John Rees


Engels’ Marxism

(Part 2)


An arrogant theory?

Engels, like Marx, believed that the natural and social worlds should not be rigidly separated and, therefore, that similar if distinct patterns could be discerned in both. But does this not make Engels guilty of having devised an all embracing theory which prescribes the findings of science? Certainly Gareth Stedman Jones argues that Engels embraced the idea that “everything in reality is, in principle at least, already known”, and that he invented “a finished system, a corpus of absolute knowledge which encompassed the whole of empirical reality”.

In fact, Engels repeatedly insisted that any such “system building” was completely foreign to historical materialism. Indeed, the whole of one of his major works, Anti-Dühring, is specifically designed to combat such a system. So it is that Engels writes, “To me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics into nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.” [69] It was not only in relation to natural science that it was important not to impose dialectical laws from the outside. Both Marx and Engels often made precisely the same point about the study of history, insisting that their method was a guide to studying history, not an excuse for not studying history.

Any general statements had first to be proven in detailed empirical and historical study, not simply asserted as universal laws. Engels insisted that “a system of natural and historical knowledge, embracing everything, and final for all time, is a contradiction to the fundamental laws of dialectic reasoning”. But why did Engels believe that a finished, all embracing system of knowledge was an illusion? One of the fundamental tenets of the dialectic is that the world is in a state of continuous change. Any finished system would necessarily imply that this process had halted, which is why Engels describes such notions as in conflict with the fundamental laws of dialectical reasoning. He elaborates:

If at any time in the development of mankind such a final, conclusive system of interconnections within the world – physical as well as mental and historical – were to be brought about, this would mean that human knowledge had reached its limit, and, from the moment when society had been brought into accord with that system, further historical development would be cut short – which would be an absurd idea, sheer nonsense. [70]

It is not surprising that Marx and Engels were hostile to any kind of universal system – their own ideas had been developed as a critique of the grandest of all universal systems, that developed by Hegel. [71] But Marx and Engels’ ideas were not only a critique of Hegel’s idealist system. They were also a critique of the mechanical materialism of the Enlightenment and of the similarly one sided materialism of the post-Hegelian philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach. So it was, on the face of it, unlikely that Engels would simply recoil from Hegel’s idealism into the arms of a crude, empirical materialism. Indeed, part of Marx and Engels’ critique of existing philosophy was that the two undialectical extremes, idealism and crude materialism, often collapsed into one another in a completely uncritical (and unacknowledged) way.

Marx and Engels frequently make the point that Hegel was forced to simply incorporate, in an ad hoc manner, economic facts and the discoveries of the physical sciences into his philosophical system. And the empiricists suffer the same fate from the opposite starting point: they find great, undigested lumps of theorising appearing willy-nilly in what they assume to be a mere recitation of “the facts”:

It is the old story. First of all one makes sensuous things into abstractions and then one wants to know them through the senses, to see time and smell space. The empiricist becomes so steeped in the habit of empirical experience, that he believes that he is still in the field of sensuous experience when he is operating with abstractions. [72]

So Engels was far from being an empiricist inclined system builder. His thought was constitutionally opposed to all-embracing abstract models of thought, whether they issued from the expected direction of idealism or from the less usual route of abstract empiricism. Engels’ own method was once again more dialectical. It involved a conscious recognition both of the theoretical elements in any empirical study and the necessary empirical basis on which any theoretical generalisation must stand. And once again Engels’ critics largely rely on removing one side or the other of his approach; they then insist that what remains proves that he was either a Hegelian intent on pushing the natural world into the preconceived forms of the dialectic, or a positivist who had abandoned the key terms of Marx’s dialectic.



An economic determinism?

The charge most commonly levelled at Engels is that he was a determinist intent on maintaining that every aspect of society could only be explained by its direct causal relationship with the economic structure. For example, George Lichtheim believes Engels’ thought was “hardly different from the fashionable materialist evolutionism of the epoch”. [73] In Norman Levine’s view, “by making economics the primary causal agent ... Engels remained in the camp of positivism”. [74]

The grain of truth on which this mountain of speculation rests is that Engels, like Marx, believed that the material circumstances in which human beings find themselves shape their thoughts and actions. These material circumstances do contain an important economic element, although we should be careful about translating the current academically constricted notions of “economics” into the days when Marx and Engels wrote. These see economics as a quantative science restricted to predicting human behaviour on the basis of supply and demand curves. In this sense modern bourgeois economics is overwhelmingly more determinist than anything Marx and Engels, or for that matter the bourgeois economists of their day, could have imagined.

