Issue 65 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM JOURNAL Published Winter 1994 Copyright © International Socialism
A strange thing has happened to the reputation of Frederick Engels in the 100 years since his death. For the vast majority of that time both Engels' allies and his enemies agreed that he was Marx's alter ego. Indeed, the very expression 'alter ego' was Marx's own description of his relationship to Engels. Most commentators and virtually all Marxists thought that a lifetime of common work, the undeniable and almost undisturbed years of close personal and political co-operation, spoke for themselves.1
But by the 1960s that easy certainty was faced with a sustained challenge. The first cracks in the Cold War consensus were beginning to appear. The growth of CND, the rise of the New Left and, later, opposition to the Vietnam War inevitably produced an enormous increase in interest in radical ideas in general and Marxist ideas, or what passed for Marxist ideas, in particular. This process necessarily led to a reaction against the stifling conformity of reformism and the oppressive legacy of Stalinism. Much of what was said and written marked a rebirth of interest in the genuine Marxist tradition and delivered a long-delayed blow to the reformist and Stalinist traditions.
Yet the reaction against Stalinism was also shaped by Stalinism, in two senses. Firstly, some of those reacting to Stalinism got no further than adopting another variant of Stalinism, either Maoism, or Third Worldism or the 'reform Communism' that came to dominate the Western European Communist Parties. Secondly, even those who broke completely with Stalinism tended to confuse elements of the genuine Marxist tradition with the economic determinism characteristic of Stalinism.
All this led to altered perceptions of the Marxist inheritance. Perhaps inevitably, critics began to search the writings of the founders of Marxism for the seeds of Stalinism and failures of reformism. Many of these developments particularly affected students and so fuelled the expansion of academic Marxism. They also coincided with the wider availability of Marx's early 'humanist' writings. A new consensus emerged, both in academic circles and among many on the left, about the nature of Engels' thought.
One of the first studies to systematically assert a cleavage between Marx's ideas and those of Engels was George Lichtheim's Marxism: an Historical and Critical Study, first published in 1961.2 Lichtheim insisted that in Marx's vision 'critical thought was validated by revolutionary action', but in Engels' scheme 'there now appeared a cast-iron system of "laws" from which the inevitability of socialism could be deduced with almost mathematical certainty... the "goal" was transferred from the here-and-now of conscious activity to a horizon so distant as to be almost invisible.'3
For Marx, Lichtheim claims, 'the only nature relevant to the understanding of history was human nature.' Engels therefore broke with Marx when he argued that 'historical evolution is an aspect of general (natural) evolution and basically subject to the same "laws".'4 This meant that Engels had appropriated Hegel's heritage quite differently to Marx. Marx had taken from Hegel the importance of self conscious activity in the making of history. In contrast 'what really fascinates' Engels 'is Hegel's determinism: his ability to make it appear that nature (and history) follow a pre-ordained course'.5 Such a drastic recasting of Marxism inevitably had political consequences:
...determinism in thought making for dogmatism in action. The cast-iron certainty which Engels imported into Marxist thinking found its counterpart at the political level in an unshakable conviction that the stars in their courses were promoting the victory of socialism.6
Consequently, Engels, Kautsky--the leading thinker of the Second International--'and the orthodox school in general' transformed Marxism 'from the vision of a unique breakthrough into a doctrine of a casaully determined process analogous to the scheme of Darwinian evolution'.7
Lichtheim's book rehearses many of the themes that were to become so familiar in other work published over the following 20 years: that Engels replaced Marx's notion of conscious activity with an empiricist notion of science, that he mistakenly extended Marxism so that it covered the natural as well as the social world, that this inevitably drew him into deterministic and reductionist formulations and that these in turn led him at the end of his life to endorse a reformist political practice on the part of the German Social Democratic Party. And not for the last time the revolutionary, humanist Marx was counterposed to the reformist, determinist Engels by a writer such as Lichtheim who was an opponent of Marxism in theory and a convinced reformist in practice.
