Humans, nature and dialectics

Sadly Marxism must be defended against some who claim to be Marxists, or at least sympathetic to Marxism. Jack Conrad shows that this is especially the case when it comes to attacks on Frederick Engels and his work on the dialectics of nature

Lifelong partnership

As is well known, Marx and Engels formed the closest political partnership. Lasting from the early 1840s, it only ended with Marx’s death in 1883. In terms of outlook, method, programme, organisation and perspective it is quite right to talk of the Marx-Engels party. For around four decades they worked in tandem, produced a common intellectual output and of necessity regularly corresponded, frequently by return of post. When Engels at last managed to sell up his business in Manchester and move to Regent’s Park Road in north-west London the two met together as a matter of routine, usually daily. Discussions could go on into the small hours. Marx’s house lay little more than 10 minutes walk away ... and there was always the Mother Redcap or the Grafton Arms.

Engels was viewed as a member of the Marx family. Marx’s three daughters likened it to having another father. And after Marx’s death it was Engels who acted as his legal and political executor. Following his friend’s instructions he took up the mammoth task of completing volumes two and three of Capital. Engels certainly became the foremost authority in the Marxist movement and unofficial leader of the international.

All the literary evidence reveals an amazing degree of cooperation. There was a brilliant and constant process of cross-fertilisation. Marx considered Engels his number one friend, critic and collaborator. Politically they almost formed a single personality. Some of what is presented under the name of Engels in the collected works comes, in fact, from the pen of Marx and vice versa. Eg, the chapter on economics in Anti-Dühring is written from material supplied by Marx (who helped plan the book as a whole, gathered other source material and read and approved the final manuscript).

While Marx should on balance be considered the senior partner, the more profound thinker, there can be no doubting the huge contribution made by Engels to what became known as Marxism. Indeed, back in the early 1840s Engels took the initiative in studying bourgeois political economy, as he did in the Marx-Engels orientation to the proletariat. Broadly speaking, there was an agreed division of labour. Engels specialised in military matters, the natural sciences, polemics against the existing left and explaining the origin of the family, the state and classes.

Yet despite the proven closeness between Marx and Engels a whole literature has come into existence which seeks to systematically problematise or belittle the reputation of the latter. Hence, in fact, stabbing the former in the back. Such dishonest behaviour should be expected from sworn enemies. What should be unexpected though, what is sad, what is unforgivable is that amongst those who seek to problematise or belittle Engels are a whole crop of intellectuals who claim to be loyal, or at least sympathetic, to Marxism.

False friends

Marxism took relatively influential form with the late 1960s upsurge in radical struggles. In point of fact, Marxism became rather fashionable in certain quarters. A curse, or at best a mixed blessing. After all, fashion is inherently faddish and that invites shallowness, fickleness and turncoats. Nevertheless, under duress, the established order granted a whole range of concessions. That cannot be denied and should be celebrated to this day. Women, trade unionists and ethnic minorities in particular made big gains during the early 1970s. In the much expanded university sector there were advances too. Discipline relaxed somewhat. Hierarchy was made less rigid. Sexual apartheid broke down and more or less ended. Courses widened to include the study of Marxism. And not only in the form of dismissal - but advocacy.

True, there had been a fair number of CPGB university professors in the 1930s and 40s. Though trained in the bastardised Marxism developed in the Soviet Union, and largely taking it for granted, a few produced work of real impact and lasting worth. Christopher Hill, JD Bernal and JBS Haldane spring to mind.

The late 1960s upsurge saw a growing rejection of ‘official communism’ but also a continuation of ‘official communism’, albeit in novel forms such as Eurocommunism, Maoism and Guevarism. That said, amongst those who claimed to be implacably hostile to ‘official communism’ there was a visible failure to develop a Marxism worthy of the name. Either hopeless eclecticism or hopeless dogmatism ruled. Sometimes both simultaneously. Hence the Marxism of the International Socialists, International Marxist Group and Socialist Labour League - the forerunners of today’s Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Resistance and Workers Revolutionary Party respectively - should carry a mandatory health warning.

What is given in one period can always be taken away in another. The structural confines and dynamics of existing capitalist society, the ongoing influence of social democracy and ‘official communism’, the pressures exerted on paid - and therefore dependent - intellectuals, by flattery, ego and the natural desire to keep employment and find promotion, meant that concessions - with the persuasive backing of money and state power - could be turned into their opposites: in this case bourgeois incorporation and counterattack.

