Engels after Marx: A (critical) defence

by Darren Roso • Published 30 October 2023

In other words, classical Marxism should be submitted to the same rigorous scrutiny and critical appraisal as the post-classical tradition that derived from it. The courage and calm needed for such a programme would be much greater than in the case of Western Marxism, given the veneration with which nearly all serious socialists have treated the classical masters of historical materialism, and the absence to date of any intellectual critique of these that remained equally and resolutely revolutionary in political position. The greatest respect is, however, compatible with the greatest lucidity. The study of classical Marxism today needs a combination of scholarly knowledge and sceptical honesty that it has not yet received.

— Perry Anderson[1]

In November 1890, about seven years after Marx’s death, Engels turned seventy. Workers from the international socialist movement around the world sent their gifts and messages in great number.[2] Engels was physically thriving, remaining theoretically creative and politically discerning; he was the most precious revolutionary – without equal – in the European socialist movement. Two of Engels’ responses to his comrades, to Vaillant and the French Party, stand out:

Destiny has willed it that I, in my capacity of survivor, should reap the honours due to the labours of my deceased contemporaries, and above all to those of Marx. Believe me, I do not cherish any illusions on that score nor on the very small part of all these tributes which is owed to me personally.[3]


You may rest assured that what remains to me of life and strength shall be devoted to the fight for the proletarian cause. When I am no longer capable of fighting, may it be granted that I die.[4]

With grace and humility, Engels had assumed many a great labour after Marx died. This work is of inestimable value. And without the protracted efforts of the late Engels, Marxism at the opening of the twentieth century would not have been what it became, in its Kautskyan Second International form. The task of this article is to explore that “minor part” Engels played without any illusion about the immense difficulty of the role and with the full view that Engels’ life after Marx remained devoted to fighting for proletarian liberation.

The article explores three elements of the Marxism after Marx represented by Engels.

The first section analyses Engels’ political thought after Marx’s death, much of which comprises new introductions and rectifications to the classic texts he and/or Marx had written some time earlier, supplemented by an extensive correspondence. Political thinking is at the crux of these efforts as Engels searched for a new revolutionary tactic in the 1890s while defending the use of universal(ising) suffrage. Engels’ political rectifications concerned tactics, not a transformation of strategy as a whole; the tactics sought were explicitly revolutionary in character. Engels’ political thought was a means to illuminate the unique possibilities of the situation he confronted.

The second part brings Engels’ thought on history into view, partly to show how his approach ran counter to dogmatic ideological narrations of history, while also illuminating the primacy of politics in his turns to history, specifically drawing out his evaluations of the French Revolution of 1848 and the Paris Commune.

The last section pays attention to Engels’ construction of Marxism at the unambiguously theoretical level. This is the most complex part, especially because no direct line to politics exists between the unambiguously theoretical level and the political. And yet, to take the theoretical arguments seriously, analysing their validity and truths is a necessary exercise. Throughout, I will take up Engels’ ideas about the new materialism, the materialist inquiry into history, the critique of politics and the critique of political economy. These were years in which, if it were not for Engels’ extensive labours, the scientific breakthroughs he and Marx were party to would largely have been forgotten or maligned beyond recognition. With Engels fortune was at hand. He was as capable an editor as ever, able to clean up Marx’s unfinished manuscripts, and defend, explain and extend Marxism into new domains of fresh thought.

Engels’ search for a new revolutionary tactic

Engels believed that revolutionary politics was more complex than any basic formula could capture, requiring a unique mode of thinking that is not repetitive precisely because it concerns singular situations. He recognised that schemas of the past can obstruct understanding of the present that constitute such singularities of history. Since Engels was a subtle and sophisticated thinker aware of the conditions of possibility of revolutionary politics, his late years cannot be read as a final consummation of some kind of dogmatism. Indeed, if Engels’ own independent and early writings like Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy and The Condition of the Working Class in England were everlasting contributions to the genesis of Marxism, based as they were on the complex consistencies of class struggles, it is still worthwhile reading Engels’ thinking backwards, from its most mature form to youth. Only from the mature writings can we ascertain the decisive arguments that were closed and left open by Engels at the time of his death. Of great interest then is the fact that Engels arrived at the terminus of his life while still searching for a new revolutionary political tactic.

It is instructive to note that Engels’ last decade, and his last five years particularly, were years in which he not only set a certain revolutionary political tone for those committed to European socialism, but he also made efforts to set the political record straight. This is the background to the Introduction he penned to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, and in many respects, the Paris Commune – as both harbinger of proletarian rule, and problematic failure to overcome – was pinned onto the canvas of that background.[5] On a number of occasions, Engels clarified the centrality of the political rule of the working class, the dictatorship of the proletariat fundamental to his perspective, none of which was gradualist or reformist.[6]

Engels consistently refuted contemporary critics who thought he and Marx were economic determinists who saw no place for political struggle and political force in history. Engels retorted that if they were economic determinists, they would not care a jot for the political rule of the proletariat.

Undaunted, Engels caused outrage among the Social Democratic Party leadership and the parliamentary fraction when he released Marx’s critique of Lassalleanism, the Critique of the Gotha Programme. The intervention exposed Marx’s criticism of the 1875 program to the rank and file of the party. As Yvonne Kapp writes:

The resurrection of this old but by no means outdated document did more than flutter the dovecotes; it put the cat among the pigeons, for it challenged not simply the Lassalleans of sixteen years before but every present organisation, in Britain as on the Continent, which professed itself Marxist and claimed to represent the ultimate interests of the working class.[7]

And in the interests of political clarity through the visual, Engels then defended the Paris Commune (while introducing Marx’s Civil War in France), pointing to it as an example of what the dictatorship of the proletariat actually was: the Paris Commune, workers in arms, taking over a city and becoming the dominant class, despite the fact that they were eventually defeated.

And lastly, Engels defended – in his criticisms and proposed corrections to the 1891 Erfurt Programme – the democratic republic, which he understood to have been the concentrated political power of the working class, in the sense of the dictatorship of the proletariat. At each of these non-exhaustive returns to the role of the working class, its efforts and prospects for political rule, Engels adopted a revolutionary line aligned to the self-emancipation of the working class.

Engels’ Political Testament, his Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, is among the most contested of his writings, because it raised the stakes about whether he was for or against the revolutionary-insurrectional overthrow of the reigning constitution in Germany, on what terms, and under what conditions. Engels posed the question in 1895, quite explicitly, in the last text he ever wrote.[8] It seems that Engels did not think of the document as his definitive political testament, though de facto it became as much. In these late years, Engels was the closest he had ever been to German Social Democracy and its sister organisations, he was most integrated into the political and organisational functions of Social Democracy, and his every word to defend, extend and rectify Marxism was widely used and misused. Engels was intimately connected to the different national sections of the European and non-European socialist movement through his letters, oral discussions, correspondence and advice, being somebody who could be relied upon to judge political events. Nevertheless, Engels was tasked with updating and thinking through Marxism in the novel conjuncture of the late nineteenth century. The Anti-Socialist Laws had lapsed, Social Democracy could operate legally and Engels thought that a new political situation had begun in Germany.

For the first time in Europe, a mass party with hundreds of thousands of members and voters was based on a program of “scientific socialism”. Engels wrote the Introduction between February and March 1895. At the time, the Chancellor of the Reich had introduced an anti-subversion bill designed to curtail Social Democracy’s room for manoeuvre, and the context partly explains why eventually three versions of Engels’ text entered into circulation: Engels’ original version, the edited version, and a version not authorised, but in fact protested against, by Engels himself.

With rival versions of Engels’ Introduction in circulation, the document was clearly a site of political struggle. Engels overtly and critically reflected upon the implications that flowed from the transformations of the modern bourgeois nation-states in a phase of accelerating geopolitical rivalry and industrial development. The capitalist mode of production had consolidated its rule over most social formations of Europe, and the state machines were becoming, or had indeed already become, more “bourgeois” – centralised and rationally bureaucratic – by the hour. With the modernising military machines, the industrial transformations and the mass organisational and electoral growth of German Social Democracy, the conditions of class struggle had already changed in scale and scope compared to the 1848 revolutions. In these conditions, Engels defended a medium-term application of a parliamentary tactic oriented to universal suffrage.

Engels carried out a specific operation in the Introduction, setting a problem he left unresolved. His stated problem? How was it possible for Social Democracy to build up sufficient hegemony to overthrow the modern state and the domination of capitalist production? Four interrelated elements met in this problem: materialist method, illusion, historical transformation and the power of the modernising nation-state. These elements confronted Social Democracy with questions about its political orientation and direction. To answer Social Democracy’s want of political orientation, Engels had seen the need to underline that in terms of method; there is a structural disjuncture built into his and Marx’s materialist inquiry into history, which pertains to their politics. If, in the last instance, economic causality triumphs in shaping historical events, then there remains a lack of contemporaneity between a class analysis based upon past economic developments and the political situation of a singular present – in other words, a lack of identity between the singular situation confronted and the knowledge of the materially existing social relations of production of the concrete situation themselves. Engels thought, without any shadow of a doubt, that materialist inquiry into history’s structural disjuncture is a source of error and illusion for political practice and that it was necessary to rectify the illusions produced by the ways in which the situation of the 1848 revolutions appeared to him and Marx. Partly, to do this, Engels self-reflectively underlined the way a materialist inquiry needs to be conscious of its limits and structural disjuncture, all the while acknowledging that Marx’s political writings on the 1848 revolutions had withstood the test of time in their ability to grasp events. Historical transformations and the developing military machines sharpened the possibilities of illusion implicit in an application of the materialist method unconscious of the structural disjuncture, and at the very least, Engels was warding off a form of impatience that insists on blind alleys which, on his interpretation, would have meant a quick ruin of the revolutionary project.

Upon entering the continent-wide uprisings of 1848, Engels and Marx shared the illusions of their generation, consisting in the expectation that the course of the revolution would follow the line of development modelled on the Great French Revolution. Expected was a rerun of the classical form of bourgeois revolution, which as it turned out was also the rarest and most atypical of its forms. From this classical form, they then deduced the possibility of a permanent revolution leading to proletarian revolution. Of central significance was the possibility that the 1848 revolutions would pass over from the bourgeois revolution to a proletarian revolution, a transition from revolutions made by minorities – or in the interest of these minorities – to revolutions of the immense majorities in the interest of the majorities. The Parisian uprising of June 1848 signalled the transition, posing the new utopian possibility on the historical stage.

