Engels on Dialectic in Economic Determinism

The theory of dialectical materialism was completed by Marx about 1850. From that time forward it was presumed in all that he wrote but even in Capital it was nowhere stated; the treatment of socialism in that work turned discussion toward intrinsically less important economic theories such as surplus value.

It was not until later in the nineteenth century that the economic explanation of history began to assume the importance it deserved and to extend its influence beyond the circle of professed Marxists. In the meantime the public had been prepared to take an interest in it by the spread of biological evolution, though inherently there was little if any logical relation between the two. Anthropologists like Lewis Morgan, apparently without depending upon Marx, had stressed the importance of technology in primitive cultures.

The development of historical scholarship among socialists, especially in Germany, caused the economic interpretation of history to be applied and re-examined. By this time Marx was already in failing health (he died in 1883) and the further exposition of his theory fell to his friend, Friedrich Engels?

Unfortunately, Engels, though he was a man of strong common sense and transparent candor, was philosophically not very acute and in no sense original. He elaborated Marx’s fragmentary texts but he left the underlying obscurities almost exactly where they were.

In their understanding of the general nature of dialectic and the kind of necessity which it discloses in history, it is clear that both Marx and Engels relied on Hegel. They objected to particular uses of it by Hegel, which Engels said were nearly always arbitrary, and they rejected of course the idealist interpretation of it as a self-development of thought. It is, on the contrary, a self-development of nature itself reflected in thought. But this implied no very serious change of Hegel, since he also believed that the dialectic revealed a development implicit in reality.

Hegel’s metaphysical logic, therefore, was an assumed major premise in the whole Marxian argument, with this difference only, that Marx and Engels substituted a materialist for an idealist metaphysics. For Engels as for Hegel the value of dialectic lay in the fact that it permitted the discovery of a necessary evolution in history.

From this standpoint of Hegel’s philosophy the history of mankind no longer appeared as a confused whirl of senseless deeds of violence, all equally condemnable before the judgment seat of the now matured philosophical reason but as the process of development of humanity itself.

In his Feuerbach Engels attributed rationality to nature in exactly the Hegelian sense. The real or rational cannot be equated with existence because much of what exists is irrational and therefore unreal; for example, in 1789 the French monarchy existed but was not real. In other words, for Engels as for Hegel real means not existent but significant or valuable.

The process of history is inherently selective and self-realizing rather than causal, and in effect the important is regarded as bringing itself into existence simply because it is important, after the manner of an Aristotelian entelechy. The whole conception was fundamentally vitalistic or teleological, just as it was in Hegel.

Despite the so-called materialism, the necessity of history for Marx and Engels as for Hegel was really a moral necessity, the progressive development, as Engels calls it, of civilization by the expansion of its inner forces. The supposed necessity reflected their faith in the inevitable success of the proletarian revolution, as for Hegel it reflected his faith in the mission of Germany.

According to Engels’s account of the dialectic in his Feuerbach the important difference between Marx and Hegel lay in the fact that Mary adopted a materialist version of dialectic; ideas are not forces, as Hegel supposed, but pictures of real things,the conscious reflex of the dialectic evolution of the real world. Engels’s account of ideas as pictures got a posthumous importance when it was reproduced by Lenin in his Materialism and Empiric-Criticism.

Quite obviously the picture,used as a collective term for every kind of idea from a scientific theory to an hallucination, was nothing but a meaningless figure of speech. Apparently it was intended to have two connotations, It suggested, first, that ideology is relatively insubstantial as compared with economic forces and that any form of philosophical idealism is a mystification whose real purpose is to support reaction.

It suggested, second, that ideas do have real counterparts in the world; in this sense it was a figurative way of denying subjectivism. And while subjectivism has never been a serious philosophical position, it was convenient for Engels to regard Kant and Hume in that light.

His treatment of modern philosophy was therefore summary in the extreme. He merely assumed that every philosophy must be either idealist or materialist, and thus with hardly more than a sentence he dismissed the whole anti-metaphysical tradition from Hume to Kant.

Apparently Engels really believed that their argument could be refuted merely by pointing out that there is such an operation as empirical confirmation. The truth is, of course, that the critical question about dialectic was not metaphysical at all. The question was whether Hume and Kant were right in making the methodological distinctions they did between casual statements and valuations.

