The controversy surrounding the celebration of Columbus Day notwithstanding, the various radical Soviet avant-garde project submissions for the 1929 international competition to design a memorial to Christopher Columbus in Santo Domingo were pretty incredible.
Engels’ 1847 speech on Columbus’ accidental journey to what would become known as the Americas is appended below. After that, there are a couple excerpts from Franz Mehring’s 1895 text On Historical Materialism.
Minutes of Engels’s Lecture to the London German
Workers’ Educational Society on November 30,1847
The discovery of America
Written: November 30, 1847;
Source: MECW Volume 6, p. 627;
First published: in Archiv für die Geschichte des Sozialismus und der Arbeiterbewegung, jg. 8, Leipzig, 1919.
Citizens! When Christopher Columbus discovered America 350 years ago, he certainly did not think that not only would the then existing society in Europe together with its institutions be done away with through his discovery, but that the foundation would be laid for the complete liberation of all nations; and yet, it becomes more and more clear that this is indeed the case. Through the discovery of America a new route by sea to the East Indies was found, whereby the European business traffic of the time was completely transformed; the consequence was that Italian and German commerce were totally ruined and other countries came to the fore; commerce came into the hands of the western countries, and England thus came to the fore of the movement. Before the discovery of America the countries even in Europe were still very much separated from one another and trade was on the whole slight. Only after the new route to the East Indies had been found and an extensive field had been opened in America for exploitation by the Europeans engaged in commerce, did. England begin more and more to concentrate trade and to take possession of it, whereby the other European countries were more and more compelled to join together. From all this, big commerce originated, and the so-called world market was opened. The enormous treasures which the Europeans brought from America, and the gains which trade in general yielded, had as a consequence the ruin of the old aristocracy, and so the bourgeoisie came into being. The discovery of America was connected with the advent of machinery, and with that the struggle became necessary which we are conducting today, the struggle of the propertyless against the property owners.
Before machines were invented almost every country produced as much as it needed, and commerce consisted only of such products as one or another country was quite unable to produce; but when machinery came in, so much was produced that in many places it became necessary to stop working and that even people who had previously performed similar work with their own hands bought machine-made goods for their own use. The position of the former workers was thereby completely altered, and the whole of human society, which formerly consisted of four to six different classes, was divided into two mutually hostile classes.
Since the English seized world commerce and raised their manufacturing business to such a height that they could provide almost all the civilized world with their products, and since the bourgeoisie came to political power, they have also succeeded in making further progress in Asia and the bourgeoisie has risen there also; through the rise of machinery the barbarian condition of other countries is constantly being done away with. We know that the Spaniards found East Indies at the same stage of development as the English did and that the Indians nevertheless went on living in the same way for centuries, i.e., they ate and drank and vegetated, and the grandson worked the land just as his grandfather had done, except that a number of revolutions took place, which, however, were nothing but a struggle of various peoples for domination. Since the English came and spread their manufactures, the livelihood of the Indians was torn from their hands and the consequence was that they abandoned their stable condition. The workers are already emigrating from there and through mixing with other nations they become accessible for the first time to civilization. The old Indian aristocracy is completely ruined and people are there set against one another just as here.
Later we have seen how China, a country which for more than a thousand years has defied development and all history, has now been turned upside down and drawn into civilization by the English, by machinery. Austria, the China of Europe, the only country whose internal institutions were not shaken by the French Revolution, and where even Napoleon could do nothing, cannot stand up to steam; everything there has suddenly been changed by machinery; protective tariffs have brought machinery into the country. Thereby the petty bourgeoisie has raised itself up and overthrown the high aristocracy, thereby something has happened to Metternich which he certainly never anticipated; at the last Bohemian Diet 50,000 guilders in taxes were denied him by the bourgeoisie. The classes of society have been changed, the small craftsmen are being ruined and forced to become ordinary workers, whereby an element has entered which can become dangerous to Metternich. In Italy also industry has raised itself up, the bourgeoisie everywhere sits on Metternich’s neck, so that the government has got into such a dilemma that Metternich has to concede to the Bohemians that they need not pay taxes of 50,000 guilders.
Thus, through the discovery of America all society has been divided into two classes, and without the rise of the world market this would not have happened. The workers of the whole world have everywhere the same interests; everywhere the different classes disappear and the different interests coincide. When, therefore, a revolution breaks out in one country it must necessarily affect the other countries, and only now can real liberation take place.
On Historical Materialism (1895)
Many of the most significant inventions, like the discovery of gunpowder and the art of printing, which “have altered the face of the earth,” are hidden in a mist of legends. They are not the work of single individuals, who created them out of the mysterious depths of their genius. If some have rendered, by their inventions, a great service, this was so only because these individuals recognized most sharply and deeply the economic need and the means to satisfy it. The discovery or invention does not call forth the economic transformation, but the social transformation, the discovery or invention; and only in this fashion, when a social transformation brings about a discovery or invention does it become a world-shaking event. America was discovered long before Columbus; already Norsemen had, in the year 1000, been along the northeast coast of America, even as far as the territory belonging to the United States today, but the discovered lands were immediately forgotten and not heard of. As soon as the capitalist development, in its beginnings, called up a need for rare metals, for new labor power, and for new markets, then did the discovery of America signify an economic revolution. It is well enough known that Columbus did not discover a new world out of a dark impulse of his genius, but that he was searching after the fabulous treasures of the ancient civilized land of the Indies. The day after the discovery of the first island, he wrote in his day book: “These good-natured people ought to serve as very useful slaves,” and his daily prayer ran: “May the Lord in his goodness let me find the gold mines.” The “Lord of Goodness” was the ideology of that time, as the even more hypocritical ideology of today is to bring “humanity and civilization to the darkest corners of the world.”
We have already seen… what connection there is between economics and discoveries and inventions in history, and we do not have to go into the theory of the “lust for conquest” of Columbus, and so on. Trade did not follow the discoveries, but on the contrary led to them; here too, the economics were the basic factor.