Engels, Co-author of the Materialist Conception of History

Engels and Marx’s collaboration had as a starting point the elaboration of the materialist conception of history: this was the result of a convergence of ideas and, from then on, of a partnership in the theoretical elaboration and political militancy for their whole lives.

By José Welmowicki
Marxism against determinism
In the preface of his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx wrote:
Frederick Engels, with whom I maintained a constant exchange of ideas by correspondence since the publication of his brilliant essay on the critique of economic categories (printed in the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, arrived by another road (compare his Lage der arbeitenden Klasse in England) at the same result as I, and when in the spring of 1845 he too came to live in Brussels, we decided to set forth together our conception as opposed to the ideological one of German philosophy, in fact to settle accounts with our former philosophical conscience. The intention was carried out in the form of a critique of post-Hegelian philosophy. The manuscript [The German Ideology], two large octavo volumes, had long ago reached the publishers in Westphalia when we were informed that owing to changed circumstances it could not be printed. We abandoned the manuscript to the gnawing criticism of the mice all the more willingly since we had achieved our main purpose – self-clarification. Of the scattered works in which at that time we presented one or another aspect of our views to the public, I shall mention only the Manifesto of the Communist Party, jointly written by Engels and myself…
This theoretical convergence led the two friends to systematize the ideas they had already written, and which led them to break with the young Hegelians like the Bauer brothers, Stirner, and others. This group was dedicated to criticizing Germany’s political and legal system, but their critique remained on the ideological terrain, without relating the critique of reality in German society to that of its material base. They were limited to the sphere of ideas. To criticize this trend that did not leave the limits of Hegel’s idealism, Engels and Marx wrote together The Holy Family (or Critique of Critical Criticism) in 1845. At that time they approached Feuerbach, who criticized Hegel from a materialist point of view.
But soon they came to the conclusion that Feuerbach was a partial and unilateral overcoming of Hegel because he was nothing more than contemplative materialism, that is, that the man/nature relationship was seen as passive and did not value the action of the human being on the environment and on society. The expression of this rupture with Feuerbach will be expressed in The German Ideology, which both wrote in 1845 and which the above-mentioned text refers to.
It was in this text – which was not printed due to several difficulties referred to by Marx in the Preface above (and whose manuscript was later recovered and published by Riazanov at the Marx-Engels Institute in the 1920s) – that they developed the new materialistic conception of history. Marx and Engels incorporated the defense of the active side of the human being, that human action on nature and society could transform them and could be revolutionary, as Marx summarized in his Theses on Feuerbach, written at the same period:
The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism – that of Feuerbach included – is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the active side was developed abstractly by idealism – which, of course, does not know real, sensuous activity as such.
These Theses were published by Engels in 1886 along with his book Ludwig Feuerbach and the end of classical German Philosophy. As Marx says in the Preface, the Communist Manifesto was based on this conception.
Among the texts on revolutionary processes that both wrote at that time, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, which Marx wrote about the 1848-1851 revolution and counterrevolution in France, and The Peasant War in Germany, written by Engels in 1850, applying the materialistic conception of history to study how its outcome had been decisive in the formation of Germany, compared to other countries like England and France, stand out. In this text, Engels makes an analysis of the economy and class composition of current Germany. He then analyzes the emergence and the programs of the different oppositions. In particular, he explains in-depth the differences between Luther (the theologian of the Protestant Reformation) and Münzer (the radical leader of the peasant war) and how they influenced the peasant insurrections of the late 15th and early 16th centuries when the Protestant Reformation was beginning. It also explains the characteristics of the uprisings of the nobles and leaders of the nobility, like Sickingen. From then on, he relates the episodes of the peasant war and the causes of its final defeat.
Finally, he analyzes the consequences of this defeat in German history. All of Engels’ work focuses on the need for a ruthless class struggle against feudal lords to open up more favorable conditions for a proletarian revolution. He also analyzes how the bourgeois forces that have emerged are incapable of taking it.
Lessons from history lead them to a similar formulation in the famous 1850 Message to the CC of the Communist League, which he and Marx wrote about the 1848-1850 German revolution.
The text on Germany’s peasant wars, in which Engels analyses the process of the struggle against the nobility in the 15th and 16th centuries, is an example of how the materialist conception of history makes it possible to analyze societies, including non-capitalist ones, and to draw political conclusions, opposed to ideologists and representatives of the dominant classes.
Engels continued to apply this conception, which he and Marx systematized in the German Ideology, throughout his career, in the ideological battles he had to give against the distinct theorists who returned to idealism or to mechanical materialism and denied the materialist conception of history as well as the reformist politicians.
