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Frederick Engels: noble protagonist of the proletariat

Written by: Bruce McFarlane on 2 December 2020


These paragraphs have been taken from a much longer chapter in a forthcoming volume.) 

Born November 28, 1820.

Frederick Engels (1820-95) was Marx’s comrade of forty years. Without his mental, moral and material support, Marx might well never have completed even the first volume of Capital

At seventy and with failing sight, Engels worked almost unaided to bring volumes II and III of Capital to publication. Academic critics of his editorial efforts are among those whom he dismissed as ‘cobweb-spinning eclectic flea-crackers.’ 

Marxologists resent Engels because, unlike their tedious, convoluted and arcane ruminations, his expositions are sardonic, astute and the product of one of the best-stocked minds of the nineteenth century. Activists continue to be brought towards Marxism via his writings, notably Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880). 

Engels’s posthumous service to his comrade has been to take the blame for everything in Marx that offends the sensibilities of those whom Engels exposed as ‘shame-faced materialists.’

They allege that he sullied the purity of Marx’s thought with ‘science’. What is science but a search for the actualities beneath appearances? The failure to penetrate surfaces in search of the dynamics is Marx’s definition of a vulgar economist. 

Engels voices the materialist acceptance of never more than relative knowledge, along with its possibility for incremental advances in our understanding: ‘The history of science is the history of the gradual clearing away of this nonsense or rather of its replacement by fresh but always less absurd nonsense.’ 

William Perkin’s production of coal-tar dyes in 1857-8 allowed Engels to gloat: ‘If we are able to prove the correctness of our conception of a natural process by making it ourselves, then there is an end to the Kantian ungraspable “thing-in-itself”.’

Similar twists and reversals shadow even our most advanced understanding of the rest of the natural world and of our social domains, as Engels warned in ‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.’ His criticism of the lop-sidedness of Darwinism is wedded to a denial of unstoppable progress:

Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory, nature takes it revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. 

This caution disposes of allegations that Engels imposed ‘the idea of a linear, rigid, and self-evident time’ on historical materialism. 

Although Engels made his share of mistakes, he displayed a remarkable ability to absorb difficult theories as well as to link a number of fields of social inquiry: anthropology, biology, mechanics and political economy. His originality sparkles in his contributions to historical materialism: The Peasant War in Germany; The Role of Force in History; Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy; Anti-Duhring; and The Housing Question. 

Crisis theory

The Condition of the Working-Class in England (1845) exemplifies the scientific approach to sensuous human activity. In it, Engels projects the critical analysis of political economy at a pitch which Marx would not match until 1847 with The Poverty of Philosophy

Students of credit cycles will concur that Engels’s perceptions have been more than fulfilled. Political scientists will also note that finance capital’s influence over the whole economy has become more powerful during the last forty years. 

The strategist 

Following Marx’s death in 1883, Engels continues to act as a nerve center for a world-wide working class movement. He is ever alert to the intersections of science, finance, technology, trade and production when striving to keep up with the changing expressions of crises. His ability to penetrate to the dynamics of longer-term fluctuations in the reproduction of capital gives his writings on political issues a contemporary significance on matters as seemingly diverse as (a) plundering the wealth of nature; (b) colonialisms and Imperialism; (c) nations and nationalisms; (d) war; (e) the peasantry; (f) revolutionary socialist organisation; and (g) ‘the woman question’. His genius is everywhere apparent in how he pursues their multiple cross-links. Here, we can consider only the last three, with the ‘The Woman Question’ in a separate post, ‘Freed love’.

Peasantries: His final essay, ‘The Peasant Question in France and Germany,’ appeared in 1894. He insisted on delineating strata among the peasants as the essential for a correct political strategy as did Lenin in The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899) and Mao for The Peasant Movement in Yunan (1928). All three put the interest of the proletariat front and center when building alliances across classes. 

Party building and self-emancipation: Whether in relation to tillers of the soil or to urban wage-slaves, the goal that Engels pursues in his ceaseless political engagements is a society carried on through collective and state bodies. 

With this goal, he deplores squabbles within organised labour as harming the movement towards his socialist vision. 

He encourages electoral politics because the prospect of a socialist majority in parliament will provoke a military coup and be the trigger for proletarian revolution. 

From 1890, he warns of a European war and the slaughter of millions of workers. Twenty years later, the revisionists led the German Party into voting for War Credits. Engels would have sided with Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in breaking from the renegade Kautsky.

Engels knew that the lessons from practice will not deprive the labour movement of the chance to make new blunders: ‘A large class, like a great nation, never learns better or quicker than by undergoing the consequences of its own mistakes.’ His anti-sectarian tone has lessons for the present post-Soviet dispersal of left forces scrambling after an anti-capitalist strategy. 

From the attention that Engels pays to ever-shifting actualities, we learn the better how to interpret both evidence and concepts for guiding change towards the communist ideals he had absorbed before he and Marx met in 1844. 

The roles that Engels over-filled as organiser, economist and polemicist in the development of Western labour movements illumine how we can best honour his memory and his contributions. In the words of one biographer, John Green, Engels ‘wanted no monument other than the coming socialist revolution.’ 

Bruce McFarlane, Christchurch, 2020.


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