Following on from part one, Joe Conroy concluded his look at the life of Engels in Issue 4 in May 1999.
A year and a half after Marx’s death Engels wrote to a comrade of theirs:
All my life I have done what I was cut out to do—I played second fiddle—and I think that I did it fairly well. I was glad to have so splendid a first violin as Marx. And now that I am unexpectedly called upon to replace Marx in theoretical matters and play first fiddle, I cannot do so without making slips of which nobody is more keenly aware than I.to Johann Becker, 15 October 1884
But effectively Engels took up this role a few years before Marx’s death. Marx’s worsening health meant that, from the mid-1870s on, it largely fell to Engels to defend and advance their political standpoint, so that he took up the first fiddle before 1883 as well as after. For the last twenty years of his life, Friedrich Engels became the senior partner in the Marx-Engels business.
When a certain Eugen Dühring proposed his own superior socialism in place of Marx’s, and got a favourable reception in the SPD, it was Engels who hit back with a series of articles. In book form Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (1878—more commonly known as simply Anti-Dühring) became one of the most influential expositions of Marxism, especially when a section of it was published as a pamphlet: Socialism Utopian and Scientific. Engels researched and wrote on the natural sciences in the seventies and eighties, although his scientific manuscripts were only published after his death. His The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) examined the social development of the human species. Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy in 1886 attempted to show how Marxism had developed from its philosophical ancestors. Engels acted as literary executor for Marx, editing and publishing Books Two and Three of Capital, and writing introductions to new editions of his works. A steady flow of articles and letters advised and argued with the socialist movement internationally, of which he became a sort of elder statesman until his death on 5 August 1895.
In 1878 the SPD was made illegal, its members subject to arrest. Some of its leaders believed the party had brought it upon itself, that they should now moderate themselves, concentrate on achievable reforms, and try to attract a more respectable class of supporter. Engels wrote a reply on his own and Marx’s behalf, characterising reformism sharply: “The programme is not to be given up, only postponed—indefinitely. One accepts it, only not actually for oneself and one’s own lifetime, but posthumously, as an heirloom for one’s children and one’s children’s children. In the meantime one devotes one’s ‘entire strength and energy’ to all kinds of trifles and patching-up of the capitalist social order”. This was only the old middle-class fear that the workers might go ‘too far’, that it was better therefore to reach a servile compromise with the capitalists than to overthrow them.
It was entirely natural that people from other classes joined the socialist movement, as long as “they bring no leftovers of bourgeois, petty bourgeois etc prejudices with them, but that they adopt the proletarian outlook unreservedly”.
As far as we are concerned, in light of our entire past only one way is open to us. We have for nearly 40 years stressed the class struggle as the most immediate driving force of history, and especially the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat as the great lever of the modern social revolution; it is therefore impossible for us to go along with people who want to strike this class struggle out from the movement. When the International was founded we expressly formulated the battle cry: The emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself. We therefore cannot go along with those who openly declare that the workers are too uneducated to emancipate themselves…letter to Bebel and others, 17-18 September 1879
Marxism had its followers amongst the German workers in the United States, but according to Engels, “most of them do not understand the theory themselves and treat it in a doctrinaire and dogmatic way as something that has got to be learned by heart and which will then satisfy all further requirements without more ado. To them it is a credo and not a guide to action.” (Letter to Friedrich Sorge, 29 November 1886.) The actual movement of the workers would clear the way: “The great thing is to get the working class to move as a class; that once obtained, they will soon find the right direction, and all who resist… will be left out in the cold with small sects of their own.” (Letter to Florence Kelley-Wischnewetsky, 28 December 1886.)
