Marx Myths and Legends. Maximilien Rubel

The Legend of Marx, or “Engels the founder”

Source: Rubel originally prepared his “Gesichtspunkte zum thema ‘Engels als Begründer’” as a paper in German for the “Internationale wissenschaftliche Engels-Konferenz” of May 1970 in Wuppertal, but first published it in French in 1972 as “La Légende de Marx ou Engels fondateur” in Études de Marxology, Série S, No. 5. Socialisme : Science et Ethique. This version is translated from the French by Rob Lucas for “Marx Myths and Legends” and is covered by the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives Licence 2.0.

Note from the author

In May 1970, upon the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Engels, the town of Wuppertal had organised an international scientific conference. This occasion brought together around 50 specialists from more than 10 European countries, as well as Israel and the United States whose task was to take stock of modern research on the thought of he who is universally taken to be, alongside his friend Karl Marx, one of the founders of “Marxism”. Invited to participate in this conference, I intended to submit as a text for the discussion a series of critical theses centred on the theme of Engels’s responsibility for the genesis of the dominant ideology of the 20th century: ‘Marxism’. It had seemed to me normal and urgent to share my critical reservations, in the context of a more ‘scientific’ than commemorative event, to an audience informed of the problems in the evolution of ideas in relation to the events and upheavals that have marked the 20th Century. I had therefore presented the organisers a document in 8 points, written in German, which I had titled “Gesichtspunkte zum thema ‘Engels als Begründer’”.

To my surprise, upon arrival in Wuppertal, I was received by the conference officials who informed me of a certain predicament: my Soviet and East German colleagues, being personally offended when reading my “Viewpoints”, were threatening to leave the conference if my contribution was not retracted from the debate! After laborious negotiation we came to an agreement on a formula which seemed likely to calm the irritation of these ‘scientific’ representatives from ‘socialist’ countries: the texts would no longer be read from the platform, but merely commented upon and discussed. It would be tempting to recount the details of the debate if the objections had merited the term ‘scientific’, and if the behaviour of certain participants hadn’t translated as a complete refusal to engage in a discussion that risked putting in question the range of ideological positions of ‘marxism-leninism’. At the same time, this obstinate if not insulting refusal, was enough to confirm to the eyes of an impartial observer the fundamental criticism that can be directed at the use of this concept of ‘Marxism’, the erroneous use of which was precisely what my “Viewpoints” denounced[1].

The epilogue to this conference was to further underline the solid grounding of a critique which, in the form of a simple semantic reflection, in fact represented a defence of Marx’s social theory in opposition to Marxist mythology. As it turned out, the organisers were not afraid of avoiding the elementary rules of editorial policy generally respected in ‘bourgeois’ democracies: the text (submitted at the request of the officials) was not included in the volume of collected contributions that were submitted prior to the conference[2]. Habent sua fata libelli...[3]

We here present a translation of the text refused by the conference at Wuppertal, with some supporting commentary.

Viewpoints on the Theme of “Engels the Founder”

“For the ultimate final triumph of the ideas set forth in the Manifesto, Marx relied solely upon the intellectual development of the working class, as it necessarily has to ensue from united action and discussion.”
-F. Engels, Preface to the 1890 German edition of the Communist Manifesto


Marxism did not enter the world as an authentic product of Karl Marx’s way of thinking, but was conceived in Friedrich Engels’ mind. Insofar as the term ‘marxism’ conceals a rational concept, it is not Marx but Engels who carries the responsibility; and if today Marx’s argument retains a priority, it is principally related to problems for which Engels did not find more than a partial solution, or with which he did not concern himself. Therefore, if these problems can be resolved at all, this can only be with the help of Marx himself. By no means does this mean that Engels must be excluded from discussion, but it is legitimate to question the extent to which he should be taken into account in any dealings with the writings of Marx which escaped his attention. In more general terms the question can be thus formulated: what are the limits of Engels’ competence in his role as uncontested executor of Marx’s intellectual legacy, to which we still appeal to elucidate the material and ethical problems of our time?


