Letter to Friedrich Engels, January 28, 1863

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To Engels in Manchester

[London,] 28 January 1863[edit source]

Dear Frederick,

A strange concatenation of events made it quite impossible for me to write to you yesterday to acknowledge receipt of your letter enclosing the bill.

I am well aware what a risk you were running in thus affording us such great and unexpected help. I can’t tell you how grateful I am, although I myself, in my inner forum, did not require any fresh proof of your friendship to convince me of its self-sacrificing nature. If, by the by, you could have seen my children’s joy, it would have been a fine reward for you.

I can tell you now, too, without beating about the bush that, despite the straits I've been in during the past few weeks, nothing oppressed me so much as the fear that our friendship might be severed. Over and over again, I told my wife that the mess we were in was as nothing to me compared with the fact that these bourgeois pinpricks and her peculiar exasperation had, at such a moment, rendered me capable of assailing you with my private needs instead of trying to comfort you. Domestic peace was consequently much disrupted, and the poor woman had to suffer for something of which she was in fact innocent, for women are wont to ask for the impossible. She did not, of course, have any inkling of what I had written, but a little reflection should have told her that something of the kind must be the result. Women are funny creatures, even those endowed with much intelligence. In the morning my wife wept over Marie [Burns] and your loss, thus becoming quite oblivious to her own misfortunes, which culminated that very day, and in the evening she felt that, except for us, no one in the world was capable of suffering unless they had children and the broker in the house.

In my last letter I asked you about the self-actor. The question, you see, is as follows: In what way, before its invention, did the so-called spinner intervene? I can explain the self-actor, but not the state of affairs that preceded it.

I am inserting certain things into the section on machinery. There are some curious questions which I originally failed to deal with. To elucidate these, I have re-read all my note-books (excerpts) on technology and am also attending a practical (purely experimental) course for working men given by Prof. Willis (in Jermyn Street, the Institute of Geology, where Huxley also lectured). For me, mechanics presents much the same problem as languages. I understand the mathematical laws, but the simplest technical reality that calls for ocular knowledge is more difficult for me than the most complicated combinations.

You may or may not know, for of itself the thing’s quite immaterial, that there is considerable controversy as to what distinguishes a machine from a tool. After its own crude fashion, English (mathematical) mechanics calls a tool a simple machine and a machine a complicated tool. English technologists, however, who take rather more account of economics, distinguish the two (and so, accordingly, do many, if not most, English economists) in as much as in one case the motive power emanates from man, in the other from a natural force. From this, the German jackasses, who are great on little matters like this, have concluded that a plough, for instance, is a machine, and the most complicated jenny, etc., in so far as it is moved by hand, is not. However, if we take a look at the machine in its elementary form, there can be no doubt that the industrial revolution originates, not from motive power, but from that part of machinery called the working machine by the English, i.e. not from, say, the use of water or steam in place of the foot to move the spinning wheel, but from the transformation of the actual spinning process itself, and the elimination of that part of human labour that was not mere exertion of power (as in treadling a wheel), but was concerned with processing, working directly on the material to be processed. Nor, on the other hand, can there be any doubt that, once we turn our attention from the historical development of machinery to machinery on the basis of the present mode of production, the only decisive factor is the working machine (e.g. in the case of the sewing-machine). For, as everyone knows today, once this process is mechanised, the thing may be moved, according to size, either by hand, water or a steam-engine.

To those who are merely mathematicians, these questions are of no moment, but they assume great importance when it comes to establishing a connection between human social relations and the development of these material modes of production.

