Engels revisited

Friedrich Engels
Friedrich Engels

Friedrich Engels died, aged seventy-four, of cancer of the throat on August 5th, 1895. Ever since his death, Engels has been overshadowed by his lifelong friend Karl Marx, whose work Engels, as the editor of volumes two and three of Capital, himself did so much to perpetuate. Typically, whilst Marx's tomb at Highgate remains a place of socialist pilgrimage, Engels instructed that his body should be cremated and his ashes were scattered in the sea off Beachy Head by Eleanor Marx, Edward Aveling and Eduard Bernstein. Yet, although always eclipsed, by Marx's genius, Engels was a remarkable thinker and character in his own right. As is well known, Engels' financial support was vital for Marx throughout the latter's years of exile. Yet, it could be argued that Engels has served Marx even more usefully for the last century in the role of a convenient scapegoat for all those aspects of Marxism which, at any particular time, Marx's followers have wished to shed without ever abandoning the claim to be loyal to Marxism itself.

Thus, whilst Marx is periodically updated and modernised as an existentialist, structuralist or whatever, Engels is regularly denounced for being guilty of the nineteenth-century intellectual failings of positivism, empiricism, mechanistic materialism, determinism and economism. Such theoretical failings were, it is claimed, responsible both for the reformist timidity of the German Social Democrats and for the revolutionary excesses of the Russian Bolsheviks. In a defence mechanism familiar from many walks of life, making a scapegoat of Engels allows Marx's own work to be portrayed in terms of an idealised unity whilst Engels himself becomes a symbol of all that Marxists find threatening and incoherent and which has to be rejected if Marxism is to survive.

Hopefully, the centenary of Engels' death will see a more balanced appraisal of his contribution to Marxism than is allowed by either the adulation traditionally heaped upon Engels by the official Communist parties or his demonisation by the tradition of 'western' Marxism. Hegel once said that humanity could only see the 'cunning of reason' at work in history with the benefit of hindsight, philosophy is only ever wise after the event. Perhaps it is only now, post-1989, with the Cold War over and when, as the Marxist Norman Geras has argued, the time when mass-based Marxist movements may well be up, that we can offer a fair assessment of Engels' achievement.

Indeed, Engels' stress on the inability of pure revolutionary will to overcome circumstances in his analysis of the sixteenth-century Communism of Thomas Munzer has often been seen as pregnant with an anticipation of the disasters which overcame those twentieth-century revolutions which took place in the kind of social conditions that Marx and Engels saw as least propitious for the development of Communism:

History is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but man pursuing his aims.

Yet, Marx and Engels were soon to turn their fire against Feuerbach himself, rejecting the Feuerbachian abstraction of 'Man' in preference for the empirical study of concrete individuals in society. This was the task which Engels set himself in his Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), a work written under the influence of his encounter with English Chartism and socialism, to which he had been introduced by Mary Burns, the woman with whom he was to live until her death in 1863.

Many of the ideas expressed in Engels' classic study, such as its claim that society's class relations developed in line with change in its productive forces and its analysis of the state and forms of social consciousness in terms of their class bases, were to be formulated in more general terms in The German Ideology (1846), Marx and Engels' earliest codification of their outlook. In turn, these views were couched in a more popular form in the Communist Manifesto (1848), the most famous and accessible statement of their views, the first two versions of which were drafted by Engels before being rewritten by Marx.

With the outbreak of the German Revolution of 1848, Marx and Engels returned to Germany as editors of the radical Neue Rheinische Zeitung, a journal in which they offered a social and economic analysis of the contemporary political upheavals. Engels himself fought as a soldier in defence of the revolution in four battles against the Prussian army, an experience which was to give him a lifelong interest in military affairs. Following the defeat of the German democrats, Engels and Marx went into exile in England. There Engels wrote his Peasant War in Germany (1850), the first-ever work of Marxist historiography whose sophisticated analysis of the German Reformation Philip Abrams compared favourably with Marx's much-admired Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), as well as Germany: Revolution and Counter-Revolution (1851-52), an account of the Revolution of 1848.

