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A statue of Engels in Manchester, salvaged by artist Phil Collins depicted on a tea towel

Engels in the crosshairs

Originally published: Real Democracy Movement by Corinna Lotz (February 9, 2021)  
A statue of Engels in Manchester, salvaged by artist Phil Collins depicted on a tea towel

A statue of Engels in Manchester, salvaged by artist Phil Collins depicted on a tea towel

Frederick Engels was Karl Marx’s closest friend and collaborator. In the light of the ongoing ecological crisis and COVID-19 pandemic, Engels’ Dialectics of Nature takes on a new significance.

So it is good that Kaan Kangal, currently a philosophy scholar at Nanjing University in China, has made a new study of Engels’ work.

As Kangal explains, the manuscripts that make up Dialectics of Nature remained unpublished for some 30 years after Engel’s death in 1895. They laid buried and forgotten in the archives of Engels’ executor, Edouard Bernstein, a leader of the German Social Democratic Party.

It was only in the early 1920s that David Riazanov, appointed by Lenin as director of the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow, rescued the manuscripts from obscurity[i]. He ensured their publication in a Russian-German bi-lingual edition in 1925. As the British scientist J B S Haldane noted in his preface to the 1939 English language edition, Dialectics of Naturedocuments Engels’ research into dialectical philosophy and the science of his day between 1872 and 1882.

Engels’ defined dialectics as “the science of universal interconnection”. His basic thought was that ”the world is to be comprehended not as a complex of ready-made things but as a complex of processes, in which apparently stable things no less than the concepts, their mental reflections in our heads, go through an uninterrupted change of coming into being and passing away…”

In the Dialectics of Nature, Engels researched how contemporary scientific developments could help grasp the nature of movement and how changes take place. Engels’ essay, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, in which he explained how the development of the human hand–as both the organ of labour and the product of labour–was decisive in the evolution of ape-like creatures to the first humans is still viewed as a seminal contribution.

Engels has not suffered from a lack of detractors to this day, with several attempting to separate his outlook from that of Marx. The underlying philosophical issue is the very notion that there could even be such a thing as a “dialectics of nature”. Accusations, Kangal points out, include the outrageous assertion that “there is a direct connection between Engels’ philosophy and Stalin’s politics”.

Dialectics of NatureA leading proponent of the anti-Engels mythology is political theorist Terrell Carver, co-editor of the Marx, Engels and Marxisms series of which Kangal’s book forms a part. Carver occupies many distinguished posts, including co-editorship of the Marx Engels Collected Works (MEGA) and Engels: A Very Short Introduction. Historically the long list of opponents includes theorists such as Alfred Schmidt and Leszek Kolakowski, Herbert Marcuse, Thomas Rockmore and Norman Levine, all deeply hostile to Engels’ fundamental propositions.

Kangal does a good job exposing the flaws in the attempts to split Engels away from Marx. He writes: “The Marx-Engels relationship amounts to a jointly formed, shared, defended and propagated world view and political perspective, and a four-decade-long mutual support, correspondence and corroboration.” There are more than 100 corroborated joint works which include some of their most famous texts such as The Manifesto of the Communist Party.

On the other side of the debate, defenders have included political leaders Riazanov, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky and Antonio Gramsci. In the 1930s ‘Red Scientists’ in Britain sought to develop Engels’ ideas.

Shoichi SakataMany years later, another distinguished scientist, particle physicist Shoichi Sakata gave a speech on Japan’s public broadcaster NHK in 1969, in tribute to Dialectics of Nature. He had discovered Engels’ book in 1929 thanks to an early Japanese translation. It was inspirational in his understanding of “modern atomism” throughout his career.

In the 1970s the British Marxist John Hoffman stood up for Engels’ Dialectics of Nature in Marxism and the Theory of Praxis. In 1985, support came from an unexpected quarter: Harvard University published The Dialectical Biologist by two distinguished evolutionary scientists, Richard Levins and Richard Lewontin. It was dedicated to Engels. In it they wrote:

For us, contradiction is not only epistemic and political but ontological in the broadest sense. Contradictions between forces are everywhere in nature, not only in human social institutions. This tradition of dialectics goes back to Engels (1880) who wrote…  ‘to me there could be no question of building the laws of dialectics of nature, but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it’.