Re-reading my technological and historical excerpts has led me to the conclusion that, aside from the invention of gunpowder, the compass and printing — those necessary prerequisites of bourgeois progress — the two material bases upon which the preparatory work for mechanised industry in the sphere of manufacturing was done between the sixteenth and the mid-eighteenth century, i.e. the period during which manufacturing evolved from a handicraft to big industry proper, were the clock and the mill (initially the flour mill and, more specifically, the water mill), both inherited from Antiquity. (The water mill was brought to Rome from Asia Minor in Julius Caesar’s time.) The clock was the first automatic device to be used for practical purposes, and from it the whole theory of the production of regular motion evolved. By its very nature, it is based on a combination of the artist-craftsman’s work and direct theory. Cardan, for instance, wrote about clock-making (and provided practical instructions). German sixteenth-century writers describe clock-making as a ‘scientific (non-guild) handicraft’, and, from the development of the clock, it could be shown how very different is the handicraft-based relation between book-learning and practice from that, e.g., in big industry. Nor can there be any doubt that it was the clock which, in the eighteenth century, first suggested the application of automatic devices (in fact, actuated by springs) in production. It is historically demonstrable that Vaucanson’s experiments in this field stimulated the imagination of English inventors to a remarkable extent.

In the case of the mill, on the other hand, the essential distinctions in the organism of a machine were present from the outset, i.e. as soon as the water mill made its appearance. Mechanical motive power. Primo, the motor for which it had been waiting. The transmission mechanism. Lastly, the working machine, which handles the material, each existing independently of the others. It was upon the mill that the theory of friction was based, and hence the study of the mathematical forms of gear-wheels, cogs, etc.; likewise, the first theory of measurement of the degree of motive power, the best way of applying it, etc. Since the middle of the seventeenth century almost all great mathematicians, in so far as they have concerned themselves with the theory and practice of mechanics, have taken the simple, water-driven flour mill as their point of departure. Indeed, this was why the words Mühle and mill, which came to be used during the manufacturing period, were applied to all driving mechanisms adapted for practical purposes.

But in the case of the mill, as in that of the press, the forge, the plough, etc., the actual work of hammering, crushing, milling, tilling, etc., is done from the outset without human labour, even though the moving force be human or animal. Hence this type of machinery is very old, at least in its origins, and, in its case, mechanical propulsion proper was applied at an earlier date. Hence it is virtually the only kind of machinery that occurs during the manufacturing period as well. The industrial revolution began as soon as mechanical means were employed in fields where, from time immemorial, the final result had called for human labour and not therefore — as in the case of the above-mentioned tools — where the actual material to be processed had never, within living memory, been directly connected with the human hand; where, by the nature of things and from the outset, man has not functioned purely as powers. If, like the German jackasses, one insists that the application of animal powers which is just as much voluntary motion as the application of human powers) constitutes machinery, then the application of this form of locomotor is far older than the simplest of manual tools in any case.

Izzy, as was inevitable, has sent me the speech he made in his defence (has been sentenced to four months) before the court. Macte puer virtute. To begin with, that braggart has had the pamphlet you've got, the speech on ‘the workers’ estate’, reprinted in Switzerland with the pompous title Workers’ Programme.

As you know, the thing’s no more nor less than a badly done vulgarisation of the Manifesto and of other things we have advocated so often that they have already become commonplace to a certain extent. (For instance, the fellow calls the working class an ‘estate’.)

Well. In his speech before the Berlin court, he had the effrontery to say:

‘I further maintain that this pamphlet is not just a scientific work like so many others, a mere compendium of ready-made answers, but that it is, in very many respects, a scientific achievement, an exposé of new scientific ideas.... I have ushered into the world comprehensive works in varied and difficult fields of scholarship, sparing myself neither pains nor nocturnal vigils in my endeavour to enlarge the frontiers of scholarship as such, and I may, perhaps, say with Horace: militavi non sine gloria! But this I myself tell you: Never, not even in my most comprehensive works, have I penned a single line that was reasoned with more rigorous scholarship than was this production from its first page to its last.... Cast an eye, therefore, on the contents of this pamphlet. The contents are nothing less than a philosophy of history, compressed into 44 pages.... It is an exposé of the objective, reasoning thought process, which has underlain European history for more than a millennium now, a discovery of the innermost soul, etc.

Is not this the most egregious effrontery? The fellow evidently thinks himself destined to take over our stock-in-trade. And withal, how absurdly grotesque!


K. M.

Get Lupus to give you today’s Star, and take a look at the letters it has reprinted from The Morning Herald on the subject of The Times and Delane.