However, according to Engels, the transition – in certain fundamental respects – failed. And why did it fail? In short, the undeveloped material formation of the continental working classes was not yet conducive to the abolition of capitalist production. Actually, the reverse was true, since capitalist domination and development were only just beginning to accelerate and consolidate on the European continent (which leaves aside even the rapid bourgeois transformations of America). After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, Napoleon III and Bismarck would preside over rapid industrialisation projects. The small size of the proletariat, despite its political influence throughout events, partly explained the missed transition from a bourgeois to a proletarian revolution. In that context, Engels also thought that with the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, the period of revolutions from above had begun anew, what came to be called “passive revolutions”, marked by the provisional – though far from definitive – end of revolutions from below.

With these retrospective judgments, and at an elementary but by no means insignificant level, Engels, in his Introduction to Marx’s Class Struggles in France, was engaged in a defensive political operation, meaning he was warning German Social Democrats (a warning and not a definitive last word) about what not to do in the present context and what to continue to do. Engels had his eye on the immediate to medium-term prospects of the European socialist movement that was rapidly gaining in moral, hegemonic, electoral and social strength. In this situation, it seemed imperative not to cede any ground to the bourgeois and other opponents of Social Democracy who were trying to draw the party onto the streets in an open confrontation that would make it easier for the military and state machine, and opponents of Social Democracy, to win a swift and conclusive victory against the growing Social Democratic strength. Engels deliberated upon the complex relationship between the long-term process of building the socialist movement in Germany and the revolutionary event, the rupture, the moment of confrontation that could shatter the modern bourgeois state machinery. However, he did in fact warn against, and wisely so, any form of ultra-left madness or trap set by an anti-socialist provocation that could have derailed the growth of German socialism.

Perhaps it is scandalous to some readers that throughout his text, Engels clearly argues that barricade fighting along the lines of 1848 – Paris, Berlin or Vienna-style – was a thing of the past, only to return, possibly sporadically, and most often to be defeated. For Engels, the only way such barricades, street fighting and insurrections could have any chance of victory against the military was if the civic guard stood in the way between barricaded workers and the youth on the streets, in opposition to the military. By contrast, a direct, sharp and open confrontation between the insurrection and the military itself would invariably lead to the collapse and defeat of the exposed revolutionaries. If this was the case in the 1848, then it became much more pertinent, and the challenges much greater, against the military machine of the modernising capitalist states, with the technological innovations of their instruments of oppression (much of which was being tested in brutal colonial campaigns), through to the organisation of strategy and tactics that they could deploy against street movements. This much Engels argued. But the crux of his argument was a recognition that with the renovation, extension and massification of the military machines of the competing nation-states, it was possible for the morale of the military to break down, especially if Social Democracy had patiently built up hegemony throughout society at large. With Social Democracy a mass party and conscription in place, this might also mean rank-and-file soldiers not firing on their party comrades.

The case for hegemony was at the core of Engels’ defensive political operation. It would subsequently flow into many of the debates about strategy and tactics among Marxists in Western Europe, with their divergences over the complex articulations of long-term building and short-term confrontations. Even if Engels didn’t use the terminology that became currency among Western socialists, his argument in favour of the long-term processes of politically building Social Democracy’s strength was a matter of hegemony: hegemony among the working class and layers of the middle classes and the peasantries rallying behind a socialist call led by the working class. Although the key weapon at the time was the use of universal(ising) suffrage through propaganda and the contestation of every representational post of Germany, Engels nevertheless accepted the need to confront the right wing of the Social Democratic Reichstag fraction when necessary. Though Engels formulated German socialism’s road to influence in the problematic terms of a certain and tranquil march, he nevertheless was defending the need to use every legal avenue for socialist growth while not disavowing or forcing the use of illegal methods of organisation, party work and class struggle; if socialist politics could exploit legality, then so be it until the situation shifted, making other means necessary. That is how Engels seemed to have reasoned.

In form and essence, Engels’ Introduction was edited to take the bite out of it by Wilhelm Liebknecht, who in Vorwärts presented Engels as a peace-loving gradualist smitten with legality. Notwithstanding the edits, Engels presented a very clear argument for revolutionary confrontation, not only by making the case for a hard fought for hegemony prior to a decisive showdown with the state machine, but also when he pointed to the relationship socialists had to the so-called political contract of the modernised bourgeois states. Modern bourgeois states were the results of revolutionary transformations from below and above. By pointing to the political contract, Engels in fact hinted at the conditions in which effective rebellion, insurrection and a right to revolution would be exercised on behalf of the socialists. Contract theory has a history in bourgeois political thinking and while these bourgeois thinkers held that the contract between the people and the sovereign should be respected, the moment the political contract was to break down – many bourgeois thinkers like Hobbes were all too aware of the possibilities of it doing so owing to their immediate experiences of civil wars – then the question becomes a fight for absolute power and sovereign authority, in which resistance, rebellion and revolution become legitimate. Certainly, Engels was giving a hint about the conditions for insurrectional struggle – the broken contract. Once the contract is broken, then the absoluteness of power becomes pivotal, and for Engels, this could mean nothing more than the political domination of the immense majority of self-emancipating workers, which, in the context of the Germany of the time meant winning over a decisive section of the military, breaking down the hierarchies of the military machines, while also entering into a phase through which the socialist movement no longer ran through the legal growth of the socialist movement as such but opened up a whole new phase of class struggle with a revolutionary dimension.

Now, Engels’ late intervention is a transitional text marked by evident absences. Transitional, insofar as the ongoing nineteenth century fusion of the state and nation was still unfinished, imperial rivalry was leading – as Engels himself predicted – to a new world war of a kind never seen before; the formation of the continental working class was creating the possibilities for new forms of class struggle like the mass strike and workers’ councils. Engels’ transitional political intervention stood at the borderline between use of the tactic of universal suffrage and the emergence of the new weapon of the mass strike in Eastern and Western Europe. As a transitional document, its absences must be acknowledged: absent is an attention to mass strikes, workers’ councils and a coherent account of the structural nature of reformism – all being phenomena that emerged within a decade or so after Engels’ death. Identifying these absences is more useful than any slips of the pen or defensive manoeuvres that had their origins in the non-revolutionary situation or censorship because they allow us to judge the development of revolutionary politics in East and West in the Second International.

Engels and history

With the structural disjuncture between materialist method and contemporary class struggles outlined above, I think that Engels approached history in a twofold way: at once as a materialist inquiry into history and a politically overdetermined device for orientation in the present. The materialist inquiry into history pertains to the past while the politically overdetermined device has its gaze on the present with a hope to shape the future.

To show another perspective on the same issue, two thoughts organise Engels’ many returns to history. First, as an anti-dogmatic inquirer into past history, Engels self-consciously broke with ideological-philosophical representations of history owing to the materialist-scientific line of research which was able to bring into view the complex and plural developments of the history of pre-class and class societies. What is an ideological-philosophical representation of history? It is an a priori edifice of thought constructed to dictate where history will end (this is the teleological function of the edifice). Marx and Engels had polemicised against the ideological and a priori representation of history in their unpublished and unfinished German Ideology manuscripts. The turn away from an a priori edifice of thought meant Engels was open to new historical discoveries that adjusted his theoretical conceptions. Engels was self-critical and updated his formulations in view of new scientific discoveries, pointing out and criticising the ideological conceptions that needed rectification or abandonment; thus, we see the practice of a continued effort of materialist clarification. Without Engels’ open orientation, the thought of revolutionary politics dies. (In the sections focused on metaphor, I will demonstrate one way in which Engels handled the need for fresh thought and the tendency of inadequate schematic edifices to solidify into dogmatic constructions.)

In the second place, Engels invoked history in a political manner, meaning he observed history set within the already constituted constellations of the primacy of politics, in order to draw the salient lessons, identify the nodal points of transition to make sense of his present, to win arguments with his contemporaries and set out a guiding thread of politics in the new situations he faced, showing that Engels returns to history under the conditions of the political exigencies, purposes and needs of a present with the class struggle ordering its reference points.

i. Engels and “hitherto unknown” histories

One of the most significant post-Marxian corrections Engels made to the Communist Manifesto was the note (in the 1888 English edition of the pamphlet) to the classic formulation that the history of all hitherto existing society is a history of class struggle.[9] The rectification was made in light of the ethnological revolution in historical time, Engels’ detailed reworking of Marx’s Ethnological Notebooks and the American anthropologist Lewis Morgan’s studies of the Iroquois and non-written history. In many ways, Engels’ correction complements the other rectifications that he and Marx made about what is to be done with the state machine, because not only was the eternal presence of class struggle throughout most of history challenged, so too was that of the state (and women’s oppression).

Engels corrected the Communist Manifesto’s thesis about class struggle with the recognition that non-written history could not necessarily be said to have comprised class struggles. Specifically, non-written history as a domain of research was quite unknown to Marx and Engels in 1847, or at least it was not put to use. That is to suggest that the vast majority of history without class struggle, state alienation and women’s oppression was unknown to them. The transformation in this domain allowed the inner organisation of primitive communist society – demonstrated primarily but not exclusively by Morgan – to rise to the surface of “Western” knowledge, altering and confirming a materialist and scientific approach to history. About this passing of the unknown to the known, it is remarkable that Marx and Engels had made an argument about a communist society with its expansion of liberation, the abolition of class antagonisms and the state without yet having knowledge about pre-recorded history in their vast encyclopaedic historical knowledge. However, the knowledge of pre-recorded history opened a whole new terrain, an expansive field that was, in its own particular way, a kind of proof of the possibility of classless and liberated societies even if, in and of themselves, pre-class societies still were not the kinds of liberated societies Marx and Engels had hopes for in the future, and they never argued for a retreat to a “raw communism” without the liberation of the singular individual that had already been achieved (in its unfree property-owning manner) by bourgeois modernity.