Indeed, the discipline which Marx and Engels knew was called “political economy”, not “economics”. Its remit covered much territory now known as sociology and political science. Consequently, the notion of “economics” is much wider in Marx and Engels than many superficial observers comprehend. As we have seen, they considered human beings’ relationships with nature, their family relationships and the social relationships they formed with other human beings to be some of the most important constituents of a materialist analysis of any particular epoch. Marx’s mature economic theory insisted that both means of production (tools, machines, factories, offices and so on) and the relations of production (above all, the class relations) were, together, what constituted the mode of production. And it was upon this basis, the “production and reproduction of real life” as Engels put it, that they sought to understand the development of social institutions, political parties, ideologies, religions, philosophies and so on.

At no point, however, did either Marx or Engels argue that this was a deterministic relationship. They never suggested that the various political institutions, parties and ideologies had no effect on the course of history. One of the most trenchant statements of this attitude was written by Engels, although it is often attributed to Marx, in one of the sections which he contributed to their joint early work, The German Ideology:

History does nothing, it “possesses no immense wealth”, it “wages no battles”. It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights; “history” is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims. [75]

A lifetime later Engels’ attitude had not altered. Towards the end of his life he wrote a series of letters, as well as general statements in his published work, designed to clarify exactly this point. In September 1890, for instance, in a letter to Joseph Bloch, Engels wrote:

Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-a-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other factors involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to applying the theory in practice, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible. [76]

Engels recommends, as “a most excellent example” of dealing with a particular historical event, Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. This work contains Marx’s famous formulation of the relationship between material conditions and human action in the making of history: “Men make their own history, but ... not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted”. [77] Engels clearly had this formulation in mind when he wrote his letter to Bloch:

We make our history ourselves, but, in the first place, under very definite antecedents and conditions. Among these the economic are ultimately decisive. [78]

And he went on to argue that “it is hardly possible, without making oneself ridiculous, to explain in terms of economics the existence of every small state in Germany, past and present”. The next month, October 1890, saw Engels return to the same theme in terms strikingly reminiscent of those which he used in The German Ideology. He complained bitterly that one of his “supporters” had written “as if, according to Marx, history makes itself quite automatically, without the co-operation of human beings (who after all are making it!), and as if these human beings were simply played like mere chessmen by the economic conditions (which are the work of men themselves!)”. Engels was quick to point out that this was a repetition of the corruption of Marx peddled by Dühring. He concluded in an exasperated tone, “A man who is capable of confusing the distortion of Marxist theory by an opponent such as Dühring with this theory itself must turn elsewhere for help – I give up.” [79]

Later the same month Engels was again recommending Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, this time to Conrad Schmidt, as a model of non-deterministic analysis because:

[It] deals almost exclusively with the particular part played by political struggles and events, of course within their general dependence on economic conditions. Or Capital, the section on the working day, for instance, where legislation, which is surely a political act, has such a drastic effect.

And he concludes, “And why do we fight for the political dictatorship of the proletariat if political power is economically impotent? Force (that is, state power) is also an economic power!” [80]

But Engels’ letters did far more than simply make general statements to the effect that historical materialism was not a crude economistic interpretation of history. They went on to spell out how Marxists set about relating various political institutions to the economic structure of society.

Engels argued that state power generally can have one of three effects on the economic development of a society. It can accelerate economic change, retard economic change or alter the course of economic development and “prevent economic development from proceeding along certain lines, and prescribe other lines”. [81] The state can gain this relative independence because it is based on the development of the division of labour. Engels explains:

Society gives rise to certain common functions which it cannot dispense with. The persons appointed for this purpose form a new branch of the division of labour within society. This gives them particular interests, distinct, too, from those of their mandator; they make themselves independent of the latter and – the state is in being... the new independent power, while having in the main to follow the movement of production, reacts in turn, by virtue of its inherent relative independence – that is relative independence once transferred to it and gradually further developed – upon the course and conditions of production. [82]

And, as each new area of political and social development opens up, there arise institutional structures and networks of social relations which, while ultimately related to the economic structure, develop a certain independent power of their own. Engels uses the example of the legal structure:

As soon as the new division of labour which creates professional lawyers becomes necessary, another new and independent sphere is opened up which, for all its general dependence on production and trade, has also a specific capacity for reacting on these spheres. [83]

