The central importance of the revolutionary Friedrich Engels to Marxism, as an individual thinker as well as collaborator, is forcefully argued in Roberts’ Engels 200, finds John Clarke

Michael Roberts, Engels 200 – His Contribution to Political Economy ( 2020), 172pp.

Michael Roberts begins his defence of ‘the contribution that Engels made to Marxist political economy and scientific socialism’ (p.14) with an account of an auction in Beijing in 2018. Some notes that Karl Marx had written were sold to one of the wealthy bidders at this event at twice the price that was offered for a comparable specimen of Engels’ work. Taking this as his starting point, Roberts undertakes to show that the Beijing auction crowd (and others who should know better) have seriously underestimated the foundational role of Friedrich Engels. I will acknowledge at the outset that, in my view, he presents a powerful and compelling case.

Engels offered a very unassuming assessment of his own role a year after Marx’s death.

‘I have spent a lifetime doing what I was fitted for, namely playing second fiddle, and indeed I believe I acquitted myself reasonably well. And I was happy to have so splendid a first fiddle as Marx. But now that I am suddenly expected to take Marx’s place in matters of theory and play first fiddle, there will inevitably be blunders and no one is more aware of that than I’ (p.26).

Roberts sets against this modest appraisal Marx’s view of Engels’ contribution:

‘Frederick Engels, with whom I maintained a constant exchange of ideas by correspondence since the publication of his brilliant essay on the critique of economic categories … arrived by another road (compare his Condition of the Working Class in England) at the same result as I, and when in the spring of 1845 he too came to live in Brussels, we decided to set forth together our conception as opposed to the ideological one of German philosophy, in fact to settle accounts with our former philosophical conscience’ (p.25).

Lindsey German recently pointed out that ‘to be second fiddle to Marx is something none of us would mind being’ and it would be very hard to disagree with her, such is the historic significance of the results of the decades long collaboration of Marx and Engels. The great value of Roberts’ book is that he brings out clearly just how decisive a contribution to the development of Marxism Engels made but, in doing so, defends vital and fundamental Marxist propositions that are often called into question by challenging or downplaying the role of Engels. Before exploring this further, it would be well to draw out from the book a clear understanding of the fact that Engels’ brilliant theoretical contributions were the work of a deeply committed revolutionary, with a detailed understanding of the exploitative conditions imposed on working-class people and the movements of resistance that emerged in the face of them.

Roberts is clear that he is not offering a biography of Engels but nonetheless, in the opening chapter and in other places throughout the book, a picture emerges of his qualities and motivations. He was one of those exceptional members of the ruling class whose sympathies and allegiances lie with the oppressed and exploited. Indeed, seeking to put a stop to such ideas, Engels’ capitalist father made the fortuitous tactical blunder of sending his 22-year-old son off to Manchester in the hope that he would apply himself to affairs of business (p.17). Those affairs were, indeed, a necessary part of Engels’ life and, as is well known, provided resources that enabled Marx to carry on with his work. However, they also offered an ironic source of knowledge in the development of Marxist theory. Roberts points out that: ‘In Capital Volume 3, Engels adds to Marx’s law of profitability his own original analysis of the turnover of capital’ (p.96). He shows ‘the importance of the “moral depreciation” of constant capital, namely the fall in the cost of the means of production through innovation, which can act as a counterfactor to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ (p.97). This analysis traces its roots to a communication with Marx over the depreciation of machinery in Engels’ factory in Manchester.

However, Engels was considerably more than a well-informed observer of the production process. His knowledge of working-class life was based on detailed observation and an ongoing contact that was matched by a deep sense of outrage at the ‘grim future of capitalism and the industrial age’ (p.17). He had close connections with working-class movements and leaders and was a participant in revolutionary struggle. His commitment to the development of theory, especially around political economy, reflected an understanding of the need for such knowledge as a weapon in the struggle for socialism. With regard to the demands of the Chartists, he commented that: ‘Social evils cannot be cured by People’s Charters … Social evils need to be studied and understood, and this the mass of the workers has not yet done up till now’ (p.51).