As Marxism triumphantly marched into one university department after another - Essex, London, Sussex, Kent, Glasgow, Lancaster - its representatives too often allowed themselves to be compromised, diverted or tamed. Many simply became well rewarded lapdogs: academic ‘Marxists’. Only a small minority of the ‘conquistadors’ retained much in the way of combativity, partisanship and critical independence.

Generally academic ‘Marxists’ produced an output hostile to the ‘really existing socialism’ in the USSR. A step forward. However, in the attempt to morally free themselves from association with Stalin and Stalinism - and make themselves acceptable to university appointments boards - there was a pronounced tendency towards individualism. A step backwards.

Membership, no matter how brief, of one or another of the confessional leftwing sects - and not only IS, IMG and SLL - often led to a bitter rejection of any notion of organised political commitment. Eventually, in conditions of confusion and increased atomisation, there was a widespread collapse into the despair of postmodernism and from there into the arms of Blairism, Scottish nationalism and the greens.

Academic ‘Marxism’ begins by riding on a wave of radicalism and denouncing the horrors of Stalinism. However, because of the inadequacies of its ‘Marxism’, the Soviet Union is explained, not in the failure of the German revolution, not in its laws of motion, not in its political economy, but by seeking out a first idea, which, if it is not to be traced back to Marx’s head, has to come from Engels.

Engels is therefore said to be the intellectual source of Stalinism and the positivism and passive evolutionism that grew within European social democracy (which led to the great betrayal of August 1914 and culminated in the open pro-capitalism of today’s Socialist International). Paradoxical, given the reformist proclivities and inbuilt platonic nature of most academic ‘Marxists’. Almost without exception Engels’ detractors single out his Dialectics of nature for particular opprobrium.

Three basic propositions

First published in 1925 in the Soviet Union under the guidance of David Riazanov (1870-1938), Engels’ Dialectics of nature is a fragmentary and definitely provisional manuscript. Yet, despite the inevitable limitations of a work in progress, Engels shows the power and huge potential of the dialectic in studying and revealing nature. He begins, however, by making a defining point: dialectics is the general science of development and interconnection. Dialectics being “abstracted from the history of nature and human society”. As a “general science” dialectics can be “reduced in the main” to three basic propositions, states Engels:

1. The law of the transformation of quantity into quality and vice versa.

2. The law of the interpenetration of opposites.

3. The law of the negation of the negation.

Engels moves on to discuss dialectical categories such as necessity and chance, essence and appearance, causality and interaction, freedom and necessity. Formal and dialectical logic are also touched upon and shown to have a relationship. Dialectical logic is, needless to say, far superior. Like the moving image of film compared to a single-frame photograph. It grasps totality, interconnection, movement and the constancy of change.

Engels unashamedly bases himself on Georg Hegel (1770-1831). But - and it is a big but - he set out to put the great philosopher onto his feet. Whereas Hegel idealistically developed the dialectic “as mere laws of thought”, Engels insisted that it is rooted in, and must be deduced from, the underlying dialectic found in the world of matter itself.

As can be seen from the plan of the book - and the rough notes that make up much of the manuscript - Engels envisaged illustrating/revealing the dialectic in nature through a comprehensive examination of the history and cutting-edge developments in late 19th century mathematics, physics, mechanics, chemistry, biology, etc.

If the book had been taken to completion there is little doubt that it would have had a tremendous impact on scientific thinking. Even without that, as we have it - that is, in draft form - those of the stature of Richard Levins, Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould have referred to Dialectics of nature in glowing terms.

Engels, let us note, was more than familiar with the sciences of his day. After moving to London from Manchester, before writing Dialectics of nature he undertook an intense, eight-year study of mathematics and natural history. Back in Manchester he had been on very friendly terms with Carl Schorlemmer (1834-92). A German émigré, Schorlemmer was professor of organic chemistry at Manchester university and author (along with Henry Enfield Roscoe) of the Treatise on chemistry (1866). Long regarded as the standard work in the field.