After Lichtheim the deluge. Alfred Schmidt's otherwise more careful and interesting book, The Concept of Nature in Marx, first published in German in 1962, argued that 'where Engels passed beyond Marx's conception of the relation between nature and social history, he relapsed into a dogmatic metaphysic'.8 Schmidt also saw a departure from the concerns of the early Marx: 'For Engels, nature and man are not united primarily through historical practice; man appears only as a product of evolution and a passive reflection of the process of nature, not however as a productive force'.9 By adopting this approach Engels also abandoned Marx's view of how consciousness is formed:
The movement of thought in Marx is by no means limited to a mere mirroring of the factual. The uncritical reproduction of existing relationships in consciousness has precisely an ideological character for Marx.10
So Schmidt believed that where Marx saw ideas formed in interaction with the material world Engels saw only a crude reflection of the outside world in the brains of human beings, a vulgar 'copy theory' of consciousness. By 1969 Lucio Colletti could question, almost in passing:
how far this distortion of Marx's thought by Kautsky and Plekhanov...was already prepared, if only in embryo, in some aspects of Engels's work; and how in general the search for the most general laws of development in nature and history made these attempts a preconstitution of the contamination with Hegelianism and Darwinism.11
He went on to argue that Engels' influence on the leaders of the Second International was partly a result of 'the place given in Engels' work to philosophical-cosmological development, "the philosophy of nature", in other words, the "extension" of historical materialism into "dialectical materialism".'12
In books as diverse as John Lewis's The Marxism of Marx (1972), Shlomo Avineri's widely read textbook The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx (1970) and Leszek Kolakowski's sophisticated and profoundly anti-Marxist Main Currents of Marxism (1978) it became an article of faith that Engels had distorted Marx.13
Even authors Paul Walton and Andrew Gamble, who were sympathetic to Marxism at the time they wrote From Alienation to Surplus Value (1972), could conclude that:
[Engels] seems debarred from understanding the real premises of Marx's method because he seeks to make Marxism an objective science on the model of the natural sciences... he tries to establish the truth of historical materialism by treating human interaction as analogous to the interaction of chemical particles.14
For Gareth Stedman Jones, influenced by Louis Althusser's structuralism, it was Engels' 'inability adequately to think through the novelty of historical materialism as a science' which 'led him to an understandable attempt to fill in the gaps with philosophy--the Hegelian philosophy of his youth'. This not only led to a 'lack of any theory of the political instance of social formations' but to Engels embracing 'a dangerous implication of the Hegelian theory of knowledge--that everything in reality is, in principle at least, already known'. Thus Engels 'unintentionally converted the infant science of historical materialism into the appearance of a finished system, a corpus of absolute knowledge which encompassed the whole of empirical reality'.15
By the early 1970s the pattern was fully established--Engels was the villain. And it did not seem to matter what political or theoretical position a writer set out from--the neo-Kantianism of Colletti, the humanism of Avineri or Schmidt, the Althusserianism of New Left Review contributors--the destination was always the same: Engels was at the root of whatever was wrong with Marxism. With few exceptions,16 the argument against Engels had now become a virtual orthodoxy, perhaps best summarised in Norman Levine's The Tragic Deception: Marx contra Engels (1975) and Terrell Carver's Marx and Engels, the Intellectual Relationship (1983). Levine states the anti-Engels orthodoxy in its bare essentials:
Engels' materialism... was a cold, unremitting, and remorseless system. Men had little impact on fashioning the course of development of history and nature. Rather than being the subject of history, men were basically the passive objects of unrelenting external forces... Engels' materialism was mechanistic.17
Naturally, for Levine, it followed that 'Engels continuously affirmed the copy theory of knowledge... there was absolutely no variance, no difference between our comprehension of the external world and the external world itself'.18
Engels' grave error lay in 'making the laws of nature themselves dialectical... something which Marx himself never attempted'.19 Engels 'was a unilinear evolutionist'20 for whom 'causality... meant additive sequence'21 and from whose thought 'the notion of human praxis was absent'. Consequently:
Engels' thought moved from a mechanistic materialist view of the universe to a deterministic view of human history... it was Engels, not Marx, who was the originator of economic determinism.22
Carver's work is more qualified and careful in its argument, but it arrives at similar conclusions.23 Engels was led to 'incorporating the causal laws of physical science and taking them as a model for a covertly academic study of history, "thought" and, somewhat implausibly, current politics'.24
There are many more writers who have argued that Engels was responsible for transforming Marxism into a crude, deterministic philosophy of nature which led to the reformism of the Second International and even Stalinism. To those already quoted could be added Richard Gunn in Marxism Today, Jeff Coulter in Socialist Register, Frederick Bender's The Betrayal of Marx, Z A Jordan's The Evolution of Dialectical Materialism and many others.25 These authors combine different elements of the argument in different ways, and few agree on all the arguments used against Engels, but they say little new.
There are two ways of examining these claims. One is to look at the record of Marx and Engels' partnership. The second is to study the works in which, both jointly and separately, they elaborated their ideas.
