Engels on nature and humanity

In the light of the current pandemic, here is a rough excerpt from my upcoming short book on Engels’ contribution to Marxian political economy on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

Marx and Engels are often accused of what has been called a Promethean vision of human social organisation, namely that human beings, using their superior brains, knowledge and technical prowess, can and should impose their will on the rest of the planet or what is called ‘nature’ – for better or worse.

The charge is that other living species are merely playthings for the use of human beings.  There are humans and there is nature – in contradiction.  This charge is particularly aimed at Friedrich Engels, who it is claimed, took a bourgeois ‘positivist’ view of science: scientific knowledge was always progressive and neutral in ideology; and so was the relationship between man and nature.

This charge against Marx and Engels was promoted in the post-war period by the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxism, which reckoned that everything went wrong with Marxism after 1844, when Marx and Engels supposedly dumped “humanism”.  Later, followers of the French Marxist Althusser put the blame on Fred himself.  For them, everything went to hell in a hand basket a little later, when Engels dumped ‘historical materialism’ and replaced it with ‘dialectical materialism’, in order to promote Engels’ ‘silly belief’ that Marxism and the physical sciences had some relationship.

Indeed, the ‘green’ critique of Marx and Engels is that they were unaware that homo sapiens were destroying the planet and thus themselves.  Instead, Marx and Engels had a touching Promethean faith in capitalism’s ability to develop the productive forces and technology to overcome any risks to the planet and nature.

That Marx and Engels paid no attention to the impact on nature of human social activity has been debunked recently in particular by the ground-breaking work of Marxist authors like John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett.  They have reminded us that throughout Marx’s Capital, Marx was very aware of capitalism’s degrading impact on nature and the resources of the planet.  Marx wrote that “the capitalist mode of production collects the population together in great centres and causes the urban population to achieve an ever-growing preponderance…. [It] disturbs the metabolic interaction between man and the earth, i.e., it prevents the return to the soil of its constituent elements consumed by man in the form of food and clothing; hence it hinders the operation of the eternal natural condition for the lasting fertility of the soil. Thus it destroys at the same time the physical health of the urban worker, and the intellectual life of the rural worker.” As Paul Burkett says: “it is difficult to argue that there is something fundamentally anti-ecological about Marx’s analysis of capitalism and his projections of communism.”

To back this up, Kohei Saito’s prize-winning book has drawn on Marx’s previously unpublished ‘excerpt’ notebooks from the ongoing MEGA research project to reveal Marx’s extensive study of scientific works of the time on agriculture, soil, forestry, to expand his concept of the connection between capitalism and its destruction of natural resources. (I have a review pending on Saito’s book).

But Engels too must be saved from the same charge.  Actually, Engels was well ahead of Marx (yet again) in connecting the destruction and damage to the environment that industrialisation was causing.  While still living in his home town of Barmen (now Wuppertal), he wrote several diary notes about the inequality of rich and poor, the pious hypocrisy of the church preachers and also the pollution of the rivers.

Just 18 years old, he writes: “the two towns of Elberfeld and Barmen, which stretch along the valley for a distance of nearly three hours’ travel. The purple waves of the narrow river flow sometimes swiftly, sometimes sluggishly between smoky factory buildings and yarn-strewn bleaching-yards. Its bright red colour, however, is due not to some bloody battle, for the fighting here is waged only by theological pens and garrulous old women, usually over trifles, nor to shame for men’s actions, although there is indeed enough cause for that, but simply and solely to the numerous dye-works using Turkey red. Coming from Düsseldorf, one enters the sacred region at Sonnborn; the muddy Wupper flows slowly by and, compared with the Rhine just left behind, its miserable appearance is very disappointing.”

Barmen in 1913

He goes on: “First and foremost, factory work is largely responsible. Work in low rooms where people breathe more coal fumes and dust than oxygen — and in the majority of cases beginning already at the age of six — is bound to deprive them of all strength and joy in life.

He connected the social degradation of working families with the degradation of nature alongside the hypocritical piety of the manufacturers. “Terrible poverty prevails among the lower classes, particularly the factory workers in Wuppertal; syphilis and lung diseases are so widespread as to be barely credible; in Elberfeld alone, out of 2,500 children of school age 1,200 are deprived of education and grow up in the factories — merely so that the manufacturer need not pay the adults, whose place they take, twice the wage he pays a child. But the wealthy manufacturers have a flexible conscience and causing the death of one child more or one less does not doom a pietist’s soul to hell, especially if he goes to church twice every Sunday. For it is a fact that the pietists among the factory owners treat their workers worst of all; they use every possible means to reduce the workers’ wages on the pretext of depriving them of the opportunity to get drunk, yet at the election of preachers they are always the first to bribe their people.”

Sure, these observations by Engels are just that, observations, without any theoretical development, but they show the sensitivity that Engels already had to the relationship between industrialisation, the owners and the workers, their poverty and the environmental impact of factory production.

In his first major work, Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, again well before Marx looked at political economy, Engels notes how the private ownership of the land, the drive for profit and the degradation of nature go hand in hand. To make earth an object of huckstering — the earth which is our one and all, the first condition of our existence — was the last step towards making oneself an object of huckstering. It was and is to this very day an immorality surpassed only by the immorality of self-alienation. And the original appropriation — the monopolization of the earth by a few, the exclusion of the rest from that which is the condition of their life — yields nothing in immorality to the subsequent huckstering of the earth.” Once the earth becomes commodified by capital, it is subject to just as much exploitation as labour.

Engels’ major work (written with Marx’s help), The Dialectics of Nature, written in the years up to 1883, just after Marx’s death, is often subject to attack as extending Marx’s materialist conception of history as applied to humans, into nature in a non-Marxist way.  And yet, in his book, Engels could not be clearer on the dialectical relation between humans and nature.

In a famous chapter “The Role of Work in Transforming Ape into Man.”, he writes: “Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human conquest over nature. For each such conquest takes its revenge on us. Each of them, it is true, has in the first place the consequences on which we counted, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor, and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that they were laying the basis for the present devastated condition of these countries, by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture. When, on the southern slopes of the mountains, the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests so carefully cherished on the northern slopes, they had no inkling that by doing so they were … thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, with the effect that these would be able to pour still more furious flood torrents on the plains during the rainy seasons. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that they were at the same time spreading the disease of scrofula. Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature — but that we, with flesh, blood, and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other beings of being able to know and correctly apply its laws.” (my emphasis)

Engels goes on: “in fact, with every day that passes we are learning to understand these laws more correctly and getting to know both the more immediate and the more remote consequences of our interference with the traditional course of nature. … But the more this happens, the more will men not only feel, but also know, their unity with nature, and thus the more impossible will become the senseless and antinatural idea of a contradiction between mind and matter, man and nature, soul and body. …”

Engels explains the social consequences of the drive to expand the productive forces.  “But if it has already required the labour of thousands of years for us to learn to some extent to calculate the more remote natural consequences of our actions aiming at production, it has been still more difficult in regard to the more remote social consequences of these actions. … When afterwards Columbus discovered America, he did not know that by doing so he was giving new life to slavery, which in Europe had long ago been done away with, and laying the basis for the Negro slave traffic. …”

The people of the Americas were driven into slavery, but also nature was enslaved. As Engels put it: “What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees–what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!” .

Now we know that it was not just slavery that the Europeans brought to the Americas, but also disease, which in its many forms exterminated 90% of native Americans and was the main reason for their subjugation by colonialism.

As we experience yet another pandemic, we know that it was capitalism’s drive to industrialise agriculture and usurp the remaining wilderness that has led to nature ‘striking back’, as humans come into contact with more pathogens to which they have no immunity, just as the native Americans in the 16th century.

Engels attacked the view that ‘human nature’ is inherently selfish and will just destroy nature.  In his Outline, Engels described that argument as a “repulsive blasphemy against man and nature.”  Humans can work in harmony with and as part of nature.  It requires greater knowledge of the consequences of human action.  Engels said in his Dialectics: “But even in this sphere, by long and often cruel experience and by collecting and analyzing the historical material, we are gradually learning to get a clear view of the indirect, more remote, social effects of our productive activity, and so the possibility is afforded us of mastering and controlling these effects as well.”

But better knowledge and scientific progress is not enough. For Marx and Engels, the possibility of ending the dialectical contradiction between man and nature and bringing about some level of harmony and ecological balance would only be possible with the abolition of the capitalist mode of production. As Engels said: “To carry out this control requires something more than mere knowledge.”  Science is not enough. “It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and with it of our whole contemporary social order.” The ‘positivist’ Engels, it seems, supported Marx’s materialist conception of history after all.

83 Responses to “Engels on nature and humanity”

  1. Gareth Jenkins Says:

    I thought the dialectics of nature was written in 1883 but only published much later.