Knowledge of pre-recorded history provided a materialistic basis to break apart the intimate connection (made by philosophers and teleological ideologists of history) that history had had to the pre-modern and modern bourgeois state apparatuses. For much of written history, history was what happened in and among competing states. But the fact that much of human history was without an alienated class state meant this ideological assumption could no longer hold. With the ethnological revolution in historical time and the break with histories written from the vantage point of states, pre-recorded historical excavation could begin to ask questions about the beginnings of human beings, their institutions and the times prior to state-class-gender domination, and specifically how they came to produce their forms of life. Materialist excavations of pre-recorded history were therefore epochal intellectual events because they showed that the pivotal historical transitions concerned not just the movement from traditional class societies (in “the West” from Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire or the Middle Ages) to modern bourgeois societies. Instead of this epochal transformation from pre-modern to modern bourgeois societies, alone deemed to be essential was the materialist discovery of traditional pre-class societies based on common appropriation and deliberation, showing the possibilities of societies without class, state and gender domination, and even societies that made efforts to consciously organise themselves with means to mitigate against the emergence of forms of domination itself.

Notably, prior to working over Morgan’s research on the Iroquois and kinship, Engels gave us a glimpse into the materialist and dialectical nature of common ownership in his illustration of the “negation of the negation”.[10] This is fascinating – though potentially misleading if the limits of dialectical presentation are not respected, because disrespect immediately leads to another teleological and ideological edifice. The example shows the interconnection of abstract theoretical argument and materialist discovery at work in Engels. Engels drew an abstract argument from Rousseau to show how initially a state of nature might be based on equality, then passes over to a stage of inequality (a negation of the original state), but which is then negated anew (negation of the negation) by the social contract that brings about a higher form of equality. This was an illustration of the way one might think history through dialectical transitions, from which Engels suggested: every so-called civilised people began with common ownership of the land, which became a fetter and was abolished, thereby instituting private property; after the institution of private property, a third moment emerges because private property has itself become a fetter. Crucially, for Engels, the third moment – the “negation of the negation” – does not lead to a restoration of the original common ownership but results in a more developed form of possession in common. These abstract ideas were made more complex by the materialist discoveries of pre-recorded history which henceforth became a fundamental element of conceptions of modern liberation, which were no longer returns to the origin but were sublated “negations of the negation”.

Of great consequence, Engels’ correction to the first line of the Communist Manifesto has the significance that it spelt the end of the ideological contestations about the state of nature, about whether humans were naturally competitive or sociable and peaceable, which of course were projections of modern bourgeois society onto the past – articulated at different moments, from Hobbes to Locke, of the rise of capital – for the purposes of unifying, consolidating and reproducing the self-image of bourgeois society in the context of colonial expansion and subjugation. The excavation of pre-recorded history ends this ideological conflict in the direction of a materialist solution. Engels took these discoveries and additionally, based on Darwin’s theory of evolution, could set them to work in texts like The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man.

ii. Engels and the memory of the Paris Commune

Engels returned to the history of nineteenth century revolutionary upheaval on many occasions, and here I turn to the eternally heroic Paris Commune. It shows the way Engels approached history under the condition of the primacy of politics, the second feature that organises his return to history. Twenty years after the defeat of the Paris Commune, Engels wrote an introduction to Marx’s The Civil War in France, with the express intention of defending the nature of workers’ power, but also to show the ironic limitations of the Proudhonists and Blanquists. Engels returned to the Commune to draw out the lesson that the old state apparatus as it had been shaped in the aftermath of the French Revolution could not be simply taken over by the proletariat.[11] Crucially, Engels was concerned about the way Parisian workers, and the politicised proletariat generally, had been deprived of their arms at every pivotal juncture of bourgeois revolution prior to the Commune. Engels discerned a kind of law of counter-revolution, a first commandment of the bourgeoisie in times of revolutionary turmoil, in which arms in the hands of the workers had to be taken away for the stabilisation of bourgeois rule to take place.

Engels’ politicised approach to history was indexed to the needs of working-class self-emancipation. In that sense, Engels’ return to the Commune was about generalising the lessons of revolutionary class struggle, part of an effort to orient the emerging socialist movement by way of historical exemplification. The politically orienting nature of the text is most clearly demonstrated in his discussions of the Proudhonists and Blanquists active in the Commune. For Engels, these forces experienced the ironies of history. The Proudhonists, who were mostly opposed to forms of labour association because of Proudhon’s dogmas, came out in favour of forms of workers’ association and organisation. On the other hand, the Blanquists, who had been minority conspirators, had themselves turned into politicians doing mass work. And beyond that, while the Blanquists had been in favour of a strictly centralised dictatorship, in the context of the Commune – because the Commune represented a non-State, a state with the capacity to undo itself – they effectively put the call out for other Communes to be built elsewhere and for power to be decentralised. Engels also criticised the economic limitations of the Proudhonists and the Blanquists – the central error of having not seized the Bank of France to take charge of the wealth of whole sections of the French bourgeoisie, which Engels thought would have at least won better conditions for a peace between Paris and Versailles. The point of raising Engels’ return to the Commune is to show that, while returns to history are informed by a materialist and scientific approach to history, the political judgments also matter, especially how they may act as memorial pointers for revolutionary politics about where things could go into the future, the two key points Engels drew being about the nature of workers’ power and the limits of the Proudhonists and Blanquists.

Engels’ theoretical-scientific-philosophical elaborations

Engels’ later years were dedicated to the scientific-theoretical-philosophical elaboration of Marxism – though “Marxism” and “Marxist” tend to conceptually obscure the contents of Engels’ elaboration, Marx and Engels themselves having used the terms pejoratively. We do not get very far with the claim that Engels simply built the foundations of Marxism for other Marxists, because we need – in the first place – to know what these might be. Engels was acutely aware of such an obfuscation, as is apparent from his letters.

Throughout this section on Engels’ theoretical work, I will focus on four components: the nature of the new materialism Engels (and Marx) referred back to, the materialist inquiry into history as Engels tried to defend it in his letters (tentatively taking over and popularising the notion of “historical materialism”), the provisional, fragmentary and incomplete expression of the critique of politics, which I read as one of Marx’s decisive yet incomplete breakthroughs, and lastly, the articulation of Marx’s critique of political economy, primarily through the efforts to edit, translate and introduce Marx’s Capital (all four so-called volumes). Without separating, identifying and grasping these four elements of Engels’ scientific-theoretical-philosophical work (I have left out Engels’ Dialectics of Nature) it is not possible to come to proper theoretical terms with the Marxism of the Second International.

i. Materialist anti-dogmatics

Exegetists of Engels have an obligation to think through, make sense of and explore his philosophical new materialism as it passes over to scientific practices. Such an orientation thinks about what Engels does as a materialist anti-dogmatic thinker.

Despite his continual philosophical reliance on Hegel’s Science of Logic, Engels remained committed to what may be termed a new materialism, with which he carried out a specific materialist operation of thinking based on what he rationally derived from philosophy. The derivation of that which was of rational value seems to be a key to Engels’ relation to the Hegelian dialectic. Engels’ most far-reaching statement about the relation Hegelian dialectics has to rational dialectics concerned the fact that the two distinct, Hegelian and rational, modes of dialectic have the same relation as the caloric theory and the mechanical theory, and phlogistic theory to Lavoisier’s chemistry. What is striking from Engels’ own writings is that whenever he took up Hegel for his own purposes, ie, wielded some of Hegel’s rational thought determinations for his own use, he had to disassemble Hegel and break Hegel’s concepts out of the order they had in Hegel’s system (because of its obsolete character) to draw something rational from them.

The new materialism conjoins two elements that need attention while also moving against a mode of dogmatic conformity in philosophy. The new in the new materialism points to the modernity of the materialism, a sublated novelty in relation to the antiquated materialisms of Democritus, Epicurus and Lucretius that had been challenged and overturned by the philosophical idealisms of Aristotle and Hegel, each of whom developed complex thought determinations in their oeuvres in ostensible opposition to materialism. For Engels, the mostly Hegelian thought determinations passed over into the new materialism, making it a sublated form of philosophy present in the background of his materialist scientific practice. It is of decisive significance, however, that Engels’ new materialism was also informed by Darwin, or at least Darwin was integrated into Engels’ reflections; in this sense, Engels was concerned about the nature of materialism after Darwin’s discoveries (many philosophers, and even contemporary critics like Dühring, had failed to consider Darwin’s significance for modern materialism) as well as Marx’s own.

However, Engels was also intent on criticising contemporary philosophers and theoreticians who tried to “lay down the law” to the working class through some set of commandments; these somebodies were enunciators of what we could call the idealist Master discourses, and they were abhorred by Engels. This aspect of Engels’ relation to philosophy has been overlooked, but I think it is one key to grasping his intentions, projects and accomplishments adequately. To grasp Engels’ abhorrence of idealist Master discourses, it is perhaps gainful to draw attention to notions like the conformity to reason and elucidate the mechanics of an idealist Master discourse. The mechanics of conformity run as follows: the idealist Master discourse voices an eternal Truth, hoping their listeners or readers will be beholden to it, imprisoned by it, willing to act and think in conformity with it. One is then not permitted to deviate from the idealist Master discourse because to deviate from the enunciated norm is akin to deviating from reason and Truth; the idealist Master discourse itself closes the future off from its many possibilities of development. According to Engels, this orientation is sectarian in communist politics, which is why he spent much time loosening the grip of the idealist Master discourses that are incompatible with the new materialism. The idealist Master discourse is sectarian and incompatible with the new materialism because communism, which is a movement abolishing the present state of things, becomes falsely set up as a movement compelled to conform to an impersonal eternal Truth, which amounts to conformity to a God concept or to an impersonal concept that is exterior to history and the materiality of class struggles, but which has been voiced by a sectarian denying their finitude. The Truth becomes an entity outside of time and history and others are expected, or compelled, to kneel before it without discussion. At the time Engels was writing, his contemporary Eugen Dühring had set himself up as the personification of such an impersonal and eternal Truth, which is why Engels spent so much effort destroying Dühring’s claims to omniscience and subjection to it. Engels’ new materialism needs to be read in terms of its elemental break with Master discourses and obedience to their inevitable sectarian finitude.