Even though his book was incomplete, Engels makes many insightful and, if not that, always well informed observations, including about possible avenues for advance. My 1940 edition of Dialectics of nature - the first English translation - contains an admiring, though not uncritical, preface supplied by JBS Haldane (1892-1964), one of the 20th century’s superstars in genetic and evolutionary biology. Haldane welcomes the book “wholeheartedly”. He goes on to express his “hope that future generations of scientists will find that it helps them to elasticity of thought.” Haldane was at the forefront of the Darwinian-Mendelian synthesis. More than that, he was able, in the late 1920s, along with the Soviet scientist, Aleksandr Ivanovich Oparin (1894-1980), to convincingly explain the genesis of life out of non-life (both men were even at that early stage in their careers committed to the dialectic as a method).


Perhaps the first attempt to cast Engels as the original renegade from Marxism can be found shortly before World War I. The Italian socialist and philosopher, Rodolfo Mondolfo (1877-1976), tried to drive a wedge between a sparkling Marx and the ‘empirical’ Engels in his Il materialismo storico di Federico Engels (1912). Mondolfo championed what he called the “philosophy of praxis”, as opposed to dialectical materialism - naturally orthodox Marxists dismissed him at the time as a revisionist who had fallen under the spell of Georges Sorel (1847-1922). A French philosopher who, in the name of the will to power and direct action, rejected science and rationality. Not surprisingly he has been claimed by anarchists, anarcho-syndicalists and fascists alike.

But it was surely Georg Lukács (1885-1971) who set the anti-Engels hare running. He was, after all, an intellectual of some considerable talent and one who sought to place himself squarely in the tradition of Bolshevism (despite his later embrace of a clipped version of Stalinism). Famously in his early - semi-Hegelian, semi-Weberian - effort to ‘renew’ Marxism, necessitated by the tragic failure of the Second International, he put together History and class-consciousness (1923) - the book is regarded to this day as something akin to the Bible in Socialist Workers Party, Counterfire and similar circles.

Included amongst these essays, written over 1919-22, there were some barbed remarks directed against Engels. This is especially the case with note 6 of the chapter titled ‘What is orthodox Marxism?’ Of course, Lukács had yet to read Dialectics of nature. Its publication still lay a few years ahead. There was, though, Anti-Dühring (1878).

Engels, as the reader will probably know, had reluctantly agreed to polemically destroy the intellectual pretensions and reputation of Eugen Dühring (1833-1921). A Berlin university lecturer, he had, surprisingly, disappointingly, shockingly, won a not inconsiderable layer of admirers in the German Social Democratic Party. Including amongst leading figures. Part arrogantly, part ridiculously, Dühring claimed that his eclectic philosophical constructs and borrowings were far in advance of the ‘antiquated’ views of Marx and Engels.

Engels comprehensively shredded Dühring’s half-baked nonsense. Not only that, however. He positively outlined the “dialectical method and the communist world outlook”. That was indeed his main intention. This was a work of popularisation therefore. Engels had in mind the SDP’s cadre in Germany and, far beyond that, the cadre of the rapidly expanding international movement. Subsequently, Anti-Dühring served as an introduction and guide for a whole generation of Marxist revolutionaries.

Complexities, subtleties and uncertainties are on occasion smoothed over, left unexplored or simply go unmentioned. Nevertheless, despite those inevitable limitations, it would be wrong to equate popularisation with vulgarisation. The two are hardly the same. Anti-Dühring is undoubtedly one of the gems to be found in the literature of classical Marxism.

Part one deals with nature and therefore necessarily begins with the dialectic. Engels emphasises that it would be entirely wrong to crudely read the dialectic into nature. The dialectic has to be discovered in nature and evolving out of nature. So Engels does not, as often charged, transpose Hegel onto late 19th century science. On the contrary, he goes to admirable lengths to study, absorb, push and on occasion even break through the specific scientific categories of his day. Engels combines self-confessed limitations in terms of his own scientific education and knowledge with an ability to make profound generalisations and illuminating suggestions.

Despite that, on the basis of 19th century philosophy, not 20th century science, Lukács takes Engels to task. A sad case of forward to the past. “It is of the first importance,” writes a cocksure Lukács, “to realise that the method [of dialectics - JC] is limited here to the realms of history and society. The misunderstandings that arise from Engels’ account of dialectics can in the main be put down to the fact that Engels - following Hegel’s mistaken lead - extended the method to apply also to nature. However, the crucial determinants of dialectics - the interaction of subject and object, the unity of theory and practice, the historical changes in the reality underlying the categories as the root cause of changes in thought, etc - are absent from our knowledge of nature.”