    >

  2. realdemocracyinireland Says:

    Thank you Michael, for a timely recitation of our true revolutionary heritage, the unity of materialist dialectics and historical materialism, so often misrepresented by formal thinkers and anti-Marxists.

    Please may I re-post your essay in Ireland, and may I now order in advance, a copy of your proposed new book which would seem to be an important defense of Marxism in the context of this C21 period of potential transition.

    I agree that we enter presently, a period of significant historical development in which many strands of contradictory social and environmental motion interpenetrate and become a moment of extremity potentially prompting rapid transformations.

  3. jlowrie Says:

    A succinct and timely defence of Engels. “But Engels too must be saved from the same charge. Actually, Engels was well ahead of Marx (yet again) in connecting the destruction and damage to the environment that industrialisation was causing.” Well said. I look forward to the book.

    ”Althusser put the blame on Fred himself. For them, everything went to hell in a hand basket a little later, when Engels dumped ‘historical materialism’ and replaced it with ‘dialectical materialism’, in order to promote Engels’ ‘silly belief’ that Marxism and the physical sciences had some relationship.” Of course it was very silly of Althusser. Cf Levins and Lewontin’s ”The Dialectical Biologist” (1985). We must remember that Marx and Engels are economic determinists, not economic reductionists. Determinism means to set limits to and ‘determinatio est negatio’. Thus a human’s genetic structure will determine that no human will be 1 inch or 100 feet tall, but Engels cannot be reduced ”to a robot…controlled body and mind” ( Dawkins) by his genes. In his ‘Dialectics of Nature” Engels himself explained, ” 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.”
    Darwin’s lack of dialectical thinking led to his failure to see that organisms select their environments. Some Marxists have fallen into an analogous mistake by assuming that the developments of the productive forces in themselves would lead to socialism, failing to see that the forces of production themselves nestle in relations of production and the economy consists of both in a dialectic unity, so that it is the economic relations that have to be transformed under socialism, even if this demands a certain development of the productive forces.

    • Anti-Capital Says:

      I think it’s worth pointing out that some who beat the drum for “dialectical materialism” or “materialist dialectics” and want to make it a world view that accounts for everything from evolution to astrophysics, seem very prone to revert to gross idealism in their fervor to demonstrate how “dialectical thinking” represents the key to the highway.

      Such a reversion is presented by comrade jlowrie when he writes: “Darwin’s lack of dialectical thinking led to his failure to see that organisms select their environments.”

      Really. If we know anything about Marx and Marx’s “dialectic,” then we know that it wasn’t some error of thinking by Darwin, it wasn’t a lack of “dialectical thinking” that defined the limits of his great work. It was the overall level of development of society, the “immature” nature of the tools, machinery, for exploration and processing the information extracted from that exploration. That’s social, historical materialism, the “bedrock” of Marx’s critique of society, and… as Marx demonstrates in the Grundrisse, and the other Economic Manuscript the basis for his identification of the driving conflict in capitalism between the forces of production, and the relations or property thereof.

      Would we accuse Fourier of a “lack of dialectical thinking” because he didn’t grasp the principles of historical materialism that made his utopian scheme realizable only with the overthrow of the bourgeois class that had barely consolidated its power when he was writing?

      Would we accuse Hegel himself of a “lack of dialectical thinking” because he wrote the Philosophy of Right and anointed the state as some sort of supra-social embodiment of reason? Of course not. Those are historical limits, not limits of thought. Or rather limits of thought informed by the limits of material conditions.

      Really, if you’re going to trumpet “materialist dialectics” you have to demonstrate just a bit more rigor in your studies of what Marx was actually doing, and exactly what he demonstrates as “dialectic” without by the way, trumpeting “dialectics” as something that exists as a mode of thought.

      If “dialectical thinking” was so essential, that how do we explain Darwin even developing his theories, ignorant or resistant as he was?

      How do we explain Einstein’s work, which he certainly did not base on “dialectical thinking?”

      Really, give us a break. Marx’s work truly is a social– ism; not a “natural-ism;” not a philosophy of science.

  4. mjlovas Says:

    It seems to me that one might equally add that these catastrophes are possible because the hierarchical nature of our society makes impossible the sort of open-ended and many sided conversations which allow discussion of goals, ultimate and proximate. I think it is clear that such conversations are not generally found, except perhaps among close friends or families, and certainly not found in public. Instead we have conversations that are, in one way or another, scripted in advance — by explicit suggestion with technology or the implicit suggestion of social roles elsewhere. Our thoughts and conversations are not free.
    Of course, this is merely a footnote to your main point, and I enjoyed reading your post today. (Especially I was pleased by the comparison of our contemporary situation to the extinction of the original peoples of America.)
    Best wishes

  5. stevenjohnson Says:

    Excellent article, though mere facts are every bit as irrelevant to anticommunists today as they were to the Frankfurt School. Also depressing to remember is the not-so-secret (in my opinion) desire of greens to get rid of excess humanity blighting nature. The idea that humanity must obey natural laws to have collective power, rather than individuals entering into a communion with Nature/Gaia, is objectionable in itself, not an ideal.

  6. b. Says:

    Reblogged this on sociologia, ficções & outras narrativas and commented:
    “Mas mesmo nesta esfera, por experiências longas e muitas vezes cruéis e coletando e analisando o material histórico, estamos gradualmente aprendendo a ter uma visão clara dos efeitos sociais indiretos, mais remotos, de nossa atividade produtiva. e, portanto, é possível nos dominar e controlar esses efeitos ”.

  7. Rosa Lichtenstein (@RosaL100) Says:

    It’s a pity you decided to spoil your otherwise excellent blog with the unscientific and philosophically ridiculous ideas put about by Engels, Michael.

    I have taken them apart here (and, believe it or not, from a Marxist angle):

    http://www.anti-dialectics.co.uk/page%2007.htm

    • del Says:

      Nobody is interested in your anti-Marxist rants. You have “taken apart” nothing except your own credibility as a would-be philosopher.

      • jlowrie Says:

        ”anti-Marxist rants.” This is pointless ad hominem invective launched against a serious exposition.The fact for example that some of Darwin’s arguments are deficient does not refute the scientific basis of evolution. Engels himself would never have argued for the papal inviolability of his theses.

      • del Says:

        Well jlowrie, Rosa is a notorious troll whose ignorance of Marx (not to mention Hegel who she admits that she can’t understand) has been exposed numerous times over the years. This person is a rabid fanatic with a deep animus towards the Hegelian tradition and has for years spammed ignorant and dishonest propaganda in order to deny the basic historical fact that Marx was strongly influenced by Hegel from beginning to end.

      • Anti-Capital Says:

        Apparently, not many comrades here have had to deal with Lichtenstein before, and believe me, they are lucky and better off for it.

        How appropriate that Lichtenstein shows up here at the same time as a new virus.

        Fun fact: Lichtenstein has bots crawling the web, searching out any use of the word Hegel or term dialectics. Say either one 3 times aloud and like Beetlejuice, Lichtenstein shows up.

      • Anti-Capital Says:

        Hit the post button too soon:

        As for “taking apart Hegel’s dialectics (and from a Marxist angle…)” well, Marx did that himself about 125 years ago with his Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; with The German Ideology, with his historical writings on the class struggles in France, etc.

        It’s no news news.

      • jlowrie Says:

        I have now read again Rosa’s essay, which is both wonderfully learned, witty and persuasive. I shall certainly look forward to finding more of her work. My own understanding is that there is certainly no philosophy of ‘dialectical materialism.’ I do not think Engels himself asserted this, since he claims that philosophy per se had come to an end. As for his three ‘laws’ I do not believe in them, but neither do all Marxists. At times I think she goes too far. For example Rosa criticises the essay ”On Contradiction” ( where incidentally I think Mao affirms he does not believe in ‘the negation of the negation’), but just because Mao vainly argues the universal validity of the concept of contradiction, does not mean that we should completely dispense with the concept as a useful intellectual tool. Does Rosa hold that under capitalism there is no contradiction between the means of production and the relations of production, for example? Even if we dispense with Engel’s laws does that mean we should the reject dialectical thinking? We must be the masters and not the slaves of our concepts. Further, Rosa states that Cornforth claimed that ‘one can’t put the clock back’.’ But neither Trotsky nor Mao adhered to this thesis. Trotsky predicted the restoration of capitalism after Stalin’s death and Mao predicted the same of China after his own death.