The most remarkable aspect of the view that there was a fundamental divergence between Marx's theory and Engels' thought is that it ignores the evidence of their lifelong partnership. Some considerable intellectual contortion is necessary to overcome the elementary biographical facts of Marx and Engels' lives. For Terrell Carver 'the intellectual relationship between the two living men, however, was very much the story of what they accomplished independently'. These accomplishments 'were by no means theoretically coincident'. After Marx's death 'Engels moved into an all-powerful role' in which he 'invented dialectics and reconstructed Marx's life and works accordingly'.26 Nor is Carver alone in this kind of assertion. It is common coin among Engels' critics to insist that he codified Marxism as a rigid dialectical philosophy either without Marx's explicit approval or after his death. Norman Levine argues:
The height of Engels' career corresponded with the termination of Marx's life. It is, therefore, entirely consistent that five of Engels' major works were published in the years closely preceding Marx's death, or after the termination of Marx's life. Anti-Dühring appeared in 1878, Socialism: Scientific and Utopian [sic] in 1882, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884, and Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy in 1888. The Dialectics of Nature was first published in 1927 by Riazanov, although the manuscript itself appears to have been completed by 1882.27
Levine makes a more extraordinary claim when he attempts to answer the obvious question of 'why basic intellectual differences between the two men did not come to the surface as tangible and real, articulated and acknowledged dispute'. This is a question to which no convincing reply is easily available. Levine's answer takes us into the ghost world of 'the psychological meaning the friendship had for each'. In this realm 'Engels chose to tie himself' to Marx because Marx 'would also build a place of fame and renown in time for him'; and Marx needed Engels because 'Marx did not find the professional and emotional support he needed from his wife'.28 But if we leave the territory of Mills and Boon and return to the world of Marx and Engels a very different picture reveals itself.
The first and most striking point about Marx and Engels' relationship is the strength of the foundations on which it rested. In the 1840s both men arrived at what would later be known as the historical materialist view of the world. But it is by no means the case that Engels simply followed where Marx led. On the vitally important strategic question of the attitude which the pair took to the trade unions it was Engels who blazed the trail. And the entire content of Marx and Engels' joint work, The Communist Manifesto, was first outlined by Engels alone in Principles of Communism.
On economic questions Engels led the way, even though Marx's later work in Capital was the decisive contribution. Marx was still extracting himself from the coils of Hegelian philosophy when Engels wrote his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy. Not only was this the spur to Marx's own 40 year immersion in economic analysis, it was also the immediate inspiration for Marx's own transition to a fully materialist class analysis, a process recorded in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Indeed, Marx thought Engels' work 'brilliant' and Capital itself carries the subtitle 'A Critique of Political Economy'. Even Carver admits that 'Marx's manuscript notes on Engels' essay prefigured the course of his lifework' and that 'Marx's Capital was in effect a much elaborated specification of the contradiction discussed by Engels in his Outlines'.29
Having arrived at a common outlook, Marx and Engels jointly authored two key works which elaborated their views, The Holy Family and The German Ideology. They struggled together to win the organisation they were both involved in, the League of the Just, to their ideas, transforming it into the Communist League. The Communist Manifesto was issued in its name. They went on to fight together in the 1848 revolutions--in Engels' case literally revolver in hand, on the barricades. This then was the foundation of Marx and Engels' partnership, forged by intense, common intellectual and practical, political work.
The start of Marx's exile in England and Engels' life in Manchester unavoidably altered the pattern of their joint work, but it did not end it. Partly, Marx and Engels chose to specialise in different areas. Partly also this differentiation was forced on them by the economic circumstance of Marx's poverty and Engels' decision to support his friend while Marx worked on what became Capital. But these new circumstances did not break the intellectual and political trust between them. When Marx had to write articles for newspapers in order to earn some money he never hesitated to put his name to articles which were, in fact, written by Engels.
In the long gestation of Capital Engels was Marx's constant adviser, either in their almost daily exchange of letters or in conversation when they paid each other visits. Marx consulted Engels on everything from the correct German translation for 'gigs' to rent theory, constant and variable capital, surplus value and exploitation. In August 1862 Marx implored Engels to visit him:
I have overthrown so many old views in my critique [ie Capital] that I would at least like to consult you over a few points. Writing about the rubbish is tedious for you and me.30
Constant collaboration continued at every stage of the writing of Capital up to and including the reading of the proofs, which Marx largely entrusted to Engels. Even the presentation of Capital bears Engels' mark. Looking at the proofs, Engels advised Marx that the dialectical points might be made more historically and that Marx had made 'a great mistake' in not following the pattern of Hegel's Encyclopedia with its short sections and many sub-headings.31 Marx followed this advice, but ignored other suggestions, 'to proceed dialectically in this regard also', as he joked to Engels in reply. Nevertheless, he insisted, 'your satisfaction up to now is more important to me than anything the rest of the world may say of it'.32 At the end of it all Marx was in no doubt about his debt to Engels. He wrote:
Without you, I would never have been able to bring the work to completion, and I assure you, it has always weighed on my conscience like an Alp that you have dissipated your splendid energy and let it rust on commercial matters, principally on my account, and into the bargain, still had to participate vicariously in all my minor troubles.33
In this Marx was undoubtedly right, and not just about his debt to Engels. He was right in his assessment of the terrible cost to Engels' intellectual output during the years in which he worked in Manchester. Although he never complained, Engels knew it too--as is confirmed by the image left to us by Marx's daughter of Engels joyously coming home from the factory after his last day's work. When Engels was able to retire he could once again publish major works.
