Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) was born on November 28, 1820, in Barmen, which was, at that time, part of Prussia. Engels’s father was a prosperous German industrialist. Young Engels attended the Gymnasium (secondary school) in Elberfeld in 1834. Liberal freethinkers directed the school. By 1837, Engels openly expressed sympathy with radical humanism and militant democratic ideas. In 1838, Engels moved to Bremen, Saxony, to train as a factory manager for the firm of Heinrick Leupold. Engels found that liberal ideas were more openly articulated in Bremen.
In 1839, Engels published an article that attacked the absurd mysticism of pietism. Engels claimed that this ideology was closely linked to the major social ills of Germany and that it justified the wealth of the moneyed elite. Owners who were deeply religious were morally responsible for the pain of child labor. It was justifiable to blame the owners for the poverty and suffering of the working class.
In November 1842, Engels moved to Manchester, England. He went to work at the Victoria Mill office of Ermen and Engels in Manchester. This operation manufactured yarn and sewing thread. During the working day, Engels was a hard-working industrialist. At night, he became a social researcher and labor militant, hanging around the grimy, perilous streets of the Manchester working-class slums. Manchester was, at this time, a major center of the most revolutionary elements in the Chartist movement. Though born into a capitalist family and working as a manager in his family’s business, he openly sided with the revolutionary proletariat. Engels began his famous study on the conditions of the English working class. This became the data for his book The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844. This book detailed the life of the industrial proletariat in an advanced industrial capitalist nation. Under such conditions, antagonisms with the bourgeoisie were open and strong. The Industrial Revolution converted tools into machines. Tools, which were extensions of the workers, distorted the worker into an extension of the machine. Because of the dehumanization of the industrial proletariat, the middle class, which became the new ruling class, found that its enemy was no longer the feuDalí aristocracy but its own workers.
Next, Engels began a serious study of the history and evolution of the sciences. The philosophy of the 18th-century materialist philosophers of France and England provided the connection between philosophy and science. However, the materialism of the 18th century was seriously limited. Materialism needed to be merged with the dialectical logic of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Engels, along with Karl Marx, also wrote in refutation of both the young Hegelians and their master Ludwig Feuerbach. This radical secular humanism would not provide the ideology needed to organize a working-class movement in its struggle for socialism.
This was the thesis of the emerging German ideology: The real history of humanity begins with people providing for their material necessities of life through their practical activities of taking care of their physical needs. It is through labor that people connect with nature and with each other. This link between the forces of production and the relations of production set into motion all the changes in history. When forces and relations of production no longer support each other, revolutionary changes in society take place. The production of material life defines the possibilities of the social, cultural, and political life of a people. In a stratified society, all ideas have class content. The ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas. These ideas reinforce the economic and political power of the ruling class. Private property and a market economy come together over time to concentrate the resources and products of production under the control of a very few wealthy owners. The majority of the population of direct producers is forced, by fear of hunger, to sell their labor power in order to survive. The workers can end this oppression by abolishing private property.
It was at this time that Engels and Karl Marx became close colleagues and partners. Over the next 50 years, Engels would carry out his close collaboration with Marx. Engels’s contribution to the intellectual traditions of Marxism was based upon his initial proficiency in economics and science.
Engels wrote about science and social science. The writing of Anti-Dühring was a defense of historical materialism against not only a watered- down eclecticism but also an insipid assortment of idealism, materialism, and fabrication. The study of an object or event in the context of its larger historical and environmental setting, scientifically and methodically, was central to materialism. This study recognized that change is always happening and that it can be understood dialectically. The unity and conflict of opposites and the transformation of quantity into quality were Engels’s explanations of how all this was achieved.
Materialism states that physical matter is reality and humans are a historical product of the environment, both social and physical. However, if one does not recognize the dialectical nature of everything, the research will miss the mark. Constantly changing reality, with a material basis, is true for history, sociology, biology, or physics. Through historical materialism, it is possible to understand the conditions that were elemental for the origins of capitalism. It now becomes possible to understand the subsequent development and changes of capitalism as a world system.
Capitalism expanded from its homeland to the rest of the globe, demolishing, integrating, or containing preexisting economic systems. Class conflict, economic crisis, colonialism, and nationalism were natural consequences of private property, expanding markets, production for profit, and the culture of individualism. Industrial markets expand and transform every nation. Private ownership and competition in a world market lead to increased productive resources being concentrated into fewer hands. When companies become larger, more people are stripped of their resources; with the exception of their ability to work for wages. This leads to the majority of the world’s population being controlled by a socially organized system of production and exchange. Historically, the social role of the capitalist changes over time from entrepreneur to investor and from innovator to parasite. The contradictions between the forces of production and the relations of production lead to a revolution not only in technology and social organization but also in the culture of everyday life.
Dialectical Materialism, Science, and History
Engels was seriously interested in advances made in all the sciences. Knowledge of mathematics and the natural sciences was essential in order to comprehend a materialist method that would also be dialectical. It was implicit that anything studied was in a process of change, coming into existence and ceasing to exist at the same time. Matter in motion is seen everywhere. The universe itself is changing, evolving, dying, and being born at every moment. In the process of change, what exists is being replaced by something new, fashioned out of what went before.
Because of this, science itself is founded upon philosophical materialism. As science evolves, teleological arguments are harder to justify. Interconnections can be observed and then presented as facts. Problems like biological evolution, conservation, the transformation of energy, and new discoveries in organic chemistry are better understood from a model that is both dialectical and materialist.
Science best matures as an interaction between theory and practice. From observation, we derive scientific experiments, and then we develop theories that have practical applications. From these applications, new observations and experiments are conceived. Philosophy is never superseded by science, but science itself is historically and culturally embedded in a set of specific historic preconditions. Freed from religion and magical beliefs, science is founded on materialist philosophy that uses the dialectical logic of understanding.