        Personally I understand dialectics as a way of analysing our concepts and clarifying our approach to problems. For example of Spinoza’s ”determinatio est negatio” Rosa says that Spinoza does not prove this. (This reminds me of Marx’s point about there being no need to prove the nature of value.) But this is not a theory to be proven but an intellectual tool to direct how we might clarify and employ the concept of determination. It allows us to escape genetic reductionism of the Dawkins’ school that I quote above. Of course humans are determined by their genes in the sense that there will be no human 1 inch tall (negatio) and none 100 meters tall ( limitation), but the whole thesis of the Selfish Gene is to reduce humans to their biochemistry. As an example of dialectical thinking, consider deaths from typhus. Is it of great insight to explain such deaths purely in medical terms taking no account of the sanitary environment which renders typhus
        so virulent? I recall after reading Cornforth I decided to read Darwin and I came across his analogy of a ‘wedge’ to clarify how he understood the environment. I realise from Cornforth that this was certainly false, for it separated the organism from its environment instead of seeing them as interconnected ”Darwin was wrong in asserting the autonomy of the external world. The environment is not an independent, preexistent set of problems to which organisms must find solutions….adaptation is the wrong metaphor” (Lewontin and Levins, ”Biology under the Influence” 2007 P231).

        Again take the Amazon Jungle. I have of late read that if the the quantity of trees continues at the current rate of depletion at some point the jungle will switch from a carbon swamp to a carbon emitter i.e.a quantitive change becomes a qualitative one. And it is just such a dialectical point that people fail to grasp. So too with icebergs.

        To change to the economy: if I say that the centralisation and concentration of capital on the one hand and the immiseration of working people are a dialectical movement, Marxists will immediately grasp the point that these are not two separate unconnected developments.

      • jlowrie Says:

        ”spammed ignorant and dishonest propaganda in order to deny the basic historical fact that Marx was strongly influenced by Hegel from beginning to end.” Absolute nonsense. Go away and read her essay.

      • jlowrie Says:

        Rosa says a lot about causation and I agree that nothing in Dialectics explains causation. The Marxist biologist Steven Rose presents an interesting example: five biologists sitting near a pool notice a frog jumping into the water on seeing a snake. What caused the frog to jump? Well, that depends on the biologist.

        The physiologist says because of impulses in the motor nerves arriving at the frog’s muscles from its brain.

        The ethologist says that explains how not why. The frog jumps to escape the snake.

        The developmentalist says because its brain nerves and muscles are so wired up as to make such a sequence of activity most probable in the circumstances,

        The evolutionist says because it was adaptive for the frog’s ancestors to do so to avoid being eaten and so its progeny fail to be selected.

        The molecular biologist says because of the biochemical properties of its muscles.

        So who is correct? Well it depends on the question one is seeking to answer and how one understands the concept of cause. In fact Rose affirms biology needs all these explanations and others beside The confusion about the meaning of cause ‘has bedevilled scientific thinking since the time of Aristotle. ” Excessive deference must not be paid to more reductionist modes of explanation.( S.Rose, ”Lifelines” 2005 Pp10-14). There are different levels of the organisation of matter, and biology cannot be reduced to chemistry and then to physics. They are however dialectically linked!?! I would urge socialists to read the work of Lewontin, Levins Rose, Dover and others ( e.g. ”Thinking about Evolution” Vol2 Cambridge 2001) of the Dialectical Biology school to see why it is not ”all in your genes”!

      • Anti-Capital Says:

        “I have now read again Rosa’s essay, which is both wonderfully learned, witty and persuasive. I shall certainly look forward to finding more of her work.”

        This from the same comrade who wrote:

        “Darwin’s lack of dialectical thinking led to his failure to see that organisms select their environments”

        WTF? Unless of course comrade j is trying to give everyone a practical demonstration of “dialectics” and the so called “unity of opposites.”

        It is fundamental to the writings of the person whose name I dare not mention, that there is, and can be NO such thing or activity as “dialectical thinking.”

        Anyway, the less Michael’s site has to do with the utterly sterile debate “dialectics vs anti-dialectics” and the utterly sterile debater whose name I dare not mention, the better. Don’t say I never contributed anything positive. That is my positive constribution.

      • Antonio Says:

        ‘’ To change to the economy: if I say that the centralization and concentration of capital on the one hand and the immiseration of working people are a dialectical movement, Marxists will immediately grasp the point that these are not two separate unconnected developments ’’
        Excellent synthesis of one of the main effects of capital concentration: unemployment and exploitation. Congratulations. However, I believe that not all Marxists today are clear that the main economic phenomenon of capitalism (and of the previous modes of production) is that of the concentration and centralization of capital. Concentration of object-capital and subject-capital. Said in a short and festive but exact way: without concentration of capital slavery would be a ‘’ desirable ’’ society, because everyone (owners and servants) would have similar wealth. Phenomenon and law of concentration of capital from which the rest of observable phenomena are derived today: value-labor law, decreasing rate of profit, class struggle cycle, labor exploitation, unemployment, etc … AND IT DOESN’T HAPPEN BACKWARD
        On the other hand, his debate on M.D and Rosa Lichestein, I think he has won: he will have no response from his opponents dedicated to the ad hominen argument. It is a good tribute to the other Rosa L.
         

  8. opinecon Says:

    Thought this passage was great: “dialectics has proved from the results of our experience of nature so far that all polar opposites in general are determined by the mutual action of the two opposite poles on one another, that the separation and opposition of these poles exists only within their unity and inter-connection, and, conversely, that their interconnection exists only in their separation and their unity only in their opposition” (Engels
    p. 38)

  9. vk Says:

    Not only Marxism never had any problems with what we call today as “environmentalism” – it solves the separation between humanities and biology.

    Darwin’s Origin of Species unified biology with physics. Marxism unified humanities with biology. Marxism always presupposes the human being as a natural being.

    The reason Marx didn’t delve on the environmental question in his opus is very simple: there’s no dilemma, it wasn’t (isn’t) a philosophical issue for his theory.

    Humans do whatever they want, but they do not do whatever they want according to their own will. They do what they do according to the objective material conditions they are facing. That alone solves the problem many greens fall into when declaring humanity as a “cancer” to “planet Earth”, or which should be humanity’s place in Earth that many idealist doctrines talk about today.

    For the same reason Marx didn’t lose time with the role of art in capitalism (which many Western “Marxists” lost time doing).

    I think the image many greens have today of Marxism comes from the stereotypes of the USSR, which spent its entirely existence trying to industrialize in order to catch up with the capitalist West so it isn’t exterminated. But that was a historically specific particularity of the USSR, not Marxism the philosophy.

    Indeed, one curiosity about the greens is that it was born in the 1970s in Germany, and was the first ever political movement to openly claim to be substituting communism (Marxism) as The left-wing movement in the West (therefore, the world). Their motto couldn’t be more symbolic: “green is the new red”.

    Well, they failed.

    • Lüko Willms Says:

      Engels goes further than just »the objective material conditions [human beings] are facing«, as he wrote at various occasions, e.g. in this September 21, 1890 letter to Joseph Bloch in Königsberg, of which I allow me to quote this paragraph:

      »
      According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determining element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. Other than this neither Marx nor I have ever asserted. Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure — political forms of the class struggle and its results, to wit: constitutions established by the victorious class after a successful battle, etc., juridical forms, and even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form. There is an interaction of all these elements in which, amid all the endless host of accidents (that is, of things and events whose inner interconnection is so remote or so impossible of proof that we can regard it as non-existent, as negligible), the economic movement finally asserts itself as necessary. Otherwise the application of the theory to any period of history would be easier than the solution of a simple equation of the first degree.
      «
      and this one from further down:
      »
      Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that the younger people sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it. We had to emphasise the main principle vis-à-vis our adversaries, who denied it, and we had not always the time, the place or the opportunity to give their due to the other elements involved in the interaction. But when it came to presenting a section of history, that is, to making a practical application, it was a different matter and there no error was permissible. Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a new theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have assimilated its main principles, and even those not always correctly. And I cannot exempt many of the more recent “Marxists” from this reproach, for the most amazing rubbish has been produced in this quarter, too….
      «

      the interesting fragment in english here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_09_21.htm

      full text in German with an explanatory introductory note and footnotes by me here:
      http://mlwerke.de/me/me37/me37_462.htm

      • michael roberts Says:

        Exactly

      • stevenjohnson Says:

        This is all true, but it only refutes straw-man versions of economic determinism. Engels is not being eclectic about material and mental cause of social life (in my best judgment.)

        When Engels writes “the production and reproduction of real life” he is talking about nature’s economy, the ecology, including geography and demography, as well as political economy, and home economics too. This is not the same thing as personal profit. It’s the whole way of life. Only people who confuse a bank balance with “economics” are refuted here.

        There’s a well-known exchange between David Ricardo and Thomas Malthus, where each congratulated the other for defying economic motivations, contra the theories of Marx’s predecessors in materialism. The thing is, of course, that Malthus, a clergyman, devised an elaborate apologia which found a necessary role for religion in taming the fecund masses’ lusts. And Ricardo devised a system explaining how Corn Laws raised wages and lowered profits for the manufacturers…and their bankers and financiers, of which he was one. These gentlemen provide a striking example together of the importance of their way of life influencing their ideas while illustrating it’s not just a matter of their bank balances. Amazingly, this mutual flattery is often cited as a refutation of the idea social existence determines consciousness!