It is curious that there are critics of Engels who attack him precisely because of the texts he wrote to combat this type of mechanical vision, like his classic known as the Anti-Dühring. Nowadays, Dr. Dühring is no longer mentioned, but at the time he was successful and gained a broad influence within the ranks of the German workers’ party and even in its leadership. What Dr. Dühring advocated in his books was a closed “system” with strict laws, and he tried to attack the key texts of Marx and Engels.
In his book, Dr. Dühring invested against dialectics, and in order to attack Marx and impact his readers, he made quibbles of various parts of The Capital, among other texts to counter it “a general theory of science in which nature, history, society, state, law, etc., are treated in alleged inner interconnection.” (NOTE 1) In order to counter Herr Dühring’s Philosophy of Nature (NOTE 2), Engels had to develop polemics on all the terrains that Düring had to incur, such as political economy, natural sciences, philosophy, etc.
Thus, what Engels does in his controversial text is to defend the materialist conception of history. To accomplish this goal, Engels had to attack Dühring’s determinism and mechanicism in a frontal way. However, there are more and more authors, including some who claim to be Marxists, who criticize this text as well as the manuscripts published posthumously as Dialectics of Nature for a supposed determinism or mechanicism.
In this polemic, there are those who hold the opinion that Marxism is a deterministic view of history. Others, in greater numbers, say that Engels would be the source of this determinist vision, as opposed to Marx himself.
As Engels reveals in the Preface to the 2nd edition of the Anti-Dühring, he wrote the book in permanent contact with Marx, who read it and even wrote the part about the critical history of economic theories:
“I must note in passing that inasmuch as the mode of outlook expounded in this book was founded and developed in far greater measure by Marx, and only to an insignificant degree by myself, it was self-understood between us that this exposition of mine should not be issued without his knowledge. I read the whole manuscript to him before it was printed, and the tenth chapter of the part on economics (“From Kritische Geschichte”) was written by Marx”.
To dispel any doubt, we reproduce a letter by Marx in which he recommends a correspondent, Moritz Kaufmann, to read Engels’ Anti-Dühring. It shows that Marx not only participated in the elaboration of the Anti-Dühring but also considered it a great exposition of scientific socialism:
London, 3 October 1878
Dear Sir,
Mr Petzler told me you had written an article on my book The Capital and my life, to be reprinted together with other articles of yours, and that you desired me or Engels to correct any errors on your part.
I shall also send you—if you do not yet possess it—by post a recent publication of my friend Engels: Herrn Eugen Dühring’s Umwälzung der Wissenschaft [Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science], which is very important for a true appreciation of German Socialism.
Yours truly, Karl Marx. (NOTE 3)
Would Engels have become a determinist at the end of his life?
Some authors claim that Engels would have adopted a deterministic conception in his last period of life. That Engels would have reverted to mechanical materialism. The accusation, as we anticipate, tries to rely on texts such as Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature.
Actually, Engels analyzes in these texts how the evolution of natural sciences and technology was the result of the rise of the bourgeoisie, and the need of capitalism to intervene in the productive processes, in the industry (such as the steam engine, electricity, etc.) and in agriculture, to accelerate the circulation of goods and therefore transport (trains, faster navigation, etc.), etc. Thus, it was necessary to know nature better, hence the stimulus to natural sciences from this period on. There was in that period a tendency of the natural sciences to find a linear explanation of cause and effect and see nature itself as a continuous evolution. In this sense, they opposed the previous religious explanations of the Christian clergy and the typical restrictions of the feudal period.
The Enlightenment was the typical ideology of the rising bourgeoisie, who placed themselves as the representatives of the ‘lights’: just as in politics they spoke in the name of equality among people, of human rights as opposed to the feudal systems and their typical privileges, hierarchy, ideas, and their resistance to science. Once the bourgeoisie power is consolidated, this position changes. The version for this period is already going to be conservative; the social order should be preserved and social science should explain how this order is natural, as natural as geology, physics, or chemistry. An ideological environment of faith in the progress arising from economic development and social conservativeness emerges.
The philosophy resulting from this application of the natural sciences to society is closely linked to the figure of August Comte, the founder of Positivism: a concept that extended this understanding in a linear manner to societies, with scientific pretensions, even creating a discipline to scientifically study society: Sociology or as he called it, Comte’s social physics.
Comte considered that society had causal laws of the same nature as the physics laws and that in it there was a permanent evolution, a progress that was a process like that of nature. (NOTE 4)  He and other theorists built a deterministic view from this that historical events are previously defined by these laws of social physics.
Engels’ critics accuse him of being influenced by this kind of vision. However, Engels’ own texts attack exactly this kind of determinism and the mechanical view of the application of physical or biological laws to society and even show that in nature the determinist view is not applied either, as ordinary materialists think.
