Thursday, May 05, 2005

(Reading Roundup: Thomas, Wilde on Marx and Engels)

Originally posted: Thu, 05 May 2005 19:03:29

Following up on my examination of some of the roots of activity theory, I recently read selections from The Cambridge Companion to Marx. In particular, I was interested in the relations among Marx, Engels, dialectic, and contradiction. Just a few notes on these:

Thomas, Paul. "Critical Reception: Marx Then and Now"

Thomas argues that much of what we ascribe to Marx is actually the work of Marx's sometime collaborator and posthumous popularizer, Engels. "In considerable measure Engels invented what has come down to us as Marxism," Thomas charges (p.36), particularly the understanding of Marxist thought as "a coherent system of materialist metaphysics" or a universal system that extended into the natural as well as the social world (p.36). "Augmented by his Dialectics of Nature, Engels' works were given a new lease on life by the Russian Revolution"; they, not Marx's works, underpinned dialectical and historical materialism (p.40). "Engels' doctrines owed little or nothing to Marx, the man he called his mentor, yet this went along with the assertion of a joint identity: Engels referred self-consciously to 'our doctrine'" (p.41). Engels' version of Marxism, Thomas says, "had an improperly scientistic aspect that is at variance with what we can now identify as Marx's approach, method, and subject matter" (p.41; he cites Carver 1981 here). Thomas credits this variance not to "mandacity and perfidy" but rather to Engels' misunderstanding; Engels was "the last of the true believers" (p.42). (Latour would say that Engels translated Marx's work.)

Wilde, Lawrence. "Logic: Dialectic and Contradiction"

Wilde also has uncomplimentary things to say about Engels. In his chapter on dialectic, Wilde describes how Marx adapted Hegel's idealist dialectic into a materialist method, particularly examining how Hegel and Marx handled the notion of contradiction in opposition to formal logic (p.277). He examines Marx's work sympathetically. Engels not so much. "In writings published after Marx's death in 1883, Engels extended the dialectical method to encompass nature and in doing so transformed dialectic into a set of three 'laws.' This work had nothing to do with Marx's own dialectic, which, as we have seen, was quintessentially a social scientific method. Nevertheless, Engels claimed that Marx had approved his work before he died" -- I wonder how that transpired -- "and the dialectic came to be associated with the confident certainty of positive science" (p.291, and again the author credits Carver 1983). Marx didn't explicitly articulate dialectic, so Engels' Dialectics of Nature fit the bill, presenting a simplified, universalized dialectic that was easy to follow (p.291).

Some Soviets did reread Marx and raise questions about Engels: "it was not until 1923 that the first suggestions came from the Marxist movement that the dialectical methods of Marx and Engels were incompatible" (p.292). But "there was an almost hysterical reaction to these works in the official international Communist movement" and the scholars Lukacs and Korsch were not terribly popular around the Marxist water cooler by the end of the 1920s. (Notice that Lukacs raised his objections about the time that Vygotsky's writings were being assembled for publication. Vygotsky's books, as I've mentioned elsewhere on this blog, have Engels' fingerprints all over them.)

These two readings emphasize the difficulty of critiquing Marx -- but also how easy it is to critique Engels! The problem is that Marx is hard to read and Engels is easy, so we are tempted to either read Marx through Engels (leading to misguided critiques) or scapegoat Engels (leading to a pass for Marx).


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