        Even more, when Engels writes “even the reflexes of all these actual struggles in the brains of the participants, political, juristic, philosophical theories, religious views and their further development into systems of dogmas — also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggles and in many cases preponderate in determining their form..” there are two assertions here. The first says previous history was the material cause of ideas that people use in their present struggles. This specifically denies both an autonomously-developed and a decisive causal role to “ideas” as such. The second assertion does assign a sometimes preponderant role to “ideas” in determining “form.” The key term here is “form.” Pure ideas, abstracted from their material origins and their use by people in material struggles (not just between classes or cultures but with nature too I think,) often determine the superficial appearances. But they are not key to the dynamics, the laws of motion, or however you would put it.

        It is amazing how many educated people do not accept the idea that ideas have material origins, and live or die from material causes, much less that there are laws of social nature. (Except, ironically, the law of supply and demand which is somehow simultaneously a law of human nature and Mother Nature.)

  10. Lüko Willms Says:

    Thanks to Michael Roberts for setting the record straight on Frederick Engels.

    May I remind also Engels’ defense of science in his polemic against Eugen Dühring, where he also discusses what is called today the Big Bang theory and infinity, of which bourgeois ideologues do not want to know: what was before the Big Bang, and what caused it? And that division by zero is not undefined, but gives infinity, as also division by infinity gives zero. The graph of 1/x approaches asymptotically zero respectively infinity for very small and very large values of x. Title: “Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft”, english “Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science”. Marx’s mathematical studies published as “Mathematical manuscripts of Karl Marx” might also be of interest, especially on infinitesimal calculus.

    Also his Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (German: Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der klassischen deutschen Philosophie) — despite Engels’ dictium that there is no more need for a philosophy, there are still people talking about a “marxist philosophy”, advocating “marxism” as a sectarian doctrine, instead of science and scientific based political action.

    And finally his defense of dialectical thinking in various letters of the 1890ies, especially the four letters to Carl Schmidt.

    Finally, let me plead for eradicating the notion of a “marxist economist”. Marx’ Capital is pure science, not an invented doctrine.

  11. Antonio Says:

    ”Finally, let me plead for eradicating the notion of a “marxist economist”. Marx’ Capital is pure science, not an invented doctrine.”

    Ok, I am not very expert in this matter, but when I see the terms ‘marxist economist’ ’Keynesian economist’ ’, etc … I cannot help but think of followers of a prophet. Being socialism a collective economic-political science (that affects a collective subject that does not eliminate the individual but, on the contrary, that expands, develops and makes possible) more social terms would be the most correct. For example, that of a socialist economist

  12. Rosa Lichtenstein (@RosaL100) Says:

    In which case, del, I am sure you’ll be only too happy to show where I go wrong won’t you?

    Think you’re up to it, big boy?

  13. gerald kavanagh Says:

    Michael, are you able to give the location in ‘Capital’ for the quote from Marx?

  14. ucanbpolitical Says:

    Dialectics is not a philosophy it is life in motion. Only a fool stands in the road and argues with a car approaching at 100kph. Quantity into quality. 1 gram of water requires 1 calorie of energy to raise it 1 degree at sea level. Quantity. But to change its state from a liquid to a steam, that impulse requires 539 calories. Quality. The unity of opposites: demand and supply, the one cannot exist without the other. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis, the movement of complicated and complex systems with their associated mathematics. The basis of modelling.

    So when I hear people shuffling in the shadowy margins criticising dialectics one can only be moved to mirth. Dialectics is simply the science of interaction, of unending change, which is why capitalist ideologues hate it because they see capitalism as unchanging and ever lasting. Darwin’s Tree may have turned into a Bush, but both tree and bush are fertilised by the same element of chance, which was Darwin’s magnificent and epochal contribution to human thought and understanding.

    As for the biggest dialectic, capitalist production (thesis), planet (anti-thesis) destruction (synthesis) what could be more important. Well done Michael for an interesting article.

    • michael roberts Says:

      I agree entirely

    • Anti-Capital Says:

      That’s not Marx’s “dialectic” at all; not even close. Marx’s critique is social; the conflict is not in the quantities of energy required to change the state of water, or in some trifecta of thesis-antithesis-synthesis from a freshman undergrad course.

      The “contradiction in motion” as Marx described capital, is not capitalist production vs. planet, and the “synthesis” is not, in Marx’s work “destruction.” The conflict is between labor and the condition of labor; between accumulated labor expropriated as private property and expressed in the means of production, and living labor. That relationship is the “determinant” of capital, and also the means for its negation, its overcoming.

      Socialism or barbarism? Mos’ def. But the barbarism is sourced at the root of that relationship and expands as capital expands and advances.

      As for Engels, nothing can make Fred shine like the attacks on him by Heinrich and… the person whose name I dare not mention. Still, old Fred took some weird, and flat out wrong positions in his life: Like maintaining that the law of value dominated society for thousands of years; like enthusiastically supporting the United States in its slaveholder-inspired war against Mexico; like his outright endorsement of German victory in the Franco-Prussian War.

      Warts and all, comrades, we claim him, warts and all.

      • ucanbpolitical Says:

        So you confine dialectics to society alone. That is so undialectical. The interaction of animals with nature yields no synthesis because animals are changed by nature (natural selection) but humans alone domesticate nature creating new contradictory syntheses all the time, including potential ruin of the planet. The only unique feature about dialectics as it applies to class society is its purely contradictory aspect.

  15. Rosa Lichtenstein (@RosaL100) Says:

    del:

    “Well jlowrie, Rosa is a notorious troll whose ignorance of Marx (not to mention Hegel who she admits that she can’t understand) has been exposed numerous times over the years. This person is a rabid fanatic with a deep animus towards the Hegelian tradition and has for years spammed ignorant and dishonest propaganda in order to deny the basic historical fact that Marx was strongly influenced by Hegel from beginning to end.”

    So, you can’t actually show where I go wrong, del. You are merely content to attack me personally (a sure give-away that you have no case against me, so you have to resort to abuse and fibs).

    Even if Marx was influenced by Hegel, how does that show Engels’s theory (Dialectical Materialism/Materialist Dialectics) is valid?

    Is there any chance you can stick to the point?

    “Hegel who she admits that she can’t understand…”

    In that case, I’m in good company, since it is impossible for anyone to understand Hegel, and I defy you to show otherwise.

    • del Says:

      “So, you can’t actually show where I go wrong, del. You are merely content to attack me personally (a sure give-away that you have no case against me, so you have to resort to abuse and fibs).”

      You deserve to be “personally attacked” insofar as you are a notorious fraud and the readers should be informed of your history before making the decision to waste hours reading your long-winded nonsense. As for showing where you went wrong, that’s all been done numerous times in other forums. As I have no desire to give you more opportunities to spread falsehoods or to waste time arguing with a brick wall I will pass on that.

      “Even if Marx was influenced by Hegel, how does that show Engels’s theory (Dialectical Materialism/Materialist Dialectics) is valid?”

      It doesn’t, I was just pointing out one of the more ludicrous aspects of your trolling routine (ie: the idea that Marx “gave up” on Hegel by the time of Capital, which is an utter lie that you like to promulgate) to those unfamiliar with you.

      “In that case, I’m in good company, since it is impossible for anyone to understand Hegel, and I defy you to show otherwise.”

      There are plenty of great Hegel scholars who have illuminated and clarified the great thinkers philosophy but your religious faith in Wittgenstein and Russell prevents you from seeking out any sympathetic expositions of Hegel’s works.

      • jlowrie Says:

        ” the idea that Marx “gave up” on Hegel by the time of Capital, which is an utter lie that you like to promulgate”

        ”In the French translation published between 1872 and 1975 Marx …. removed all of the Hegelian terminology …”(J D White ”Marx in Russia 2019 P3).

      • Anti-Capital Says:

        But of course, when the original edition was written, much less published, Marx had included the Hegelian terminology. That’s one.

        And for two, removal of the Hegelian terminology in order to make the substance of the critique more understandable says nothing about Marx’s own relationship to Hegel’s system.

        That Marx was not a “Hegelian” is transparently clear to the less than casual observer who just might be familiar with development of Marx’s critique of both Hegel and the young Hegelians, going all the way back to 1844. That Marx, in a specific sense continues Hegel’s quest to apprehend the methods, manner, by which human beings make the world “their own” requires a bit more effort.

        The term “dialectics” is a hot-button term, and it is used as an ideological qualification– as in “Are you dialectical enough?” “Do you think dialectically?” And as an ideological term, it’s worse than meaningless. It becomes, however unintentionally, a way of preserving the status quo, of demanding a fidelity to a concept, instead of “merciless criticism” of all things.

