Sitaram Yechury

The 200th birth anniversary of Frederick Engels falls on November 28, 2020. Under normal circumstances, without the raging pandemic, necessary precautions and the lockdown restrictions, the CPI(M) would have observed this event in a befitting manner like the Party observed Marx 200 in 2018-19.

Engel’s theoretical contributions in the evolution and elaboration of the Marxist world outlook is immensely significant and a rich source for understanding the unfolding of the dialectical method and the discovery of dialectics in every law that governs the material development of the universe and the development of life, its evolution and of human society.  The celebration of his life and works would, normally, have been accompanied by restudying all these contributions and the seminal impact it made on the advancement of human thought, intellect and civilization.

This is a canvass that is too large to be dealt with in any one single article. Party shall continue to conduct, within existing limitations, year-long activities on all these aspects.

I would, hence, deal with one major aspect: As Marxism, as a school of thought, dialectically combining theory and practice is derived from the name of Karl Marx, Engels often, unfortunately, is considered to have played a secondary role.  This is the most erroneous conclusion one can come to.  The contrary is evident from the manner in which Engels extended the unfolding of dialectics in all aspects of material and social life in his works.  Each one of them merits a proper re-reading in the current context of human civilizational advance and path-breaking newer scientific discoveries. 

Jointly evolved Marxism

Frederick Engels is often referred to as the world’s first Marxist.  With his characteristic self-effacing modesty, Engels may have proudly accepted this status. He once said: “What Marx accomplished, I would not have achieved.  Marx stood higher, saw further, and took a broader and quicker view than all the rest of us. Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented.  Without him, the theory would be far from what it is today. It, therefore, rightly bears his name”. 

Notwithstanding this, Marx’s assessment of Engels and the special place he gave him in the unfolding of the theoretical foundations of the Marxist world outlook needs to be appreciated. 

Marx-Engels Collaboration

Marx was editing a paper called `Rheinische Zeitung’,  which was banned by the reactionary Prussian state in March 1843, and Marx moved to Paris at the beginning of 1844.  There he began editing a journal, `Deutsch-Franzosische Jahrbucher’. Engels became the youngest contributor and later collaborator of this publication.  In 1844, Engels contributed an article, `Outline of a Critique of Political Economy’. In this, Engels laid the foundational principles for the critique of bourgeois political economy. Engels demonstrated that all-important phenomena in the bourgeois economic system arise inevitably from the rules of private ownership of the means of production and a society without poverty could only be a society without this private ownership. This immensely fascinated Marx. He came to the conclusion that through a critique of bourgeois political economy, another thinker, had come, independently, to the same conclusion that he had come to with his critique of Hegelian philosophy. It was this that cemented the lifelong collaboration, friendship, camaraderie and joint contributions in the evolution of Marxist world outlook.

The pioneering work by Engels, `The Condition of the Working Class in England’, greatly influenced Marx’s line of thinking on the beginnings of the industrial revolution that was taking place in England. During ten days of exchanges in August 1844, Marx’s admiration for Engels grew enormously.  He admired Engels’ courage, dedication, single-mindedness and noted that both were in agreement on all theoretical questions of the day.

Battling the influence of idealism on philosophy and political economy, they collaborated in the first of their joint work in 1844, `The Holy Family or Critique of Critical Criticism’.

In this, Marx and Engels together proved that neither supernatural forces, nor human consciousness, nor heroes, make history.  It was the working people alone who moved society forward through their labour and their political struggles.  This showed that the proletariat cannot free itself without abolishing its own living conditions, i.e., contemporary society – capitalism.  The historical liberating mission of the proletariat, as a class, was elaborated.

However, at the philosophical level, the dominant idealism had to be combatted and its materialist foundations had to be established.  This, Marx and Engels together, worked out in the `German Ideology’ in 1845-46. For the first time, in a comprehensive and systematic manner, they worked out the fundamentals of dialectical and historical materialism – the world outlook of the working class.

In fact, the period 1843 to 1845 marks a watershed in the evolution of the Marxist world outlook – a transition from revolutionary democracy to proletarian revolution, from Hegelian influence to historical materialism and from philosophy to political economy.  In this, both Marx and Engels played the primary role together. 

