Dominique Meeùs
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À Friedrich Engels

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Karl Marx, lettre à Friedrich Engels, le 28 janvier 1863.

I have re-read all my note-books (excerpts [from Poppe, Beckmann, and Ure]) 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 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 the 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 adopted 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 power. 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.

Cité dans Baksi 1996:274-277.
Up: Divers, années 60 Previous: À Karl Marx, le 7 janvier 1863 Next: À Friedrich Engels, le 4 juillet 1864