The relations of Marxism and philosophy, and the political controversies associated with them, explain why Engels only publicly intervened to address philosophical questions when the conditions facing the European socialist movement required, giving his interventions a reactive character (fundamentally opposed to traditional systems of philosophy).[12] Engels’ reactive relationship to contemporary philosophy is a well-established fact, flowing consistently from the materialist character of Engels’ approach to class struggle, science and the dialectic. Engels shows us the snares any attempt to build philosophical systems in the socialist movement are likely to encounter. He worked to overcome the dominant bourgeois conception of philosophy, as part of his struggle against the illusion that philosophy was the locomotive of history. The early socialist movement had systems ready to hand, from the utopian socialists to Proudhon and Eugen Dühring, who hoped in one way or another to produce proletarian systems of philosophy able to rival the bourgeoisie. Engels polemicised against this tendency and resisted the pressures of concocting a system. He did not definitively defeat the dominant bourgeois conception of philosophy (it returned in different guises in the Second International onwards) and he had certain illusions about it (he didn’t adequately answer why philosophers built their systems), but generally he was quite clear about the stakes of his new practice of materialism.

Engels’ understanding of the new materialism has a transition from philosophy to scientific practice built into it, which is open to debate, but without grasping this his work is liable to be misunderstood. If we take Marx as an example, it is obvious that he abandons philosophy and moves onto the terrain of the critique of political economy, the scientific production achieved by Capital; to restate this, Capital is not a work of philosophy and this is generally crucial for the application of its critique. In terms of my argument, at least three points become crucial for the sections below. First, one should think about what it means for Engels, or Marx, to have a theory of something in the strong scientific sense. Second, we need to resolve the confusion – prevalent among dogmatic Marxists – between ideological worldviews and the scientific search for truths that produce actual insight into reality, its laws, structures, tendencies and counter-tendencies. To resolve this confusion, one needs to cut out the form of dogmatics that treats any utterance of Marx and Engels as part of theory, of some Marxist worldview, whereby theory is degraded because it is incorrectly taken to encompass everything ever said by Marx and Engels. Failure to distinguish between scientific and ideological solutions to questions means positively opting for an ideological posing of problems that sacrifices their truth contents. Third, theory can be grasped with its own immanent guarantees of objective truth – internally – which are not simply reducible to the external history of practice against which they are verified; the latter sacrifices indispensable claims to truth in favour of pragmatism.

Engels never, or rarely, remains at the level of a philosophical materialism, and any commitment to a philosophical materialism is translated into a materialist scientific practice. By virtue of this Engels has at times been misread as having been a positivist, but it is instead better to read him as putting forward a specific form of materialist dialectic that made redundant a philosophy of history and nature independent from the moment of scientific application. Engels more or less explicitly states as much in his short pamphlet Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy and his polemics against Dühring, where he rules out of court any conception of philosophy as a thought of the general totality that absorbs the specific materialities, discoveries, hypotheses and provisional conclusions of the sciences. Indeed, Engels recognised that a remnant of philosophy – logic – became an empirical science among others, and though he wasn’t entirely aware of or on top of the new breakthroughs then underway in modern logic, he left open the possibility of new logical discoveries.[13] Nevertheless, this was a way of historically situating the passage from philosophy to science and the role of logic. Principally, Engels thought that philosophical efforts to put a claim on the entire system of things and their knowledge was not a specific task of the new materialism and the materialist dialectic. Besides, a consequence of effacing the distinction between philosophy and science is the illusion that it is possible to deduce a particular piece of concrete knowledge from general laws of dialectical thought, from philosophy (ie, from a higher form of ideology). There have historically been remarkable philosophical anticipations of scientific discoveries; however, creative and concrete knowledge is not produced by way of a set of three or four dialectical laws, nor from Hegel’s philosophy of nature, or logic.

The content of the new materialism, as Engels defended it, also has a distinctive relationship to the radical bourgeois materialism of the English and the French. In his introduction to the English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels had excavated his and Marx’s polemics against the Young Hegelians from The Holy Family.[14] The intention was to demonstrate to the English contemporaries that materialism was part of their more radical past, but he also demarcated the early radical bourgeois materialism from a materialism of history (a materialism cognisant of historical materialities) while also demonstrating the Kantian impasse of agnosticism.

This is decisive for a few reasons.

First, when The Holy Family was written, Marx and Engels had a materialism of bodies[15] but not yet a materialism of history (admittedly materialisms of history had already been developed by Vico, Montesquieu and Ferguson); where Engels demonstrates the contours of a historical materialism, it shows the line of division against the radical bourgeois materialists (for whom Engels had great respect). Moreover however, Engels showed that he was keyed into Hegel’s thought determinations, specifically in his criticism of Kant, the “thing-in-itself” and agnosticism. Kant had argued that all we could know is the realm of appearances, beyond which there was a thing in-itself, a kind of God concept to which one might be faithful. Kant separated the appearance that was knowable from the unknowable thing in-itself, and Engels adopted – explicitly – a Hegelian line of argument against Kant by suggesting that all we can know is a conceptual space of arguments, discoveries, reasoning, judgments, inferences and material practices that make sense of the world, which makes the thing in-itself redundant. There is no need for an unknowable beyond of all this, and to claim as much cedes too much ground to the religious type. This matters for Engels’ concept of the new materialism as I defend it here, since at no point did Engels ever defend a reductionist materialism. Instead, Engels defended materialism, excavated the English radical bourgeois materialism, then recognised the historical character of his materialism, and indeed accepted Hegel’s argument against Kant’s thing in-itself, which meant that the materialism Engels espoused was a materialism resting on the logical space of concepts and rationality implicit in humanly material practices. Engels grasped the new materialism in terms of the materialities of history and the logical space of rationality that systematic thought determinations bring together for truthful insight.

We need to inquire properly and creatively into Engels’ conception of reason, which is something much more than an influence of materialism here and an influence of Hegelian thought there, but rather – as the polemic against Dühring indubitably demonstrates – is a novel way of articulating what can be meant by rationality itself. Such, at least, is the terrain upon which I think we can plod along Engels’ proposals well.

ii. Constructing the materialist conception of history: metaphors, models and fetishism wedged between thought and practical application

Engels had the difficult task of warding off any efforts to block the way of inquiry into the complexities of history. Engels’ task was simultaneously to show that the materialist inquiry into history was open to the complexities of plural forms of human life, was not a reductionist theory based on unilinear conceptions of history or a unilaterally determining moment, while also making every effort to name, capture and communicate a real scientific breakthrough for materialist history adjoined to Marx’s name. With this difficulty in mind, I distinguish three levels of Engels’ construal of the materialist inquiry into history.

The first level of construal concerns thought as Engels presented the thought implicit in the materialist inquiry into history, a means to point the direction of research into complexities (strictly opposed to a theory of general development).

The second level is that of metaphor taken in Goethe’s sense – Do not forbid me use of metaphor; I could not else express my thoughts at all.

To express the thought present in the materialist inquiry into history, Engels had need of metaphor. Whatever the strengths of metaphor, it remains descriptive, able to describe the nature of a new thought, but because of its descriptive character, theoretical knowledge and practical application need to go beyond the level of metaphor.

The third level of Engels’ communication of the materialist inquiry into history is that of practical application into the diverse domains of history, which in practice is not handled at the level of a general history or theory but in diverse and specific materialities. We have, therefore, theoretical thought, metaphor and practical application, each having a place in the communication of Marx’s discoveries, discoveries that had a relationship to the pre-Marxian materialist inquirers into history (Appian, Montesquieu and Ferguson) and modernising historiographies of Engels’ time.

Distinct from the application of the materialist inquiry into history, Engels tried to elucidate its nature and content in a series of letters to the younger generation of its practitioners in the Social Democratic camp. Engels’ explanations were in letters, not to be taken as seriously as his other polished publications. He himself was clear about this. Yet, these letters have formed part of the debates over whether “historical materialism” was reductionist or not – the term appeared about the time of these letters, between about 1890 to 1892, in English and in German. The “historical” in historical materialism is to be taken as an adjective, not a substantive. Additionally, Engels’ English term is simpler owing to the difficulties of translating the “materialistische Geschichtsauffassung” adequately into English. In fact, it seems that Engels took the term “historical materialism” from Franz Mehring’s The Lessing Legend, in which an appendix dedicated to the term can be found, and Engels held it in high esteem.[16] We should recognise the fact that Engels was part of the genesis of the first version of so-called “historical materialism”, with Werner Sombart, Mehring, Kautsky, Plekhanov, Labriola and even Bernstein playing their part, which cut against a rival bourgeois tradition in becoming – the German “human sciences” – with whom the early form of historical materialism was in explicit and implicit confrontation and dialogue.

Engels opposed turning his and Marx’s materialist inquiry into a Hegelian philosophy of history. The singular cases of history had to be taken up afresh. This is neatly expressed in a letter he wrote to Conrad Schmidt (1890):

In general, the word “materialistic” serves many of the younger writers in Germany as a mere phrase with which anything and everything is labelled without further study, that is, they stick on this label and then consider the question disposed of. But our conception of history is above all a guide to study, not a lever for construction after the manner of the Hegelian [kein Hebel der Konstruktion à la Hegelianertum]. All history must be studied afresh.[17]

Generally, Engels relied on Hegel’s thought determinations while drawing a line of demarcation against a Hegelian philosophical construction in the domain of history (which is consistent with his break with ideological representations of history). Beyond this immediate effort to draw a line between idealist constructions and materialist inquiries into history, and without questioning the validity and truths of the materialist inquiry into history as such, some of Engels’s formulations, or his mode of demonstration, in his other letters can nevertheless be questioned.

