The Third International after Lenin

Sunday, January 4, 2015

George Novack on Engels' role

Engels's role in elaborating dialectical materialism 

(Books of the Month column)


Printed below is an excerpt from Polemics in Marxist Philosophy by George Novack. This is one of Pathfinder's Books of the Month for February. The item quoted comes from the chapter titled "In Defense of Engels." Copyright © 1978 by Pathfinder Press, reprinted by permission. Subheadings are by the Militant.


I will focus upon Frederick Engels and his contributions to the elaboration of dialectical materialism, for the following reason. The cocreator of scientific socialism has come under heavy fire in recent years on the ground that he switched Karl Marx's thought onto the wrong track and distorted his teachings on philosophy. Just as Leon Trotsky is portrayed by the Stalinists as the antagonist of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin after 1917, so Engels is separated by his detractors from Marx and depreciated in a like manner on the philosophic front. He is accused of deforming Marx's method in a mechanistic way, thereby being the progenitor of Social Democratic deviations and Stalinist dogmatism....

The false antithesis between Marx and Engels contradicts the basic facts about their relationship. It is, bluntly speaking, a hoax; and serious socialists should beware of being taken in by it. When Engels first visited Marx in Paris in the summer of 1844, he later wrote: "We found that we were in complete accord in all theoretical domains; this was when our joint work began." It continued without letup until Marx died in 1883.

History has rarely witnessed so close, harmonious, and unabated an intellectual and political partnership. Their correspondence testifies to the communion of thought and lively interchange of ideas on a multitude of subjects that found expression in their writings. Although Engels modestly assigned himself the role of "second fiddle" to Marx, the development of the dialectical method and historical materialism was a collective creation. Engels and George Plekhanov later named the synthesis dialectical materialism. Marx and Engels elaborated its fundamental principles together in the 1840s. Most of what they wrote thereafter, whether in the form of newspaper articles, manifestos, pamphlets, or books, was either discussed beforehand or submitted to each other's searching critical scrutiny.

Whatever differences of opinion they had on this or that minor matter, there is no record of disagreement on any important theoretical or political question during their forty-year collaboration. Engels was so familiar with Marx's criticism of political economy that he alone could be entrusted with piecing together and putting into publishable shape the second and third volumes of Capital.

Anti-Dühring, by Engels, was the fullest exposition of Marxist philosophy issued while Marx was alive. It was a preliminary sketch forDialectics of Nature and shares the same theoretical viewpoint. Anti-Dühring was undertaken on Marx's insistence. He endorsed every word in the book, which Engels read to him before sending it to the printers. Chapter 10 of part II was written by Marx. Therefore any dissent from the ideas presented in its pages is ipso facto a disagreement with Marx as much as Engels. The latter made this clear when he wrote in the preface to its second edition: "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 in an insignificant degree by myself, it was self-understood between us that this exposition of mine should not be issued without his knowledge."1 Engels likewise noted in the preface to the first edition of The Origin of the Family, Private Property,and the State that he had drawn extensively upon Marx's prolific observations and conclusions in writing that book.

Long after their deaths, the mythmakers are attempting to do what was impossible during their lifetimes--pit the one revolutionist against the other. This gambit is not new. In a letter to Eduard Bernstein, written April 23, 1883, shortly after Marx's death, Engels said: "The fable about the nasty Engels who had led the benign Marx astray has been repeated many times since 1844...."

After settling their basic philosophical principles in their own minds, Marx and Engels divided the tasks at hand in the exposition of their common ideas. While Marx immersed himself in the prodigious labor of investigating the problems of political economy, Engels undertook to popularize their philosophic positions. The most important of these works were Anti-Dühring, from which Socialism: Utopian and Scientificwas extracted, and later Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy. These were to be crowned by Dialectics ofNature, which remained unfinished at his death. In addition to Capital, which stands as the supreme example of the application of their method, these classical writings are the prime sources for our knowledge about Marxist philosophy.  


Materialist conception of the world 

From the inventory of previous philosophizing, Marx and Engels retained the materialist conception of the world and dialectical logic, making these acquisitions the cornerstones of their systematic thought. The distinctive character of the revolution they effected in philosophy was to fuse these two disconnected elements into a synthetic world outlook that posed the necessity for the working class to transform society and offered a theoretical guide for this emancipation struggle. Materialism was extended from natural to social phenomena and to the development of the thought process; the idealist dialectic of Hegel was turned upside down and given a solid scientific basis in the realities of the universal evolution of matter in motion.

Marxism redefined and revitalized philosophy by linking it with the class struggle and political activity, by converting it into an instrument to be added to the arsenal of the revolutionary proletariat in its struggle to change the world through class action, and by absorbing the results of the growing scientific knowledge about nature, history, and the mind into its principles.

The unfounded allegation that Marx and Engels held divergent philosophical views sets up Engels as a whipping boy for Marx himself. The objections raised against his positions are actually aimed against the tenets of the dialectical materialism they held in common. The detractors ought to come out from ambush and challenge Marx fairly and squarely. 


1. Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring's Revolution in Science (Moscow: Foreign Languages, 1954), p. 14. 

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