Sowing further confusion, Lukács later goes on to praise Hegel for perceiving “that the dialectics of nature can never become anything more exalted than a dialectics of movement witnessed by the detached observer, as the subject cannot be integrated into the dialectical process, at least not at the stage reached hitherto”. But, whether or not it is right to ‘extend’ the dialectic into nature, Lukács is at pains to warn of “the necessity of separating the merely objective dialectics of nature from those of society. For in the dialectics of society the subject is included in the reciprocal relation in which theory and practice become dialectical with reference to one another.”

The philosophical concepts and language used by Lukács are sometimes opaque and certainly some of his assumptions seem to be fundamentally flawed. In nature, although this is denied by Lukács, object and subject interpenetrate and move dialectically. Both being matter, they necessarily form a unity. Eg, bacteria, plants and animals (object) evolve due to changes in the environment - that is well known. However, by the same measure, the environment (subject) changes due to the impact of plants and animals. Bacteria and plants evolved in an atmosphere very different from today. Some three billion years ago the atmosphere primarily consisted of nitrogen, ammonia and carbon dioxide. It was bacteria and plants which produced oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. They were responsible for our present atmosphere by sequestrating carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen - allowing the evolution of animal life. Subject and object interpenetrate, are in a process of constant movement, and time and again become their opposites.

Much later Lukács recanted. Whether or not this was due to the demands of a soul-destroying Stalinist thought police or a genuine change of heart I do not know. Either way, in his own words - in a 1967 introduction - when he first published History and class-consciousness he belonged to a wider school, a school of thought which attempted to “ignore or repudiate” Marxism “as a theory of nature”. This was, he wrote, part of the tendency that viewed Marxism “exclusively as a theory of society, as a social philosophy”.  Karl Korsch (1886-1961) can be mentioned in this context.

Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight and further thought, Lukács decided to be self-critical. Others would say he backtracked. In the same introduction just cited, Lukács expresses regret that in part due to History and class-consciousness there was a growth of ideas that “strike at the very root of Marxian ontology”. French existentialism and its “intellectual ambience”are vaguely referred to. Jean-Paul Sartre, it should be said, was one of those who took the view that any talk of a dialectic of nature was to attribute human rational processes to mere things. For him the dialectic exclusively belongs to human reason. 

Lukács, later still, elaborated, albeit inadequately. In his ‘lost manuscript’, A defence of ‘History and class consciousness’, he underlines his conviction that human relationships with nature are “socially mediated, not immediate”. However, as society arose from nature, and nature and its laws existed prior to society, the dialectic, he reasons, must exist in nature in order for the dialectic to exist in society. The older Lukács is more than keen to emphasise the double determination of the exchange of matter with nature - ie, the interaction between society and nature.

Furthermore, though the natural sciences are undoubtedly a product of capitalist development, Lukács argues - against relativism - that this makes them no less objective. Whether natural science is by definition always dialectical is an unresolved problem for Lukács. Scientists hardly need to accept the dialectic in order to discover new truths and law-governed probabilities. Nevertheless, here at least, Lukács is absolutely clear: the dialectic is an objective fact in nature.

But the idea had been planted and in the 1960s sank roots and grew branches in academia. As a result, the myth of Engels versus Marx began to harden into an orthodoxy. George Lichtheim (1912-73) has the ‘honour’ of drawing the main outlines of the current argument. He was, it should be stressed, no Marxist.

Whereas Lukács accepted the basic unity between Marx and Engels, he constructs an Engels who bears about the same relationship to Marx as John Milton’s Satan has to god in Paradise lost. Lichtheim’s Engels is a passive social evolutionist, a crude economic reductionist and was thereby responsible for transforming Marxism into something analogous to a passive Darwinism. His Engels banks not on the human will to revolutionary action, praxis. Rather Engels supposedly relies on a mechanical materialism. Only if the working class obeyed the “preordained” laws of social development could communism be achieved. By extending the scope of the dialectic to the natural world and then disastrously transposing it back onto the social world, Engels gave birth to a lifeless Marxism. So judges Lichtheim.

