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Friedrich Engels, The Sociologist in the Shadows

Clearly there is much more in Marx than what we would call sociology. It is a technical economics and at the same time a kind of metaphysics -- a philosophy that is both politically critical and activist and that also offers a quasi-religious hope of ultimate salvation of the human essence. All these features plus the fact that they fit together into the imposing architecture of one all-encompassing system have been the great attraction of Marx for intellectuals seeking something more than narrow and uninspiring specializations. At the same time I would have to say that these features are something of a snare and a temptation from the path towards a realistic sociology. Not that there is no worthwhile sociology incorporated within the Marxian scheme, but it has been so tightly entangled with the rest of the system that it has often been downgraded or overlooked and the whole system has been made to survive or fall on the strength of its philosophical and political vision. Yet the economics and the philosophy are actually on shakier ground than the sociology.

Marx is a symbolic figure in yet another sense. It is typical to refer to "Marx" or "Marxism" when what is actually meant is the work of Marxand Engels. Some of the most important "Marxian" works were written by the two men together, including the Communist Manifesto and The German Ideology. Friedrich Engels in fact is the more sociological thinker of the two. There is something of a myth about the relation between Marx and Engels: that Engels was intellectually inferior and no more than a loyal disciple and weak collaborator in the system belonging to Marx. In actuality Engels deserves to be treated in his own right. In many ways, what he contributed is the solider and more lasting in the "Marxian" contribution to a conflict sociology.


The myth about Marx and Engels is strongly entrenched, among other reasons because it was originated by Engels himself. After their early political agitation and their participation in the abortive revolutions of 1848, Marx went into exile in London, while Engels went to work as a clerk and later the manager of his family's British factory at Manchester. Shortly afterwards Engels all but ceased his intellectual work, while Marx kept alive the underground politics of Communist revolution and worked on his lengthy economic tomes, supported by what funds Engels could send him. Only in the 1870s did Engels reappear in the intellectual and political world, after a 20-year absence. By this time Marx was sick and little productive; Engels took up the slack, writing not only works of his own, but also representing Marx in political and intellectual affairs. Engels became the spokesman of "Marxism," coining its slogans and formulating its doctrines as well as editing and publishing posthumous volumes of Marx Das Kapital after Marx's death in 1883. For all his own activity, Engels cloaked himself in Marx's intellectual identity.

Moreover the pattern was already set early in their career, during the revolutionary decade of the 1840s. In their joint publications, Marx's name always came first. Marx even published under his own name works that were actually written by Engels, such as Engels's analysis of the European upheavals, entitled Germany: Revolution and Counter-revolution, written for the New York Tribune during 1851-1852. Marx often asked Engels to edit or ghostwrite his manuscripts for him, but without printed acknowledgment; and Marx would arbitrarily change Engels's own writings and send them to the printer without consultation. Engels never protested, never raised an eyebrow. He was already totally loyal. His passivity has seemed to confirm the impression that he was merely the errandboy in the presence of a genius.

But this picture is hardly accurate. Engels in fact was a thinker of considerable originality and breadth: in some respects more so than Marx. Marx himself admitted this in a private letter to Engels late in his life: "You know that, first of all, I arrive at things slowly, and, secondly, I always follow in your footsteps." A strange revelation! Yet it was Engels in fact


who first understood the importance of economics, properly critiqued and detached from its bourgeois ideological underpinnings. It was he who early in 1844 published in Marx journal a "Critique of Political Economy", while Marx was still fighting the philosophical battles of the Young Hegelians. In this essay Engels argued that private property inevitably leads to ever-growing capitalist monopoly and simultaneously to the growth of its fatal enemy, the working class. Marx's reaction was to attempt to translate this economics into Hegelian terms, in the so-called "Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844." And it was Engels who showed, with the publication in 1845 of his own researches in the Manchester factories -- The Condition of the Working Class in England -- that the abstractions of philosophy meant nothing next to the concrete social conditions of a real social class caught in the throes of capitalism.