This interrogation must examine a central problem – that of the intellectual relationship between Marx and Engels, ‘founders’ of a collection of ideological and political concepts artificially grouped under the name ‘marxism’. The fact that this question must be posed itself reveals a very characteristic phenomenon of our epoch, which one might now call the ‘myth of the 20th Century’. We should recall that the ‘founders’ sometimes themselves evoked mythological interpretation to underline the peculiar character of their friendship and intellectual collaboration: Marx was not being ironic in invoking the example of antique “Dioscures” or that of Orestes and Pylade, whilst Engels mocked the rumour according to which “Ahriman-Marx” had led “Ormuzd-Engels” astray[4]. There is equally an opposite tendency, with increasingly frequent efforts to oppose Marx to Engels: the first would be the ‘true’ founder, the second reduced to the rank of mere ‘pseudo-dialectician’[5].


Any investigation into the relationship between Marx and Engels is in advance destined to fail if it does not clear away the legend of the ‘foundation’ and does not take for a methodological point of departure the aporia of the concept of Marxism. It was the merit of Karl Korsch, when twenty years ago at the threshold of a radical revision of his intellectual positions, to have attempted a critique of Marxism which amounted to a declaration of war. However, Korsch simply did not dare commit the act of sweeping away the concept of Marxism and it’s mythological residues. Instead, he tried to remove this difficulty through the usage of linguistic artifices destined to conserve and to save the “important elements of the Marxist doctrine” with a view to the “reconstruction of a revolutionary theory and practice”. In his “Ten Theses on Marxism Today” Korsch moves indiscriminately between speaking of the “teaching of Marx and of Engels”, “Marxist doctrine”, the “doctrine of Marx”, “Marxism” and so on[6]. In the fifth thesis, concerning the question of the precursors, founders and continuators of the socialist movement, Korsch goes so far as to omit the name of Engels, the alter ego of Marx! Yet he was not far from the truth when he wrote:

“Today, all attempts to re-establish the Marxist doctrine as a whole in its original function as a theory of the working classes social revolution are reactionary utopias.”

Korsch could as well, and more accurately, have spoken of “absurd mythologies” in place of “reactionary utopias”.


In view of the impossibility of rationally defining the meaning of the concept of Marxism, it seems logical to abandon the word itself, yet it is so commonly and so universally employed. This term, degraded to the point of merely being a mystificatory slogan, carried from its birth the stigma of obscurantism. Marx struggled hard to undo this when, in the last years of his life, his reputation had broken the wall of silence which surrounded his work, and he made this categorical declaration: “ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste”[7]. However revealing, the fact that Engels bequeathed this warning to posterity does not relieve him of the responsibility of having given in to the temptation of lending the stamp of his authority to this unjustifiable term. Charged with being the guardian and the perpetuator of a theory, the elaboration of which he admitted to not having contributed more than a modest part[8], and glorifying Marx’s name in an attempt to repair the damage, Engels inadvertently promoted the genesis of a superstition, the negative consequences of which he could not have known. Today, sixty years after his death, his efforts are perfectly clear. When Engels decided to appropriate the terms ‘marxist’ and ‘marxism’ from his adversaries in order to change a hostile name into a name of honour, he could hardly have expected that, through this gesture of defiance (or was it resignation?), he would become the godfather of a mythology destined to dominate the twentieth century.


The genesis of Marxist myth can be traced to the conflicts within the International. The need to hurl abuse at the opponent and their partisans made the ‘anti-authoritarians’, with Bakunin at their head, inventive enough to create such terms as ‘marxites’, ‘marxists’, and ‘marxism’. Gradually Marx’s disciples in France developed the habit of accepting these denominations which they had not created and which destined them to be distinguished from other socialist factions, so that finally these terms became political and ideological labels. From then on only the authority of Engels was necessary to sanction the usage of these terms, the ambiguity of which may not have been evident to those who used them. Engels was from the outset energetically hostile to their usage; he knew better than anyone that it risked corrupting the profound significance of a teaching that should have been considered the theoretical expression of a social movement and by no means as a doctrine invented by an individual for the benefit of an intellectual elite. His resistance did not weaken until when, in 1889, the dissent between, on one hand the ‘possibilists’, ‘blanquistes’ and ‘broussistes’, and on the other hand the ‘collectivists’ and ‘guesdistes’, threatened to cause a rupture in the movement in France, each faction having decided to organize its own international Workers’ Congress. Engels’ predicament is obvious; he attempted to avert danger of confusion and of verbal and ideological corruption by using inverted commas to speak of “Marxists” and of “Marxism”, and by speaking of “so-called Marxists”. When Paul Lafargue expressed his apprehension in seeing his group pass for a “faction” amongst others in the Workers Movement, Engels replied “we have never called you anything other than the ‘so-called Marxists’ and I cannot know what to call you otherwise. If you have another name as short, tell us and we will duly call you that with pleasure.”[9]


