Magazine article Monthly Review

The Return of Engels

Magazine article Monthly Review

The Return of Engels

Article excerpt

Few political and intellectual partnerships can rival that of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. They not only famously wrote The Communist Manifesto in 1848, both taking part in the social revolutions of that year, but also two earlier works-The Holy Family in 1845 and The German Ideology in 1846.

In the late 1870s, when the two scientific socialists were finally able to live in close proximity and to confer with each other every day, they would often pace up and down in Marx's study, each on their own side of the room, boring grooves in the floor as they turned on their heels, while discussing their various ideas, plans, and projects. They frequently read to each other passages from their works in progress.1 Engels read the entire manuscript of his Anti-Dühring (to which Marx contributed a chapter) to Marx before its publication. Marx wrote an introduction to Engels's Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. After Marx death in 1883, Engels prepared volumes two and three of Capital for publication from the drafts his friend had left behind. If Engels, as he was the first to admit, stood in Marx's shadow, he was nevertheless an intellectual and political giant in his own right.

Yet for decades academics have suggested that Engels downgraded and distorted Marx's thought. As political scientist John L. Stanley critically observed in his posthumous Mainlining Marx in 2002, attempts to separate Marx from Engels-beyond the obvious fact that they were two distinct individuals with differing interests and talents-have more and more taken the form of disassociating Engels, stigmatized as the source of all that is reprehensible in Marxism, from Marx, glorified as the epitome of the civilized man of letters, and not himself a Marxist.2

More than forty years ago, on December 12, 1974, I attended a lecture by David McLellan on "Karl Marx: The Vicissitudes of a Reputation," at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. The year before McLellan had published Karl Marx: His Life and Thought, which I had studied closely.3 I therefore entered the lecture hall that afternoon eagerly awaiting his talk. However, what I heard was deeply disconcerting. McLellan's main message that day was simply this: that Karl Marx was not Frederick Engels. To discover the authentic Marx, it was necessary to separate Marx's wheat from Engels's chaff. It was Engels, McLellan contended, who had introduced positivism into Marxism, pointing to the Second and Third Internationals, and eventually to Stalinism. A few years later, McLellan was to put some of these criticisms into his short biography, Frederick Engels.4

This was my first introduction to the anti-Engels outlook that emerged as a defining characteristic of the Western academic left, and which was closely connected to the rise of "Western Marxism" as a distinct philosophical tradition-in opposition to what was sometimes called official or Soviet Marxism. Western Marxism, in this sense, had as its principal axiom the rejection of Engels's dialectics of nature, or "merely objective dialectics," as Georg Lukács called it.5

For most Western Marxists the dialectic was an identical subject-object relation: we could understand the world to the extent to which we had made it. Such a critical view constituted a welcome correction to the crude positivism that had infected much of Marxism, and that had been rationalized in official Soviet ideology. Yet it also had the effect of pushing Marxism in a more idealist direction, leading to the abandonment of the long tradition of seeing historical materialism as related not just to the humanities and social science-and of course politics-but also to materialist natural science.

Disparaging Engels became a popular pastime among left academics, with some figures, like political theorist Terrell Carver, constructing whole careers on this basis. One common maneuver was to use Engels as the device for extracting Marx from Marxism. As Carver wrote in 1984: "Karl Marx denied that he was a Marxist. …

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