In his influential book Marxism: an historical and critical study (1961) Lichtheim breezily condemns Engels for having betrayed Marx when he argued that “historical evolution is an aspect of general (natural) evolution and basically subject to the same ‘laws’”. That Marx “put up with this” so-called “travesty of his original standpoint” Lichtheim does not deny. He wants to “leave that to biographers”, however.  Lichtheim insists that Marx “wisely left nature (other than human nature) alone”. For Marx, “the only nature relevant to the understanding of history was human nature.” 

This is meant to praise Marx. In fact it is plainly wrong and does a disservice. Actually, Marx was more than aware that humanity was part of nature and arose from nature. There was a prior reality to humanity and that reality was nature.

Showing Marx’s enduring fascination with natural history - and not just human history - is the study he undertook of the outstanding chemist, Justus von Liebig (1803-73). As a result, in Capital volumes 1 and 3, Marx is able to provide a masterful analysis of the devastating effects on the soil caused by the growth of capitalist agriculture. Marx pinpoints the “metabolic rift between man and nature”.

Then there is Charles Darwin. Both Marx and Engels enthusiastically, though not without criticism, greeted The origin of species (1859). Darwin’s book was promoted as a wonderful vindication. That despite the studied absence of any treatment of humanity. Darwin’s method was fundamentally flawed - Marx and Engels agreed that. Darwin did not treat his subject, nature, dialectically. Darwin, as is widely known, had been inspired by the reverend Thomas Malthus and his cold-blooded, class-biased and catastrophist view of human population growth.

To begin with, only 1,250 copies of Darwin’s groundbreaking work were published. They sold out within the first day. Engels was one of the buyers. On December 12 1859 he wrote a short letter to his friend down in London. After asking about Marx’s sick wife, Jenny - and relishing the prospect of giving one of their mutual opponents a sound polemical drubbing - Engels mentions in closing that he has been reading Darwin’s book. It is “absolutely splendid”, he remarks. Teleology in nature has been “demolished”. Engels continues: “Never before has so grandiose an attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in nature and certainly never to such good effect. One does not, of course, have to put up with the crude English method.”

Some time after, in January 1861, Marx pens these pertinent remarks to Ferdinand Lassalle in Berlin: “Darwin’s work is most important and suits my purposes, in that it provides the basis in natural science for the historical class struggle. One does not, of course, have to put up with the clumsy English style of argument. Despite the shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, ‘teleology’ in the natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow, but its rational meaning is empirically explained.”

Note: Marx unmistakably follows Engels in style and content. Darwin provides the confirming basis of the Marx-Engels viewpoint.

During the early 1860s Darwinomania swept the thinking left. Something Marx and Engels actively encouraged. Marx’s party was certainly buoyed up by Darwin’s theory. The origin was law-governed but open-ended, giving as it did due recognition to necessity and chance.

So Lichtheim is being mischievous - that or he is plain ignorant: it must surely be the former. Of course, humanity is part of nature, a special part. Marx fully appreciated and on occasion elaborated upon this inescapable fact. Humanity, for Marx, was one of nature’s “own forces”, which through its own conscious actions changes itself.  Humanity is therefore matter which has become self-aware. What of the rest of planet Earth? Especially since the Neolithic, it (unconscious nature) has been marked by the - intended and unintended - actions of humanity. Nature and humanity at various stages of social development interpenetrate. Gaia is increasingly anthropomorphic. The possibility of human-induced runaway climate change tells us that object and subject can once again become their opposites.


According to the anti-Engels myth, where the fallen angel trod, Georgi Plekhanov, Karl Kautsky, Vladimir Lenin, Otto Bauer and the many legions of the Second International followed. Engels is that way blamed for the evolutionism, the strategic immobility, the social chauvinism that came to blight most sections of European socialism. Marx is counterposed to a dull, reductionist and passive Engels. Falsehood and another paradox - after all, Lichtheim himself opposed Marxist practice and instead opted for piecemeal social change.

Others, however, quickly added their voices. Included amongst them were a whole raft of self-proclaimed ‘Marxists’. Whether they were Hegelian, analytical, critical, autonomist, Althusserian, Eurocommunist or Kantian, all regarded Dialectics of nature as something close to original sin.