If Nietzsche published Ecce Homo for fear of one day being canonized by disciples for which he did not at all wish, the same precaution did not seem necessary in the case of Marx, even though he had not written and published more than a fragment of his projected oeuvre. Nevertheless, the printed and unpublished material which he had bequeathed to posterity amounted to a rigorous formal prohibition against linking his name to the cause for which he had fought, and to a teaching for which he believed himself mandated by the anonymous mass of the modern proletariat. If Engels had respected this prohibition as Marx’s executor, and had applied his veto to the abusive term, the universal scandal of ‘marxism’ would never have seen the light of day; but Engels committed the unpardonable error of supporting this abuse, and thus acquired the dubious honour of being the first ‘Marxist’. It is tempting to see it as the punishment of destiny that, believing himself heir, he was in truth the founder – albeit involuntarily – of ‘Marxism’. The “irony of history” which Engels loved to invoke had played a cruel trick on him. He thus became a prophet in spite of himself when on his 70th birthday he pronounced the regretful words: “my destiny willed that I harvest the honour and the glory sowed by a greater man than I; Karl Marx”[10]. For his 150th anniversary, we must acknowledge in Engels the contestable merit and the more dubious title of ‘founder of Marxism’.


In the history of Marxism and the cult of Marx, Engels is at the forefront. We are familiar enough with the human and quasi-religious aspect of this friendship, which does not require particular analysis. On the other hand, what necessitates a thorough examination is the effect of the friendship as much upon Marx himself as on his epigones and his distant disciples. Always ready to act as pioneer of Marx’s theories, Engels expressed many ideas which Marx could not, of course, accept without critique; the silence of Marx can be explained by his desire to scrupulously respect the solidarity which he held with his friend. We cannot confirm the extent to which he should be identified with everything that Engels had said or written, but this problem is minor, considering his acknowledged admiration for the intellectual gifts of his friend: after all, he considered himself Engels’ disciple[11]. That which Marx did not allow himself has today become a strict duty: we must break the bewitching charm of this legend, and determine the place of Engels’ oeuvre in the development of the intellectual inheritance of socialism, in relation to the destiny of the workers’ movement.


It is only if one understands that Engels had the makings of a founder that one will grasp the reasons for which he went about the duties of editor and perpetuator of the manuscripts of Marx in a manner which, today more than ever, demands some critique[12]. The writings of Marx neglected by Engels (amongst others the preparatory works for the doctoral thesis, the Kreuznach anti-Hegelian manuscript, the economico-philosophical sketches of Paris and of Brussels, the Economic Manuscripts of 1857-1858 (The Grundrisse), the numerous workbooks and the correspondence with third parties) did not only place the researcher and specialist before entirely new interpretive problems; they erected new categories and created new generations of readers who could not and would not content themselves with the stereotyped phraseology of professional Marxists. The real imperative is to understand a world and to live and act in a time when ideology, mechanization and manipulation of consciousness are allied with pure violence, to change the world into a vale of tears.


The theses sketched here above constitute the introduction to a debate whose essential theme must be the problem of Marxism as the mythology of our era. The question of the extent to which Engels can be held responsible for the genesis of this universal superstition is secondary to the extent that we can affirm, if we recognize the teaching of Marx the ‘materialist’, that ideologies- amongst which Marxism in all its variants should be placed – do not fall from the sky; they are essentially bound to the class interests which are at the same time the interests of power. It is enough to recognize in Engels the legitimate inheritor of Marx’s thought to denounce in his name and to his honour, the established ‘Marxism’ as a school of confusion and misguided ways for our age of iron.

