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Peter Binns

Marx and Engels

(June 1976)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.89, June 1976, pp.23-24.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Collected Works, Vols.3 and 4
K. Marx and F. Engels
Lawrence and Wishart, £3 each.

These volumes cover the period March 1843 to November 1845. They reveal the most astonishing advances that Marx and Engels made at this time – at first each on their own, and then, after August 1844, collectively. We can list them briefly as follows:

  1. The destruction of Hegel’s politics on the basis of Feuerbach’s materialism,
  2. The first acquaintance with the industrial proletariat – trade unions, strikes, unemployment, impoverishment,
  3. The development of a scrupulous scientific method involving detailed empirical observation,
  4. The first appreciations and criticisms of the works of the great classical economists – particularly Smith and Ricardo,
  5. The realisation that all civil society and politics is based upon specific modes of production, and finally
  6. The understanding that the industrial proletariat is the key agency for the liberation of all oppressed classes, and that the society that it must create in doing so can be none other than communism.

There has been a lot of talk recently about the differences between Marx and Engels, usually by people who want to praise Marx and condemn Engels. Yet in these volumes it is Engels and not Marx who makes the running. In all of the six main areas of advance listed above Engels is first in the field. Marx does indeed make enormous strides, but every time it is on Engels shoulders. Twenty five years later Marx considered his own writing in this period as immature and at the same time he praised Engels’ Condition of the Working Class in England because Engels ‘completely understood the nature of the capitalist mode of production’. Engels had an eye for detail, a remarkable ability to assimilate and discover facts from both bourgeois and proletarian sources, and above all the direct experience of the British industrial proletariat.

Marx on the other hand had to learn all this from scratch. He was hampered by a brilliant literary/philosophical style which was at its best when employing metaphor and allegory against philosophical opponents, but not so good when coming to terms with the untidy world of reality. The fascination of these volumes lies in the way they show how Marx gradually assimilated Engels’ more innate form of ‘marxism’. They show how in many cases historical-materialist views replaced the earlier ‘philosophical’ one, how in other cases they uneasily co-existed alongside them for a time, and how in a few cases Marx puts Engels’ insights into a more Hegelianised framework.

But the dominant impression we get of Marx is of someone who is so consciously trying to live down his Hegelian past that he ‘bends the stick’ very much the other way – endorsing Feuerbach’s undialectical materialism just because it provides a good (but temporary) stick to beat Hegel with. But it is undoubtedly true that Marx had illusions not only in Feuerbach but also in finding a philosophical base for socialism. He writes to Feuerbach in 1844:

In these writings you have provided – I don’t know whether intentionally – a philosophical basis for socialism and the Communists have immediately understood them in this way. (Vol.3, p.354)

He was looking for a form of humanism based on Feuerbach’s philosophy, and he continued to do. so even in The Holy Family (1845), where he has already seen that the class struggle of the workers is central to the fight for socialism:

There is no need for any great penetration to see ... how necessarily materialism is connected with communism and socialism. If man draws all his knowledge, sensation, etc., from the world of the senses and the experience gained in it, then what has to be done is to arrange the empirical world in such a way that man experiences and becomes accustomed to what is truly human in it and that he becomes aware of himself as a man. (Vol.4, p.130)

But if class antagonisms are irreconcilable these universal and supra-class rationalisations are quite empty, and must ultimately lead us away from the task of helping the fight of the oppressed. That is why from this point on Marx ceases to look for a philosophical base for proletarian struggle. On the contrary it is proletarian struggle itself which will and must provide the real and practical basis for the solution of the problems of ethics and philosophy. What makes The Holy Family so interesting is that it provides us with an answer which is an inconsistent mixture of both the humanist and the class-struggle answer.

The contradiction was removed with Marx’s next work, The German Ideology, in which no traces of the earlier humanism are to be found. But the fascination of these two volumes is that in The Holy Family, as well as with most of the other works here, one can actually see historical materialism being born. It is as well to remind ourselves that marxism is not the holy grail in which the Word descends from the Divine Master, but was made in specific circumstances for specific purposes. We cannot avoid the task of continually remaking it in the same manner.

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