Engels’ Contribution

Roberts’ exploration of Engels’ contribution to the founding works of Marxism produces findings and conclusions in several areas. He fully confirms the view of Gareth Stedman Jones that, ‘a number of basic and enduring Marxist propositions first surface in Engels’ rather than Marx’s early writings’ (p.27). He also shows Engels’ role as an invaluable collaborator with Marx, even in the development of work in which the latter played the leading role. As he puts forward his case, Roberts is at pains to show how the concepts Engels advanced have been confirmed by later study or can be shown to be entirely relevant in our times. He considers the role that Engels played in developing Marxist ideas in the years after Marx’s death. Finally, he offers firm and clear responses to those who undervalue or challenge the contribution that Engels made. It’s worth illustrating how Roberts goes about proving his case with some striking examples.

Roberts opens the chapter on ‘Engels’ critique of political economy’ by describing him as ‘the first Marxist,’ pointing out that ‘At the age of just 22, Engels composed The Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy (the Umrisse), the first pioneering work of what we now call Marxian economics’ (p.29). In this, Roberts is supported by Marx, who asserted that: ‘The Outlines already formulates certain general principles of scientific socialism’ (p.43). Before Marx, Engels grappled with the limitations of the classical economists and put forward concepts that would become key components of Marxist economics.

The Umrisse ‘develops, for the first time, a Marxist theory of value’ (p.30). Engels breaks new ground with his understanding of a ‘double value – abstract or real value and exchange-value.’ Roberts comments: ‘What is missing from Engels’ account is Marx’s theory of surplus value, that only labour creates value but by having a monopoly on the means of production, capitalists are able to appropriate the value created by labour’ (p.32). Engels would write in his Anti-Duhring, in 1873, that the ‘discovery of surplus value suddenly threw light on the problem, in trying to solve that with which all previous investigations, of both bourgeois economists and socialist critics, had been groping in the dark.’ Engels, however, would, in that same book, contribute further by showing that surplus value ‘… is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product … of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production.’

Also in the Umrisse, Engels begins to develop ideas on the nature of economic crises. As he puts it:

‘The economist comes along with his lovely theory of demand and supply, proves to you that “one can never produce too much,” and practice replies with trade crises, which reappear as regularly as the comets, and of which we have now on the average one every five to seven years. For the last eighty years these trade crises have arrived just as regularly as the great plagues did in the past – and they have brought in their train more misery and more immorality than the latter’ (p.37).

Engels makes clear that such periodic dislocations are the result of a competitive system based on profit and they could be avoided. ‘Carry on production consciously as human beings – not as dispersed atoms without consciousness of your species – and you have overcome all these artificial and untenable antitheses’ (p.38). The proposition that recurring and worsening crises are a destructive feature of the capitalist system would be taken up in the Communist Manifesto four years later.

Engels completed his Condition of the Working Class in England in 1845. Roberts makes it very clear that ‘… Engels’ book is much more than reportage of the terrible conditions in which workers lived’ (p.50). In its pages are to be found:

‘a range of “Marxian” theoretical issues, including the character of the industrialisation process; the labour market, with particular reference to subsistence wages, the contrast between slave and “free” labour; the consequences of technical change; the reserve army of unemployed; and the nature of worsening crises’ (p.46).

Also prior to the Communist Manifesto, Engels developed a theory of wages. Roberts shows how, in his Principles of Communism, written in 1847, he argued that ‘because labour is a “commodity” like any other, it is subject to “all the fluctuations of the market,” but on an average equal to its “cost of production”, namely the subsistence level to survive and reproduce’ (p.51). In this work, Engels further argued that:

‘The average price of wage labour is the minimum wage, i.e. that quantum of the means of subsistence, which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer. What, therefore, the wage labourer appropriates by means of his labour, merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence.’

Engels advances the understanding of the exploitative reality of the ‘free’ agreement entered into with the capitalist:

‘… the worker of today seems to be free because he is not sold once for all, but piecemeal by the day, the week, the year, and because no one owner sells him to another, but he is forced to sell himself in this way instead, being the slave of no particular person, but of the whole property-holding class’ (p.54).