M. Rubel, 1972.


1. For a general survey of the debates at Wuppertal, cf. Henryk Skrypczak, “International wissenschaftliche Engels-Konferenz in Wupperta” in International Wissenschaftliche Korrespondenz zur Geschichte der Deutschten Arbeitebewegung (I.W.K.), no. 10, Berlin, June 1970, p. 62 ff. A summary of my viewpoints can be found ibid. p. 81 ff.

2. Friedrich Engels 1820-1970. Referate-Diskussionen-Dokumente. Internationale wissenschaftliche Konferenz in Wuppertal vom 25-29 Mai 1970, Hannover, Verlag für Literatur und Zeitgeschehen, 1970.

My “position” is commented upon in the following terms:

“In order to fulfill the program of the final day, the council of the conference had decided to give up the discussion after the 6th session, and to begin after the 7th with the general debate. Firstly, Maximilien Rubel was supposed to have continued (?) to expound his conception. He submitted a text to the conference which was a polemical formulation against Engels, but did not then present this text before the assembly (with good reason!). These 8 theses which were, in accordance with the author’s intention, to provoke a debate on the actual significance of Marxism, may be summarised as follows: after Marx’s death, Engels made great efforts to elevate the term ‘Marxism’ formed by Marx’s adversaries, to the rank of an intelligible and definable concept. In doing this, Engels became the founder of a hybrid system of thought which was alien to the intentions of Marx himself. After the death of Engels, the ideological germs of this system were transformed into a conceptual methodology necessarily dependent upon certain class conditions.” [p. 255 ff.]

The report then mentions a polemic in opposition to mine, from a preceding session, from an East-German Marxist, about the concept of a “historic mission”, a controversy, “in which Engels did not play more than an indirect role” [ibid.]

Much could be said about the “abridged report” which summarises my theses and the “polemic” which they had provoked. I would simply affirm, however, that my text “against Engels” was simply the critique of a historically negative act by the closest and most active collaborator of Marx, and against a certain school of Marxist thought, the existence of which constitutes the negation of all that Marx and Engels themselves did for socialist thought and the workers movement. I continue to believe that my contribution responded, more than any other, to the true ‘scientific’ spirit of that conference, in the memory of he who invented the notion of ‘scientific socialism’, and who equally identified this notion with ‘critical socialism’. The conference could not offer a real homage to the man whom it intended to celebrate if it did not take as a guiding thread in its debates these words of Engels’:

“The workers movement rests on the most rigorous critique of existing society. The critique is the vital element. How could it absent itself from critique, or prohibit debate?” (Engels to Gerson Trier, 18th December, 1889).

3. [editorial note:“books have their fate”]

4. Cf. Marx to Engels, 20th January, 1864; 24th April, 1867. Engels to E. Bernstein, 23rd April, 1883. There are even instances in which the two friends are spoken of as if they acted as a single person: for example “Marx and Engels says” (see Marx to Engels August 1st, 1856.)

5. See, for example, the opposition that Iring Fetscher established between Marx’s “philosophy of the proletariat”, and that of Engels. Fetscher explores their different ways of envisaging the “negation of philosophy” and the relation of human history to nature in the conception – which was unacceptable for Marx – of an objective dialectics of nature, and of thought as a reflection of reality. See I. Fetscher, Karl Marx und der Marxismus. Von der Philosophie des Proletariats zur proletarischen Weltanschauung, Munchen, 1987, p. 182 ff. See also Donald C. Hodges, “Engels’s Contribution to Marxism”, The Socialist Register, 1965, p. 297-810, and Vladimir Hosky, “Der neue Mensch in theologischer und marxisticher Anthropologie” Marxismusstudien, VII, 1972, p. 58-86.