I will discuss these in four steps: first, Engels’ use of metaphor, then his reliance on natural models; I will take up the economic fetishism identified in Engels’ letters, which became a point of difficulty for subsequent Marxists in the debates with the revisionists and, lastly, I will claim that there are no general laws of history. In other words, this section will go into the tensions and the limits of Engels’ late clarifications, raised not to refute “historical materialism” as such, but to show that the moment of the emergence, elucidation and popularisation of a materialist inquiry into history that Engels was attempting to juggle was also bound up with a string of problems that need to be deliberated upon to draw out what Marx and Engels actually achieved in their theoretical-scientific-philosophical work, while also identifying the blockades, impositions and the blind alleys for materialist inquiries into histories. Cognisant of the fact that the single most important problem facing Engels’ defence of Marx’s scientific discoveries in the domain of history was the underdevelopment of modern historiography, and the difficult crossing from the announcement of a materialist conception of history to an effected scientific-materialist history, to pay attention to Engels’ use of metaphor and the modalities of explanation from his letters may seem injudicious. However, I think Wolf is correct to suggest that since Engels’ letters are interventions into an overdetermined historical conjuncture, they need to be read as historical documents in which Engels made every effort to oppose eclecticism in philosophy and the reduction of Marx’s materialist inquiry into history to a sectarian dogmatic economism under the guise of Marxism – a tendency that was gaining ground in German Social Democracy.[18]

A historically situated reading of Engels’ letters, and attention to his mode of explanation and argumentation, is justified in terms of the need for a theoretical reading of the confluence of truths and validity of Engels’ arguments for their soundness, with the hope of demonstrating the provisional nature of his formulations, which Engels himself consistently repeats.

Two distortions of the materialist inquiry into history gained ground among the younger intellectuals of Social Democracy. Too much weight was given to the “economic factor” of history, and “historical materialism” was used as a phrase practically covering over their own lack of historical knowledge. Within the textures of Engels’ interventions, he relied on metaphor. In itself, metaphor is not a problem, only becoming a problem if metaphors are taken to be sufficient for a systematic-scientific theorisation. Metaphor is an index of a lacking elaborated scientificity and Engels was entirely aware, it seems, of this lack, constantly warning his interlocutors of the provisional and incomplete explanations he gave. We can see that in the history of Marxism, metaphors have been confused with, or even have substituted for, systematised theoretical concepts.

Engels uses at least two genres of metaphor in his letter to Schmidt: Newtonian and legalistic.[19] In terms of the Newtonian, a double metaphoric model is at play, according with the Newtonian physics of his time (the dominant paradigm of scientificity), combining optics and Newtonian mechanics. In the first two paragraphs of Engels’ letter to Schmidt, talk of inverted reflection owes much to optics – which was a forerunner of Newtonian physics and a dominant science practised by the likes of Descartes – and “inverted reflection” is conjoined to a model of interaction illustrated by Newtonian mechanics hoping to demonstrate the autonomy and reciprocal interaction of the constituents of a historical whole. That is why Engels writes that “Economic, political and other reflections are just like those in the human eye, they pass through a condensing lens and therefore appear upside down, standing on their heads” – an optical image used to clarify the relation the money markets and the state have to production via the division of labour in society. What is presented, therefore, is a general picture of historical materialism based on a double metaphor where Engels tries to make a case for the “unequal forces”, in which the economic has the dominant weight over the political-superstructural ones.

The other – vertical – metaphor Engels uses is the “last instance” taken from legal vocabulary. The vertical metaphor of the last instance refers to the hierarchy of decisional entities from initial to last. It is the final court of appeal. This is important because with it, a legal metaphor is transposed onto a materialist and scientific account of history as a kind of last judgement. Yet, there is an implicit problem with the transposition of legal metaphors in this way because they tend towards absolutising isolated features of “historical materialism” – whatever is the last instance – or they tend to produce a false totalisation derived from the last instance decision. Absolutisation and false totalisation in this sense are inherent in the very notion of a sovereign decision able to decide on all possible objects, which informs the legal metaphor because they do not require any further justification. Wolf is probably right to claim that this legalistic metaphor comes into conflict with the other metaphors Engels used from optics and Newtonian mechanics, because in the terms of a vertical legal metaphor, the last instance sovereign decision is unlimited in its power and authority, once a decision is made, while the metaphors from optics and Newtonian are subject to the limited and given conditions in which they are applicable.

Three further lines of criticism and discussion can be directed at Engels’ letters on historical materialism, namely those of Louis Althusser and Lucio Colletti, while Étienne Balibar’s deconstruction of dogmatic forms of historical materialism is helpful too. Each author needs to be taken seriously.[20] These are criticisms that demonstrate the difficulties and the subsequent confusions produced by certain of Engels’ formulations. For Colletti, a fetishisation of the “economy” could be discerned, while for Althusser, Engels’ invocation of “individual wills” in history was an unnecessary philosophical regression, and for Balibar, there is no general theory of transition and history. Colletti’s argument rested upon the insight that in Engels’ explanations, the notion of the economy became, or was read as, a purely technical term to the detriment of its reference to social relations of production, ie, it was technical rather than social-relational. With this reduction, history is interpreted as “the epiphenomenon of technical change”. In turn, this meant that certain Marxists – notably Plekhanov – thought they could reduce the complexities of history and the superstructure to a monistic principle, an economistic-technical object, the economy.

Althusser’s case, in contrast to Colletti’s, focuses on the way Engels (in his letter to Joseph Bloch) tries to explain historical events on the terrain of individual wills, which is a problem because on this point, Engels reverts back to a philosophical-legal-bourgeois ideological concept of individual will to explain history in contradistinction to a materialistic inquiry. The “individual will” had already featured in bourgeois accounts of history from Hobbes to Adam Smith and Bentham, but most notably featured in Hegel’s philosophy of history as a key to the development of right and the modern bourgeois state. We need to see the difficulty at stake here, because in order to explain the materialist conception of history Engels needs to draw in an ideological concept that grounded bourgeois representations of history and he gets caught in a bind when he does so. Engels’ bind returns us to the Newtonian metaphor, as Engels bases the role of individual wills on the Newtonian metaphor of the parallelograms of forces, ie, Engels is taking a proof from Newton and applying it to history via the bourgeois representation of individual will. What we get is a metaphor combined with the preeminent ideological presupposition of bourgeois political and economic thought, somehow to explain the materialist inquiry into history. These two criticisms by Colletti and Althusser might be swept aside as pedantic, but they nevertheless show the difficulty of trying to metaphorically represent Marx and Engels’ signature scientific breakthroughs in the domain of history, between the thought content and practical application.

Of course, Engels was conscious that history was more complex than any formula could capture, and here, Balibar was correct to point out that no general laws of development, no general law of history and no general theory of transition exist. In this sense, it is questionable whether there is a general theory of modes of production. The general concepts (I am drawing on Balibar) that Marx uses – of the forces of production, the relations of production, the base and the superstructure, the articulations of the legal political and ideological elements of the superstructure as well as the concepts of correspondence and contradiction that form part of this nexus of concepts – only point us in a general or a formal sense when analysing the materialities of a complex historical content. These concepts cannot actually anticipate the content that will be discovered, and to ask more from the formal concepts of a theory is to fall into a supra-historical general theory that does not grasp the transformations of one mode of production to another. For Balibar (perhaps more important for the ambiguities and the absences within the metaphors of Engels’ late writings on historical materialism) it cannot be said that there is a general law of historical transition or a general theory of historical transition, no theory of transition in general – taken in the strong sense of explaining the real causality of the process of transition – because every historical transition is materially and conceptually distinct and one is not reducible to the other.

I have raised these issues for the simple reason that no theory of history taken at the level of undue generality ought to be taken from a close reading of Engels’ late writings. The corollary of this deconstruction is that a theological reference to history – invoked politically or theoretically – is ruled out of court as a servility to reified concepts obstructing the enlightened thoughts and practices emancipation requires.

iii. Developing the critique of politics: genesis and structure, general theory and form, specific concept of the state

To lay my cards on the table as clearly as possible, the premise informing this section is that the critique of politics is a real scientific object produced by Marx’s epistemic breakthroughs. If this argument is correct, then it should be handled as such. As a real scientific object, the critique of politics concerns first the modern bourgeois state as a specific social form of impersonal power and domination regulating class struggles, second the new practice of politics informing revolutionary class struggle, and third the possible withering away of the modern bourgeois state with the abolition of class domination. It is not a claim about a fictional autonomy of the modern bourgeois state untethered from capitalist production, but points to the reconstruction of the inner structure of the modern bourgeois state in its “ideal average”, which is to be achieved by taking the scientificity of its form-determinations seriously.

Engels was indeed aware of the revolutionisation of traditional political thought he and Marx had accomplished, which functions as the certainly insufficient groundwork for rediscovering the critique of politics. However, since Engels presented Marx’s scientific discoveries as consisting in the theory of surplus value and the materialist conception of history, little was said about Marx’s tentative and fragmented breakthrough for the critique of politics, which is in need of interpretation and systematisation. I think it is necessary for us to draw out Engels’ relationship to the critique of politics, and I claim that both Marx and Engels paved the way for, and contributed to, the specificity of the critique of politics, which nevertheless remained an unfinished, unaccomplished project. Indubitably, I am not making an argument that politics is the centre around which history moves, nor that history rotates around the nation-state as such; such ideas were present in the contemporary socialist movement under the guise of the so-called theory of force offering a paltry alternative to Marx’s and Engels’ materialist inquiries into history. The theorists of force argued that politics (and state activities) was the determining factor of history. Such an idea, in part, rests upon the superstition of the state Engels had derided, displaced the state from the centre of history conceived of as the march of God on earth.