More than this, the very nature of the law means that it cannot be a direct reflection of the economic conditions which gave rise to it. This is for three reasons. Firstly, the law, although fundamentally an expression of the ruling class’s control of property, cannot simply be a “blunt, unmitigated, unadulterated expression of the domination of a class”, otherwise it would fail to be effective as an arbiter of the class struggle. It must have, at least, the appearance of independence from the ruling class. Secondly, although based on a contradictory economic system, the law itself has to be seen to be internally coherent, to be rational in its judgments. But “in order to achieve this, the faithful reflection of economic conditions suffers increasingly”. [84] Finally, and as a result of these two factors, “the jurist imagines he is operating with a priori propositions, whereas they are really only economic reflections; everything is therefore upside down”. [85] So this necessarily independent sphere “influences the economic base and may, within certain limits, modify it”. Indeed, Engels adds, laws like those governing inheritance can “exert a very considerable effect on the economic sphere, because they influence the distribution of property”. [86]

None of this, however, was meant to deny the materialism of Marx and Engels’ approach, merely to spell out that they were not mechanical materialists or economic determinists:

It is the interaction of two unequal forces: on the one hand, the economic movement, on the other, the new political power, which strives for as much independence as possible, and which, having once been set up, is endowed with a movement of its own. On the whole, the economic movement prevails, but it has also to endure reactions from the political movement which it itself set up and endowed with relative independence, from the movement of state power, on the one hand, and of the opposition simultaneously engendered, on the other. [87]

Here once again the key elements of a dialectical analysis are in place: the whole of society is shown to be based on a fundamental economic contradiction which gives rise to a state structure which is related to, but distinct from, its economic base. Either completely separating the economic and the political, or completely dissolving either side into the other, destroys the real pattern of relations. It is, in dialectical terminology, a contradictory totality, a unity of opposites. As Engels wrote of his contemporary critics:

What these gentlemen all lack is dialectics. They always see only cause here, effect there. That this is an empty abstraction, that such metaphysical polar opposites exist in the real world only during crises, and that the whole vast process goes on in the form of interaction – though of very unequal forces, the economic being by far the strongest, the primary and the most decisive and that in this context everything is relative and nothing absolute – they cannot grasp at all. As far as they are concerned Hegel never existed. [88]

So even in Engels’ day it was not new for critics to be ignorant of what is involved in a dialectical materialist analysis of society, and allow one side of the analysis to be abstracted, so they could condemn Engels as a determinist.



A copy theory of knowledge?

Engels’ did not believe that human society simply reproduced relations found in the natural world, or that the political life of society simply reflected its economic preconditions. Therefore it would be surprising if he held a copy theory of knowledge – a theory which holds that our ideas are simply a mirror of the world around us. But since Engels frequently uses the term “reflection” to indicate the relationship between ideas and reality, this issue requires some further examination.

When Marx and Engels describe thought as a “reflection” of the material world they are usually talking in the most general terms and they are often arguing against idealists, for whom the material world is the creation of thought. So it is, for instance, in a passage from Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy which seems particularly to irritate Engels’ critics. Here, as part of a paragraph in which Engels is polemising against the Hegelian notion that thought is “the actual living soul of the whole existing world”, he writes, “We comprehend the ideas in our heads materialistically again – as reflections of real things instead of regarding the real things as reflections of this or that stage of the absolute idea.” [89]

But the moment Engels moves beyond such aphoristic formulations he makes it quite obvious that the relationship between thought and its material conditions cannot be reduced to simple reflection. Thus later in Ludwig Feuerbach, where Engels discusses philosophy and religion, he insists that these “higher ideologies ... are still further removed from the material base” and that “the connection between ideas and their material conditions of existence becomes more and more complicated and more and more obscured by the intermediate links.” [90] And he goes on to elaborate:

Once it has arisen ... every ideology develops in conjunction with the given conceptual material and elaborates on it; otherwise it would not be an ideology, that is, dealing with ideas as autonomous entities which develop independently and are subject to their own laws. [91]

So ideologies develop their own internal coherence and, therefore, have their own relatively independent modes of development (as we saw in the previous section with regard to the law). But there are two more reasons for believing that Engels did not hold a crude copy theory of knowledge.

Firstly, such a theory would have contradicted a fact which Engels regarded as fundamental to his understanding of the dialectic: the natural and the social world are in a never ceasing process of change and development. Any idea, but particularly any widely accepted ideological system, is both relatively abstract and relatively stable in comparison to the diversity and change which is present in the real world. It follows that concepts are necessarily an inexact representation of reality. Sometimes such inexactitude is a virtue – it helps isolate the essential from the inessential – but it always results in a disjunction between thought and reality.