Levine argues that Marx's death left Engels free to publish his distorted version of Marxism. But even the chronology of publication which Levine gives undermines his own argument. Anti-Dühring was not only published during Marx's lifetime, the whole project was Marx's idea. Moreover, Engels read the entire manuscript to Marx and Marx himself wrote one of the chapters on economics. The idea behind the book was to give a defence of Marx's ideas, so it is hardly likely that such an obviously programmatic statement of his views would have been published without his complete agreement. As Engels noted, 'it was self-understood between us that this exposition of mine should not be issued without his knowledge'.34 Socialism, Utopian and Scientific was extracted from Anti-Dühring and also published before Marx's death. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State appeared after Marx's death, but was composed by Engels using the ethnographical notebooks which Marx had written. Ludwig Feuerbach was also published after Marx died but, as if to stress the continuity of the ideas expressed in it with the views of Marx and Engels' first writings, Engels published Marx's newly discovered Theses on Feuerbach as an appendix. Engels obviously saw no contradiction between the 'humanist' young Marx and the 'determinist' older Engels, otherwise he would scarcely have risked such a course, going so far as to describe the Theses as 'the brilliant germ' of historical materialism.
Finally, The Dialectics of Nature, which is often used to support distortions of Engels' work, was never intended for publication and actually bore the inscription, 'All this to be revised', almost as if it were a warning to those who were to take every last word as a finished, polished formulation. Nevertheless, the broad sweep of Engels' intention was clear from Anti-Dühring, which was written at the same time.
On the key issue of whether Marx endorsed the idea of a dialectic in nature there can be little doubt. In Anti-Dühring Engels specifically quoted Marx's Capital to this effect: 'Here, as in natural science, is shown the correctness of the law discovered by Hegel in his Logic, that merely quantitative changes beyond a certain point pass into qualitative differences.'35 And Marx goes on to say in a footnote that: 'the molecular theory of modern chemistry... rests on no other law'.36 Marx himself had earlier drawn Engels' attention to these passages in Capital, explicitly stating his belief that dialectical laws were in evidence in natural science: 'in that text I quote Hegel's discovery regarding the law that merely quantitative changes turn into qualitative changes and state that it holds good alike in history and natural science'.37 Also in Capital Marx described exchange relations as operating like 'a determining law of nature'. And, despite Carver's claim that Engels' admiration for Darwin is evidence of his inclination toward the model of natural science, Marx shared Engels' assessment: 'Darwin's book is very important and it suits me well that it supports the class struggle in history from the point of view of natural science'.38
So the idea that Marx and Engels developed along separate theoretical paths finds little support in the biographical evidence. Naturally, the rough division of labour which they evolved led to different emphases. Equally naturally, they stressed different aspects of the theory depending on whether they were arguing against empiricists or idealists, system builders or vulgar economists, anarchists or reformists. But in all essentials they were at one. Perhaps nothing conveys this fact as forcefully as the testimony of Laura Marx's husband, Paul Lafargue:
Engels was, so to speak, a member of the Marx family. Marx's daughters called him their second father: He was Marx's alter ego...
...From their youth they developed together and parallel to each other, lived in intimate fellowship of ideas and feelings and shared the same revolutionary agitation: as long as they lived together they worked in common... But after the defeat of the 1848 Revolution Engels had to go to Manchester, while Marx was to remain in London. Even so, they continued their common intellectual life by writing to each other almost daily... As soon as Engels was able to free himself from his work he hurried from, Manchester to London, where he set up his home only ten minutes away from his dear Marx. From 1870 to the death of his friend, not a day went by but the two men saw each other, sometimes at one's house, sometimes at the other's...
Marx appreciated Engels' opinion more than anybody else's, for Engels was the man he considered capable of being his collaborator. For him Engels was his whole audience. No effort could have been too great for Marx to convince Engels and win him over to his idea. For instance, I have seen him read whole volumes over and over to find the fact which he needed to change Engels' opinion on some secondary point... It was a triumph for Marx to bring Engels round to his opinion.