Engels writes in the Anti-Düring:
The Hegelian system, in itself, was a colossal miscarriage — but it was also the last of its kind. It was suffering, in fact, from an internal and incurable contradiction. Upon the one hand, its essential proposition was the conception that human history is a process of evolution, which, by its very nature, cannot find its intellectual final term in the discovery of any so-called absolute truth. But, on the other hand, it laid claim to being the very essence of this absolute truth. 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 the socialism of earlier days was as incompatible with this materialistic conception as the conception of nature of the French materialists was with dialectics and modern natural science.” (NOTE 5)
In his letter to Mehring in 1893, Engels, after praising his book The Legend of Lessing and the appendix written by Mehring on Historical Materialism, does not beat about the bush in attacking the interpretation that attempts to make them appear as vulgar mechanical materialists and to counteract this supposed Marx and Engels materialism to justify their idealism.
London, July 14, 1893
I shall begin at the end — the appendix on historical materialism, in which you have described the main things excellently and for any unprejudiced person convincingly. If I find anything to object to it is that you attribute more credit to me than I deserve, even if I count in everything which I might possibly have found out for myself – in time – but which Marx with his more rapid coup d’oeil (grasp) and wider vision discovered much more quickly. When one has the good fortune to work for forty years with a man like Marx, one does not usually get the recognition one thinks one deserves during his lifetime. Then if the greater man dies, the lesser easily gets overrated, and this seems to me to be just my case at present; history will set all this right in the end and by that time one will be safely round the corner and know nothing more about anything.
“Otherwise, there is only one other point lacking, which, however, Marx and I always failed to stress enough in our writings and in regard to which we are all equally guilty. That is to say, we all laid and were bound to lay, the main emphasis, in the first place, on the derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions, and of actions arising through the medium of these notions, from basic economic facts. But in so doing we neglected the formal side — the ways and means by which these notions, etc., come about — for the sake of the content […]
“The ideologist who deals with history (history is here simply meant to comprise all the spheres – political, juridical, philosophical, theological – belonging to society and not only to nature), the ideologist dealing with history then, possesses in every sphere of science material which has formed itself independently out of the thought of previous generations and has gone through an independent series of developments in the brains of these successive generations… True, external facts belonging to its own or other spheres may have exercised a co-determining influence on this development, but the tacit pre-supposition is that these facts themselves are also only the fruits of a process of thought, and so we still remain within that realm of pure thought which has successfully digested the hardest facts.
“It is above all this appearance of an independent history of state constitutions, of systems of law, of ideological conceptions in every separate domain, which dazzles most people. […]
“Hanging together with this too is the fatuous notion of the ideologists that because we deny an independent historical development to the various ideological spheres which play a part in history we also deny them any effect upon history. The basis of this is the common undialectical conception of cause and effect as rigidly opposite poles, the total disregarding of interaction; these gentlemen often almost deliberately forget that once a historic element has been brought into the world by other elements, ultimately by economic facts, it also reacts in its turn and may react on its environment and even on its own causes.” (NOTE 6)
And in Dialectics of Nature Engels wrote in Notes and Fragments:
“[Chance and Necessity]
“[…] In opposition to this view there is determinism, which passed from French materialism into natural science, and which tries to dispose of chance by denying it altogether. According to this conception only simple, direct necessity prevails in nature. That a particular pea-pod contains five peas and not four or six, that a particular dog’s tail is five inches long and not a whit longer or shorter, that this year a particular clover flower was fertilised by a bee and another not, and indeed by precisely one particular bee and at a particular time, that a particular windblown dandelion seed has sprouted and another not, that last night I was bitten by a flea at four o’clock in the morning, and not at three or five o’clock, and on the right shoulder and not on the left calf – these are all facts which have been produced by an irrevocable concatenation of cause and effect, by an unshatterable necessity of such a nature indeed that the gaseous sphere, from which the solar system was derived, was already so constituted that these events had to happen thus and not otherwise. With this kind of necessity we likewise do not get away from the theological conception of nature. […]
“[Dialectics] […] The eternal laws of nature also become transformed more and more into historical ones. That water is fluid from 0°-100°C. Is an eternal law of nature, but for it to be valid, there must be (1) water, (2) the given temperature, (3) normal pressure. On the moon there is no water, in the sun only its elements, and the law does not exist for these two heavenly bodies.” (NOTE 7)
In this same text, in his Introduction, Engels makes clear the dialectic relationship between men and society, nature, and history:
With men we enter history. […] On the other hand, the more that human beings become removed from animals in the narrower sense of the word, the more they make their own history consciously, the less becomes the influence of unforeseen effects and uncontrolled forces of this history, and the more accurately does the historical result correspond to the aim laid down in advance. If, however, we apply this measure to human history, to that of even the most developed peoples of the present day, we find that there still exists here a colossal disproportion between the proposed aims and the results arrived at, that unforeseen effects predominate, and that the uncontrolled forces are far more powerful than those set into motion according to plan. And this cannot be otherwise as long as the most essential historical activity of men, the one which has raised them from bestiality to humanity and which forms the material foundation of all their other activities, namely the production of their requirements of life, that is to-day social production, is above all subject to the interplay of unintended effects from uncontrolled forces and achieves its desired end only by way of exception and, much more frequently, the exact opposite. In the most advanced industrial countries we have subdued the forces of nature and pressed them into the service of mankind; we have thereby infinitely multiplied production, so that a child now produces more than a hundred adults previously did. And what is the result? Increasing overwork and increasing misery of the masses, and every ten years a great collapse.” (NOTE 8)
The confusion between Engels’ mindset and that of later social-democracy and Stalinism
Most of Engels’ critics forget one fact: during Marx and Engels’ entire life, there was a battle of both against the pressures suffered by the German Social Democratic Party and the reactions of its leadership, in which both identified tendencies to retreat in program and theory.