        To comrade Ucanbepolitical: Marx’s work is concerned with human beings, with human history, and the prospects for the emancipation of those profoundly social beings. That human beings, by design, appropriate nature is a given. That does not mean that Marx’s critique and materialism has as its subject/object the forces that determine nature outside of the human appropriation. It does not.

        Maybe there’s a “dialectic of nature,” maybe not. In either case it is not the subject/object of Marx’s work and the attempt to “expand” the “limits” of Marx’s work– to turn it into a “world view” or the basis for investigation of natural science works to the detriment of both Marx’s critique and the investigation of the physical sciences.

      • jlowrie Says:

        ”And for two, removal of the Hegelian terminology in order to make the substance of the critique more understandable says nothing about Marx’s own relationship to Hegel’s system.”

        Nonsense!

        As you yourself state ”you have to demonstrate just a bit more rigor in your studies of what Marx was actually doing,”

        cf J.D White ” Karl Marx and the Intellectual Origins of Dialectical Materialism”, Particularly Ch4.

    • jlowrie Says:

      Why waste your time on him,Rosa? You are not the first to find Engels inadequate. For example the great Russian Marxist Bogdanov, who was also a scientist, regarded Engels’ use of the terms ‘negativity’ and ‘synthesis’ as arbitrary and subjective (quoted in J D White, ”Bogdanov” 2019 P 329). I believe it was in fact Plekhanov who invented the phrase. ”dialectical materialism” cf White’s ”Karl Marx and the Intellectual Origins of Dialectical Materialism’ (1996). Nevertheless less even if we dispense with Engels’ 3 Laws is there nothing of dialectics that remains? I think not. I used to teach a course in Ancient Greek politics, and when I came to democracy I would begin by asking just the female students how many tall handsome men they knew. I remember one young woman, whose glass was half empty rather than half full, asserting,”In this place? None!” Gradually however lest they demoralised the guys, I got them to admit there were a few! Naturally, they were curious to know what this had to do with democracy. Then I introduced them to Heraclitus and the idea that you ”cannot step into the same river twice” and the concept of the unity of opposites: hot and cold, tall and short, democracy and……..? Well they invariably said ‘dictatorship.’ But then I pointed out this was a Roman concept unknown to the Athenians of their period. Eventually we came up with the right answer ‘oligarchy’. But then I drew their attention to Aristotle’s argument reductum ad absurdum that it is quite inadequate to define democracy as the rule of the majority and oligarchy as the rule of the few, for then Ethiopia would be classed as an oligarchy as it chose its government from the tallest and handsomest men, who are necessarily few; rather democracy is the rule of the poor ( or unpropertied), who are normally the majority, and oligarchy the rule of the rich who are always few. The unity of opposites; a dialectic exposition extrapolating from the natural to the social!

    • del Says:

      “In that case, I’m in good company, since it is impossible for anyone to understand Hegel, and I defy you to show otherwise.”

      Numerous scholars “understand” Hegel although there are certainly controversies about how to interpret certain aspects of his thought, as is the case with all great philosophers. I give you John N. Findlay, for instance, whose notes on Hegel’s Phenomenology greatly clarify a text that might seem daunting, if not, incomprehensible at times. Hegel’s problem for modern readers is difficult, jargon-laden language. Hegel’s works are certainly understandable to one who puts in the effort and has an open mind.

      Also, many make the same exact claim about Marx’s Capital. But, just as with Hegel, difficult to understand doesn’t equate to impossible to understand.

      • Lüko Willms Says:

        Hegel had to be put from standing on his head to stand an his feet. Marx did that, seconded by Engels.

    • Anti-Capital Says:

      There goes the neighborhood.

      • jlowrie Says:

        ”WTF? Unless of course comrade j is trying to give everyone a practical demonstration of “dialectics” and the so called “unity of opposites.”

        It is fundamental to the writings of the person whose name I dare not mention, that there is, and can be NO such thing or activity as “dialectical thinking.”

        Anyway, the less Michael’s site has to do with the utterly sterile debate “dialectics vs anti-dialectics”

        ”….in the dialectical world view things are assumed from the beginning to be internally heterogeneous at every level. And this heterogeneity does not mean that the object or system is composed of fixed natural units…In the dialectical world the logical dialectical relation between part and whole is taken seriously. Part makes whole, and whole makes part.

        The first principle of a dialectical view then is that a whole is a relation of heterogeneous parts that have no prior independent existence or parts. The second principle…is that in general the properties of of parts have no prior alienated existence..

        ”The dialectical emphasis on wholes is shared by other schools of thought…. that argue against the reductionism of medical and and agricultural theory

        ”A third dialectical principle then is that the interpretation of parts and wholes is a consequence of the interchangeability of subject and object, of cause and effect

        ”Because elements recreate each other by interacting and are created by the wholes of which theynare part, change is a characteristic of all systems and all aspects of systems. That is is a fourth dialectical principle…

        ”Engels’s understanding of the physical world was of course a nineteenth century understanding, and macho what he wrote about it seems quaint.

        ”The dialectical view insists that persistence and equilibrium are not the natural state of things…( Levins and Lewontin ”The Dialectical Biologist” 1985. Conclusion passim). Thus two of America’s most distinguished biologists. ”NO such thing or activity as ‘dialectical thinking.”’ Now if only they had had insights into Anti-capital’s ex cathedra pronouncements!

      • Anti-Capital Says:

        But of course it’s not fundamental to the work of Levins and Lewontin that there is no such thing as “dialectical thinking” but it is fundamental to the work of RL, whom jL claims to admire. That’s what I find………curious

      • jlowrie Says:

        ‘But of course it’s not fundamental to the work of Levins and Lewontin that there is no such thing as “dialectical thinking” ‘

        That would surprise the authors who in the second page of their preface affirm,

        ”As biologists who have been working SELF-CONSCIOUSLY in a dialectical mode for many years…….
        ‘We believe the considerable impact of these book is a confirmation of the power of dialectical analysis…Indeed it is a sign of the Marxist dialectic with which we align ourselves that scientific and political questions are inextricably interconnected-dialectically related.”

        Curiouser and curiouser!

        I do not hold with Engels’ 3 Laws; nevertheless, I do hold that there is a dialectical mode of thinking. As for Rosa, why do you not attempt to refute her exposition, instead of empty bluster?

        I do wonder if I am beginning to usurp Boffy’s status as the cynosure of your odium. I trust he will not feel an onset of jealousy!

      • jlowrie Says:

        It is quite unscientific to fail to criticise Marx or Engels where they are mistaken. I think there is no anthropologist now who would accept that Matriarchy has ever demonstrated the historical reality Engels attributes to it in his “Origin of the Family.”

        But how about ” Engels’ ‘silly belief’ that Marxism and the physical sciences had some relationship.”? Is it not rather silly that some Marxists do not see that philosophy and science have a dialectic development with society. For example Seaford observes that ” it was tentatively suggested almost 50 years ago by George Thomson that ‘the Parmenidean One together with the later idea of substance may be described as a reflex or projection of the substance of exchange value.’ Why so? Because the the Parmenidean One is…pure abstraction, stripped of everything concrete, sensual , qualitative. Such a strange and unprecedented notion arises as the projection of abstract exchange value to which the specificity of concrete, sensual. qualitative features is irrelevant.” Seaford at this point quotes Marx. ”A commodity is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties…transcends sensuousness” (Seaford, ”Money and the Greek Mind” 2004. P188). Thomson himself observes,” In negating the Pythagorean doctrine, Heacleitus does more than reaffirm the old aristocratic attitude. He invests it with new meaning, corresponding to the new alignment of classes. In standing for tension and strife as against fusion or reconciliation….the opposites are no longer the same. His opposites are not noblemen and commoners, but freemen and slaves:

        ”War is the father of Allan lord of all, and has made gods and men, freemen and slaves.”

        For him therefore strife is absolute, unity relative. This is true dialectics” (G. Thomson, 1955. P272).

        Further, ”The resemblance of the atomic theory of Democritus and Epicurus to the the atomic theory of modern physics is superficially so striking that we are tempted to regard the work of these philosophers as scientific. This is mistaken. Ancient atomism is not science, but ideology” Ibid. P 312). In the 2nd edition of his work Thomson affirms that not all marxists were persuaded of his theses.

        However that may be, I think we should all recognise that the relationship between the scientific and the social/political is a dialectical determination.

      • jlowrie Says:

        Quotation should read ”father of all and lord of all.”