Once in exile, Marx lived in London whilst Engels worked as an employee of his father's firm in Manchester but the two men remained in close contact, their friendship being threatened only once when Engels felt that Marx had failed to offer the sympathy he expected following the death of Mary Burns. After his retirement from business in 1869. Engels was reunited with Marx in London where he joined the General Council of the First International in 1870.

From the late 1850s, both Marx and Engels combined a renewal of their interest in Hegel's dialectics with an attention to contemporary developments in the natural sciences, this new perspective finding expression in Engels' Dialectics of Nature. However, Engels' work on the philosophy of the natural sciences was to be left unfinished as he felt obliged to intervene in debates in the German Social Democratic Party and to offer an attack on the work of Eugen Duhririg, a polemic which was published in book-form as Anti-Duhring (1876-78), three chapters of which were issued as an extremely successful pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, in 1883, the year of Marx's death.

In addition to developing links with socialists throughout Europe (it has been claimed that he enjoyed at least some knowledge of at least twenty-six languages) Engels also continued his theoretical work. His Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) was a pioneering study which offered a materialist account of the origins of women's oppression whilst in a series of letters in the 1890s Engels attacked those who saw historical materialism as a ready-made philosophical pattern to which the historical evidence had to be adjusted. He thus criticised those followers and critics of Marx who saw Marxism as a form of simple economic reductionism. Nevertheless, whilst rightly famous, the account of the 'dialectical interaction' between society's economic 'base' and its political and intellectual 'superstructure' which Engels offered in these letters did not really resolve the problem of reductionism but tended to open up the way for a pluralist Marxist historiography which eventually came to dissolve away what was distinctively Marxist about its own historical analysis.

Unlike the more difficult Marx, Engels seems to have been the most genial of characters. As he told the young Jenny Marx in a game of 'Confessions' in 1868, his favourite virtue was cheerfulness; his idea of happiness was a bottle of 'Chateau Margaux, 1848'; his favourite occupation was teasing and being teased; as his favourite hero, he listed 'none', for his favourite heroine, there were too many to name; his favourite maxim was not to have any and his motto was to take it easy. Celebrated as a polymath amongst his friends, Engels listed his own principal characteristic as 'knowing everything by half.

Knowing everything by half would certainly be the accusation made against Engels by those critics who see his later work, including the Dialectics of Nature and Anti-Diihring, as a mish-mash of Hegelianism and nineteenth-century science which transformed Marxism into an all-embracing philosophy of the universe, a philosophy which was profoundly at odds with Marx's conception of his own work. In fact, rather than there being a simple unanimity or a straightforward opposition of Marx and Engels' thought, the work of each of the two friends can be seen as internally contradictory as they came to adopt new positions and perspectives without ever explicitly abandoning their earlier ones.

Certainly, whilst never renouncing the historical outlook of The Holy Family and The German Ideology, in which people make their own history but not under conditions of their own making, Engels' later works, like those of Marx, saw a shift towards a nomological outlook in which history is seen as analogous to a natural process which takes place according to definite laws of its own. Thus both men predicted the eventual victory of Communism in terms of the Hegelian law of the negation of the negation. Similarly, Engels claimed that even if Napoleon had never existed some equivalent person would have filled his place and carried out his historical role. In doing so, he tended to make the Dialectic or History into a person or process apart which uses individuals as a means to achieve its own aims - precisely the position which he and Marx had rightly criticised in the mid-1840s.

Given the internal inconsistencies to be found within the works of both Marx and Engels, it is impossible to arrive at Marx or Engels' single 'real meaning' or simply to pit one man's views against the other's. Certainly, in places, Engels himself quite explicitly rejected the empiricism and reductionist materialism for which, on the basis of selective quotation, he is so often berated by his modern critics. Any balanced assessment of Marx and Engels' thought must take account of the contradictions which go far towards explaining the widely divergent ways in which their thought has been interpreted.

Instead of squabbling over what was Marx and Engels' 'real meaning1, it might be preferable to spend our time assessing which of their multiple meanings is most useful for our practice as historians and social scientists. Marxologists have taught us to read Marx's works in order to find the 'best Marx': perhaps we now have to learn to stop reading for the 'worst Engels'.

  • Stephen Rigby is Senior Lecturer in History at the University of Manchester and author of Engels and the Formation of Marxism (Manchester UP, 1992).

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