Alfred Schmidt - a member of the Frankfurt school - was in the front rank. He berated Engels for departing from Marx. In his book, The concept of nature in Marx (1962), Engels is said to have “relapsed into a dogmatic metaphysic” because he saw humanity “only as a product of evolution and a passive reflection of the process of nature, not, however, as a productive force”. Frankly, the notion that Engels did not understand that humanity was a self-making productive force is risible.

Whereas the cruder versions of Darwinism picture humanity as entirely the product of environmental change or some inevitable pinnacle of a teleology called evolution, Engels, in Dialectics of nature, took a much more rounded, active viewpoint. The title of chapter 9, ‘The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man’, almost speaks for itself. For Engels, the evolution of humanity was not down to nature alone. The species homo also made itself through its own labour. Engels put particular stress on the relationship between the development of the hand and the fashioning and use of tools. One can agree or disagree - there is certainly a hint of Lamarckism in Engels’ account. But nothing passive, nothing that can seriously, honestly, be described as ignoring human praxis.

Schmidt also gets Engels and consciousness spectacularly wrong. By adopting what he calls an evolutionary approach - ie, that life slowly, constantly and reassuringly improves to the point where matter is conscious of itself - his Engels considered that matter is automatically and perfectly reflected in the brains of human beings. “The movement of thought in Marx is by no means limited to a mere mirroring of the factual,” says a bumptious Schmidt. “The uncritical reproduction of existing relationships in consciousness has precisely an ideological character for Marx.” 

So Schmidt claims to believe that, whereas Marx understood that ideas are formed in interaction with the material world, Engels promoted a crude ‘identity theory of consciousness’. And yet, as even a casual reading of Engels will show, he knew perfectly well that there was nothing automatic in the reflection of nature in consciousness. People often, usually, get things somewhat wrong. Hence the distorted, upside-down world of ideology, of which religion is a part.

What is embarrassingly obvious from Schmidt, as with others in the Frankfurt school, is an approach which owes far more to Hegel than Marx. There is no study of chemistry, physics, biology or any other science. No attempt to grasp the physical world as the physical world. Indeed there is a rejection of science. The “alienation of humanity from nature” is attributed to science and the enlightenment - “an analysis that arose from romantic roots and Weber’s critique of rationalism and the ‘disenchantment’ of the world”. 

Hence the metabolic rift Marx writes about is dealt with by Schmidt in purely philosophical terms. A bad case of retrogression. Though he claims to admire the concept, he insists on separating dialectics and materialism. The two are, he says, “incompatible”. Thus Schmidt, logically, ends up denouncing not just Engels, but Marx too. For him Marx fell prey to technological Prometheanism and the domination of humanity over nature. Why? Because of his materialism. Obviously the charge of technological Prometheanism is unfounded: clear to anyone who has taken the trouble to properly engage with the real Marx (and Engels) and their writings on nature.

Colletti and others

Lucio Colletti (1924-2001) - once a dissident ‘official communist’, he ended life as a parliamentary representative of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia - went further. Colletti is convinced that the numerous 20th century distortions of Marxism have to be traced back to the “dialectical materialism of Engels, Lenin and Plekhanov”, which they get from a misreading of Hegel’s “dialectic of matter”. Occupying the higher authority, being a foundational figure, Engels must be particularly guilty. Colletti, a neo-Kantian ‘Marxist’, is convinced that Engels’ work around natural science - what he calls “the philosophy of nature”, or the “extension”of historical materialism into dialectical materialism - had an entirely negative effect on the leaders of the Second International. 

Authors from across the political spectrum began to take this and other such nonsense as common-sensical. The ‘official communist’ John Lewis (The Marxism of Marx 1972) and the anti-Marxist Leszek Kołakowski (Main currents of Marxism 1978) were as one. At least on this issue. Engels had distorted Marx by extending the dialectic from society to incorporate nature. Others can be listed: Karl Popper, Richard Gunn, Zbigniew Jordan and Gareth Steadman Jones. And it is not just a case of rejecting Stalin, but not embracing Trotsky. After all, we should add Andrew Gamble, Alex Callinicos, Terrel Carver amongst other Trotskyites and Trotskyoids to the anti-Engels list.

Hence Harry Cleaver - a Hegelian ‘Marxist’ and a pupil of Raya Dunayevskaya - almost considers himself honour-bound to dismiss Engels in his Reading ‘Capital’ politically (1979). It has become routine. Engels is excoriated because he “sought to expand Marx’s analysis of capital into a universal philosophical system which would englobe not only the entirety of human history but the entire cosmos of the natural world as well”. 