Engels, in short, led the way, although Marx was already predisposed to follow in this direction owing to the failed idealism of Hegel and the example of Feuerbach. But it is not so well appreciated how much Engels continued to lead, especially into sociology. Although Marx remained preoccupied with critiquing the German philosophers, Engels pushed for a more empirical and more scientifically generalizable conception of the real world. It is Engels who wrote the first draft of the Communist Manifesto and gave it a sociological slant, whereas Marx tacked on his usual critique of philosophical and political rivals and enhanced its vividness with his gift for literary phrase and biting invective. And while Marx demonstrated that his own genius could illuminate current political events such as in the brilliant analysis of the French counterrevolution in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte ( 1852), it was Engels who broadened the method to search for historical parallels and generalizations in The Peasant War in Germany ( 1850). Marx was always more the contemporary politician, Engels more the pure intellectual and the greater historical sociologist.

The extensive correspondence preserved between Marx and Engels certainly does not show Marx dominating the relationship intellectually. Instead, it shows Engels throwing out ideas and thinking on paper, while Marx tends to be more preoccupied with reporting personal and political news, detail-


ing his adventures and escapes at the hands of hostile authorities, writing about his difficulties with publishers, and above all spelling out his financial scrapes, and appealing for funds. From the letters alone, one would probably conclude that Engels was more intellectual. This would not be strictly true. But Marx was narrowly focused as a political crusader, and his intellectual life was channeled into an almost monomanical obsession with building a system of political economy that would undergird his vision of the Communist future.

For sociology the crucial event in Marx's life was unquestionably his friendship with Engels. We see this from the kinds of writing they produced on their own as compared to what they did together. Before they met, Marx was a left-Hegelian, philosophically disposed to materialism and socialism, but lacking much of a sense of what the economic and social world is really about. After Engels converted him to an economic sociology, they wrote a series of works together. Some parts of these -- The Holy Family, The German Ideology, the Communist Manifesto -- contain a good deal of Marx's continuing polemic against the Young Hegelians and other rivals on the Left. But these are the pages that hold little interest for us today, whereas the enduring and famous contributions are the pages in which Marx and Engels together set forth their sociology in general terms. It is also in this period that Marx and Engels severally wrote out their analysis of particular revolutions, in a form ranging from analytical journalism to historical sociology. But after 1852 when Engels retired into the business grind at Manchester, Marx's sociology largely disappears, and he produces virtually nothing but technical economics and doctrinal or tactical statements for the maneuvers of Communist politics. Finally Engels returns, and in a series of books and articles from 1878 until his death in 1895 attempts to lift Marxism out of the realm of technical economics and to make it a general science of all questions -- sociological, historical, and even encompassing the world of nature.

Marx without Engels would have the materialist-leaning left wing of the Young Hegelians, taken one step further in the direction explored by Strauss, Bauer, and Feuerbach. Perhaps he would have found his own way to economics. Certainly this


became his preferred intellectual home, although he continued to rework Ricardo's economic system from the point of view not only of searching for the proletarian revolution, but also to make it consistent with Hegelian categories of contradition, alienation, and the dialectic of the individual and the universal. From the early 1850s onwards, Marx worked on a massive project in economics, of which Capital was to be merely one portion (along wiih volumes to come on Landed Property, Wage Labour, The State, International Trade, and World Market). The whole system was to be called Critique of Political Economy, the same title as Engels's brief work of 1844 that had started Marx upon this path. In his lifetime, Marx published various slices of this work, including an introductory Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy ( 1859), and volume I of Capital in 1867. Even this latter was only one third of the first sixth of the whole project, though Engels posthumously got the other two thirds of Capital through the press in 1885 and 1894. Almost 100 years later a fragmentary draft manuscript known as the Grundrisse was published, to the adulation of admirers. But even this 800-page segment was only a small part of the whole. Clearly Marx had set himself a large task, which receded steadily towards the horizon as he plunged in ever-more pedantic detail into the section before him. Engels was always pushing him to finish up and publish more quickly, but Marx lacked Engels's qualities of turning out a quick and rounded overview. If truth be told, the thousands of pages of Marxian economics, with their involutions through complex Hegelian abstractions, are a tedious maze. They would be sheer boredom to read if they were not enlivened by Marx's political crusade against capitalism and his intellectual opponents, which brings the prose to life by its invective tinged with moral outrage. It is this combination of emotion with endless intellectual abstraction that no doubt impressed Marx's contemporaries as a sign of his genius, and it continues to fascinate those who choose to fall within his orbit.