There is a related problem raised by the comparatively static nature of concepts. To analyse certain elements of material reality it is often important to extract them deliberately from the constant passage of time, and then treat them as fixed and unchanging. But this also introduces a necessary inaccuracy into our concepts. Engels elaborated these points in a letter to Conrad Schmidt:

The concept of a thing and its reality, run side by side like two asymptotes, always approaching each other yet never meeting. The difference between the two is the very difference which prevents the concept from being directly and immediately reality and reality from being immediately its own concept... the concept... does not therefore prima facie directly coincide with reality, from which it had to be abstracted in the first place, it is nevertheless more than a fiction, unless you declare that all the results of thought are fictions because reality only corresponds to them only very circuitously, and even then approaching it only asympomatically. [92]

But these difficulties are only half the problem:

... or are the concepts which prevail in the natural sciences fictions because they by no means always coincide with reality? From the moment we accept the theory of evolution all our concepts of organic life correspond only approximately to reality. Otherwise there would be no change. On the day when concepts and reality completely coincide in the organic world development comes to an end. The concept fish includes life in water and breathing through gills: how are you going to get from fish to amphibian without breaking through this concept? [93]

Indeed, for Marx and Engels, one of the main virtues of dialectical thought was that it developed a number of concepts which more accurately corresponded to the changing nature of reality than the more static and abstract categories of either empiricism or idealism. But precisely because such enormous theoretical effort was necessary in order to correctly apprehend the nature of reality, it was inconceivable that either Marx or Engels would have subscribed to the idea that reality was immediately reflected in the mind in any simplistic or automatic manner.

One final argument against the view that Engels held a reductionist explanation of the relationship between society and ideology rests on Marx and Engels’ theory of alienation. This argued that in a society where human beings could not control either their natural environment or the social and economic mechanism it was inevitable that they would fail to be able to easily comprehend the nature of their world. This was true of all class societies, at least to some degree. But it was most true of capitalist society, since capitalism is a society in which the economic exploitation of the working class is masked by the legal equality of all its members. Everyone, capitalist or worker, is subject to the same laws, at least in theory. Everyone, factory owner or wage earner, has the same right to vote. The surface appearance of society is thus very different from its actual workings.

This results in the illusion that the political structure shapes the economic structure – the basis of, among others, the reformist ideology – rather than the reverse. The fact that the ruling class really does use the state to protect its economic power lends weight to this appearance, helping to further obscure the capitalists’ fundamental dependence on its economic power:

The traditional conception ... saw in the state the determining element ... Appearances correspond to this ... so all the needs of civil society – whichever class happens to be the ruling one – must pass through the will of the state to obtain general validity in the form of laws. That is the formal aspect of the matter, which is self-evident. But the question now arises, what is the content of this merely formal will ...? If we look into this, we discover that in modern history the will of the state is by and large determined by the changing needs of civil society, by the supremacy of this or that class, in the last resort, by the development of the productive forces and the relations of exchange. [94]

Here, once again, a simple reflection of appearances in the minds of human beings does not accord with reality but with a mistaken image of reality. It would be impossible, on this understanding, for Engels to hold a copy theory of knowledge. If thought mirrored reality it would simply be reflecting the ideological appearance, not the scientifically uncovered reality. Marx made this point in his criticism of the vulgar economists, whose fault lay precisely in the fact that they did simply reflect the appearance (or ‘phenomenal form’, as Marx calls it) not the underlying reality. Engels is unlikely to have missed this point since it was made in a letter to him:

The philistine’s and vulgar economist’s way of looking at things arises, namely, because it is only the immediate phenomenal form of these relations that is reflected in their brains and not their inner connection. Incidentally, if the latter were the case what need would there be of science? [95]

Moreover, not only would there be no need for science if the reality of things were immediately obvious from their appearance, there would be no need for, or possibility of, working class consciousness changing in the course of class struggle. Either the real nature of capitalist society would be obvious and workers would reject it, in which case a revolution would be automatic; or the appearance of capitalism would be taken as true and workers would accept it, in which case a revolution would be impossible. It is because, in the course the struggle, workers move from a consciousness which partly accepts the system at face value to a rejection of the system based on a truer comprehension of its real nature that a revolution is both possible and the culmination of a historical process. So, contrary to assertions by Kolakowski, Schmidt and others, Marx and Engels’ theory requires a rejection of a copy theory of consciousness, both as a method of analysis and as an explanation of working class consciousness.