In The Part Played by Labor in the Transition From Ape to Man, Engels argues that human evolution had a long historical development in which labor and early use of tools, once being established among our hominoid ancestors, played an important role in further human biological evolution. This interaction between human creation and the physical evolution of humans demonstrates the importance of using a research model based on interaction of parts rather than simple unidirectional cause and effect.
Engels gathered a copious amount of notes on what was current in natural science. These notes would become Dialectics of Nature, posthumously published in 1924. Following is a summary of the book’s argument.
Central to the evolving universe is a conflict of opposites merging continuously into something new. Objectively, these movements follow law-like patterns. Subjectively, these patterns are interpreted and reflected in a people’s ideology and consciousness (culture). At any time everything is coming into being and ceasing to exist. The subjective reflection of this, while seen as absolute and unchanging “truth,” is in fact continuously reinvented and reinterpreted.
The universe consists of matter in motion, changing through time and space. The earth and all the bodies in the cosmos arose from a random collection of atoms, acting in the course of objective law, like patterns that can be discovered by the use of the scientific method. Because all parts interact and modify all other interacting parts, change is constant everywhere in the universe. Thus, any method of inquiry should be both materialist and dialectical.
People evolved from less-developed biological organisms. Because human consciousness is a function of the human brain, consciousness is also a function of human evolution. Ideology and culture result from this consciousness and are a part of human evolution. Slowly, the transition from
simple neural response to external stimuli to complex cultural awareness evolves.
Engels would claim that walking upright was central to the evolution of the highly complex human consciousness necessary for human society. An effect of freeing the forelimbs was to make tool-making easier. With more comprehensive tools, a more multifaceted consciousness naturally evolved. The human brain evolved from a common ape ancestor. Humans, through their collective labor, created humanity in a natural environment.
Forces of production, as in technology, environment, and population pressure, are always in conflict with the relations of production, which is the social organization of a society. Conflict in competing ideologies reflects this. Struggles within a society are expressed as opposing values, which reproduce competing interests over production and distribution. Production and redistribution are needed resources of subsistence. Each class within society has its own interpretation of the dominant ideology.
Specifics of history reflect changing historical trends, because of these conflicts. With the constant disintegrations of the old, the raw material for the construction of the new is constantly being created. Small changes accumulate until there is a rapid break with the old order. There are small quantitative changes until there is an abrupt qualitative transformation. This is completed by natural causes, though the ideas of cause and effect are only intellectual tools to understand these changes. Something fundamentally new is created out of the leftovers of the old; these occasions are called “noDalí points.” Motion arises from this continuous interaction of elements of divisions of a larger whole.
Humans are biological, social, and cultural animals. The production of the means of subsistence at any point in history is the foundation for the creation of culture or ideological superstructure. This being said, the histories of most societies are mapped out by class struggle. Political tussles arise over political control of economic resources. The older classes try to maintain domination of society, and newer emerging classes attempt to obtain that power for their own benefit. The fight is over control of material resources and how they are used in the productive process of a society.
This is an ongoing struggle. The relationships between classes are always in flux. Because of the continuing struggle, changes in the social organization of society reflect the varying ideas. Ideas change to reflect the changing economic needs and relative strength of the competing classes in society. In this evolving culture of conflict, social and political relations in turn change to reflect changing economic relations between the various groups in a society. Given this context, religion, philosophy, art, and culture are produced within a historical context.
In any class society, it was the “small privileged minority” that controlled both the means of production and distribution. The minority benefited from the productive activity of the majority. The wealth of the minority was created by the poverty of the majority. Because of this, control over the direct producers was the primary issue of government and law. All of history is the history of class struggle. Each government reflects a specific mode of production (economy) and the needs of a small ruling class. This is the real foundation of all political, religious, and social conflicts and change.
When people make fallacious assessments about the world, those assessments are not based on rational assumptions that are in turn based upon correct data. When these same people inescapably arrive at goals that are contradictory to a chosen purpose, then no matter how we protest that their decisions were based upon rational assumptions and empirical data, they always lead to unforeseen consequences. It is those choices that lead to the experience of a world beyond our control.
In The Origin of Family, Private Property and the State, Engels came to the conclusion that the type of family in any society reflects the property relations and class structure of the society being studied. The family type is, then, historically determined. The type of state that develops when a state society is formed also reflects the specific property relations and is also historically determined. The state is the real meaning of oppression. Each new ruling class overthrows the previous ruling class and creates an all-new state to reflect its interests. The state, then, is always the instrument of oppression. This is true even though every state claims to represent the interests of all people.
Michael Joseph Francisconi
See also Dialectics; Evolution, Cultural; Evolution, Social; Lenin, Vladimir Ilich; Marx, Karl; Materialism
Cameron, K. N. (1995). Dialectical materialism and modern science. New York: International Publishers.
Engels, F. (1955). The condition of the working class in England. New York: International Publishers. (Original work published 1844)
Engels, F. (1965). Peasant war in Germany. New York: International Publishers. (Original work published 1850)
Engels, F. (1970). The role of force in history. New York: International Publishers. (Original work published 1895-1896)
Engels, F. (1975). Origin of the family, private property and the state. New York: International Publishers. (Original work published 1884)
Engels, F. (1977). Dialectics of nature. New York: International Publishers. (Original work published 1883)
Engels, F. (1978). Anti-Düring. New York: International Publishers. (Original work published 1887)
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1970). The German ideology. New York: International Publishers.
McLellan, D. (1977). Friedrich Engels. New York: Penguin.