      • jlowrie Says:

        In the Preface to their ”The Dialectical Biologist” Levins and Lewontin recall that ”Chomsky once remarked to one of us, who accused him in a conversation of being insufficiently dialectical, that he despised the term…”

        Personally I gave up reading Chomsky’s political books some ten years back, for I felt the later ones were mostly updates on the earlier and evinced little analytical progress, however admirable the sentiments expressed. I feel his best book in the political field is ”Deterring Democracy,” which yet presents a surprising paradox: that the democratic U.S. government is engaged in activities seeking to undermine democracy. How come? because the common understanding is that a democracy exists where the the majority of citizens vote the government into power. But what is the opposite of a democracy? Again the common response is a dictatorship. So who rules in a dictatorship? The dictator . So a dictatorship is where a dictator rules ( who might, like Hitler, have been elected or not). Such definitions are metaphysical and are true by definition. However a dialectic analysis asks what is the opposite of a society where the majority rules? Clearly a society where the minority rules, and the Greeks had a word for it-oligarchy. So in any society what is the most salient difference between the majority and the minority? That the majority is poor and the minority rich. So the solution to Chomsky’s paradox, which a dialectic analysis would have led him to, is that the US is not a democracy but an oligarchy. This can be readily established empirically by examining the wealth of the Government and that of those who fund its members. The early American leaders were quite open in their opposition to democracy.

        “‘it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a small number of citizens who assemble and administer the government in person, can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction….such democracies …..have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property…
        A republic, by which I mean a government of representation takes place,…promises the cure….
        The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the delegation in the latter to a small number of citizens elected by the rest……” ( “Federalist Papers” No X).

        As Aristotle points out, election by ballot is the mark of an oligarchy, for the rich will usually win thanks to their superior wealth, though the oligarchs should take care to grant certain concessions to the unpropertied such as serving on limited juries and holding unimportant offices of state ( the local sheriff ?). So there is no surprise that the US oligarchy seeks to undermine the effect of whatever concessions it has felt obliged to concede. The mark of a democracy is selection of the government by lot, which system rendering all equal, will give power to the majority i.e. the poor and unpropertied.

        Thus the superiority of the dialectical method, where an institution is analysed in its interconnections: democracy and oligarchy, poor and rich-the UNITY of OPPOSITES!

        So too in society ”The first principle of a dialectical view then is that a whole is a relation of heterogeneous parts that have no prior independent existence or parts. The second principle…is that in general the properties of parts have no prior alienated existence..” Quoted above from Levins and Lewontin.

      • Anti-Capital Says:

        jLowrie writes:”That would surprise the authors who in the second page of their preface affirm,

        ”As biologists who have been working SELF-CONSCIOUSLY in a dialectical mode for many years…….
        ‘We believe the considerable impact of these book is a confirmation of the power of dialectical analysis…Indeed it is a sign of the Marxist dialectic with which we align ourselves that scientific and political questions are inextricably interconnected-dialectically related.”

        Little quick on the trigger, comrade. I used the double negative regarding L&L, which makes a positive. Yes, I know that L&L believe “dialectical thinking” is part, if not the whole, of “true science.”

        But the issue is how you reconcile your endorsement of L&L with your “admiration” of RL’s essays on “anti-dialectics.” I believe it’s fair to say that RL would reject not just the “necessity” of “dialectical thinking” but also the validity, if not the possibility of “dialectical thinking” claiming, as she does, that dialectics is nonsense.

        I have not bothered to bluster against RL here, nor even argue with her. I did that years ago in my yout and found it to be singularly unproductive. Her/his answer to every question is basically “You first. Show me where I’m wrong,then I’ll answer your questions.” When you do show her/him the historical inaccuracies in her account of Marx’s relationship to Hegel’s system, he/she simply goes on about the placement of a comma here or there, the meaning of the world “coquette” and never answers the questions.

        I’ve never argued that “dialectics” exist or don’t exist; or that it is essential to “think dialectically” with Rosa, or with anyone else for that matter. I did and do argue the historical record, and the lack of support in the historical record for her arguments. As an example, in one of our “arguments” RL argued that the dialectic was an encumbrance that prevents, interferes with proper perception, apprehension, understanding (use whatever word you, or RL, wants) of a condition or situation.

        Well, since RL claims that by the time Marx wrote Capital he had freed himself from all influence of Hegel, I asked RL– where then in Marx’s earlier workers, when Marx was still entangled or connected to Hegel, we can find the mistakes in his analysis, in his critique of capital, that we can directly assign to the Hegel connection? Where for example in the Grundrisse, considered by many to show the persistence of Marx’s connection to Hegel, is the analysis of capital not only different from that delivered in Capital, but mistaken? Where is the impact of fixed capital on the cycle of capital, on profitability, on the relation of capital to wage labor in the Grundrisse, not only different from that presented in Capital, but mistaken, and what are the mistakes?

        Of course, I got no answer. I recommend you give it a try. Maybe, because you have praised her erudition, she’ll be more inclined to answer you.

        IMO, the historical record is clear, and RL has absolutely no understanding of the historical record. The development of Marx’s critique of Capital, is concrete–points to the real movement of capital; the real social results of the relations of capital. If Marx was entangled in Hegel’s system prior to Capital, if Hegel’s system is nonsense and impedes comprehension of the concrete world, then Marx’s earlier works must demonstrate that Hegelian limit, the Hegelian flaw. So where are Marx’s mistakes that are later corrected in Capital?

        I know you’re concerned with the extreme negativity that seems to have gripped my soul and I thank you for your concern, but as Popeye said, I yam what I yam. I’m old, but not too old to change. It’s just that I think I’m right, and I’m prepared to argue being correct based on the historical record, and actual development of capitalism, not on the placement of a comma, or the real meaning of the word “coquette.”

      • jlowrie Says:

        I agree that it would serve no further purpose to continue here a debate on dialectics. It is actually not clear to me that your position is not closer to Rosa’s than is mine. As I have said, I do not agree with Engels’ universal laws, but I still hold that there is a great deal more to be said for dialectics, and I have tied to make arguments above, for example that of the Amazon jungle which clearly attests a case of a quantative change in danger of becoming a qualitative one. But Rosa did not address any of the points I made.

        If you have a link to refutations by yourself or others of Rosa’s views on dialectics, I should appreciate it.

        Here are my final thoughts: ”Is a human being a natural or a social being ? Now I recall reading an essay by Chomsky ( which I quote from memory so might be somewhat inaccurate) where he asserted that language was mainly natural and only lightly determined by environment. Yet if we abandon on an island 1 year old twins Romulus and Remus to be reared by wolves, they will never speak.

        For me dialectics is a mode of analytical thought. In the face of the current coronavirus I agree profoundly with a former post made here: “First, it is an instructive opening in which we might review substantial questions about how capitalist production relates to the non-human world at a more fundamental level—how, in short, the “natural world,” including its microbiological substrata, cannot be understood without reference to how society organizes production (because the two are not, in fact, separate). At the same time, this is a reminder that the only communism worth the name is one that includes the potential of a fully politicized naturalism. ”

      • jlowrie Says:

        I did not read your post carefully in my hurry to end this debate. I am not familiar with Rosa arguments, but J.D. White who studied Marx’s manuscripts in Amsterdam ( there are for example 8 manuscripts relating alone to Vol. 2 written between 1863 and 1880) came to the conclusion that Marx completely abandoned Hegel’s system. I shall not attempt to give the arguments here but recommend his book ”Karl Marx and the Intellectual Origins of Dialectical Materialism’ (1996). One manifestation of this change of outlook was his letter to Mikhaylovsky ”He feels he must absolutely metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historic-philosophical theory of the universal path every people is fated to tread” But of course under the influence of Hegel Marx had conceived ” of capitalism as a Universal system, the outward manifestation of man’s inner species being….history offered a great variety of possibilities, making it impossible to employ a-historical schemes ( White above p241-242). Ironically enough, from the little I have read of Rosa’s political position, she might not be a Hegelian when it comes to “Capital” but she is certainly a Hegelian and not a Marxist when it comes to revolution, for she holds if I understand her aright that socialism can only be introduced in Western Europe, where the forces of production are most advanced and the proletariat an immense majority, a truly reductionist scheme. As Bogdanov argued revolution would more likely occur not where capitalism was most mature but had the weakest links i.e. where social CONTRADICTIONS were most acute.

      • jlowrie Says:

        This should read, but now by contrast ”history offered a great variety of possibilities, making it impossible to employ a-historical schemes.”

      • Anti-Capital Says:

        Alas, or may, fortunately, the argument with RL took place on the now defunct revleft website.

      • jlowrie Says:

        In his famous letter to Weydemer of 1852 Marx asserted ”Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was (1) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [and] (3) that this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society

        But (2) is merely a thesis, not at all demonstrated, a product of Hegelian supra historical philosophising, which Marx was later to abandon, as suggested above. Our theories of history must be based on historical developments, not a-priori historical theses whose ‘supreme merit consists in being a-historical.’ Thus Rosa holds that the Chinese and Cuban revolutions are manifestations of state capitalism, because she adheres to the idealist view that socialism can only appear in the most economically advanced countries i.e. universal laws that she condemns in Engels!