Marx was proud of Engels. He took pleasure in enumerating to me all his moral and intellectual qualities... He admired the versatility of his knowledge and was alarmed that the slightest thing should befall him...39
Marx and Engels were inevitably prey to the limitations of their age. They could not foresee all that natural science would achieve or the problems that would arise in the course of the next century of class struggle. But it is their joint legacy, as the content of their work also demonstrates, on which modern socialism rests.
For Marx and Engels human beings remain part of the natural world from which they have evolved. The human hand, the human brain, the development of language and consciousness have all taken place as part of the processes which dominate the natural world. From their very earliest collaborations Marx and Engels were insistent that no rigid and absolute distinction could be drawn between human history and natural history.
The book in which they first systematically worked out the principles of their approach was The German Ideology. In it Marx and Engels were unambiguous in asserting that human biology and the physical constitution of nature were essential starting points in any attempt to understand the world:
The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises... They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions of their life, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity...
... Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature.40
And, while they elaborate these factors at length, Marx and Engels did spell out that they included 'the actual physical nature of man' and 'the natural conditions in which man finds himself--geological, orohydrological, climatic and so on.' They argued that 'all historical writing must start out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men'.41
Marx and Engels castigate one of their philosophical opponents for going 'so far as to speak of "the antithesis in nature and history" as if these were two separate "things" and man did not always have before him an historical nature and a natural history'.42
More than 30 years later Engels returned to the same argument in Anti-Dühring, his broadside against Eugen Dühring, an academic who was gaining a hearing among Marx and Engels' supporters in Germany. Engels criticises Dühring for 'accepting "consciousness", "thought", quite naturalistically, as something given, something opposed from the outset to being, to nature'. And he continues:
If that were so it must seem extremely strange that consciousness and nature, thinking and being, the laws of thought and the laws of nature, should correspond so closely. But if the further question is raised what thought and consciousness really are and where they come from, it becomes apparent that they are products of the human brain and that man himself is a product of nature, which has developed in and along with its environment; hence it is self-evident that the products of the human brain, being in the last analysis also products of nature, do not contradict the rest of nature's interconnections but are in correspondence with them.43
But the idea that human beings form part of the natural world does not exhaust Marx and Engels' views on this issue. In the first place, it was the process of development in nature which gave rise to conscious human beings who, from that point on, formed a quite distinct part of nature. This consciousness has material preconditions, and when it has emerged, its further development cannot be separated from the development of the material base on which it rests. In The German Ideology, Marx and Engels outline the preconditions for the emergence of human consciousness:
We must begin by stating the first premise of all human existence and, therefore, of all history, namely, that men must be in a position to live in order to be able to 'make history.' But life involves before everything else eating and drinking, housing, clothing and various other things. The first historical act is thus the production of the means to satisfy these needs, the production of material life itself.44
The second prerequisite is 'that with the satisfaction of the first need, the action of satisfying and the instrument of satisfaction which has been acquired, leads to new needs; and this creation of new needs is the first historical act.'45 The third precondition is that 'men who daily re-create their own life, begin to make other men, to propagate their kind: the relation between man and woman, parents and children, the family.'46
Once these elements have developed, and not before, Marx and Engels see the development of a human consciousness which distinguishes human beings from the animal world:
Only now... do we find that man possesses 'consciousness'. But even from the outset this is not 'pure' consciousness. The 'mind' is from the outset afflicted with the curse of being 'burdened' with matter, which here makes its appearance in the form of agitated layers of air, sounds, in short, of language. Language is as old as consciousness, language is practical, real consciousness that exists for other men as well, and only therefore does it exist for me; language, like consciousness, only arises from the need, the necessity, of intercourse with other men. Where it exists it exists for me: the animal does not 'relate' itself to anything, it does not 'relate' itself at all. For the animal its relation to others does not exist as a relation. Consciousness is, therefore, from the very beginning a social product, and remains so as long as men exist at all.47
And not only is consciousness social, it is also historical. Just as consciousness developed from a long historical process, so its further development is part of a historical process--it develops over time. The consciousness of our very earliest ancestors was only narrowly distinguishable from the instincts of the apes from which they had evolved. It is only with the accumulation of productive forces that human consciousness really becomes distinct from, but not ever separate from or independent of, the natural world.