The self emancipation of the working class

Marx is sometimes acquitted of the charge that he saw socialism as inevitable on the grounds that the commitment to the self emancipation of the working class is unmistakable in his writings, particularly his early writings. Such judgments rarely extend to Engels. Engels, as we have seen, is accused, in Lichtheim’s words, of transferring “the here-and-now of conscious activity to a horizon so distant as to be almost invisible”, or else of propagating a version of Marxism in which “the notion of human praxis was absent”. Supposedly Marx is the humanist whose vision incorporated the struggle of real workers, Engels the determinist whose scientific framework had no room for human intervention.

Despite being well established this view has little basis in fact. Much of what was said in refutation of Engels’ alleged determinism is also relevant here. But to avoid straying into the area of general principles again, some of Engels’ remarks about the class struggle should suffice.

Interestingly, even when Engels is deploying some of his most deterministic formulations in response to Dühring’s contention that “political conditions are the decisive cause of the economic situation”, even when he is arguing that capitalism is being driven forward “as if necessitated by a law of nature”, Engels still insists that there is not one predetermined outcome. He argues that the class struggle can either result in “ruin or revolution”. Which possibility actually materialises is clearly dependent on the course of the class struggle. In this respect Engels’ thought reproduced towards the end of his life exactly the patterns which he and Marx had first described in the Communist Manifesto in their youth. There the fate of capitalism is described as either proletarian revolution or “the common ruin of the contending classes”. History, for Engels, was no more independent of the course of the class struggle in the 1880s than it had been in the 1840s. Indeed, in those early days it was Engels as much as Marx who took the lead in asserting the centrality of the self activity of the working class.

It was Engels, for instance, who in the face of the whole of accepted opinion on the left at that time, insisted on the importance of trade unions precisely because they were organisations in which workers taught themselves to fight and in which they could learn the real nature of the capitalist system:

What gives these Unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition. They imply the recognition of the fact that the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is based wholly upon the competition of the workers among themselves; i.e. upon their want of cohesion. And precisely because the Unions direct themselves against the vital nerve of the present social order, however one-sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order. [96]

Consciousness and organisation are seen as going hand in hand. And the further development of the struggle is seen as promoting the possibility of going beyond the limits of trade union consciousness and organisation:

If the competition of workers among themselves is destroyed, if all determine not to be further exploited by the bourgeoisie, the rule of property is at an end ... The moment the workers resolve to be bought and sold no longer, they take the part of men possessed of a will as well as of a working power; at that moment the whole Political Economy of today is at an end. [97]

And it was in Marx and Engels’ joint work, The German Ideology, that this famous statement of revolution as the act of the working class was made:

Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place in a practical movement, a revolution; the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other may, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found itself anew. [98]

And it was Engels alone who reported a few years later on the practical experience of living through one such moment in the revolutionary Berlin of 1848. And, as he did so, he forged one of the most striking formulations of necessity of the self emancipation of the working class:

The people that fought and won on the barricades is an altogether different people from the one that assembled before the castle on 18 March to be enlightened about the meaning of the concessions obtained, by the attacks of the dragoons. It is capable of altogether different things, it has an altogether different stance with relation to the government. The most important conquest of the revolution is the revolution itself. [99]

Engels’ commitment to the idea of working class self emancipation remained undimmed in later life. In 1888, for instance, he wrote to Margaret Harkness criticising her novel City Girl because she failed to highlight this aspect of working class life:

In the City Girl the working class figures appear as a passive mass, unable to help itself and not even showing (making) any attempt at striving to help itself. All attempts to drag it out of its torpid misery come from without, from above. Now if this was a correct description about 1800 or 1810 ... it cannot appear so in 1887 to a man who for nearly 50 years has had the honour of sharing in most of the fights of the militant proletariat. The rebellious reaction of the working class against the oppressive medium which surrounds them, their attempts – convulsive, half-conscious or conscious – at recovering their status as human beings, belong to history and must therefore lay claim to a place in the domain of realism. [100]

In every aspect of Engels’ thought – whether it be the stress on consciousness as the element which which makes human beings a distinct part of nature, or the centrality of the class struggle, or the complaint that a novel does not accurately portray the self activity of workers – he is careful to avoid mechanical materialism. It does not seem, therefore, that any honest reading of Engels’ works can accuse him of neglecting the role of working people in the struggle for their own liberation.



Engels and reformism

Another common accusation is that Engels invented a mechanical Marxism which resulted in the reformist strategy which increasingly came to dominate the German SPD and the Second International of which it was a part. This view involves a series of falsifications.

