The Return of Engels

Foster, John Bellamy

Publisher:  Monthly Review
Date Written:  01/03/2017
Year Published:  2017  
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX20595

After Marx's 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.



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. Frederick Engels repeated Marx’s comment but failed to take his point. Indeed, it is now evident that Engels was the first Marxist, and it is increasingly accepted that he in some way invented Marxism.” For Carver, Engels not only committed the cardinal sin of inventing Marxism, but also committed numerous other sins, such as promoting quasi-Hegelianism, materialism, positivism, and dialectics—all of which were said to be “miles away from Marx’s painstaking eclecticism.”

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