        P.S For those who do adhere to this ideology, please provide prices for the means of production or factories or land in Cuba. I have asked this so often but never got a reply.

      • Anti-Capital Says:

        Among the many aspects, and developments, of the Marxist critique of the capitalist world RL has failed to grasp, and can’t be bothered with, is that of uneven and combined development. Thus you get the notion of state capitalism, a state capitalism with or without a new bourgeoisie, which new class we cannot detect developing in the “shell” of the old mode of production in Russia, China, Cuba.

        It’s spontaneous generation. Or magical thinking. You make the call.

        If those revolutions actually produced state capitalism, we can chuck historical materialism into garbage can.

    • Lüko Willms Says:

      May I quote from en.Wikipedia “Dialectical Materialism”:
      »Marx and Engels never used the words “dialectical materialism” in their own writings«
      These concoctions “DiaMat” and “HistoMat” are product of their epigones and falsifiers of the stalinist Thermidor with the purpose of killing any kind of understanding of what Marx and Engels discovered in their studies and struggles.

      And may I envite you to read Marx’ Mathematical Manuscripts, these are full of dialectical thinking. One can’t really do infinitesimal calculus without thinking in contradictions.

      See english editions in en.Wikipedia “Mathematical manuscripts of Karl Marx”

  16. Rosa Lichtenstein (@RosaL100) Says:

    Anti-Capitalist [AC]:

    “Apparently, not many comrades here have had to deal with Lichtenstein before, and believe me, they are lucky and better off for it.”

    So, here is yet another comrade who *can’t defend Engels* but has to resort to posting personal comments about me instead.

    “How appropriate that Lichtenstein shows up here at the same time as a new virus.”

    Comparing me to something that will kill tens of thousands, now. As I pointed out to del, that is a sure sign you, AC, can’t show where I go wrong but have to resort to abuse to deflect from your predicament.

    “Fun fact: Lichtenstein has bots crawling the web, searching out any use of the word Hegel or term dialectics. Say either one 3 times aloud and like Beetlejuice, Lichtenstein shows up.”

    Even funner fact: I have no bots; I wish I were that technically competent to programme one. But, AC now has to resort to making stuff up.

    How did i get here? I subscribe to Michael’s excellent blog, and he regularly sends me emails, which I always read, and that is what led me here, to this particular article. That’s how I found it. No bots anywhere in sight.

    “As for ‘taking apart Hegel’s dialectics (and from a Marxist angle…)’ well, Marx did that himself about 125 years ago with his Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; with The German Ideology, with his historical writings on the class struggles in France, etc.

    “It’s no news news.”

    In fact (AC likes facts, it seems — but, alas, his facts turn out to be fake), I posted this (comrades can check back if they don’t believe me):

    “It’s a pity you decided to spoil your otherwise excellent blog with the unscientific and philosophically ridiculous ideas put about by Engels, Michael. I have taken them apart here (and, believe it or not, from a Marxist angle):

    “http://www.anti-dialectics.co.uk/page%2007.htm”

    Can any of the good people here see the following words in my comment?

    “As for ‘taking apart Hegel’s dialectics (and from a Marxist angle…)’ well, Marx did that himself about 125 years ago with his Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right; with The German Ideology, with his historical writings on the class struggles in France, etc.”

    No?

    Well we already knew that AC likes to make stuff up. At least he’s consistent.

    What I *have* done is take Engels’s theory apart, and AC can’t show where I go wrong. How do we know he that?

    We can see it from the further fun fact that AC has to tell fibs about me, make stuff up and compare me to a lethal virus.

    All aimed at deflecting from his plight.

  17. Michael Ballard Says:

    As much I appreciate Heinrich’s effort on Marx, all too often, the man irritates me. For instance, right off the bat, he faults Engels as having a lack of understanding of Marx which led to the errors Heinrich perceives amongst the Marxists who would take up the cause of socialism in the 20th century. He’s just plain wrong about this, as Marx would have had discussions with Engels over the supposed theoretical shortcomings in Engels’ work, prior to his own death. It wasn’t like Marx never spoke honestly with Engels about political-economy. It’s more the case that Heinrich, like so many graduate student Marxists after the death of Engels, tries to replace Fred as the better interpreter of Marx with Michael. Is he?

  18. Magpie Says:

    I must congratulate you most sincerely, Michael Roberts, for your posts on Engels. They are interesting and educative, to be sure, but I think that they are much more than that: they do justice to a man who not only was a first line thinker, but a good, generous man.

    I think the habit among some Marxists to use Engels as a whipping boy has its origin in Eduard Bernstein, when he slandered Engels as a reformist.

    Whatever the case, truth must be told. Keep up the good work.

    • michael roberts Says:

      Bernstein was a close friend of Engels and helped scatter his ashes, but after Engels’ death he both criticised and used Engels’ work to justify his own reformism.

    • jlowrie Says:

      There is a good refutation of Bernstein’s views in Colletti ( “From Rousseau to Lenin” 1972. Pp45-108). Ironically enough Colletti later became a rightist and crony of Berlosconi, the Italian Prime Minister and plutocratic pedophile!

  19. ucanbpolitical Says:

    I have tried to read Rosa’s untidy collection of thoughts. My only suggestion is she collates it into one coherent article out of respect to the reader. All I can say is that she only understands the distinction between agitation and propaganda and not much else. Her observations relate only to agitation where historical materialism and its lessons are supreme. It does not hold with propaganda where more complex ideas are directed at fewer readers The fact is that unless we conquer capitalism intellectually we will not defeat it physically. Thus while historical materialism suffices for agitation, it does not for propaganda. This is where dialectics comes in. Revolutionaries like Tony Cliff, despite their pledges to adhere to Marxism, clearly did not comprehend dialectical thinking. How else could he arrive at the preposterous proposition that the USSR was state capitalist, when that great Dialectician Marx, observed that capitalism could only exist as many capitals or not at all. Cliff’s thinking, shorn of dialectics was wooden, whereas Marx, observing the pushes and pulls between capitals, the essence of dialectics, was able to describe their laws of motion.

    I do not find Rosa’s contributions useful or insightful and will not pursue reading her “all over the place” therefore lazily constructed writings. (I know some good cut and paste colleges)

  20. prianikoff Says:

    Engels first dealt with the issues raised in the “Dialectics of Nature” in his polemic against Profesor Eugen Dühring, written in 1876.
    Dühring’s writings had become increasingly influential amongst German Social Democrats at the time.

    Dühring – a positivist in philosophy, challenged Marx and Engels proposition that previous history was based on class struggle,
    He favored a view of history based on unchangeable national characteristics.

    Not suprisingly, this led him in the direction of anti-semitism and he described his Socialist rivals Marx and Lasalle as “Jewish agitators and intriguers”
    Engels retorted that Dühring was a Wagner without the talent.

    In order to combat him, Engels broke off work on the “Dialectics of Nature” to write his book “Anti-Dühring”.
    As private letters show, this took place with the full encouragement of Marx, which undermines the idea of a rift between them over Dialectics.

    After Engels’ critique began to be serialised in the SPD’s newspaper Vorwärts , Dühring’s supporters in the party tried to have publication of the article banned.

    This was bad Kharma-, since not long afterwards in 1878, the SPD itself was banned by the Prussian state, as were Engels other writings.

    Engels had the last laugh when the first three chapters were published in as “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific” in 1880.

    IMHO “Anti-Duhring” is a more useful and accessible work than the “Dialectics of Nature”, which remained unfinished and suffers from having been written before the major scientific discoveries of the 20th century – on nature of the “atom”, sub-atomic particles, relativity and quantum theory.

    • prianikoff Says:

      In “Anti-Duhring”, Engels dealt with Hegel’s views on freedom and necessity as follows:-

      “Hegel was the first to state correctly the relation between freedom and necessity. To him, freedom is the insight into necessity (die Einsicht in die Notwendigheit).”

      …”Necessity is blind only in so far as it is not understood
      “Freedom does not consist in any dreamt-of independence from natural laws, but in the knowledge of these laws, and in the possibility this gives of systematically making them work towards definite ends.”

      Engels goes on to identify making fire as the key development which separated humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.
      In his view it was more significant than the invention of the steam engine.

      He sees the development of the productive forces as essential to creating a society without class distinctions or anxiety over individual subsistence.