The German anti-socialist law was repealed in 1890, and the SPD began to draw up a new programme the following year. Engels contributed to the debate firstly by publishing the scathing criticism Marx had made of their 1875 programme. It trod on the party leaders’ toes, and some of them opposed its publication, but Engels wrote to one of them, August Bebel:
What is the difference between you people and Puttkamer [the Prussian minister of police] if you pass anti-socialist law against your own comrades? It does not matter to me personally. No party in the world can condemn me to be silent when I am determined to speak. But I think you should reflect whether you would not be wise to be a little less Prussian in your behaviour. You—the party—need socialist science, and such science cannot exist unless there is freedom in the party.
In his critique of the draft new programme itself, he criticised the “attempts to convince oneself and the party that ‘present-day society is developing towards socialism’ without asking oneself whether it does not thereby just as necessarily outgrow the old social order and whether it will not have to burst this old shell by force”. This attitude often led the SPD to bring immediate everyday questions to the foreground and push the big issues into the background. “This forgetting of the great, the principal considerations for the momentary interests of the day, this struggling and striving for the success of the moment regardless of later consequences, this sacrifice of the future of the movement for its present, may be ‘honestly’ meant, but it is and remains opportunism, and ‘honest’ opportunism is perhaps the most dangerous of all!”
But Engels failed to see the greater danger—not naked reformism, but the belief that the inexorable growth of the SPD’s support was its surest guarantee of ultimate victory. Indeed it was an attitude he himself did something to encourage:
The two million voters whom it [the SPD] sends to the ballot box… form the most numerous, most compact mass, the decisive ‘shock force’ of the international proletarian army.… it increases incessantly. Its growth proceeds as spontaneously, as steadily, as irresistibly and at the same time as tranquilly as a natural process.… To keep this growth going without interruption until it of itself gets beyond the control of the prevailing governmental system, not to fritter away this daily increasing shock force in vanguard skirmishes, but to keep it intact until the decisive day, that is our main task.introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, 1895
He had a surer touch when the Italian socialists asked for his advice. Hangovers of feudalism still haunted Italian society, and the working class was small and the socialist movement weak. How should they stand in relation to those who wanted to set up a modern democratic republic in Italy? The place of socialists was always, replied Engels, “in the ranks of those fighting to achieve immediate results in the interests of the working class. They accept all these political or social achievements, but merely as payments on account.” A republic would give the workers democratic rights and greater room to manoeuvre, so they should obviously take part in it “without ever losing sight of the fact that these phases are just so many stages leading to the final goal: the conquest of political power by the proletariat as a means for reorganising society”.
They should strike in their own time, though, “to see that the scarcely formed nucleus of our proletarian Party is not sacrificed in vain”. If a genuine democratic movement got underway, however, the working class would not be found wanting.
But in such a case it should be clearly understood, and we must loudly proclaim it, that we are participating as an independent party, allied for the moment with radicals and republicans but wholly distinct from them; that we entertain no illusions whatever as to the result of the struggle in case of victory; that far from satisfying us this result will only mean to us another stage won, a new base of operations for further conquests; that on the day of victory our ways will part; that from that day on we shall constitute the new opposition to the new government…
Above all they should refuse seats in any new government, where they would play the role of a minority sharing responsibility for the government’s treacheries but powerless to do anything about them.
Engels stressed that this was only his own opinion, expressed reluctantly in response to a request, but said that these tactics had never failed him. As for applying them in the Italian situation, however, “that must be decided on the spot… by those who are in the thick of events” (letter to Filippo Turati, 26 January 1894).
Making sense of history
Marx’s understanding of history was another aspect of Marxism that Engels attempted to promote and defend. At Marx’s funeral he praised the idea that “the production of the immediate material means of existence, and consequently in each case the stage of economic development of a people or a period, form the foundation upon which the state institutions, the legal conceptions, the art and even the religious ideas of the people in question have evolved, and from which they must be explained”. In Anti-Dühring he wrote that “The materialist conception of history starts from the principle that production, and next to production the exchange of its products, is the basis of every social order… Accordingly the ultimate causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought… not in the philosophy, but in the economics of the period in question.”