But to put the matter bluntly: Marx's own personal labyrinth is not a place that sociology should be trapped. It is Engels who breathed sociology into the vision, and it is Engels's own writings -- and those of Marx that were collaborative


with, or inspired by, joint work with Engels -- that delivers what sociology can learn from this "Marxian" view. 1

The question naturally arises: Why did Engels efface himself so deliberately before the intellectual persona of Marx? For one thing, Engels and Marx really did converge in some of their ideas, especially in the early part of their careers before Marx became all-absorbed in a Hegelianized economics. Both men were young and active revolutionaries; Engels actually led the military uprising in his own town of Barmen in Germany in 1848. After the eclipse of the revolution, it was Marx who kept up the underground political work, becoming head of the Communist International, while Engels contributed as he could by managing his factory and seeing to Marx's financial support. It was no doubt this political commitment, and Marx's much more forceful political personality, that conditioned their intellectual identities, at least in public. Moreover Marx was a difficult person to get along with. Engels was one of the few acquaintances with whom he did not break; in fact Engels was his one real friend. The terms of their friendship were simply the avoidance of any intellectual disagreement and any overt challenge by Engels to Marx's public preeminence in their collaboration. Perhaps this even appealed to Engels as a practical matter because he was, after all, outwardly a respectable business executive in Manchester society; whereas Marx put up not only with poverty, but with the dangers of the political police and endless struggles with censorship on the Continent. Engels may even have experienced an inner satisfaction on intellectual grounds. After all, it was he who had initiated the "critique of political economy" and the system of materialistic conflict sociology in the 1840s, and he must have had the satisfaction of seeing his own project worked out through all its tedious details by his friend's labor. Finally 25 years later, he was able to step back into the intellectual arena in his own right, bearing a more-or-less finished product in hand. With Marx sick and then dead, Engels was left on center stage as a popular and influential spokesperson with plenty of attention being paid to his own thoughts as he took the system on new tangents. One might say, at the price of not receiving his full credit, Engels was


able to reap a pleasant and successful intellectual career -- to a much greater degree than did Marx in his own lifetime.

If one wished to play with labels, one could say that the "Marxism" label is a myth and that for purposes of sociology Marx might better be called an "Engelsian." Marx wrote longer and more systematic works but in a narrow and somewhat monomaniacal vein; Engels was more wide ranging as well as more sociological. Engels was more willing to turn out rapid essays, trying out new ideas on paper -- hence, the superficiality of some of his thoughts, such as on the dialectics of nature, or the somewhat facile evolutionism found in treatment of the origins of the family and the state. But Engels also was flexible enough to disavow his methodological mistakes and to foreshadow the progressive development of an ever-more empirically adequate conflict sociology. Of course what Marx and Engels did was an emergent property. Marx, who certainly had a giant's intellectual force and energy, absorbed Engels's early leads, amplified them, and made them his own -- as one can see in the brilliance of the Eighteenth Brumaire. As he was left more on his own, apart from Engels's influence, the sociology faded before the monomaniac Hegelianized economist. In the final analysis, who contributed exactly what is a minor question. If I pull out themes that can be called "Engelsian", it is because intellectual works are not all of a piece and not of equal value in every part. At the risk of setting up a slightly mythical "Engels" in the place of an already heavily mythologized "Marx", let us focus on pulling out the threads of their thought that make the most enduring contribution to sociology.

Date: 2015-04-20; view: 2038

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