      Significantly he defines real human freedom as
      “an existence in harmony with the laws of nature that have become known”

      from “Anti Dühring” by Friedrich Engels
      Part I: Philosophy
      XI. Morality and Law.
      ‘Freedom and Necessity’

  21. Chico dos Santos Says:

    Dear Michael Roberts
    I am the editor of a communist blog, linked to the tradition of a French trotiquist leader named Pierre Lambert. We seek to discuss topics of economics and we have repeatedly cited your blog. We would like to translate and publish this text above on our blog. Would you authorize us? We have attached some of the articles in which we quote you https://cienciaerevolucao.blogspot.com/2020/03/pandemia-de-corona-virus-e-fruto-do.html
    https://cienciaerevolucao.blogspot.com/2019/11/aquecimento-global-e-destruicao-das.html

  22. Jasman Simanjuntak Says:

    Thank you Michael for your great essay. May I translate your article into bahasa Indonesia and post it on my blog?

  23. Rosa Lichtenstein (@RosaL100) Says:

    Michael, thank you for giving me some space to address a few of the criticisms of me and my ideas, but am I allowed to reply to the other ill-informed and in some cases abusive comments about me and my work?

    I only ask since my long reply to jlowrie (who at least makes some effort come to grips with my ideas and defend me to some extent) failed to appear after I posted it nearly a week ago.

    If not, and you don’t want this thread to descend into an endless series of back and forths, may I post a link to my site where I will publish (in a few days) a reply to the above attacks on me and my ideas?

  24. Rosa Lichtenstein (@RosaL100) Says:

    Ok, thanks for that, Michael, I’ll repost it (luckily I saved it!). But you have yet to let me know if I can respond to all the other comments about me and my work here, or would you prefer a link to my site where I do that?

    Here is the missing reply to jlowrie:

    =====================

    jlowrie, thanks for your comments:

    “Does Rosa hold that under capitalism there is no contradiction between the means of production and the relations of production, for example?”

    Ok, the dialectical classics tell us that:

    (a) All change is a result of a struggle between ‘dialectically united opposites’, and that,

    (b) Everything changes into that opposite, into that with which it has struggled.

    Here are few quotes (you can find the exact references if you follow the link that the end):

    —————————-

    Hegel (asterisk emphases added, as they have been for all the other quotes):

    “In the self-excluding reflection we have just considered, positive and negative, each in its self-subsistence, sublates itself; each is simply the transition or rather the *self-transposition of itself into its opposite*. This ceaseless vanishing of the opposites into themselves is the first unity resulting from contradiction….” [Hegel (1999), §939, p.433.]

    “The self-contradictory, self-subsistent opposition was therefore already itself ground; all that was added to it was the determination of unity-with-self, which results from *the fact that each of the self-subsistent opposites sublates itself and makes itself into its opposite*, thus falling to the ground…; but in this process it at the same time only unites with itself; therefore, it is only in falling to the ground…, that is, in its positedness or negation, that the opposite is really the essence that is reflected into and identical with itself.” [Ibid., §945, p.435.]

    Engels:

    “Dialectics, so-called objective dialectics, prevails throughout nature, and so-called subjective dialectics, *dialectical thought, is only the reflection of the motion through opposites which asserts itself everywhere in nature, and which by the continual conflict of the opposites and their final passage into one another*….” [Engels (1954), p.211.]

    “For a stage in the outlook on nature where all differences become merged in intermediate steps, and *all opposites pass into one another through intermediate links*, the old metaphysical method of thought no longer suffices….” [Ibid., p.212.]

    Plekhanov:

    “But upon closer investigation it turns out that life itself bears in itself the germ of death, and that in general any phenomenon is contradictory, in the sense that it develops out of itself the elements which, sooner or later, will put an ‘end to its existence and will transform it into its own opposite. Everything flows, everything changes; and there is no force capable of holding back this constant flux, or arresting this eternal movement. There is no force capable of resisting the dialectics of phenomena….

    “And so *every phenomenon, by the action of those same forces which condition its existence, sooner or later, but inevitably, is transformed into its own opposite*….

    “*Every phenomenon, developing to its conclusion, becomes transformed into its opposite; but as the new phenomenon, being opposite to the first, also is transformed in its turn into its own opposite*, the third phase of development bears a formal resemblance to the first.” [Plekhanov (1974), pp.539-45.]

    Lenin:

    “The identity of opposites…is the recognition…of the contradictory, mutually exclusive, opposite tendencies in all phenomena and processes of nature…. The condition for the knowledge of all processes of the world in their ‘self-movement’, in their spontaneous development, in their real life, is the knowledge of them as a unity of opposites. *Development is the ‘struggle’ of opposites…. [This] alone furnishes the key to the self-movement of everything existing*…. 

    “The unity…of opposites is conditional, temporary, transitory, relative. The struggle of mutually exclusive opposites is absolute, just as development and motion are absolute….” [Lenin (1961), pp.221-22, 357-58.]

    “‘This harmony is precisely absolute Becoming change, — not becoming other, now this and then another. The essential thing is that each different thing [tone], each particular, is different from another, not abstractly so from any other, but from its other. Each particular only is, insofar as its other is implicitly contained in its Notion….’ Quite right and important: the ‘other’ as its other, *development into its opposite*.” [Ibid., p.260. Lenin is here commenting on Hegel (1995a), pp.278-98; this particular quotation coming from p.285.]

    “Dialectics is the teaching which shows how *Opposites can be and how they happen to be (how they become) identical, — under what conditions they are identical, becoming transformed into one another, — why the human mind should grasp these opposites not as dead, rigid, but as living, conditional, mobile, becoming transformed into one another*.” [Ibid., p.109.]

    “*Development is the ‘struggle’ of opposites*.” [Lenin, Collected Works, Volume XIII, p.301.]

    “Of course, the fundamental proposition of Marxian dialectics is that all boundaries in nature and society are conventional and mobile, that *there is not a single phenomenon which cannot under certain conditions be transformed into its opposite*.” [Lenin (1916). Quoted from here.]

    Mao:

    “All contradictory things are interconnected; not only do they coexist in a single entity in given conditions, but in other given conditions, they also transform themselves into each other. This is the full meaning of the identity of opposites. This is what Lenin meant when he discussed ‘how they happen to be (how they become) identical — under what conditions they are identical, transforming themselves into one another…’.

    “Why is it that ‘…the human mind should take these opposites not as dead, rigid, but as living, conditional, mobile, transforming themselves into one another’? Because that is just how things are in objective reality. The fact is that the unity or identity of opposites in objective things is not dead or rigid, but is living, conditional, mobile, temporary and relative; in given conditions, every contradictory aspect transforms itself into its opposite….

    “In speaking of the identity of opposites in given conditions, what we are referring to is real and concrete opposites and the real and concrete transformations of opposites into one another….

    “*All processes have a beginning and an end, all processes transform themselves into their opposites*. The constancy of all processes is relative, but the mutability manifested in the transformation of one process into another is absolute.” [Mao (1961b), pp.340-42.]

    You can find the above in the following essay of mine alongside literally dozens of other quotes from the classics and ‘lesser dialecticians’, that all say the same thing.

    (a) All change is a result of a struggle between dialectically united opposites, and,

    (b) Everything changes into that opposite — i.e., into that with which it has struggled.

    http://www.anti-dialectics.co.uk/page%2007_03.htm#What_Do_Dialecticians_Themselves_Say

    [The above Essay in fact shows that if dialectics were true, then *change would be impossible*. Hard to believe? Well check it out and if you disagree, tell me where I go wrong.]

    So, how does this apply to the Forces [FP] and Relations of Production [RP].

    If there is a ‘dialectical contradiction’ here, then the above two must be ‘dialectically united opposites’. If so, they must struggle with one another and then turn into one another — if the above classicists are to be believed.

    In that case the RPs must struggle with and then change into the FPs!

    Has anyone witnessed this? I suspect not. In which case, this can’t be a ‘dialectical contradiction’, whatever else it is.

    jlowrie:

    “For example of Spinoza’s ”determinatio est negatio” Rosa says that Spinoza does not prove this.”

    I do more than that in other Essays (you must know that I can’t establish everything in one Essay!), I show that this principle is not just incoherent, it is inimical to dialectics itself. For example, in this Essay:

    http://www.anti-dialectics.co.uk/page%2003_01.htm

    [I can give you more exact reference to that Essay should you want to check my arguments.]

    I won’t comment on the other things you say, except to note that I fail to understand how you can still appeal to Engels’s first law when I completely demolished it in the Essay you said you read.

  25. Rosa Lichtenstein (@RosaL100) Says:

    Ok, will do, Michael. It will take a few days to write a reply to them all. I will post a link when I have finished. Thanks! 🙂

  26. Rosa Lichtenstein (@RosaL100) Says:

    I’m sorry, Michael, has my last reply to you gone adrift, too?

  27. Rosa Lichtenstein (@RosaL100) Says:

    Yes, far too quick on the draw! Sorry about that, Michael. 🙂

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