The exact same dismissiveness is found in Maurice Cornforth’s Communism and philosophy: “It is worth noting,” says this burnt-out ‘official communist’, “that in the writings of Marx there was little said by way of generalising about the ‘nature of the universe’. Such generalisations were proposed, however (though only in rather ambiguous phraseology), in some parts of the later writings of Engels - not only in some of his notes on the Dialectics of nature, but in the first part of Anti-Dühring, where, in chapter one, he wrote about ‘the great totality of things and our knowledge of things’, and in later chapters tried to sum up ‘the philosophy of dialectical materialism’ in a set of concise formulas.” 

Cornforth sighingly regrets that “such formulations have contributed to the formation of a dogmatic variety of Marxism with its ideological illusions”. Remember, this is the Maurice Cornforth (1909-80) who served as an ardent proponent for Stalin and his so-called philosophical achievements during the 1940s and 50s. His deathbed confession of loss of faith makes great play of rejecting the concept of “totality”. It is “fantastic and delusory”, he pitifully announces.


The whole slander campaign against Engels finds a systematic expression in the work of Norman Levine. He has turned his anti-Engelsism into a cottage industry. Engels, in Levine’s account, is the uneducated non-university bumpkin, the pimp of positivism, the most significant source of Stalinism: “Engelsism distorted Marxism, and Stalinist Russia partially formed by Engelsism also debased Marxism.” A combination of snobbery, idealism and Stalinist apologetics. Stalin’s Soviet Union would have been OK if only it had not been for the pernicious influence of Engels. That is the clear implication.

Levine’s anti-Engels oeuvre is best summarised in his ‘seminal’ book The tragic deception: Marx contra Engels (1975). Here Levine condemns Engels in a whole series of baseless claims. Remember, all this is from a man who seriously imagines that he upholds the mantle of authentic Marxism.

Things-in-themselves are knowable, says Engels. Levine strongly objects. But all things are knowable in principle. What phenomenon, in principle, is unknowable? Nature, “not thought”, is the “ultimate cause”, says Levine’s Engels. Levine again strongly objects. Poor Levine. He simply reveals himself to be yet another idealist. Before thought there is nature - fact.

Engels, says Levine, “continuously affirmed the copy theory of knowledge ... there was absolutely no variance, no difference between our comprehension of the external world and the external world itself”. Really? How can anyone make such silly claims and keep a straight face? I have already noted that Engels was acutely conscious of the fact that people mostly get things partially wrong - ie, ideology.

Engels, says Levine, committed the “grave error” of “making the laws of nature themselves dialectical”. Engels did not make the laws of nature dialectical. He tried, on the contrary, to draw out the most general dialectical laws from nature. Not force artificial, preconceived, inappropriate notions onto nature.

Indeed Engels insisted again and again that things, specific fields, different levels and arrangements of matter and motion, had to be studied according to their own particular laws. Biology is not chemistry and physics is not human society. Each level of matter has its own laws.

Engels “was a unilinear evolutionist” for whom “the notion of human praxis was absent”, maintains Levine. Yet another silly and quite frankly tiresome claim. Why then was Engels so concerned with the practice of the German SDP, the French Workers’ Party, the British Social Democratic Federation and the other Marxist organisations in Europe and North America? I would suggest because he was no “unilinear evolutionist”. Rather, as the evidence shows, Engels was someone for whom “human praxis” was vital and therefore a constant concern.

Engels’ thought “moved from a mechanistic materialist view of the universe to a deterministic view of human history ... it was Engels, not Marx, who was the originator of economic determinism”. And, yes, it gets dafter and dafter. According to Levine, “Engels’ materialism ... was a cold, unremitting and remorseless system. Men had little impact on fashioning the course of development of history and nature. Rather than being the subject of history, men were basically the passive objects of unrelenting external forces ... Engels’ materialism was mechanistic.” 

Engels made mistakes and was limited by his time, of course. It is all too clear, however, that Engels and Marx were as one on nature and the dialectic, as with so much else. That does not make them right. But such a recognition provides the only serious basis from which to examine whether or not Marxism is of any use in investigating and moving forward contemporary questions in the natural sciences.