Two problems face the argument for the critique of politics as an autonomous object in Marx’s work, half identified and elaborated by Engels. First of all, if Engels rightly rejected the theory of force, then does a critique of politics fall into its pitfalls? This can be ruled out of hand because the theory of force is a bad theory, unable to align to the critique of political economy or a materialist inquiry into history. Second, and more substantially, a critique of politics was not developed and systematised to the same extent, or at the same level, as the critique of political economy was. The second problem has often been explained away on the basis that Marx had hoped to write a book on the state in his initial plans for Capital, though this may be dubious because it subsumes the critique of politics into the critique of political economy, operating under the illusion that the modern bourgeois state can easily or unproblematically be derived from the commodity form and value, or assumes that the missing book on the state could have been filled in if one sticks to what became a (redundant) plan for Capital in any case. These two turns in argumentation fail to consider that the critique of political economy and the critique of politics are distinct objects, and that, while in need of articulation, the critique of politics needs to be developed in a critical confrontation with modernising political theory and historically existing bourgeois state apparatuses in order to begin to draw out, at the level of scientificity required, the structural mechanisms of the modern bourgeois state apparatus.[21] This in turn means that no valid reason stands in the way of an effort to accomplish for the critique of politics what Marx accomplished for the critique of political economy. A materialist history of political theory can be written if aligned to a systematised critique of politics that would ensure Marxist debates about the modern bourgeois state do not unconsciously return to, and pitifully re-enact, the lines of division and development within bourgeois political thought from Hobbes’ Leviathan, Locke’s political writings and Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (to name only some).[22]

To reiterate what I am claiming in other terms, and to compound the problem, Engels’ most canonical turn to the question of the state is a historical development of pre-modern states, empirically more or less true, most clearly put forward in The Origins of Private Property, the Family and the State. This is not a criticism of Engels as such; it is an effort to show the different ways of thinking about the modern bourgeois state. We need to see that the historical inquiry is not a substitute for a systematic theoretical articulation of the modern bourgeois state, just as Marx’s narration at the end of Capital about the primitive accumulation of capital doesn’t substitute for the systematic theory present in Capital. Importantly, this argument does not deny history, it is simply against the idea that a historical description of the state is sufficient for understanding the modern bourgeois state; the “really existing object” of the theory is the modern bourgeois state as it factually exists in history, recognising that the modern bourgeois state has arisen and will wither away in the time of history. But the point is that theory grasps and reconstructs the real mechanisms of the functioning and reproduction of the modern bourgeois state. Where history dives into the material of concrete singularities, theory explains how and why things are, and how and why things change.

The critique of politics as a perfected systematic and scientific theory of the “ideal average” of the modern bourgeois state remains absent despite the breakthrough Marx made towards a critique of politics. The absence has significant consequences. It means that the critical relationship to modernising bourgeois political theory was not made at the level of theory on a par with the way Marx carried through a scientific revolution against classical political economy. The arc of modern bourgeois political theory from Machiavelli and Hobbes, through to Kant, Fichte and Hegel, the liberal tradition and the Germanic Allgemeine Staatslehre involved a complex articulation of science and ideology in their efforts to grasp the structural mechanics of modernising bourgeois states – these different traditions have informed political thinking in the socialist movement from its right and left wings. Engels recognises the need to revolutionise these traditions, and did so – but without providing a systematised theoretical alternative, a fact that could be masked by the power of the critique of political economy and the materialist inquiry into history as well as Engels’ descriptions of the pre-modern state.

We know that the state cracks our heads in the defence of capital, property and power but we should not let that very real fact allow us to lose our theoretical minds. The critique of politics has need of an articulated theory of the modern bourgeois state and arguments against such a need for theory could be equally mobilised against the need for a book like Capital. Of course, no direct deduction of concrete and situated politics can take place from a theory of the modern bourgeois state, just as no direct deduction of politics can be made from Marx’s so-called theory of revolution. However, we need to be clear about theory to oppose the immediate givenness of the modern bourgeois state and its mystifications. With Engels, thinking about the modern bourgeois state had remained at a descriptive level; we need to move beyond description of the modern bourgeois state to systematically construct a theory. At the most elementary level, this implies the distinction between proper names and the structures of the modern bourgeois state that are personified in those character masks with proper names. To remain at the level of description is to remain at the proper names – the character masks of the given immediacy of the state. Not only can this be misleading, it is not an approach Marx or Engels took seriously in theoretical terms.

At this juncture of my case, Antoine Artous is helpful because he makes a very convincing argument about the difference between Marx and Engels concerning the nature of the modern bourgeois state, or at least the ways in which they formulate the problem of the modern bourgeois states.[23] The difference can be drawn out from volume three of Marx’s Capital, where he outlined the relationship that sovereignty and dependence have to pre-modern forms of economic exploitation. Marx’s emphasis is on the notion of sovereignty and dependence insofar as they constitute a state that is form specific. Marx presents a form specific state, speaking to the diverse forms of the state, which in terms of theory relies on the primacy of logic over history. The primacy of logic over history means that a theory of the modern bourgeois state cannot be reduced to a historical narration of its genesis, nor a transhistorical entity that can be grasped through a general theory of the state, but instead requires an effort that leads towards a systematic-theoretical reconstruction of the modern bourgeois state in its “ideal average” as it pertains to the structures of modern bourgeois societies. By contrast, Engels develops in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State – notwithstanding the vast thought and historical material contained in it and the relations it had to Marx’s own research – a general theory of the state (based on a historical-genetic account of the state). Marx’s and Engels’ formulations are not the same, and can even be taken to be two conflicting orientations towards the modern bourgeois state because Marx points towards a form specific state (for which a form determinate theory understood in the Aristotelian and Marxian sense is required) while Engels identifies a general transhistorical state.

I should indicate a complexity of theory here: if one recognises the primacy of logic in the form specific notion of the state as Marx defends it – and Artous draws it out – it cannot be said that the modern bourgeois form of the state has yet been successfully theoretically derived from the relations of capitalist production and reproduction. Why is this a problem? Because on the one hand, while it might be correct to point to the need for a logic specific to capitalist production, modern bourgeois societies and the modern bourgeois state based on capitalist exploitation, the state derivation debates themselves (most prominent in Germany) reached an impasse, where they might have proven that it is not possible to simply derive the modern state logically from the capitalist relation, the commodity or from Capital; they may even have fallen into the very antinomies that plagued modern bourgeois political thought, in its moments of ascendancy and consolidation in relation to the Dutch, English, American and French bourgeois revolutions and the revolutions from above. Marx himself had entertained ideas about historically and logically beginning with the French Revolution as the starting point, since the modernisation of the national-state produced by the French Revolution had global implications, from colonised Ireland through to the Iberian aristocracies, Poland in the East, and Prussia (it is not clear whether Marx held onto this starting point or would have changed it).[24] As a consequence, while it might be necessary to produce a systematic theory of the modern bourgeois state (and its relation to international relations and gendered realities) based on the inner organisation of modern bourgeois societies in which the capitalist mode of production dominates, it may not be possible – this was proven negatively by the state derivation debates – to conceptually derive it from the commodity as such, the concept of right or the capital relation and may somehow run through an immanent critique of political theory-philosophy as it historically emerged and developed. One could write a history of theory for the critique of politics the likes of which Marx didn’t complete even for the critique of political economy and the historical existence of the modern bourgeois state.

We need however to go beyond the logical and historical couplet that has animated these debates because it might be much more useful – when reading Engels – to understand the nature of a systematic theory building as such, and the relation it has to arguments made specifically on an empirical and historical terrain. Such a move overcomes the historical and logical couplet by showing the way systematic theory mobilises empirical and the historical arguments that cannot be contained in theory. We have a clear reference in Marx and Engels to do this, namely that of the self-conscious notion of the limits to dialectical presentation, which Marx and Engels seem to have thought was a fundamental feature of the materialist dialectic. When we think about a systematic theory articulating the structures of the modern bourgeois state, we are talking about a theoretical-dialectical presentation. And the limits of such a dialectical presentation can be made clear and exact, being those specific points where the systematic theory needs to refer back to its own materialist presuppositions and the contingent empirical historical facts a sequence of arguments might rest upon, which in principle cannot be entirely contained by any systematic-theoretical representation of the modern bourgeois state. I identify this because there seems to be a dualism between, on the one hand, an effort to conceptually derive the modern bourgeois state in an a priori sense, beginning with an elementary concept and working (along the Hegelian model) up to a finished form of the state in a theoretical representation; as opposed, on the other hand, to a historical account of the modern bourgeois state that essentially suffers from empiricism and historicism, capitulating to the given immediacy of the modern bourgeois state apparatus and its forms of appearance which produces a description aided by proper names to the detriment of a theory articulating the structures that are personified by such proper names. The consequence of breaking this dualism? One is able to think through a critique of politics by articulating a theory cognisant of its limits (in relation to empirical research and the historical modern bourgeois state) while presenting the complex determinations animating the structural mechanics of the modern bourgeois state apparatus in its “ideal average”. This implies a notion of scientificity that recognises the validity and truths of the scientific-theoretical argument as well as the inevitable blind spots in any theory of the modern bourgeois state.

At the same time, Engels was writing in a century when modern bourgeois nation-states were rapidly transforming, rationalising and extending their bureaucracies, while consolidating, universalising and reproducing their forms of domination. To a certain extent, the process underway put limits on any ability to produce and elaborate a systematised critique of politics able to grasp conceptually – in the “ideal average” – the modern bourgeois state apparatus. We have in the late Engels, therefore, an interaction of a materialist analysis of the emergence of the pre-modern state and a contemporary identification of the militarisation of the state, forms of passive revolution underway, the strategy and tactics of the workers’ movement faced with the modernising states. As the above has demonstrated, Engels also has a revolutionary argument about strategy and tactics which was left unresolved, and faced with the state and the need to provide alternatives, the Paris Commune was the exemplar of a dictatorship of the proletariat, but it is limited. Engels was able to make an argument for workers’ power, but lacking is a systematised theory of the modern bourgeois state, a developed critique of politics, able to grasp the structural mechanisms and modes of reproduction immanent to the historically specific modern bourgeois state.

Though the critique of politics was not theoretically systematised, insofar as Engels grasped the modern bourgeois state as a machine of domination – the machine metaphor suggests that its structural mechanics can be grasped – he contributed to the critique of politics. Factually, Engels speaks of the state as a machine, not a condensation of class forces; it is a material apparatus of domination that ensures the subjugated classes remain oppressed. Engels did so against the backdrop of a contingent history, developing his arguments in a range of interventions concerning the housing question, the unification of Germany under Prussian domination, the new materials dedicated to the re-edition of his work on the German Reformation and the Peasant Wars. The new material contained in the text concerned the decline of feudalism and the emergence of nation-states, very valuable because Engels tried to grasp the relationship between the emergence of the modern bourgeois nation-state and the rise of capitalist relations in the context of the absent German bourgeois revolution. Moreover, Engels polemicised against the state socialists who supported Bismarck’s unification of Germany and the “strong state”. Many diverse threads about the modern bourgeois state interweave and knot together, producing a concrete historical appraisal of the modernising bourgeois state apparatus, showing that this is not an area of exploration and thought that Engels simply neglected.