Marx’s critical examination of Hegelian philosophy of law led him to the conclusion that neither legal relations nor political forms could be comprehended either by themselves or on the basis of the development of the human mind or consciousness but on the material conditions of life.  Hegel coined the term “civil society” as the reflection of the ideal social order which would evolve under the supernatural influence of the “unfolding of the absolute”.  Marx, however, came to the conclusion “that the anatomy of this civil society has to be sought in political economy”.   From this, he proceeded to arrive at the seminal foundations  of dialectical materialism: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness”. 

Combining the critiques of philosophy and political economy, Marx and Engels developed this revolutionary theory which found expression in the joint authorship of the `Communist Manifesto’ in 1848 and the formation of the First International. 

Dialectics of Nature and Human Social Life

While Marx was pre-occupied with dissecting the dynamics of the capitalist system, which culminated in Das Kapital and demonstrating that human exploitation takes place in the production process of capitalism itself and, hence, its overthrow is not merely a moral question but a scientific necessity for human emancipation, Engels focussed on extending the unfolding of dialectics into other areas as noted above.

Human-Nature Dialectic: The basis of dialectical and historical materialism is the perpetual human nature dialectic, i.e., the efforts to appropriate nature for better human life and living conditions.  In this dialectical process, while humans utilize and transform nature, nature also transforms humans and impacts on human evolution.  Engels, in his essay, `The Part Played by Labor in the Transition from Ape to Man’, shows how the human nature dialectic evolved.  Engels showed how labour played a role in the development of the hands, human senses, speech etc.  These were not the products of some divine creation, but its origins lie in the material basis of life. 

Dialectics of Nature: Engels further explored dialectical materialism with regard to nature and scientific development. He concluded that, dialectics is “nothing more than the science of the general laws of motion and development of nature, human society and thought”.

Dialectics and Anthropology: Engels applied the laws of historical materialism to the anthropological evidence, available in his time, of early human societies. In the `Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State’, Engels strips away the myths surrounding modern class society and demonstrated how property-based class relations shaped the origins of family, marking the historical defeat of the `female sex’ – the evolution of monogamy and patriarchy and the consequent oppression of women. 

Dialectics and History:  Engels’ `The Peasant War in Germany’ (1849-50) was, in fact, the first direct application of dialectical materialism in the treatment of history. 

Dialectics and Philosophy: Engels took on the task of debunking the `grand theory’ put forward by philosopher, Eugen Duhring, as a rebuttal of Marxism.  This work, `Anti-Duhring’, had an influential impact in vindicating the validity of Marxism, dialectical and historical materialism.

It is, therefore, clear that in almost every sphere of human activity and endeavour, Engels made a seminal contribution both independently and jointly in collaboration with Marx.  From the elaboration of the human-nature dialectic through the fields of natural sciences, anthropology, history, political economy and to philosophy, Engels left behind a distinct contribution for developing the revolutionary movement and its theoretical foundations. However, it must be underlined that every work that they produced, jointly or independently by either of them, was enriched by their mutual discussions.

Political Activity

While developing such path-breaking theoretical foundations, these two giants of the international working-class movement were not mere academic theoreticians but active participants, at times, leading and guiding the working-class movements of their times. 

These founding giants of Marxism dedicated their life for building a revolutionary organization capable of leading the working class to victory. In 1864, they played an important role in the establishment of the International Workingmen’s Association, popularly known as the First International.  This was the first effort to bring together various Leftwing groups into a common organization and was an important step forward for the international working-class movement.

Scientific and Revolutionary

After Marx’s death, the international working class and the world became aware of the rich works and theoretical foundations of the Marxist outlook mainly through Engels.  The vast volumes of notes left behind by Marx were arranged and edited by Engels. `Capital’  (Volumes II and III) were prepared by Engels editing these notes.  Engels continued to write prefaces to the `Communist Manifesto’  and other newer editions of their works on the basis of contemporary developments enriching the international working class struggles and urging its forward movement. 

As Lenin says, Engels “taught the working class to know itself and be conscious of itself, and he substituted science for dreams …..”.