Neither is this the end of Marx and Engels' view of the relationship between human history and nature. There is more at stake in this relationship than a historical account of the way in which human history emerges from the history of 'raw nature'. Indeed, for Marx and Engels, there is no longer any such thing as 'raw nature': 'nature, the nature that preceded human history... is nature which today no longer exists anywhere (except perhaps on a few Australian coral islands of recent origin).48
The nature which does actually exist is one which has been moulded by human beings. The unity of human beings and nature 'has always existed in industry and has existed in various forms in every epoch according to the lesser or greater development of industry, and so has the "struggle" of man with nature'. So it is that 'in Manchester, for instance', there are 'only factories and machines, where a hundred years ago only spinning wheels and weaving looms were to be seen, or in the Campagna di Roma...only pasture and swamps, where in the time of Augustus...nothing but the vineyards and villas of Roman capitalists'.49
Here, then, are Marx and Engels' early views on the relationship between human beings and the natural world. They stressed the essential unity of human beings and the natural world and the difference between the two and the historical development of this relationship. It was a brilliantly dialectical analysis, a presentation of an internally differentiated totality, a unity of opposites, in which human labour's interaction with its natural, material environment is the basis of the transformation of both the natural and the human world over time.
As a result of adopting this starting point, Marx and Engels were able to resist the temptation to make a rigid separation between the human sciences and the natural sciences, since materialism is the basis of both, but also to see that human history contained a vital distinguishing feature, conscious labour, which required a distinct approach.
Did Engels depart from this early vision in later life, as his critics insist? Did he abandon the view that conscious human labour was what distinguished human history from natural history? Did he simply revert to a natural science model which he then imported into the received version of Marxism? The quotation from Anti-Dühring, above, indicates that his general attitude had not altered. But in The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, written in 1876, we can also see that Engels' approach remained identical. This manuscript, unfinished and unpublished in Engels' lifetime, forms part of the much derided Dialectics of Nature. Yet the account of the relationship between human beings and the rest of nature reproduces in all essentials the account which Marx and Engels gave in their earliest writings.
The account of evolution, for instance, although much more detailed in the light of the publication of Darwin's work, still stressed the development of human capacities which resulted from the necessity of meeting the most elementary material needs. Engels' magnificent account of the development of the human hand, the first human tool, stressed not only the strictly natural, evolutionary development but also the role played by labour in the development of the hand:
Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour. Only by labour, by adaptation to ever new operations, through inheritance of muscles, ligaments, and, over long periods of time, bones that had undergone special development and the ever-renewed employment of this inherited finesse in new, more and more complicated operations, have given the human hand the high degree of perfection required to conjure into being the pictures of a Raphael, the statues of a Thorwaldsen, the music of Paganini.50
But this labour and the power of speech which developed from it 'were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man'. Yet even now this 'was not labour in the proper sense'.51 Labour begins, according to Engels, with the making of tools. But even then the fundamental distinction between humans and animals has not yet been made. Animals, says Engels, 'change the environment by their activities in the same way, even if not to the same extent, as man does, and these changes... react upon and change those who made them'.52 It is not hard to see here the kind of dialectical process of natural development which Engels thought united the natural with the human world. Nevertheless, he was far from seeing this as a one sided identity. There was, just as in Marx and Engels' early writings, not only an identity but also a difference between natural and human history. This is why Engels goes on to insist:
But animals exert a lasting effect on the environment unintentionally and, as far as the animals themselves are concerned, accidentally. The further removed men are from animals, however, the more their effect on nature assumes the character of premeditated, planned action directed towards definite preconceived ends.53
And he summarised his attitude in absolutely unambiguous terms:
In short, the animal merely uses its environment, and brings about changes in it simply by its presence; man by his changes makes it serve his ends, masters it. This is the final, essential distinction between man and other animals, and once again it is labour that brings about this distinction.54
This conclusion was not, however, designed to make a final and irrevocable separation between human beings and nature. It was merely a distinction, albeit a vital distinction, within the unity of man and nature. Engels goes on to say that we should not 'flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature' since although our conscious designs are often realised in the first place they later bring about results which have unforseen effects. And so:
... at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature--but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.55
And just in case the final phrases of this quotation should make it seem as if Engels' critics are in the right when they argue that he had a technocratic approach to social change, one in which science simply paves the way for a better life, Engels concludes:
This regulation [of the natural world] requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.56
From this account of Marx and Engels' view of the relationship between human beings and the rest of the natural world it is clear that: (i) at the close of his life Engels held the same general attitude that he held in his early writings, (ii) that this attitude was the same as Marx's, (iii) that it was not a view which sought to either force human history into the same pattern as natural history or to insist on a rigid separation of the two, and, (iv) that it did try, concretely and empirically, to spell out both what unites human society with, and distinguishes it from, its natural environment.