This first falsification is, as we have seen, that Engels’ approach was mechanical to start with. Even Engels’ least guarded formulation of historical materialism was qualitatively different from the kind of fatalism which marked, for instance, the thought of the leading theoretician of the Second International, Karl Kautsky. The future, wrote Kautsky:

is certain and inevitable in the sense that it is inevitable that inventors improve technique, that capitalists in their greed revolutionise the economic life ... that it is inevitable that wage-earners aspire to shorter working hours and higher rages, that they organise themselves and struggle against the class of capitalists and the power of the state ... That it is inevitable that they aspire to political power and the abolition of the capitalist domination. Socialism is inevitable because the class struggle and the victory of the proletariat are so too. [101]

There is clearly an intellectual continuity between this kind of general formulation and the passive reformism, the rejection of revolution, that became the hallmark of the leaders of the Second International. If socialism is inevitable, after all, why endanger its progress by revolutionary adventures? Why not wait for its inevitable progress to register in a parliamentary majority for the SPD?

Equally clearly, Engels’ work does not contain anything remotely resembling this kind of formulation. So, for it to be made into an intellectual justification for reformism, selective quotation and distortion must be used. Whereas in Kautsky’s case the general theoretical approach did result in reformist political formulations, there is no evidence that Engels’ supposed mechanical materialism actually resulted in him endorsing a reformist political strategy.

This last assertion requires justification since it is sometimes argued that in his last years Engels did endorse the first signs of reformism as they emerged in the SPD. Indeed, it is even argued that Marx first raised the issue in a speech he gave in Amsterdam in 1872 following the Hague conference of the First International where he said that it might be possible, in England for instance, that “workers can achieve their goals through peaceful means.” This interpretation is, however, only possible on the basis of highly selective quotation. Not only does it neglect Marx’s general statements in his writings on the Paris Commune, where he insisted that workers must “smash the state machine”, it also ignores Engels’ explicit and specific elaboration of Marx’s remark about England. In 1886, in his preface to the first English translation of Capital, Engels returned to Marx’s remark that “in Europe at least, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected by peaceful and legal means.” Engels goes on to add a crucial qualification: “He [Marx] certainly never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a ‘pro-slavery rebellion’ to the peaceful and legal revolution.” [102]

The gravity of this remark can be understood by recalling the event to which Engels is referring when he uses the phrase “pro-slavery rebellion”. This was the term used to describe the revolt of the Southern states of America against the Federal government – its result was the American Civil War. The full meaning of Engels’ statement is, therefore, that, even if the working class in England were to attain power peacefully, they would then have to defend it by means of a revolutionary civil war. It is, consequently, difficult to see the embryo of reformism in Engels’ formulations or – on Engels’ testimony – in Marx’s statement either.

This is not, however, the end of Engels’ alleged reformism. In the very last year of his life Engels wrote an introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France which is said to have pointed towards a reformist strategy. It is certainly true that Engels insists on the importance of “slow propaganda work and parliamentary activity”. But this insistence was born of two considerations.

Firstly, the leaders of the SPD, in whose paper, Vorwärts, the introduction was to appear, were worried that the anti-socialist laws then before the German parliament would be passed and therefore begged Engels to tone down the more revolutionary of his formulations. This he did only in part and then with the greatest reluctance. Engels wrote to Richard Fischer of the SPD executive:

I have yielded to your serious misgivings as much as possible, although with the best will I cannot understand about half of the concerns. I still cannot accept that you intend to pledge yourselves body and soul to absolute legality, legality under all circumstances, legality even in the face of laws broken by their authors – in short the politics of proffering the left cheek to whoever has struck you on the right ... I’m of the opinion that you win nothing when you preach the absolute renunciation of striking hard ... and no party anywhere goes so far as to renounce armed opposition to illegality. [103]

The second consideration behind some of Engels’ formulations was a tactical desire to instruct his readers on when a revolutionary uprising was possible, and what tactics were appropriate at which stage of an insurrection. Engels explains, for instance, that a premature putsch which does not enjoy the support of the majority of workers can be counterproductive, handing the ruling class a chance to recover its confidence and go over to the offensive. This was not a rejection of revolution, it was a rejection of coups carried out by elites:

The time of surprise attacks, of revolutions carried through by small conscious minorities at the head of masses lacking consciousness is past. Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organisation, the masses themselves must be in on it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are fighting for, body and soul. [104]

Engels also discussed another, entirely minor, tactical question: when and where it was appropriate to build street barricades. It is possible that Engels’ military interests led him to spend too much time on this issue, but his concerns were not meant to deny the possibility of revolution. His point about street barricades was simply that developments since the 1848 revolutions made these a much more dangerous proposition than they once were. The forces of the state were better armed and trained than in 1848, for instance. Even so, Engels did not completely renounce the use of barricades. He concluded his lengthy overview of the changed conditions since 1848 with the sentence, “This is the key point to keep in mind in analysing any future possibilities for street fighting”, clearly indicating the provisional and conditional nature of his judgments. [105] Later he posed point blank the question of whether street fighting would be debarred from future use. His reply: “Absolutely not”. These sentences, however, were removed from the printed copy in Vorwärts. These and other alterations made Engels’ piece seem much more reformist than he had ever intended.