6. See Karl Korsch, “Dix thèses sur le marxisme aujourd’hui”, Arguments III, no. 16, 1959, p. 26 ff. The mimeograph of this text supports the date Zurich, 4th September, 1950. [editorial note – a translation of this text is available: Ten Theses on Marxism Today]

7. Engels specifies that this declaration was made by Marx with regards to the “Marxism” which was rampant between 1879-1880 “amongst certain of the French”, but the blame also applies to a group of intellectuals and students within the German party; they, together with the opposition press, exhibited a distorted and disfigured “Marxism” (see Engels’s letter to the editors of Socialdemokrat, 7th September 1890, published in the journal, 18th September 1890). This quip of Marx’s, so full of foreboding, was reported by Engels every time the occasion arose; see his letters to Bernstein, 3rd November, 1882, to Carl Schmidt, 5th August, 1890, and to Paul Lafargue, 27th August, 1890. G. A. Lopatine, the Russian revolutionary, met Engels to discuss the perspectives for Russian revolution in September 1883. He recounted some details of their talks in a letter to a member of the Norodnaiia Voliia containing the passage: “You should remember what I told you once – that Marx himself was never a Marxist. Engels reported that at the time of the struggle of Brousse, Malon, and Cie against the others, Marx said with laughter one day that ‘I can say just one thing; that I am not a Marxist!’” See the extract from Lopatine’s letter to M. N. Oshanina of 20th September, 1888, translated from Russian, in Marx-Engels-Werke 21, p. 489. However, there is no humorous tone to Marx’s letters to his friend when, on a trip to France, he communicated his impressions of the arguments of the socialists in the competing congresses of the Possibilists in Saint-Etienne, and the Guesdists in Roanne in Autumn 1882. “The Marxists and the anti-Marxists”, he wrote, “both types have done their best to ruin my trip to France” (Marx to Engels, September 30th, 1882). On his disagreement with the Russian ‘Marxists’, see Marx to Vera Zasulich, 1881, on the possibilities of the Russian peasant commune. On the relations between Marx and Engels and their Russian disciples, see Die russische Kommune. Kritik eines Mythos, Herausgegeben von M. Rubel, Carl Hanser Verlag, Munich, 1972.

8. The formal declarations of Engels in this respect are too numerous to be recounted here. Let us say simply that there is not the slightest doubt regarding the paternity of the great scientific discoveries, which are all, without exception, attributable only to Marx. Of all his declarations, the most significant is perhaps the note inserted by Engels in a writing which was to demonstrate the continuity of German philosophy in elevating its most dignified inheritor, Karl Marx, to the rank of founder of a system. See Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1888. It is in this work that Engels made the official gesture of baptising the theory with Marx’s name: “Out of the dissolution of the Hegelian school, however, there developed still another tendency, the only one which has borne real fruit. And this tendency is essentially connected with the name of Marx.” Engels repeated this act in the note where he remarks that “What Marx accomplished I would not have achieved. [...] Marx was a genius; we others were at best talented. Without him the theory would not be by far what it is today. It therefore rightly bears his name.” We should not then be surprised at the conclusion to this critique, which consecrates Marx as both inheritor and founder of a philosophical school: “The German working-class movement is the inheritor of German classical philosophy.” Engels had thus cast the die.

9. Engels to Lafargue, 11th May, 1889. Once engaged in this verbal concession, Engels could no longer back out, and he had to go all the way. His mind was made up the moment he felt assured of the triumph of the collectivists led by Guesde and Lafargue: “But the advantage gained over the anarchists after 1873 was put into question by their successors, and I did not therefore have a choice. Now that we are victorious, we have proved to the world that almost all of the socialists in Europe are ‘Marxists’. It will drive them crazy that they gave us that name and they will be left with Hyndman to console them” (Engels to Laura Lafargue, 11 June, 1889). Ironically it is precisely the same Hyndman whom Marx had advised against referring to his name in the program of the new English party. “In the party programs we should avoid everything which leads to the appearance of a direct dependence on a particular author or a particular book” (Marx to Henry Mayers Hyndman, 2 July, 1881).

10. Letter to the editors of the Berliner Volksblatt, 5th December, 1890.

11. “You know, primo, that I am always slower in getting onto things and, secundo, that I follow in your footsteps.” (Marx to Engels, 4th July, 1864).

12. See M. Rubel, Introduction to Karl Marx, Oeuvres: Economie II, Gallimard, Paris, 1968. See ibid. p. CXXVII ff., for the list of the discoveries which Marx regarded as being his own. Marx attributed to himself neither the founding of historical materialism, nor the discovery of surplus value. However, this attribution – an act of Engels’s – was tacitly approved by Marx. See, for example, the account given by Engels in Das Volk, 1859, and the biographical article on Marx in Volkskalendar 1877.