It was on the basis of their new materialist conception of history that Marx and Engels generalised to produce a dialectical approach to human and natural change. 'The dialectic' is often said to be obscure and difficult to understand. Yet its fundamental approach is not hard to grasp, especially against the background of natural evolution and social change outlined in the previous section.
The first basic principle on which the dialectic rests is that the world is in a process of change. Society and nature are not static, neither do they 'move in an eternally uniform and perpetually recurring circle', as Engels says. Instead they undergo a 'genuine historical evolution'.57 Yet static views of society are still very common today. Through all the hurly-burly of society certain values and institutions are seen as virtually eternal--the family, the market, nationalism, religion, parliamentary democracy and, above all, 'human nature'. A dialetical view would recognise that all these ideologies and institutions have a history, that in the past they came into being and in the future they will cease to exist. Marx and Engels developed their own views in criticism of the ideas of the great German philosopher Hegel. But one of Hegel's great virtues was that he saw 'the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual... as a process, ie, as in constant motion, change, transformation, development'.58 Rejecting static views of the world is, however, only the first step. Trying to understand the way in which this process of change unfolds is the next step.
Here the key is to see all the different aspects of society and nature as interconnected. They are not separate, discrete processes which develop in isolation from each other. Mainstream sociological and scientific thought 'has bequeathed us the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, detached from the general context'.59 Much of our schooling today still follows this pattern--the development of the arts is separated from that of the sciences, and 'technical' subjects are separated from languages, history and geography. Our newspapers and TV news programmes divide the world up in the same artificial way--poverty levels and stock exchange news, wars and company profit figures, strikes and government policy, suicide statistics and the unemployment rate are all reported in their own little compartments as if they are only distantly related, if at all. A dialectical analysis tries to re-establish the real connections between these elements, 'to show internal connections'. It tries, in the jargon of dialectics, to see the world as 'a totality', 'a unity'.
To see society and nature as an interconnected totality which is in a process of constant change still leaves one vital question unanswered. What makes this whole process develop? Why does it change? There are any number of religious and philosophical theories which try to answer this question by insisting that the motor of change lies outside the historical process--with god, or in the unchanging pattern of human nature or in the eternal features of the human soul. Marx and Engels rejected these approaches as mystical and, literally, supernatural. They insisted that the processes which drove the development of nature and society forward must be internal contradictions, not supersensible entities like god, the soul or, as Hegel had argued, the general essence of human consciousness existing somewhere in the ether beyond the consciousness of actual living human beings.
The relationship between nature and the conscious labour of human beings is, as we have seen, one example of a contradictory totality in a process of change. Since the rise of class society, the struggle between the exploited (the slaves, peasants and wage labourers of ancient Greece and Rome; the peasants and craftsmen of feudal society; the modern working class) and the exploiters (slave owners, landlords and capitalists) provides another example of a series of class contradictions which have led to changes in the totality of the social structure as one great mode of production rises, falls and gives birth to another. In all these cases it is the relationships, the contradictions, between the different parts of the totality which give rise to change. Engels argues:
So long as we consider things as at rest and lifeless, each one by itself, alongside and after each other, we do not run up against any contradictions in them.60
But as soon as we look for the cause of change we are confronted with contradictions--'as soon as contradiction ceases, life, too, comes to an end, and death steps in.'61
These then are the basic terms of the dialectic--contradiction, totality and change. The 'three laws' of the dialectic described by Engels cannot be understood without this larger context, since they are ways of specifying how this process of change takes place. Engels' simplified codification has sometimes led both his followers and his critics to try and isolate the 'three laws' from the more general principles of the dialectic. This is a mistake, as the following brief account of those laws makes clear:
i) The unity of opposites. This is simply another way of describing a totality composed of contradictory elements. The totality of capitalist society, for instance, develops in response to the contradiction between the two major classes contained within it, workers and capitalists. The natural and human worlds form, as we have seen, a unity of opposites. Nature and humanity are united, but not identical. It is the relationship between them which shapes the development of each.
ii) The transformation of quantity into quality. This is the process by which small changes of degree eventually result in changes of type. For example, an economic strike in one factory or industry might spread to others until the point is reached where they become a political strike against all employers and the government. Or the working class may suffer a series of individual defeats at the end of which an entirely different type of period in working class history has opened up.