Engels wrote a bitter letter of protest to Karl Kautsky, then editor of another SPD paper, Neue Zeit:

To my astonishment I see today in Vorwärts an extract from my Introduction, printed without my knowledge and trimmed in such a way as to make me appear a peace-loving worshipper of legality at any price. So much the better that the whole thing is to appear now in Neue Zeit so that this disgraceful impression will be wiped out. [106]

Engels also wrote to Paul Lafargue complaining of the “trick” that had been played on him by the editor of Vorwärts so that “everything could serve him to support that tactics of peace at any price and of opposition to force and violence, which it has pleased him for some time now to preach, especially at present when coercive laws are being prepared in Berlin”. Engels insisted that he supported these tactics only “today” and only in Germany. And even so they “may become inapplicable tomorrow”. [107]

All this is of a piece with an earlier letter to Lafargue where Engels argued that the great virtue of legal political work was that it showed “with absolute exactitude that day on which one must take up arms for the revolution”. [108]

There is, perhaps, some excuse for those who only had the censored text of Engels’ introduction before them to believe that, in some of his last printed words, he had given ground to reformist ideas. For those who have to hand the full text, and Engels’ subsequent correspondence, such a judgement can only be based on malice or misunderstanding.



Engels’ legacy

If Engels’ ideas are not a theoretical precursor of either reformism or Stalinism, why is it that so many theorists have attempted to prove that they are? The answer to this question lies in the theoretical weakness which haunted the New Left in the 1960s and 1970s and which, in different ways, affected many of those who looked at the history of Marxism, whether or not they regarded themselves as radicals.

The dominant tone emphasised philosophical and cultural analysis, often in reaction to what was rightly perceived as the reductionism of the Stalinist tradition and the anti-theoretical nature of reformism. But such an approach was fundamentally flawed when it came to understanding the roots of just those two traditions.

It is one thing to say that Stalinism was a form of economic reductionism and that reformism has a pragmatic distrust of theory. But it is quite another to say that reductionism in theory leads to, much less causes, Stalinism; or that pragmatism in theory causes reformism in practice. The New Left’s concern with culture and theory tilted over into a kind of idealism where the emphasis in explaining any historical event rests on inadequacies of theory. And once this logic is accepted it is not long before the intellectual lines of inheritance are scoured to find the thinker who first introduced such erroneous ideas into the movement. The search for original sin has begun.

Right wingers would, of course, have no difficulty here. For them Engels and Marx are both guilty of determinism and of being the precursors of Stalinism. But those radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s were formed by a rejection of this kind of Cold War mentality. They knew too much about the methods of right wing academia, and too much about Marxism, to accept the right wing argument – but most of them did not know enough to reject the argument against Engels.

What was necessary was a materialist explanation of the rise of reformism and the roots of Stalinism. Kautsky’s revisionism was ultimately the product of the relative stability which accompanied the epoch of classical imperialism (1870-1914), the rise of mass reformist parties and the trade union bureaucracy. Adapting to these material circumstances, the leaders of the Second International were forced to distort the revolutionary essence of Marxism while attempting to preserve its form. Likewise the isolation of the Russian Revolution led to the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy and then to its abandonment of Marxism, while simultaneously retaining the phrases of the revolutionary tradition as an ideological tie between itself and the mass of the population.

This kind of materialist account was adopted by some of those radicalised in the 1960s and 1970s, but the weakness of the Trotskyist movement which carried this analysis limited the numbers it could influence. For those not influenced by this approach the difficulties of surviving a period when the struggle ebbed were enormously increased. Under the pressure of defeat those who started out trying to establish Marxism without Engels tended to end up at Marxism without Marx.

Those who understood the materialist causes of Stalinism and reformism were better equipped to separate the Stalinist and reformist distortions of Engels from what Engels himself intended. This, in turn, left them with a Marxism better able to meet the demands of the coming decades. And this is the real point of rescuing Engels from the hands of his critics. Understanding Engels’ ideas makes it more likely, though far from inevitable, that in the struggles which lie ahead we will avoid defeat and ensure victory.

