Chris Harman


Hidden treasure

(January 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.149, January 1992, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Collected Works, vols.26 and 27
Karl Marx and Frederick Engels
Lawrence and Wishart £15 each

Historians of Marxism have often been very hard on Fred Engels, treating him as a second-rater who vulgarised Marxism in the dozen years after Marx’s death in 1883.

These two volumes set the record straight. They pull together everything he wrote in these years, and show that he was as capable of making as powerful a contribution then as he had been forty years earlier when he helped lay the foundations for Marxism by writing the Condition of the Working Class in England, co-authoring with Marx the German Ideology and the Holy Family, and producing the first draft of the Communist Manifesto.

The writings include two of his major works – the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, and Ludwig Feurbach and the end of classical German philosophy – that have long been available in English translation. But alongside them are hundreds of pages of other material – newspaper articles in a dozen languages, book reviews, notes and jottings – most of which has been virtually unknown until now. Most of the material is of four main types. First, there are his explorations of the history of society, like his manuscript on early German history, his outline of the development from feudalism to capitalism in his 1892 introduction to Socialism Utopian and Scientific, and his account of the rise of Bismarck in The Role of Force in History.

These are impressive because of the sheer mass of knowledge at his disposal and his ability to integrate the different aspects of social development into a total, historical materialist framework. They provide a sharp rejoinder to anyone who imagines that either Engels or Marx was a crude, economic reductionist, unable to take account of the growth of the nation and nationalism or of the role of politics.

Their only fault is a slight tendency to extrapolate from what is known abut the past to make guesses about what might have happened.and then later to treat these guesses as certainties – a fault which provides ammunition for those who want to attack his great insights in the Origin of the Family.

The second set of materials are to do with the history of the socialist movement in Germany and Britain – the rise of Chartism, the struggles of 1848 and the defeats which followed. Looking back, with hindsight, on the events of 40 or so years before, Engels brings out the significance of what happened and explains the political positions he and Marx adopted in ways which are still of enormous interest today.

Thirdly, there are his contemporaneous accounts of the revival of the workers’ movement in the latter part of the 1880s – of the Knights of Labour and the Haymarket martyrs in the US, of the rise of the new unions and the new socialist groups in Britain, and of the rapid growth of the Social Democratic Party in Germany.

Finally, there are his own comments on the principles, strategy and tactics of the German party.

In some ways these are the most fascinating writings of the lot. Engels saw the growth of the party as a vindication of the arguments he and Marx had put forward in the long years of defeat after 1849, when the socialist movement was isolated and divided into petty, competing sects.

The revival of the movement with the foundation of the First International in 1860 provided Marx and Engels with a platform for their ideas. But only a small minority of working class activists actually agreed with them before the formation of stable, mass socialist parties in the 1880s.

Engels was concerned that there should be no slipping back into old habits of socialists operating as small sects outside the mass movement. So he praised the mass agitation and propaganda that the SPD carried out, arguing that the party was turning the bourgeoisie’s own electoral system against it. This led him to bitter attacks on anarchists. And he sided with the German party leaders when a small group of young journalists split away from the party to form a short lived left splinter group in the early 1890s.

But he had his own suspicions about the leadership’s tendency to dilute their politics on the pretext of not giving the German state an excuse for repression. His critique of the party’s draft programme of 1891 complains that

‘opportunism is gaining ground in a large section of the social democratic press ...

‘These are attempts to convince oneself that “present day society is developing towards socialism” without asking whether it does not thereby just as necessarily outgrow the old social order ... and will not have to burst this shell by force ...’

Engels himself was a victim of this tendency four years later. The party leadership censored his new introduction to Marx’s pamphlet on 1848, The Class Struggles in France, to remove all reference to the need for violence in carrying through revolutionary change while leaving in passages which argued that tactics of barricade fighting were out of date.

Engels had actually written that, ‘in future, street fighting ... will occur more seldom at the beginning of a great revolution than at its later stage, and will have to be undertaken with greater forces’. But for a whole generation, socialists were led to believe that he had said that force was unnecessary!

This does not mean that Engels himself was never at fault. He attempted to hammer home the point that the German imperial state was unreformable by pointing out how much more rigidly controlled it was than the British, French and US states – giving the impression that these could be reformed. And in his writings on military questions, his belief that Russia was still the centre of reactionary intrigue in Europe, as it had been in 1848, led him to imply that German socialists should take up arms against it if war broke out – an argument that was to be parroted with disastrous effect in 1914 by the same party leaders who censored Engels’ other writings.

But have a look at the writings yourself. Their fragmentary nature means the Collected Works are not for newcomers to Marxism – for that these are two volumes of selected works and the well known pamphlets. But they are a wonder for anyone who wants to see how wide ranging were Marx and Engels ideas, and how they could give theoretical shape to a growing socialist movement.

Last updated on 5 July 2010