iii) The negation of the negation. This phrase is designed to show how two contradictory (but not necessarily equal) forces react on one another in such a way that the situation which results from their clash both preserves and completely alters them at the same time. Engels follows Marx's example from Capital. Marx had explained how the change from feudal society to capitalist society had dispossessed peasants and craftsmen of their individual private property, pushing the peasants off the land and depriving craftsmen of the means of production, and consolidated it in the hands of the capitalist class. Capitalism thus expropriated, or negated, individual private property as it had existed under feudalism. A socialist society would 'expropriate the expropriators'. It would put means of production in the hands of society collectively and extend 'individual ownership to the products, that is, the articles of consumption.' Thus the original negation, of feudal property by capitalist property, is negated once more by a socialist form of ownership.62
Engels immediately recognised that this process, the negation of the negation, might be interpreted in a fatalistic fashion--it might be read as if socialism were inevitable. He insisted that the negation of the negation was not 'a mere proof producing instrument'. He went on:
Thus, by characterising the process as the negation of the negation, Marx does not intend to prove that the process was historically necessary. On the contrary: only after he has proved from history that in fact the process has partially occurred, and partially must occur in the future, he in addition characterises it as a process which develops in accordance with a definite dialectical law.63
This was a point which Marx and Engels were to make again and again with regard to the whole dialectical approach, not just the negation of the negation. It was not, they insisted, a substitute for studying the real world, not an equation into which the facts merely had to be slotted, or a pattern into which historical events had to be forced. Each aspect of society had to be studied empirically and in detail. Only then might the unique dialectical pattern be discovered. In each circumstance it could be expected to contain particular features: 'Every kind of thing therefore has a peculiar way of being negated in such a way that it gives rise to development, and it is just the same with every kind of conception or idea.' Just playing with dialectical phrases without studying real, empirical developments could only result in 'the silliness of the person who adopts such a tedious procedure'.64
Engels approached the distinction between natural and human history in this way. He looked, as we have seen, not just for what unified the two, but also for what made them distinct. Not surprisingly, the distinction between natural evolution and human history reappeared in Engels' attitude to the dialectic. In The Dialectics of Nature Engels makes an important distinction between the dialectic in human history and that in nature:
In history, motion through opposites is most markedly exhibited in all critical epochs of the foremost peoples. At such moments a people has only the choice between two horns of a dilemma: 'either-or!' and indeed the question is always put in a way quite different from that in which the philistines, who dabble in politics in every age, would have liked it put.65
And he goes on to give an example from the 1848 revolutions when 'even the German philistine... found himself in 1849, suddenly, unexpectedly, and against his will confronted with the question: a return to the old reaction in an intensified form, or the continuation of the revolution...' But on the same page Engels outlines a significantly different pattern of dialectical change in the natural world:
Hard and fast lines are incompatible with the theory of evolution... 'Either-or' becomes more and more inadequate... For a stage in the outlook on nature where all differences become merged in intermediate steps, and all opposites pass into one another through intermediate links, the old metaphysical method of thought no longer suffices. Dialectics, which likewise knows no hard and fast lines, no unconditional, universally valid 'either-or' and which bridges the fixed metaphysical differences, and besides 'either-or' recognises also in the right place 'both this-and that' and reconciles opposites, is the sole method of thought appropriate in the highest degree to this stage.66
In an important passage in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy Engels wrote that 'dialectics was... the science of the general laws of motion, both of the external world and of human thought' and that they were 'two sets of laws which are identical in substance'. But he explained that the laws were necessarily 'different in their expression insofar as the human mind can apply them consciously, while in nature... these laws assert themselves unconsciously, in the form of external necessity...'67 He also added that, so long as human beings are prevented from consciously controlling the social world it will continue to resemble the natural world in that its laws will operate beyond the will of human beings.
A few pages later Engels returns to and elaborates this point. He notes that human beings do not, in class society, have collective conscious control of their destiny and so 'that which is willed happens but rarely'. Consequently, social laws become analogous to those prevailing 'in the realm of unconscious nature.' Nevertheless, Engels insists:
In one point, however, the history of the development of society proves to be essentially different from that of nature. In nature--insofar as we ignore man's reaction on nature--there are only blind, unconscious agencies acting on one another, out of whose interplay the general law comes into operation. Whatever happens...does not happen as a consciously desired aim. On the other hand, in the history of society the actors are all endowed with consciousness, are men acting with deliberation or passion, working towards definite goals; nothing happens without conscious purpose, without intended aim.68
Such a complex and dialectical approach has only one weakness: it makes it easy for critics to isolate one side of the analysis and then adopt superior airs by correcting Marx and Engels' supposed shortcomings by presenting the complementary side of the analysis as if it were their own invention.
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.
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.
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 owm 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, Incidently, 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.
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; ie 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.
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.
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 themsleves, 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.