Engels made it clear in the Feuerbach that what chiefly commended the dialectic to him and to Marx was its power as a solvent of dogmatism. It was this, he said, which made Hegelianism a revolutionary philosophy.

Truth, the cognition of which is the business of philosophy, became in the hands of Hegel no longer an aggregate of finished dogmatic statements, which once discovered had merely to be learned by heart. Truth lay now in the process of cognition itself, in the long historical development of science, which mounts from lower to ever higher levels of knowledge without ever reaching, by discovering so-called absolute truth, a point at which it can proceed no further and where it would have nothing more to do than to fold its hands and admire the absolute truth to which it had attained.

There are neither self-evident truths in science nor natural an-i inalienable rights in society; nothing is absolute, final, or sacred. The most that can be said is that a scientific theory or a social practice is suitable to its time and conditions, and all theories and practices that prevail are suitable, as is shown simply by the fact that they Co prevail. But it is certain that with the passage of time and change of conditions they will pass away and be supplanted by something higher. He merely assumed, quite uncritically, that civilization as a whole always will progress, or more specifically, that socialism will be an improvement over capitalism.

Both Marx and Engels occasionally played with the idea that dialectic is merely a working hypothesis which implies no substantive conclusion whatever. This was perhaps a mark of deference to Kant that was hard to avoid in Germany in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. It was also a deviation that revisionist Marxists were prone to and that Lenin felt it necessary to refute in 1909 when it occurred among Russian Marxists, for if the dialectic were only a working hypothesis, its moral appeal would largely evaporate.

Thus Engels in Anti-During said that the dialectic proves nothing but is merely a way of advancing to new spheres of research, and that it does away with the need for a metaphysics or a philosophy of history. Marx was even more explicit. In a letter which he wrote in 1877 to a Russian correspondent he said that the account of primitive accumulation in Capital did: not pretend to do more than trace the path by which capitalism emerged from a feudal economy in Western Europe, and he retested against a critic who, in applying his account to Russia, had metamorphosed an historical sketch into an historic-philosophic theory of the march general imposed by fate upon every people,

By studying each of these forms of evolution separately and then comparing them one can easily find the clue to this phenomenon different. historical results from apparently similar conditions, but one will never arrive there by the universal passport of a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical.

If this statement were taken literally, the dialectic would mean about the same as the comparative method so popular in anthropology during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. In the same strain Engels in his letters criticized the younger German socialists who, he said, used historical materialism as an excuse for not studying history. Yet it is certain that Marx did not regard the history of capitalism merely as empirical history.

Had he done so he would hardly have spoken in the Preface to Capital of tendencies which work out with an iron necessity toward an inevitable goal, or of the natural phases of evolution, or said that a country more highly industrialized than Others, simply presents those others with a picture of their own future.Either the dialectic is a method that makes historical prediction possible or else the Marxian historian has at his command only the same methods that other historians use. Certainly if the dialectic is only a working hypothesis, it does not warrant the assertion that the proletarian revolution is inevitable.

Engels on Economic Determinism:-

Apart from the philosophical principles entering into the dialectic, Engels elaboration of dialectical materialism dealt mainly with the use of economic interpretation in history. In the letters already referred to, written between 1890 and 1894, he discussed the extent to which such interpretation is possible or useful, his main purpose being to correct what he thought to be the exaggerated claims made for it by younger members of the party.

He acknowledged that he and Marx, in putting forward a new idea, had overstated the extent to which economic causes could be found for political and legal institutions, He asserted that it would be pedantic to seek economic causes for all history, instancing the High German consonant shift as one for which no economic origin could probably be given. The example was a little strange and one wonders whether he realized that he was taking the history of language, with all its implications for differences of national culture, quite out of the region of economic explanation.

He suggested that in the case of religion and mythology economic forces may act negatively rather than positively. He admitted that, within a general framework of economic forces, political or even dynastic relationships may exert a large historical influence, as in the rise of Prussia from Brandenburg rather than from some other small German state. And he acknowledged that legislation can close some paths of economic development and open others, though it cannot alter its main course.

It had never been Marx’s belief, he said, that economic forces are the sole causes of historical change, but only that they are ultimate or fundamental. The economic factor is the strongest, most elemental, and most decisive. Finally, Engels now argued that it was the special merit of dialectic to take into account the interaction of all the different factors that are present together in a historical situation.