But this was somewhat different to the idea that Marx had put forward (together with Engels in the case of The German Ideology): that people enter into certain social relations that correspond with their economic development, and that these relations form the basis of politics and ideology in general. Engels here makes the economic development into the basis, rather than the social relations of human beings in production, and thus shifts the emphasis away from human activity in society and towards the technological background.
And indeed, the phrase Engels coined to describe the Marxist view of history—“the materialist conception of history”—isn’t strictly accurate. Obviously, in the great philosophical debate of materialism versus idealism— whether the world exists independently of human consciousness—Marxism comes down on the side of materialism. But it developed as much in opposition to traditional materialism as to idealism, insisting that we are not simple creatures of our environment, but active creators and changers of it.
Engels insisted, however, that Marxism didn’t downplay the role played by individual will in history. “People make their own history, however this turns out, by everyone pursuing their own conscious, desired aims, and the resultant of these many wills acting in different directions, and their diverse effects on the external world, is precisely what history is.” Their motives can be noble or ignoble, political or personal. The thing is to go deeper into the story, to ask “what driving forces in turn stand behind these motives, what historical causes exist which transform themselves in the heads of the actors into such motives?” (Ludwig Feuerbach.)
And while ideology is dependent on economic relations, it does develop to a certain extent in its own terms:
each ideology develops, once it comes into existence, in conjunction with the given conceptual material, elaborates on it; otherwise it wouldn’t be an ideology, i.e., something that deals with ideas as with autonomous entities developing independently subject only to their own laws. That the material conditions of existence of the people in whose heads this thought process goes on ultimately determines the course of this process, these people necessarily remain unaware, for otherwise there would be an end to all ideology.Ludwig Feuerbach
The law, for instance, reflects the economic basis it arose on, but is very rarely “the rough, unmitigated, unadulterated expression of a class’s rule: That would itself go against the ‘concept of justice’”. The law expresses class domination but it must be “an expression coherent in itself”, meaning that “the faithfulness of the reflection of the economic relations more and more comes to grief” (letter to Conrad Schmidt, 27 October 1890).
This relative independence of law, the state, ideology plays its own part in history:
in the last instance, the determining factor in history is the production and reproduction of actual life. More than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. If someone now distorts this so that the economic factor is the only determining one, they transform that proposition into an abstract, absurd phrase that says nothing. The economic situation is the basis, but the various aspects of the superstructure—political forms of the class struggle and its results—constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle etc—judicial forms and especially the reflection of all these real struggles in the brains of those involved, political, judicial, philosophic theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogma exercise their influence on the course of the historical struggles and in many cases determine chiefly their form. There is an interaction of all these aspects, in which ultimately through all the endless mass of accidents… of necessity the economic movement asserts itself.letter to Joseph Bloch, 21-22 September 1890
So, for instance, a certain government policy can hold back economic development as well as promote it; a certain legal system can help the concentration of capital ownership or hinder it; a certain religious outlook can lead to the acceptance of the economic system or a rejection of it. “It is not that the economic situation is cause, solely active and that everything else is only passive effect. No, there is interaction on the basis of economic necessity in the last instance asserting itself.” (Letter to W Borgius, 25 January 1894.)
But Engels stressed that this view of history was not the answer to every question. “You would hardly succeed in explaining economically”, he warned, the existence of every petty principality in German history, or the different dialects of the German language, “without making yourself laughable” (letter to Bloch). Too many people were using “historical materialism” as a label to stick on things, as an excuse to avoid serious investigation of history. “I must say first of all that the materialist method is turned into its opposite when it is used, not as a guide in historical study, but as a ready-made pattern to which the facts of history are trimmed.” (Letter to Paul Ernst, 5 June 1890.)
The origins of women’s oppression
The Origin of the Family is now in many respects an outdated work: a century of anthropological study has refuted some of Engels’s propositions, and turned up paths of historical development besides those he traced. But his central idea has been generally confirmed. Humanity originally lived in hunting-gathering communities without private ownership, without classes, without oppression. When changes in productive methods led to a surplus of wealth, however, a class arose to take control of it. The traditional division of labour between the sexes based on biology became one in which the decisive means of production belonged to men, and women were more and more pushed into a subordinate role. “The first class antagonism that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman… the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.”
