nobility were a conservative force, sharing the blame for German backwardness.footnote8 It was the existence of a Manchester branch of the firm Ermen and Engels that took Engels to England.

However, Engels later said that ‘the German working-class movement is the inheritor of German classical philosophy.’footnote9 He even claimed, while Marx was still at his side, that ‘without German philosophy, particularly that of Hegel, German scientific socialism—the only scientific socialism that has ever existed—would never have come into being’.footnote10 We are not so much concerned here with the strictly theoretical relationship between Hegelian philosophy and historical materialism, but rather with the social and historical situation of the latter, and that is also Engels’s concern in the text from which we have just quoted. Engels’s argument there is that German workers have an ‘important advantage’ over those of the rest of Europe in that ‘they belong to the most theoretical people of Europe, and have retained the sense of theory which the so-called “educated” classes of Germany have almost completely lost . . . What an incalculable advantage this is may be seen on the one hand, from the indifference to theory which is one of the main reasons why the English working-class movement crawls along so slowly . . . on the other hand, from the mischief and confusion wrought by Proudhonism in its original form among the French and Belgians, and in the form further caricatured by Bakunin among the Spaniards and Italians.’footnote11 (Engels wrote this in 1874, shortly after the split in the First International.)

The ‘sense of theory’, that is what Engels has in mind in referring to ‘German philosophy’, and this point is further elaborated in his Ludwig Feuerbach (1886), already cited above. ‘With the Revolution of 1848, “educated” Germany said farewell to theory and went over to the field of practice . . . But to the same degree that speculation abandoned the philosopher’s study in order to set up its temple in the Stock Exchange, educated Germany lost the great aptitude for theory which had been the glory of Germany in the days of its deepest political humiliation—the aptitude for purely scientific investigation, irrespective of whether the result obtained was practically applicable or not, whether likely to offend the police authorities or not . . . in the sphere of the historical sciences, philosophy included, the old fearless zeal for theory has now disappeared completely, along with classical philosophy. Inane eclecticism and an anxious concern for career and income, descending to the most vulgar job-hunting, occupy its place . . . Only among the working class does the German aptitude for theory remain unimpaired . . . Here there is no concern for careers, for profit-making, or for gracious patronage from above.’footnote12