The Anti-Dühring was only written because Dühring’s ideas had an impact on the Party’s own leadership. After his death, and combined with an objective process of aristocratization of sectors of the German working class (and in other imperialist countries) and bureaucratization of the union leaderships linked to the party, what ended up leading them to abandon the communist program, to betrayal in the First War in 1914, to replace Marxist theory with evolutionism, that is, the idea that capitalist society would evolve naturally into socialism without the need for revolutionary ruptures. Kautsky, the most important theoretician of social democracy was the decisive creator of this new evolutionist justification theory that gave basis to reformism. Bernstein had preceded him in 1899 and had been fought against by Rosa Luxemburg (and by Kautsky at that time) and defeated within the party. But in 1914 he and Kautsky joined in this vision, which was the opposite of Marx and Engels. The opposite in program and theory. It was the replacement of the materialist conception of history by a vulgar and evolutionist materialism, which was later adopted by Stalin and the Russian bureaucracy when they took power in the USSR.
One of the texts that supported this mechanical conception is Bukarin’s Treatise on Historical Materialism, which has the subtitle of Essay of Comparative Sociology.
But since Lenin was always defending against Kautsky and then Trotsky in his fight against bureaucracy, these conceptions were the opposite of Marx and Engels. In Engels’ 200 years, it is fundamental to rescue his contribution to Marxism and the importance of his elaboration together with Marx of the materialist conception of history for the programmatic arming of revolutionary militancy in this historical moment in which the pressures of reformism and post-modernism, which preaches that nothing is determined and nothing can be proven, are used at every moment.
In Trotsky’s words, in his 90 years of the Communist Manifesto, written in 1937:
1. The materialist conception of history, discovered by Marx only a short while before and applied with consummate skill in the Manifesto, has completely withstood the test of events and the blows of hostile criticism. It constitutes today one of the most precious instruments of human thought. All other interpretations of the historical process have lost all scientific meaning. We can state with certainty that it is impossible in our time to be not only a revolutionary militant but even a literate observer in politics without assimilating the materialist interpretation of history.” (NOTE 9)

  1. Engels to Marx (28 May 1876), M&E Collected Works, V. 45, p. 122
  2. This “natural system of knowledge which in itself is of value to the mind” has, “without the slightest detraction from the profundity of thought, securely established the basic forms of being.” From its “really critical standpoint” it provides “the elements of a philosophy which is real and therefore directed to the reality of nature and of life, a philosophy which cannot allow the validity of any merely apparent horizon, but in its powerfully revolutionising movement unfolds all earths and heavens of outer and inner nature.” It is a “new mode of thought”, and its results are “from the ground up original conclusions and views… system-creating ideas… established truths.” In it we have before us “a work which must find its strength in concentrated initiative” — whatever that may mean; an “investigation going to the roots… a deep-rooted science… a strictly scientific conception of things and men… an all-round penetrating work of thought… a creative evolving of premises and conclusions controllable by thought… the absolutely fundamental.” Anti-Dühring, Introduction, https://marxists.architexturez.net/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch00.htm
    3. Marx to Moritz Kaufmann, M&E Collected Works, V. 45, p. 333
    4. “Without admiring or cursing political facts, seeing them essentially, as in any other science, as mere subjects of observation, social physics therefore considers each phenomenon from the elementary double point of view of its harmony with coexisting phenomena and triggering as a previous and subsequent state of human development” quoted by Michael Lowy in The Adventures of Karl Marx against the Baron of Munchhausen, Cortez, São Paulo, 2003, 8th ed. p.24
    5. F. Engels, Anti-Dühring, M&E Collected Works, V. 25, p. 25 6. Engels to Franz Mehring (14 July 1893), M&E Collected Works, V. 50, p. 163
    7. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, M&E Collected Works, V. 25, p. 499
    8. Idem. p. 330
    9. Trotsky, Ninety Years of the Communist Manifesto, in  https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1937/10/90manifesto.htm

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