This oppression continues in the present-day family:
The modern individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of women, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules. In the great majority of cases today, at least among the possessing classes, it is the husband who is obliged to earn a living and support his family, and that in itself gives him a position of supremacy without any need for special legal privileges. Within the family he is the bourgeois and the wife represents the proletariat.
But modern industry draws women into the social workforce, giving them a greater independence and undermining the foundations of inequality. It also creates the conditions where housework can be transformed from a private, domestic responsibility into a public, social one.
The overthrow of capitalism would remove economic considerations from personal relationships. Whether this would loosen monogamy further, or on the contrary make it a reality for the first time, is not up to us, wrote Engels:
That will be answered when a new generation has grown up: a generation of men who never in their lives have known what it is to buy a woman’s surrender with money or any other social instrument of power; a generation of women who have never known what it is to give themselves to a man from any other considerations than real love, or to refuse to give themselves to their lover from fear of the economic consequences. When these people are in the world, they will care precious little what anybody today thinks they ought to do; they will make their own practice and their corresponding public opinion about the practice of each individual—and that will be the end of it.
Dialectics in nature
Engels’s work on the natural sciences was mainly concerned to show that, like society, nature has a dialectical development—that it develops through constant change and self-contradiction, rather than through straightforward, simple progress. Some Marxists have since criticised him for this, claiming that he laid part of the ground for Stalinist philosophy, by seeing human beings as just another part of nature subject to blind natural processes beyond our control.
But, firstly, dialectical movement can be seen in nature. In human history gradual changes in quantity tend to become sudden changes in quality—as when the development of trade and commerce reached a point where it broke the bounds of feudalism and established capitalist societies. The same thing happens in nature—water gets gradually hotter, until it reaches 100°C and is transformed into steam (or indeed gradually colder, until it changes into ice at 0°C). Of course there are plenty of natural phenomena that aren’t dialectical and can be understood with simple common sense—but such straightforward facts exist in human history too.
As Engels put it, “there could be no question of superimposing the laws of dialectics on nature but of discovering them in it and developing them from it” (Anti-Dühring). But his enthusiasm did sometimes get the better of him, leading him occasionally to see dialectics where there weren’t any. It was also wrong to see dialectics in terms of “laws”, like scientific laws, rather than tendencies; and certainly wrong to reduce them to three laws, as he did at one point.
Dialectics works differently in nature than in society. But no one stated this more clearly than Engels himself:
In nature there are—in so far as we leave aside humanity’s reaction upon nature—nothing but unconscious, blind agencies that act upon one another and in whose interplay the general law comes into effect. Whatever happens… doesn’t happen as a consciously desired aim. On the other hand, in the history of society the actors are always endowed with consciousness, people who act with deliberation or passion, who work towards certain aims; nothing happens without conscious intention, without desired end.Ludwig Feuerbach
Finally, it is impossible to build some kind of brick wall between humanity and the rest of nature. We are fundamentally different from the natural world, but at the same time inescapably a part of it. For all our victories over nature (Engels pointed out in ‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Human’, an essay begun in 1876) it still revenges itself upon us: cutting down forests to bring land into cultivation eventually deprives the land of water and nourishment and ruins it—which is only to be expected under an economic system which puts the quick buck before long-term benefit.
Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing over 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.… we are more than ever in a position to realise, and hence to control, even the more remote natural consequences of our day-to-day production activities. But the more this progresses the more people will not only feel but also know their oneness with nature, and the more impossible will become the senseless and unnatural idea of a contrast between mind and matter, humanity and nature…
The state arose at the same time as class division arose, wrote Engels, as “a power seemingly standing above society that would moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’”. This state was a coercive power existing apart from the people, something that was unknown in pre-class societies. It is “as a rule the state of the most powerful, economically dominant class, which, through the medium of the state, becomes also the politically dominant class and so acquires new means of holding down and exploiting the oppressed class”. Even in the most democratic republic the state remains an instrument of the ruling class. (By way of exception, though, sometimes “the warring classes balance each other so nearly that the state power, as ostensible mediator, momentarily acquires a degree of independence of both”.) (Origin of the Family.)
The abolition of class society would mean getting rid of the state, although the working class would have to use state power temporarily in order to suppress any attempts at counter-revolution and the re-establishment of capitalism. This is how Engels saw the death of the state in Anti-Dühring: “The interference of a state power in social relations becomes, in one sphere after another, superfluous and fizzles out of itself.… The state isn’t ‘abolished’, it withers away.”
But surely the state won’t just go away of its own accord once its work is done? Surely the victorious working class would have to consciously decide to get rid of its coercive forces as and when this becomes possible? Curiously enough, Engels in Origin of the Family pointed towards such an active casting aside of the state rather than its passive decay: “Society, which will reorganise production on the basis of a free and equal association of the producers, will put the whole state machinery where it will then belong—into the museum of antiquities, by the side of the spinning wheel and the bronze axe.”
While maintaining, correctly, that the workers would need a state to maintain their revolution against its enemies, Engels now and again presented this as a reformed version of the capitalist state. For example: “the victorious proletariat must first refashion the old bureaucratic, administratively centralised state power before it can use it for its own purposes” (letter to Eduard Bernstein, 1 January 1884). It finds the state “ready-made for use” although “It may require adaptation to the new functions” (letter to Phil van Patten, 18 April 1883).
Socialist revolution, however, isn’t about reconditioning the capitalist state, but scrapping it altogether and putting an entirely different one in place for the duration. And once again Engels corrected himself. In his 1891 introduction to Marx’s Civil War in France he praised the Paris Commune precisely for its “exploding of the former state power and its replacement by a new and truly democratic one”.
Engels’s place in Marxism
When examining the development of Marxism as a theory in Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy Engels referred in a footnote to his own role:
That I, before and during my forty years of working together with Marx, had a certain independent share in both the foundation and especially the elaboration of the theory, I cannot deny. But the biggest part of the leading ideas, particularly in the economic and historical spheres, and especially their final sharp formulation, belongs to Marx. What I contributed— except for a couple of specialised fields at most—Marx would have achieved without me. What Marx accomplished I could not have achieved. Marx stood higher, saw further, surveyed more and quicker than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius, we others were at most talents. Without him the theory would be far from what it is today. Therefore it rightly bears his name.
This passage is characteristic of Engels’s modesty regarding his own achievements, and his fierce loyalty regarding the achievements of his lifelong comrade Marx. But he wouldn’t thank us for dismissing the above as mere sentiment. Engels was second fiddle to Marx, which in no way belittles him: coming second to Karl Marx is no mean feat. Engels’s role as Marxism’s greatest populariser often meant that he was forced to stress the particular point at issue at a particular moment, rather than to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s at all times and in all places. And, not surprisingly, he missed the instinct of Marx, straying from time to time into the odd confused interpretation.
But Marx would have missed the instinct of Engels if the roles were reversed, and it was pure conjecture for Engels to claim that his contribution would have been discovered by Marx anyway. A much surer proposition would be to say that Marxism wouldn’t be what it is today without Engels. The work of Friedrich Engels stands on its own two feet, and stands proud, playing its leading part in fighting for the socialist revolution he outlined in Anti-Dühring:
It is humanity’s leap from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom.
To carry through this world-emancipating act is the historical vocation of the modern proletariat. To get to the bottom of its historical conditions, and with it its very nature, and so to bring the conditions and the nature of its own action to the consciousness of the now oppressed class which is called to act, is the task of the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement—scientific socialism.