According to the materialistic conception of history the factor which is in last instance decisive is the production and reproduction of actual life. More than this neither Marx nor have ever asserted. But when anyone distorts this so as to read that the economic factor is the sole element, he converts the statement into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase.

The economic condition is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure the political forms of the class contests, and their results, the constitutions-the legal forms, and also all the reflexes of these actual contests in the brains of the participants, the political, legal, philosophical, the religious views all these exert an influence on the development of the historical struggles, and in many instances determine their form.

With all these concessions it is hard to see what there is about the economic explanation of history that the most bourgeois historian would have any concern to deny or that calls for dialectic to explain it. What Engels says amounts in substance to little more than that Marx emphasized a factor in social studies that had been overlooked or undervalued-namely, that in any society prevalent ways of producing or exchanging goods are intricately related to economic, political, and moral institutions and practices. Few if any historians would now. question this or deny its importance or refuse to acknowledge Marx’s originality. He has been called, perhaps with some exaggeration but certainly with some justification, the true father of economic history.

At the same time it is obvious that Engels meant to claim a good deal more than this for Marx and for the theory of economic determinism. He insists that the economic factor is the most elemental, even while he admits that legislation can sometimes control It, and he  retains the distinction between foundation and superstructure even while he argues that the superstructure causally influences the foundation. But Marx’s philosophy depended on the presumption that the two can always be clearly discriminated, and also that there is a clear sense in which the foundation causes the superstructure but not vice versa.

Without these presumptions there is no sense in calling Marx’s philosophy materialism, or in assuming that only a revolution will modify capitalism. On Engels showing there is no reason why a moral idea-a conscientious revulsion against a fifteen-hour work day for women and children, for example-should not lead to a legal restriction on hours of labor or why the law should not be effective. In effect Engels has undermined any meaning that Marx attached to historical inevitability.

Engels letters also expanded somewhat the brief account that Marx had given of ideology and its dependence on the economic system. Even more explicitly than Marx he treated science in a wholly different way from law, morals, philosophy, religion, and art, though all ought logically to count as part of the superstructure. In substance both men treat science simply as true, and because it is true it provides a firm basis for technology.

The only senses in which Engels regard: science as affected by the economy are, first, that problems invest gated by scientists may have been set by industry, and second, that scientific discoveries may be socially important because they react on technology.

Apparently it never occurred to either Marx or Engels that anyone would try to find an economic derivation for the concept of scientific truth itself, as should be done by a consistent Marxian relativism that treated science in the same way as morals, art, and religion. If this were done the standard of truth accepted in a society ought to depend on its class structure, and proletarian science ought to differ from bourgeois science.

Some Marxists, for controversial purposes, have indeed occasionally approached some such conclusion, but this hardly ranks as more than a desperate effort to follow the unworkable distinction between foundation and superstructure. The notion that ideology may in some cases affect what figures in a society as a standard of truth has, however, produced the rather large body of theory now known as sociology of knowledge.

The other parts of the ideological superstructure Engels treated very differently. The validity which men claim for law, morals, politics, art, religion, and philosophy is a false consciousness or a deceptive reflection of the interests which the system of production assigns to the various classes engaged in it. Here the thinker is not clearly aware of the motives that actuate him but imagines that his ideas are true merely in and for themselves.

To this category Engels attributed especially abstractions like justice, liberty, and supposed esthetic, moral, and religious verities when these are not recognized as belonging in some specific social context. These are what have more recently been named rationalizations specious defenses of wishful thinking or the covert idealization of class interests.

At the same time Engels certainly did not regard all ideologies as equally false. The ideology of the proletariat is superior to that of the bourgeoisie presumably for two reasons. In the first place, the philosophy of Marx makes it clear to the proletarian that his ideas of morality, art, and philosophy do depend upon his class and ts position in the class struggle.

Hence he can adjust his morals to the cause of the revolution. In the second place the proletariat is a rising class which present history is bringing to a position of dominance; its ideology is therefore the wave of the future. In both cases the force pf Engels arguments depended on his faith in progress and in the accuracy of the prediction that the direction of progress is now toward a proletarian revolution and a new proletarian society.


SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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