Roberts observes that ‘later Marx would fully develop this notion into the category of “labour power” as the object of purchase by employers.’

Defending Engels

Given the contributions that Roberts has made around rates of profit and crises within capitalism, including the present intensified crisis in the context of the pandemic, it is not surprising that he would emphasise that ‘Engels was firmly committed to Marx’s law of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall, as expounded in Volume 3, as the underlying cause of crises under capitalism’ (p.95). Roberts considers the defence of this law to be a critical question:

‘It is ironic that Marx’s most important law in political economy has been neglected, ignored or dismissed, not just by mainstream economics (which is not surprising), but also by so-called heterodox economics and by the bulk of Marxist economists’ (p.96).

Roberts challenges those Marxists who ‘continue to claim that Marx did not have a profitability theory of crises and had even dropped the law of profitability’ (p.106). He confronts the charge that Engels, as he edited Capital Volume 3, tried to exaggerate the importance Marx attached to the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. As he points out, this sometimes goes over to suggesting that Marx ‘dropped the law by the 1870s as being irrelevant to modern capitalism or to crises in capitalism’ (p.106). Roberts defends both the theory of crises and the diligence and honesty with which Engels carried out the job of editing the work of his comrade and friend. Further on in the book, he draws an important line with regard to left critics of Engels that is worth quoting in full:

‘Engels attracts much hatred among some Marxists. The reason seems to be that he turned Marxism into a theoretical system to transform a mass political movement. Many Marxist “academics” do not like this. For this reason, they try to portray Marx as a “liberal thinker” as opposed to the “sneaky” Communist Engels. It is true that Engels became a communist before Marx. But it is equally true that Marx and Engels are co-founders of Marxism and the Communist movement. This bond cannot be broken, despite the critics, in my view’ (p.139).

That quotation seems to me to offer another way of approaching the question of the respective roles and importance of Marx and Engels. Roberts, in my opinion, is entirely correct to argue that Engels’ contribution to Marxism should not be understated and that he achieved original and decisive theoretical gains that were quite fundamental to scientific socialism. We might wonder what Marx would have achieved without his brilliant ‘second fiddle’ and we could ponder what the writer of the Umrisse would have left us had there been no Marx. I would suggest, though, that Roberts’ book points to the conclusion that the more important focus is on the incredible legacy that has been left us by the collaboration of these two incomparable revolutionary theorists. As great as they were individually, the result of their combined efforts has a significance of its own that should be our focus.

Though Roberts was mainly concerned with political economy, he goes to some trouble to counter the suggestion that Marx and Engels had a ‘… Promethean vision of human social organisation, namely that human beings, using knowledge and technical prowess, can and should impose their will on the rest of the planet and what is called “nature” – for better or worse’ (p.85). He responds to this charge, quoting at length from Engels’ ‘The Role of Work in Transforming Ape into Man’ and even includes the full text as an appendix. He seeks to show that the founders of scientific socialism well understood the environmentally destructive nature of the profit system and the need for a society that develops a sustainable relationship with the planet. This shift in focus is, in my view, entirely justified and speaks to the significance of Roberts’ book.

We live in a period when the contradictions of capitalism are much further advanced than when Engels detailed the conditions of working-class life in Manchester and we face interlocking biomedical, economic and ecological crises. In his book, Roberts drives home the enduring relevance of Friedrich Engels and defends his contributions in those areas where they are called into question. Engels understood that socialism could not be established on the basis of the environmental vandalism that was already a feature of capitalism in his day. He focused his attention on the sources of insoluble crisis within capitalism. ‘Engels always clearly rejected the underconsumption theory’ (p.103) and saw that the ‘cause of crises under capitalism arises because of the overproduction or overaccumulation of capital’ (p.105). In the same way, he clarified and strengthened the law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall, rejecting fixes and adjustments and showing the contradictions and limitations that capitalism can never overcome.

In defending the crucial role of Engels in laying the foundations of Marxist theory, Roberts defends Marxism itself and he could not have done so at a more vital time.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.