DIALECTICS: G.S JONES ON ENGELS 1

Ralph Dumain rdumain at igc.apc.org
Tue Apr 11 10:55:51 MDT 1995


SUMMARY AND REVIEW BY R. DUMAIN -- PART 1

Jones, Gareth Stedman.  "Engels and the end of classical German
philosophy", NEW LEFT REVIEW, #79, May-June 1973, p. 17-36.

Engels' defense in _Anti-Duhring_ of Marx's use of dialectics in
_Capital_ is summarized.  Engels denies any dialectical tricks and
shows how Marx's historical analyses are purely empirical, and
only afterward is any philosophical generalization employed.  Why
was dialectic so critical for Engels in the scheme of historical
materialism?  Why is Engels so hopped up on the science of
universal interconnection in nature as well as society?  For
Engels the dialectic becomes history itself, which must be
counterposed to the metaphysical methods of the natural sciences
(p. 25).  Engels wants to adopt Hegel's method while rejecting his
system, but he does not seem to be aware "that dialectical motion
in Hegel's philosophy is based on the inseparability of thought
and being" (p. 27).

Jones repeats others, allegedly the first being Lukacs, that one
can have materialism or the dialectical law of motion but not
both.  I don't understand this oft-repeated assertion at all, but
let us continue.  Re this inconsistency, the most serious
consequence of borrowing from Hegel:

"It was certainly anti-scientific in implication, but it was not
anti-scientific in intention.  On the contrary.  Engels's stress
upon the scientific character of historical materialism and his
general emphasis on the importance for socialism of scientific
advance in every sphere should be cited to his credit, and not to
his detriment as a long tradition of Lukacsian Marxists, and
others have done ever since the early 1920s.

"The gravest consequence of Engels' theory of the dialectic,
stemmed not from his unsuccessful attempt to use it as a bridge
between different sciences, but rather in the way in which it
distorted the character of historical materialism itself and
unwittingly transformed it from an open-ended infant science in
the course of elaboration into the appearance of a finished system
already capable of explaining all events, great and small."  (p.
28)

Engels finds the rational kernel of Hegelianism to be in Hegel's
doctrine of essence (p. 29).

There are problems, however, when history becomes the new
Absolute.  Universal explanations become more difficult in such a
thought-system.  Hegel's problems in the philosophy of nature are
echoed in Engels's problems in accounting for the putatively
accidental aspects of the process of history, which Engels claims
to be more accidental the more removed from the core economic
sphere, and which are accounted for by saying that the theory
approximates reality (p. 30).

And now the general problem gets formulated.  Here again we find
the problems of 'determination in the last instance' and the _18th
Brumaire_ as Marx's exemplar of analysis of a concrete situation.
So here is the issue:

"Before considering Engels's general solution to this problem, we
must briefly assess what the new science of historical materialism
had accomplished and what it had not yet accomplished by the time
of Marx's death.  We shall then be in a better position to
understand the political and historical importance of Engels'
solution.  Marx's _Capital_ is the theory of the Capitalist mode
of production; it does not concern itself with the examination of
any particular social formation, that is, any particular country
existing in reality.  It therefore does not contain, except
tangentially, any fully theorized conception of the relationship
between the base and the superstructure -- that is, between the
forces and relations of production on the one hand, and political,
juridical and ideological forms on the other."  (p. 30-31)

By the 1880s the main philosophical obstacle to Marxism came not
from Hegelian idealism but from mechanistic economic determinism.
Engels' well-known letters to Bloch and Mehring opposing
reductionism are cited.  Despite Engels' acute consciousness of
this problem, his own formulation of the base-superstructure
relation remains too vague.  Here Engels faced the same problem
Hegel faced in relating nature to the Notion (p. 32).

"Thus in both Hegel and Engels a hidden empiricist problematic can
be detected at work.  The 'concept' is constantly in danger of
being deformed by the rich texture of 'reality', but in the long
run always manages to assert itself.  The latent tug of empiricism
is expressively suggested in Engels' disarming statement that; 'It
is no longer a question anywhere of inventing interconnections
from out of our brains, but of discovering them in the facts.'
History becomes a dualist combination of the rational and the
empirical.  The empirical richness of history is not destroyed or
reduced to its fundamental law, but is reproduced as a dialectical
interaction between an 'inner' principle and 'outer' shell."  (p.
33)

And now Jones finds:

".... a more subtle but no less dangerous implication in the
Hegelian theory of knowledge -- that everything in reality is, in
principle at least, _already_ known.  Engels concealed in his
dialectic of necessity and accident, an actual dialectic between
knowledge and ignorance.  He thereby unintentionally converted the
infant science of historical materialism into the appearance of a
finished system, a corpus of absolute knowledge which encompassed
the whole of empirical reality and raised accident itself into a
scientific principle."  (p. 33)

This last assertion is most interesting.  I will reserve judgment
on Jones's assertions for now.  The one I find the most compelling
is the unfinished state of historical materialism from Marx's
death through the remaining years of Engels' life.  Though I don't
believe some notion of dialectics to be incompatible with
materialism, this essay (which predates most of the other works I
have reviewed) does convincingly recapitulate themes found in many
other works, eg. that of Derek Sayer, and is compelling on these
points.  Note carefully that Jones does not cast the usual
aspersions on Engels.

The next section deals with Engels' late political battles with
the German party.

[end of part one]

11 April 1995


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