In bringing this section to a close, it is best I state that I think Engels is part of the brilliant transitional phase of Marxist scientificity concerning the critique of the modern bourgeois state. But nevertheless, it remains a transitional phase. Concerning the modern bourgeois state, Engels had his finger on the breakthrough of Marx’s critique of politics without giving it a finished form. One effect was that the question of the modern bourgeois state was posed for future generations of Marxists, at least after the first version of “historical materialism” of the Second International. Future Marxists could choose to remain at the level of the transitional theoretical-description, namely at the level in which description wins out over systematic theoretical construction, or they could move forward in the direction of provisionally completing the critique of politics by constructing the theory and applying it beyond its descriptive weaknesses.

The lack of a systematised critique of politics had deleterious penalties for Second International Marxism, in part because the early generation of socialist writers effectively had to apply a critique of politics without the existence of the theory; I am consciously oversimplifying because in political practice (among the revolutionary left) the break was indeed present, but it had not been made conscious theoretically. Often, they did so under the guise of the materialist conception of history, as can be seen in the debates over the national question. Many of the most significant works were materialist inquiries into the development of the capitalist mode of production and the state, the role of the state in the imperialist world economy, the returns to the nature of the bourgeois revolutions in relation to the proletarian, among which Franz Mehring’s Absolutism and Revolution in Germany and Eduard Bernstein’s Cromwell and Communism: Socialism and Democracy in the Great English Revolution count as exemplary works. While still a revolutionary under the tutelage of Engels, Bernstein tried to think through the role of Hobbes and Harrington and seventeenth century political philosophy. It was, however, not until Lenin recuperated and salvaged the critique of politics in State and Revolution – tentatively and not definitively – that Marxists provisionally began to move away from a critique of politics applied half-consciously under the guise of the materialist conception of history. Even Lenin, despite salvaging the critique of politics, produced only a textual convalescence of Marx’s and Engels’ own positions, without extending them theoretically as such. Lenin represented an opening of a new terrain; however, before this new terrain could be productively tilled, since it was killed off quickly by Stalinism, the lack of clarity about the critique of politics flowed back into a lack of clarity about the relation socialist politics and class struggles had to the modern and modernising bourgeois state apparatuses in the East and West. In a sense, this key theoretical-political weakness of the Second International has yet to find its accomplished resolution – on the terrain of theory or the liberated fields opened by the withering away of the state.

iv. Engels and the critique of political economy

I finally deal here with Engels’ editing, publication, interpretation and popularisation of Marx’s critique of political economy and his rebuttal of contemporary criticisms.

Engels recognised with the utmost clarity, in ways that often have not been properly interpreted, the extent of the scientific revolution that Marx made in relation to the classical political economists who went before him. In the various forewords to the English and German editions of Capital volume one, and the prefaces to volume two of Capital, Engels outlines the structure of the scientific revolution Marx made for the critique of political economy. This is a decisive element of being able to recognise the contribution of Engels’ interpretation of Capital. In addition, the fact that the question of abstractions and value became an object of debate and contestation immediately after Engels’ death shows that conceptuality was at issue, which refers back to what has been dubbed the historical-logical approach to Capital – though Engels did not use the term, he influenced the interpretation.

The relationship between history and logic are at stake again in the debates about Engels’ interpretation of the critique of political economy (though the debate over history and logic in Capital does not exhaust the reading of it). Again, the interpretation implies adopting a position on the nature of conceptuality – of the systematic-scientific discourse produced by Marx – which is a vital point of contestation in debates about Engels. For example, in the third volume of Capital, and in some of his letters, such as his correspondence with Sombart, Engels had expressed ideas about the historical emergence of value and the nature of concepts. Specifically concerning value, Engels posed the existence of the value form prior to the capitalist mode of production, which tended to obscure the historically specific nature of the value form, positing instead a transhistorical notion of value. Thus, in his redacted version of volume three, Engels wrote:

In a word: the Marxian law of value holds generally, as far as economic laws are valid at all, for the whole period of simple commodity production, that is, up to the time when the latter suffers a modification through the appearance of the capitalist form of production. Thus the Marxian law of value has general economic validity for a period lasting from the beginning of exchange, which transforms products into commodities, down to the 15th century of the present era. But the exchange of commodities dates from a time before all written history, which in Egypt goes back to at least 2500 BC, and perhaps 5000 BC, and in Babylon to 4000 BC, perhaps 6000 BC; thus the law of value has prevailed during a period of from five to seven thousand years.[25]

Engels’ chain of reasoning runs as follows: when goods are exchanged there are commodities, if there are commodities then value exists, and when value exists the law of value is valid. Therefore, because goods have been exchanged for thousands of years, the law of value has existed for thousands of years. Engels’ statement might be contextualised in the history of commercial capitalism that Banaji has gone to great lengths to establish, implicitly raising the status of value-relations prior to the domination of capitalist production proper.[26] Yet, even if this contextualisation is granted, it is temporally much more limited than the five to seven thousand years Engels refers to, and the suggestion that the law of value was valid before the rise of the capitalist mode of production of the fifteenth century still has the theoretical effect of turning value into a transhistorical object. Still, the contextualisation completely fails if Marx is correct to have claimed an elemental distinction between pre-capitalist commercial capital and capitalist commercial capital. And, Engels’ chain of reasoning fails to do justice to the systematic-theoretical structure of Capital, since among other things it makes Marx’s dialectical presentation in chapters like Exchange (chapter two) read like a historical narration instead of form-determinate moments of a theoretical argument concerned alone with the historical specificity of the capitalist mode of production.

Why does this matter? An interpretation of theoretical concepts in the critique of political economy and the systematic character of Marx’s Capital cannot be sidelined, because a materialist reading of its scientific argument might be a precondition not only for a defence of Capital but the application of it in the research into contemporary constellations of capital. This is helped by grasping the relation the form-determinate systematic theory of Capital has to the historical. There is a backstory to Engels’ interpretive error that runs to Engels’ review of Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859). In this review, Engels had pursued a thesis about the method that informed Marx’s critique of political economy. The thesis stipulated that logic and history run in parallel development. This thesis gave rise to the logical-historical interpretation of Capital that assumed Marx’s categories developed parallel to history.[27] Not only was this at odds with Marx’s own methodological self-reflections (in the Introduction to the Grundrisse) that differentiated logical development and historical development in a way that did not allow for Engels’ postulated parallel course, the error negatively influenced debates about Capital because instead of focusing on the limits to dialectical presentation, a kind of pseudo-problem was established that took attention away from the specific modality of Marx’s systematic-theory building and the function his historical analyses and historical presuppositions had within it. Symptomatic of Engels’ misinterpretation was the fact that Marx did not cite this text anywhere in Capital, not even in his post-face to the second edition of Capital where Marx clarified his materialist mode of dialectical presentation (Marx often cited Engels’ work throughout the book).

Of course, the above is not to neglect the fact that Marx’s work process was open and unfinished. It is unclear if Marx ever settled on a final theoretical representation of the critique of political economy. We have an openness in which history and logic tend at certain moments to intersect or flow in the directions of systematic scientificity or historical detail. The key example of this is Marx’s editing of the French edition of Capital, which he had filled out in empirical detail and had gained in scientific rigour as a result.

The prevailing problem of the late Engels’ relation to Capital has concerned his editing and publication of volume three of Capital and to a lesser extent, his plan to have Marx’s volume four of Capital – the so-called history of theory – published as Theories of Surplus-Value (a plan executed by Kautsky).[28] Marx had advanced his preparation of volume two much further and it required less work (he wrote a completely new draft of volume two in 1870 and changed it substantially in 1877). While coming to terms with the dispute, it is necessary, on the one hand, to keep in mind that nobody was ever or probably will ever be better placed than Engels to have handled Marx’s unfinished manuscripts. If there is indeed a difference between Marx’s original manuscripts and Engels’ redacted, edited, arranged, finished and polished volumes of Capital, then this is by no means an easy question to answer because even if we were to identify the important points of divergence, the question would always arise as to who – in terms of the author of posterity writing – actually has more intellectual authority and depth than Engels did. However, this is not the decisive issue either, because the open-ended nature of Marx’s project and Engels’ interventions into it means one is not handling a hermeneutic problem to decipher the meaning of Marx’s text but a systematic scientific critique of the structural mechanisms of capital that might be applied to the contemporary world. At stake are the scientific truths that Marx’s critique of political economy produced and how they relate to the transformations of capitalist production in history. On the other hand, we now have Marx’s original manuscripts and there is no reason why these cannot be the focal point for debates about the third volume of Capital; it is possible to see where Engels made his interpretations and editorial interventions. To capture this relation, falsification is the wrong word, especially because volumes two and three of Capital were less developed by Marx’s own hand. Marx had mostly refined various editions of volume one, and between drafting volume three (the Manuscript of 1864–65 that he returned to in 1868 and 1875) and his death, Marx spent about fifteen years researching new developments, captured in his 1870s economic writings – it matters not only how Engels might have edited things, but the distance crossed between the draft of volume three and the new research Marx actually delved into and any discoveries he made.[29]

Somewhat distinct from the debate over falsification, too little attention is paid to what is in fact a key issue – the way Engels grasped the history of natural sciences and their scientific revolutions and conjoined this understanding to his exposition of Marx’s critique of political economy. In fact, Engels unequivocally recognised the scientific revolution, and even gave a working concept of a scientific revolution and how to read the effects of it, initiated by Marx’s Capital – all three volumes constituting the revolution. The concept of Marx’s scientific revolution was most explicit in Engels’ preface to the second volume of Capital, in which we discern not only a concern for Marx’s discoveries, but also Engels’ painstaking work concerning the history of the sciences. Engels was, it needs to be said, singularly placed to articulate Marx’s mode of scientificity and this is a matter of theoretical consequence. An understanding of Marx’s relation to the classical political economists, and the structure of his scientific discovery, needs to begin with Engels’ thoughtfulness. Simply put, the second volume of Capital and Engels’ interpretation of it is of significance precisely because Engels was already thinking about and was extremely well versed in the history of the sciences and the history of the scientific revolutions. Thus, Engels was well able identify the character of Marx’s scientific revolution against classical political economy. Engels’ insights can shape the way in which we think about Marx’s achievements. This is a feature of Engels’ work after Marx that needs the full recognition it deserves. Indeed, Engels also contributes – in the domain of classical political economy and critique of political economy – to an understanding about the nature of scientific revolutions as such, by practising the continuation of it – which means that these revolutionary scientific works also probably contained implicit errors that need to be addressed explicitly (this is the only position congruent with the strong claim for a scientific breakthrough).