When Engels spoke the words, “Before all else, he was a revolutionist”, over Marx’s grave, it was an epitaph as fitting for the speaker as for his dead friend. And, because they were more than just active revolutionaries themselves, Marx and Engels developed an analysis which, while it could not possibly forecast the struggles of the 20th century, provided the basis for understanding that century. And so it is Marx and Engels’ thought which provides socialists today with the best chance of meeting the challenges with which the development of the natural sciences and the capitalist system are confronting us as the millennium approaches.




69. Engels, Anti-Dühring, MECW, Vol.25, op. cit., pp 12-13.

70. ibid., p.35.

71. Even if one accepts the point made by Engels’ critics, which I don’t, that Engels’ critique of Hegel was different from that of Marx, it makes no difference to the force of this point. Engels is said to have simply counterposed the revolutionary Hegelian method to the conservative Hegelian system, rather than carried out a fully materialist critique of both method and system. But since it is precisely the conservative nature of such universal systems to which Engels’ objects, it is highly unlikely that he would have reproduced exactly this fault in his own analysis.

72. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, MECW, op. cit., p.515.

73. G. Lichtheim, op. cit., p.248.

74. N. Levine, op. cit., p.174.

75. Engels, The German Ideology, MECW, op. cit., p.93.

76. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p.396.

77. Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Marx, Surveys from Exile (Penguin, 1973), p.146.

78. Engels, Selected Correspondence (Moscow, 1975), p.395. Virtually the same phrase – “men make their history themselves” – crops up in Engels’ letter to Turati, Selected Correspondence, p.442.

79. Engels, Reply to Mr. Paul Ernst, MECW, Vol.27 (London, 1990), p.84.

80. Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p.402.

81. ibid., p.399.

82. ibid., pp.398-399.

83. ibid..

84. ibid., p.399.

85. ibid., p.400.

86. ibid., p.400.

87. ibid., p.399.

88. ibid., p.402.

89. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, op. cit., p.40.

90. ibid., p.54.

91. ibid., p.55.

92. Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p.457.

93. ibid., p.459.

94. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, op. cit., p.51.

95. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p.179. Marx repeated the same point in Capital, Vol.III. That Engels fully understood this point is not only obvious from his own writings, but also from a revision which he made to Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital when it was republished in 1891. Marx’s original 1849 text had argued, “The bourgeois therefore buys the workers’ labour with money. They sell him their labour for money.” In that original form Marx could be read to mean that this is a just market exchange – a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay. In Capital Marx had spelt out that this is only the appearance of a fair transaction because, in reality, what the worker sells is his labour power which can be exploited beyond the point where it has earned enough to reproduce itself and so delivers surplus value to the capitalist. Thus there is, right at the heart of the capitalist system, a fateful gap between appearance and reality. Engels amended the 1891 edition to bring out this point: “The capitalist, it seems, therefore buys their labour for money. They sell him their labour for money. But this is merely the appearance. In reality, what they sell to the capitalist is their labour power.” See the excellent account of this and other questions in J.D. Hunley, The Life and Thought of Frederick Engels, op. cit., pp.87-88.

96. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England, MECW, Vol.4 (London, 1975), p.507.

97. ibid. See also H. Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol.II (New York, 1978), pp.91-146.

98. Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, MECW, op. cit., p.53.

99. Engels, quoted in H. Draper, op. cit., p.75. Engels later found that the people had not been as completely revolutionised as he had at first hoped. Nevertheless, as Draper notes, “the principle was still the measuring rod of the limitations of the March revolution: its greatest shortcoming is that it has not revolutionised the Berliners.”

100. Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., pp.379-380. Also see the discussion in J.D. Hunley, op. cit., pp.116-117.

101. K. Kautsky, quoted in J. Larrain, A Reconstruction of Historical Materialism, (London, 1986), p.53.

102. Engels, quoted in J.D. Hunley, op. cit., p.101.

103. ibid., p.105.

104. Engels, Introduction to K. Marx, The Class Struggles in France, MECW, Vol.27 (London, 1990), p.520. This is yet another striking testimony to Engels’ insistence that workers themselves must be the conscious authors of their own liberation.

105. Indeed, Engels suggests that the shortcomings of barricades might mean that revolutionaries would have to go over to the offensive rather than simply build defensive street fortifications.

106. Engels, Selected Correspondence, op. cit., p.461.

107. ibid.

108. Engels, quoted in J.D. Hunley, op. cit., p.111.


Last updated on 17.4.2004