Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 4


Frederick Engels

Lindsey German, John Rees, Chris Harman and Paul McGarr
Frederick Engels
International Socialism Special Issue (no. 65), December 1994, pp. 216, £4.50

RELUCTANT AS we are to review journals here, for if we were to set about it seriously they would have to include on a regular basis the Journal of Trotsky Studies, the Cahiers Léon Trotsky, the bulletins of CERMTRI, and the publications of the Centro Pietro Tresso, an exception must surely be made in this case, for this magazine contains far more substantial fare than many full-length books.

Lindsay German undertakes the task of providing an outline of Engels’ life as an introduction to the other essays (pp3-46), and on the whole does it well. From a Trotskyist point of view it is perhaps disappointing that she provides a summary of Engels’ Principles of Communism without pointing out that its main importance for us is that it rules out ‘Socialism in One Country’ as an impossibility from the start (pp. 13–4). She also continues the SWP’s unfortunate animus against the Independent Labour Party by coyly suggesting that ‘Engels initially welcomed’ it (p. 43), whereas the facts of the matter are that he welcomed it most enthusiastically, became a card carrying member, and encouraged Aveling to sit on its administrative council. Her manuscript could also have been improved by more careful proofreading, stating as it does that Marx and Engels saw the Paris Commune as ‘a model for a workers’ state’ (p. 30). In fact, they did not use that term for it (and indeed, to my knowledge rarely ever used it, if at all), and in any case regarded the Commune as far from a model, but a premature venture which they felt they had to support out of solidarity. The discussion of Engels’ sex life (pp. 24–5) is also carefully phrased in the language of the politically correct, whereas we know from his correspondence with Marx that they had far more robust views on this question than many of their self-styled followers today. But given the range that the writer has to cover, her account is very creditable.

John Rees’ discussion of Engels’ Marxism (pp. 47–82) is very well balanced, though in arguing against the fashionable attempt to drive a wedge between the thought of Engels and that of Marx he is perhaps led to deepen the gulf between Engels and Kautsky far more than is merited by the evidence. No allowance is made for the development of Kautsky’s thought, and we should never forget that the Kautsky of 1890 was not the same as the Kautsky of 1914. In 1905, for example, he was still to the left of Lenin, as Radek’s essay in In Defence of the Russian Revolution clearly shows (pp. 37–9).

Paul McGarr supplies a brave defence of the much-maligned concept of the Dialectics of Nature (pp. 143–76), and his remark that ‘dialectics is rather a critique of the limits of formal logic’ (n53, p. 196) is a welcome one. Although I found this section to be by far the most difficult, I was disappointed not to read more, particularly about the effect of the human agency upon phenomena under observation.

Excellent as these contributions are, the same cannot be said for all of Chris Harman’s piece, which is by far the longest (pp. 83–142). His remarks about anthropology make excellent reading, and we will all enjoy his spirited demolition of Chris Knight’s absurd views, but he should be discouraged from expressing himself on ancient history, where he is on less firm ground. For example, he describes ancient Egypt and the Maya as ‘societies in which cities do not play the major part’ (p. 189, n92), which is certainly not true of the Maya, for if ever there was an urban society it was Maya civilisation during its classical period. The population of Tikal in the seventh century AD is estimated at 39,000, and this was only one of dozens of cities. It is even overstated as regards Egypt, for the work done by Barry Kemp has shown that Egypt did not lack substantial urban concentrations. Harman also appears to believe that the first writing developed for keeping accounts was alphabetic (p. 123), and that he can safely generalise about Egypt from Ptolemaic times (p. 126), when it was ruled by the successors of Alexander the Great as the last of a series of foreign conquerors going back 700 years. But his grasp of Egyptian affairs is lamentably weak in any case, such as when he dates the end of the Old Kingdom to ‘about 2000 BC’ (p. 126) or ‘around 1800 BC’ (p. 128), one estimate being out by about two centuries and the other by four.

But the main problem with his whole analysis is rather more serious than these mistakes, which after all do not affect the broad lines of the argument. Engels’ real reason for believing in ‘the power of the gens or clan among all existing “primitive societies”’ was not merely ‘a result of the anthropological knowledge of his time’ (p. 111), but because this ‘knowledge’ — Morgan’s theories — appeared to match what was then known about the early days of classical civilisation, the emergence of Greek society from ‘the Dark Ages’ and the early days of Rome. Obviously, Engels had not the time to follow the progress of the decipherment of Egyptian, Sumerian and Akkadian to learn that these institutions played little part in the earliest civilisations. He was not to know what we have since learned about Mycenaean and Minoan society and from the more recent decipherment of Linear B that the Greek ‘Dark Ages’ were a regression from a more advanced civilisation. Similarly, Ancient Rome was long under the rule of the Etruscans, who appear to have had a two-class system, and the apparently rustic and primitive traits of earliest Rome developed amid the weakening and decay of a far more advanced society.

Obviously these deficiencies do not affect the rest of Harman’s argument, and are certainly not a reason for disregarding this excellent publication. It makes a splendid beginning for the Engels centenary year.

Al Richardson

Updated by ETOL: 25.9.2011