By Chris Harman
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In a Material World

This article is over 19 years, 8 months old
Review of 'Marx and Engels: Collected Works Volume 49', Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Lawrence and Wishart £45
Issue 269

The English translation of the Marx-Engels collected works is nearly complete, with the letters Engels wrote in the last years of his life, and there are still wonderful treats to be found in them.

This volume contains the first full translations of his various letters to Conrad Schmidt on the method of ‘historical materialism’ (the phrase itself was first used in his letter of 5 August 1892). In these he is concerned to show the power of the approach, but also to prevent it being interpreted in a narrow, mechanical method that reduced everything to mere immediate economic interests. In doing so he provides an account of the method that destroys so many of the crude attacks on Marxism for alleged ‘economic reductionism’. Thus in his letter of 27 October 1892 he shows how ‘politics’ both arises out of ‘economics’ and reacts back on it. He points out that once society has reached the point where there is a division of labour there is the need for some mechanism to hold society as a whole together: ‘Those nominated for this purpose form a new branch of the division of labour within society. They thereby acquire interests of their own.’

In this way a state arises, which reacts back upon the economic processes which have given rise to it. The result is an ‘interaction of two unequal forces, of the economic trend on the one hand and the new political power which is striving for the greatest possible independence…By and large the economic trend will predominate but it must also be reacted upon by the political trend which it has itself induced and which has been endowed with relative independence.’

As a result, history is not the mere automatic working out of economic processes. The political power in the state may go along with the trend of economic development, speeding things up. But it may also follow a path of blocking economic development, so wreaking ‘havoc with economic development’ and causing ‘energy and materials to be squandered on a vast scale’, on occasions leading to ‘the destruction of economic resources which…could ruin economic development both locally and nationally…’ When this happened, as Marx noted in his famous ‘Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, the whole of society could be thrown into crisis. State power can obtain a degree of autonomy from the immediate play of economic forces, but it cannot ignore their long term trend without the risk of driving itself to the point of collapse.

Engels goes on to discuss how ideological structures play a role: ‘As soon as the new division of labour becomes necessary and creates professional lawyers, yet another new independent field is opened up which, for all its general dependence on production and trade, is nevertheless capable of reacting in its own way to those spheres. In a modern state not only must the law correspond to the general economic situation and be its expression; it must of itself constitute a coherent expression that does not by reason of internal contradictions give itself the lie…’

The volume contains many gems such as Engels’ advice to Schmidt on making sense of Hegel, his comment to Kautsky about the extent to which the Reformation in Germany was a ‘bourgeois movement’, his letters to Danielson about the impact of capitalist development in Russia in both expanding productive forces and damaging the productive base of agriculture (something still relevant to many Third World countries today).

As in previous volumes, the letters about the attempts to create a socialist current inside the British working class remain fascinating, as do the arguments within the recently founded Second International. Engels’ letters exude optimism about the development of the international movement. It was growing to an extent barely imaginable when Marx died only eight or nine years earlier. But it was doing so in conditions that made the work of revolutionaries quite difficult–more difficult than Engels himself sometimes saw. There was class bitterness everywhere–particularly in Germany where the emperor still enjoyed semi-autocratic power and socialist activists were habitually given jail sentences. But the growth of interest by workers in politics was not matched by a particularly high level of direct class struggle. It was not until more than a decade after Engels’ death that the Russian Revolution of 1905 opened up a new phase of worker insurgency internationally.

While Engels lived, the movement was still caught between two dangers. On the one hand, a day to day practice that consisted almost entirely of struggling for small demands within the system could lead to an abandonment of revolutionary ideals. On the other hand, people could become so frustrated at the lack of revolutionary action that they cut themselves off from the growing workers’ movement.

Engels was aware of both dangers, but saw sectarian isolation as the biggest. So although he initially welcomed an influx of young members into the German party from an academic milieu in Germany, urging the leadership to open the party up to discussion, he soon veered the other way and backed the expulsion of the jungen (‘youth’) who he now saw as a sectarian obstacle. What he could not foresee was that within five years his own protege Eduard Bernstein would go to the opposite extreme and call for the abandonment of revolutionary goals.

Engels was only human and could not always be right. In these letters he continued to see Russia as the main enemy for the left and therefore to write about the importance of supporting Germany if war broke out. He had not noticed what, apparently unbeknown to him, the young Rosa Luxemburg was already seeing–that the Russian Empire was about to crumble and that socialists should no longer view it as the main centre of reaction as it had been in 1815 and 1848.

But even when Engels is mistaken, there is much to learn from his approach. For anyone who wants to seriously study the history of the revolutionary movement, many of the letters in this volume are a must.

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