In 1995 Engels’ views were reassessed in the light of contemporary science as a session at the American Philosophical Association’s annual conference celebrated Engels centenary.

In the new millennium U.S. Marxists Kevin Anderson and John Bellamy Foster have argued the case in favour of Engels. In 2020, the year of Engels’ bicentenary, Stavros Mavroudeas and Rogney Piedra Arencibia demonstrated the ludicrous nature of attempts to split Marx from Engels and the validity of Engels views.

Kangal rightly challenges the “mythical” division into “Western” and “Soviet” Marxism which originated with György Lukacs in a footnote to his famous History and Class Consciousness, which he later came to regret. There never was such a division. Concepts integral to dialectics, in particular the nature and reality of ‘contradiction’ came under fire from German, Austrian and Russian socialists alike, long before Lukacs’ notorious footnote became a cause célèbre.

The reality is that Engels became a scapegoat, not only for Marx but for the dogmatisation of philosophy itself in the Stalin era. Kangal documents the story of the ‘Engels debate’ within the Soviet philosophy of the 1920s and early 1930s–which took the form of conflicts between the Mechanists and the Deborinites. In a serious omission, however, Kangal sidesteps the ghastly realities under which the vulgarisation of Marxist ideas took place in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule.  Under the rubric of ‘Diamat’ and ‘Histomat’ the Stalinist bureaucracy persecuted independent thought of any kind. The best minds in Soviet philosophy and science were silenced and often exterminated.

Kangal’s account would have benefitted by referencing Yehoshua Yakhot’s research into the 1920s-1930s debates brought together in his book The Suppression of Philosophy in the USSR, which after glasnostwas serialised by the Russian journal Voprosy Filosofi in 1991, much to its author’s surprise.

In the immediate post-war period, existentialist philosophers Jean Paul Sartre and Merleau Ponty rejected the notion of a dialectics of nature. Kangal excavates the opposite standpoint of the French physicist and resistance fighter and fellow communist, Jean-Pierre Vigier. Referring to the ancient Eleatic philosopher Heraclitus, Vigier suggested the following solution:

If everything is in motion and motion is dialectical, then dialectics applies to nature.

Engels and Marx were fully aware of the “theory-intrinsic demand for a rigorous explication and self-critical examination of their theoretical instrument in use”, Kangal notes. Marx supported Engels’ aim of “opening a new philosophical-theoretical front and expanding the influence of Marxism in the realm of ideas”.

Tracing Engels’ original intentions, Kangal examines the ordering of 197 manuscripts produced between 1873 and 1886 which were eventually assembled in Dialectics of Kangal assembles a vast number of remarks and notes from Marx and Engels, demonstrating the central role that dialectics played in their entire thought and that the German idealist philosopher Georg Hegel always remained their point of departure. Hegel’s was “the foundational form of all dialectics, but only after stripping its mystical form”, as Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelman.

Tracing Engels’ original intentions, Kangal examines the ordering of 197 manuscripts produced between 1873 and 1886 which were eventually assembled in Dialectics of Nature. Engels’ asserted, Kangal notes, that “a philosophy is not done away with by merely asserting it be false” (Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy). It has to be aufgehoben, he wrote. That is the German word translated variously as ‘sublated’ or ‘negated’, which has the contradictory meanings ‘lifted up’, ‘cancelled’ as well as ‘preserved’ or ‘kept’. Creating a counter-hegemony to the ideologies of the capitalist system was vital to Marx-Engels political project.

In conclusion, Kangal sees Dialectics of Nature as an incomplete project, a ‘torso’. And it is true that the notes on ‘Naturdialektik’ are not a worked out treatise or critique of Hegelian dialectics. Engels’ life was interrupted by other exigencies, not least losing his life-long friend and collaborator in 1883. Alongside Marx’s daughter Eleanor, he devoted himself to editing and publishing the second and third volumes of Das Kapital plus working on Marx’s Theories of Surplus-Value.

In his central chapter Dialectics in Dialectics of Nature Kangal’s fundamental disagreement with Engels emerges. In the view of philosophy as a “binary of metaphysics vs dialectics”, Engels “downplays the merits of Kant’s dialectics” and failed to establish “an ontology of nature”. Kangal accuses Engels of failing to defend dialectics “against metaphysics and idealism” and, additionally,

does not show us where exactly Hegel got things wrong and what he himself proposes.