On a final note, regarding the critique of political economy, Engels had made every effort to come to terms with the transformations of the modern capitalist mode of production. This was an unfinished effort, requiring the application of Marx’s critique of political economy to new concrete situations. We see Engels address the transformations of the capitalist mode of production in the preface to the English edition of Capital and his Supplement to Capital, Volume Three concerning the stock exchange and colonialism. Jairus Banaji has captured what this meant for the development of the new epoch of imperialism (and theorisations of it):

As Engels drew closer to the end of his life in the 1890s…oil, steel, and chemicals, not textiles, became the typical face of large-scale industry. In his addenda to volume three of Capital, Engels’ sense of this new capitalist modernity was reflected in belated references to the surge of competition between “a whole series of competing industrial countries” and to “gigantic” concentrations of capital in “cartels” and “trusts”. All this was new, anticipated but never witnessed by Marx. But the sense of capitalist novelty was of course also reflected in admiring references to the way submarine telegraph cables, steamers, and the completion of the Suez Canal had all dramatically compressed or accelerated the turnover of world trade. Between the writing of Capital and Engels’ additions to the text a completely new world had emerged, defined by a much sharper sense of nationality, greater aggression in world politics, and a sense of living at new velocities.[30]

Engels’ hints and insights were further developed by the subsequent debates in the Second International from the 1890s onwards concerning the reform and revolution debates and the development of an imperialist world economy. In this sense, Bernstein (who overestimated new developments of capitalist concentration, reading them as an amelioration of tendencies towards crisis), Kautsky (who built a historicist orthodoxy through his popularisation of Marx’s Capital but produced excellent studies of the agrarian question), Luxemburg (who had a uniquely critical relationship to Marx’s Capital and was not afraid to criticise the old Moor in view of new truths), Hilferding (who misunderstood the role of critique but articulated the high powers of banks and joint-stock companies and the extent to which they shaped social, political and international life), Lenin (who remained descriptive and hardly produced a theory but nevertheless tried), Bukharin (perhaps the strongest writer capturing global imperialism at the intersection of the state and capital), were all figures locked into a debate, constituting a further scientific continuation of searching points that Engels left hanging at the point of his death, but which were pivotal in the application of the critique of political economy to a transforming world that was to create the conditions for revolutionary transformations in Russia and possibly also in the West.

A late Engels for our times

We ought to return to Engels’ letter to the French Party written on his seventieth birthday. Engels’ life and strength were dedicated to fighting for the proletarian cause, the most imaginative, comprehensive and insubordinate cause of our modernity, if only we lend an ear to it and listen to its voice. Without Engels’ determination to fight, the historically specific Marxism he helped forge would not have been. It is our task today to fight in the spirit that Engels has left to those of his present survivors well over a hundred years after his departure. But it is also our task to think the theoretical while fighting through the political, without presumption or pretension. It is the task of a new, youthful generation of revolutionary Marxists – inclusive of those to be – to overcome the limits, blind spots and aporias of the historically revolved and ended Marxism that Engels had helped to build so we may think of the variants and invariants of the world Engels shared with us, fighting for the proletarian cause.


Althusser, Louis 2005, “Appendix”, in For Marx, pp.117–28, London: Verso.

Anderson, Perry 1979, Considerations on Western Marxism, London: Verso.

Artous, Antoine 1999, Marx, l’État et la politique, Paris: Syllepse.

Balibar, Étienne 1974, “Sur la dialectique historique”, in Cinq Études du matérialisme historique, ed. Louis Althusser, pp.205–45, Paris: F. Maspero.

Balibar, Étienne, Cesare Luporini and André Tosel 1979, Marx et sa critique de la politique, Paris: F. Maspero.

Banaji, Jairus 2020, A Brief History of Commercial Capitalism, Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Colletti, Lucio 1972, “Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International”, in From Rousseau to Lenin: Studies in Ideology and Society, pp.45–108, London: New Left Books.

Draper, Hal 1977, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution III. The “Dictatorship of the Proletariat”, New York: Monthly Review Press.

Engels, Frederick 1987, “Anti-Dühring”, in Marx Engels Collected Works, Moscow: Progress Publishers.

Engels, Frederick 2010a, “Engels, Supplement to Capital, Volume Three”, in Marx & Engels Collected Works, pp.875–97, Digital Editions: Lawrence & Wishart.

Engels, Frederick 2010b, “Introduction to Karl Marx’s Civil War in France”, in Marx & Engels Collected Works, pp.179–91, Digital Editions: Lawrence & Wishart.

Engels, Frederick 2010c, “Introduction to the Class Struggles in France”, in Marx & Engels Collected Works, pp.506–24, Digital Editions: Lawrence & Wishart.

Engels, Frederick 2010d, “Introduction to the English Edition (1892) of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, In Marx & Engels Collected Works, pp.278–302, Digital Editions: Lawrence & Wishart.

Engels, Frederick 2010e, “On the Fourth Volume of Karl Marx’s Capital”, in Marx & Engels Collected Works, p.503, Digital Editions: Lawrence & Wishart.

Engels, Frederick 1890, “Engels to C. Schmidt in Berlin”, Marx-Engels Correspondence. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1890/letters/90_08_05.htm

Heinrich, Michael 1996, “Engels’ edition of the third volume of Capital and Marx’s original manuscript”, Science & Society 60 (4), pp.452–66.

Kapp, Yvonne 2018, Eleanor Marx: A Biography, New York: Verso.

Krätke, Michael 2020, “Friedrich Engels’ politisches ‘Testament’”, Zeitschrift für sozialistische Politik und Wirtschaft (200 Jahre Engels), Heft 240, pp.59–64.

Küttler, Wolfgang, Alexis Petrioli and Frieder Otto Wolf 2004, “Historisch-kritische Wörterbuch des Marxismus”, in Historischer Materialismus, ed. Wolfgang Fritz Haug, Berlin: Berliner Institut für kritische Theorie (InkriT).

Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels 2010, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, in Marx & Engels Collected Works, pp.477–519, Digital Editions: Lawrence & Wishart.

Moseley, Fred 2018, “Marx’s Work on Volume III After 1865: Why Did Marx Not Finish Volume III?”, in The Unfinished System of Karl Marx: Critically Reading Capital as a Challenge for our Times, ed. Judith Dellheim and Frieder Otto Wolf, pp.121–28, Cham: Springer International Publishing.

Teeple, Gary 1984, Marx’s Critique of Politics, 1842–1847, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Wolf, Frieder Otto 2008, “Engels’ Altersbriefe als philosophische Intervention: Worum ging es und mit welchen Mitteln hat Engels eingegriffen?”, in Beiträge zur Marx-Engels-Forschung, Neue Folge, pp.140–56, Berlin: Berliner Verein zur Förderung der MEGA-Edition.

Wolf, Frieder Otto 2021, “Materialism against Materialism: Taking up Marx’s Break with Reductionism”, in Materialism and Politics, ed. B Bianchi, E Filion-Donato, M Miguel and A Yuva, Berlin: ICI Berlin Press.

Wolf, Frieder Otto 2023, Finite Marxism: A collection of essays, Leiden: Brill Historical Materialism (forthcoming).

[1] Anderson 1979, pp.112–3.

[2] See Kapp 2018, pp.587–626.

[3] Quoted in Kapp 2018, p.591.

[4] Quoted in Kapp 2018, p.592.

[5] See Engels 2010c, pp.506–27.

[6] For a résumé of Engels’ positions I summarise here, see Draper 1977, pp.307–25.

[7] Kapp 2018, p.609.

[8] For secondary material on Engels’ Political Testament I draw on Krätke 2020.

[9] Marx and Engels 2010, p.482.

[10] I draw from Engels 1987, pp.129–31.

[11] Engels 2010b, pp.179–91.

[12] I draw on Labica’s study of Engels here.

[13] Engels’s reference to logic as an empirical science needs qualification – it is a formal science.

[14] I draw from Engels 2010d.

[15] See Wolf 2021.

[16] For a comprehensive overview of these issues see Küttler, Petrioli and Wolf 2004.

[17] Engels 1890.

[18] Wolf 2008, pp.140–56.

[19] This is convincingly stressed by Wolf 2008.

[20] My discussion draws from Colletti 1972, Balibar 1974 and Althusser 2005.

[21] See the pathbreaking Balibar, Luporini and Tosel 1979 – especially Tosel’s chapter.

[22] My arguments are informed by discussions with Frieder Otto Wolf, especially his reflections on the impasses of the state derivation debates; I also draw from Wolf 2023 – an unpublished work titled Finite Marxism, forthcoming from Brill Historical Materialism.

[23] Artous 1999, pp.236–43.

[24] Teeple 1984, p.166.

[25] Engels 2010a, p.887.

[26] Banaji 2020.

[27] I draw on Michael Heinrich’s unpublished Engels wieder gelesen: Seine Rezension von Marx’ “Zur Kritik der politischen Ökonomie”. I am grateful to him for it and for answers to my questions.

[28] Engels 2010e, p.503. Heinrich had renewed the debate about Engels in Heinrich 1996.

[29] Moseley 2018, pp.121–4.

[30] Banaji 2020, p.122.

Kautsky: the abyss beyond parliament

Darren Roso contributes to debates about what kind of parties the revolutionary left needs and the role of Karl Kautsky, the leading theorist of the Second International before World War I.