In pursuit of these alleged defects, Kangal makes the rather outlandish claim that “the category of contradiction does not play a significant role [for Engels] whereas opposition does”.  But Engels made it clear that for him the concept of contradiction was at the very heart of the movement of things:

Motion itself is a contradiction: even simple mechanical change of position can only come about through a body being at one and the same moment of time both in one place and in another place, being in one and the same place and also not in it. And the continuous origination and simultaneous solution of this contradiction is precisely what motion is.

Engels sought to show, with illustrations from the science of his day, that everything in nature is in motion and a process of change, rather than turning dialectics into a formulaic application of categories. Engels took issue with philosophers like Dühring because they had an impact on the outlook and practice of the socialist movement of his day, just as Lenin did within the Bolshevik party in the controversy with the ‘empirio-criticists’.

Kangal pulls up Engels for the lack of a detailed critique of Hegel. But there was a limit to what Engels, as a full-time political activist within the international communist and socialist movement could actually do.

In many respects this challenge was undertaken by Lenin, chiefly in his 1914 study of Hegel’s Logic, brought together in the Philosophical Notebooks, Volume 38 of Lenin’s Collected Works. These include notes on Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Kant, a topic that Kangal sees as another one of Engels’ “inadequacies”.

Kangal’s major criticism is that Engels’ ‘binary’ view of metaphysics/idealism versus materialism/dialectics is fundamentally flawed. Instead, Kangal proposes that materialism and dialectics are in full conformity with Hegel’s ‘idealism’ and ‘metaphysics’. Claiming that Engels ignored Hegel’s Phenomenology, Kangal believes that the “abstract categories of Logic” should be “abstracted from the cognitive contents of phenomenological inquiry”. Thus, the Engelsian and Marxian approach–that Hegel’s idealism needed to be turned upside down–is, for Kangal, the wrong starting point.

The truth is that this denies that dialectics is inherent in our being as part of nature. Rather it becomes an external set of rules that we “apply” to things and phenomena. Early on Kangal speaks of “applying dialectics” and later on talks of “the application of dialectics to nature”. This is quite the opposite of the way Engels saw it. In his 1878 preface to Anti-Dühring Engels wrote:

To me there could be no question of building up the laws of dialectics into nature but of discovering them in it and evolving them from it.

This philosophical challenge offers a chance to go deeper into why and how the notion that dialectical movement through contradiction remains such a controversial issue. The ‘accepted’ notion that ‘dialectics’ and ‘contradiction’ are purely mental concepts, is related to the common sceptical or agnostic view that we can never truly understand or indeed change the world. When things are difficult to grasp, there must be something wrong with us or our understanding or the words we use.

Problems are turned into purely mental issues and individual shortcomings rather than grasped as reflections of material and social contradictions. We’re made to think that there must always a barrier or a veil between us and the world around us; we can only know our thoughts. Indeed, the world itself consists only of our thoughts. Or what we believe to be reality is only a simulacrum. In this sense, the strictly empirical view that knowledge is limited to our perception can merge with the metaphysical one.

This outlook, which reinforces the view that fundamentally the world is incomprehensible and unknowable, actually leaves a mental door open for a wealth of problems. The ubiquity of conspiracy theories such as QAnon is evidence.

The challenge today remains to develop a theory of knowledge that makes it possible to understand and through practice, change the world in ways that take humanity forward beyond capitalism and the political system that sustains it. Despite its limitations, Kangal’s contribution is welcome as a challenge to develop the content and value of Engels’ work for revolutionary purposes.

Kaan Kangal Friedrich Engels and the Dialectics of Nature, Palgrave Macmillan 2019.


[i] During exile from Czarist Russia Riazanov researched extensively in the British Museum library. He became a close political associate of Leon Trotsky, as well as organising the first Russian edition of Marx-Engels collected writings. Stalin’s butchers executed Riazanov in 1938, having tortured his research assistant, Isaak Rubin, to obtain a false confession.

Monthly Review does not necessarily adhere to all of the views conveyed in articles republished at MR Online. Our goal is to share a variety of left perspectives that we think our readers will find interesting or useful. —Eds.

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