Remembering Friedrich Engels at 200, the Philosopher of Science

Lauded as one of the nineteenth century’s most scientifically learned men, Engels blazed the trail for a materialist history of nature.

Friedrich Engels was born in Barmen, Germany, 200 years ago today, on November 28, 1820

Friedrich Engels seemed never to take himself seriously.

He was in his element in his ‘confessions’, which Marx’s daughters had got Engels to record sometime in 1865, soon after their father had been induced to do the same. The ‘confessions’ were of course a perfectly secular social ritual, more a drawing-room diversion than any serious attempt at self-discovery. And yet, while Marx was dead earnest in his responses to the questions posed, Engels, characteristically, was both irreverent and facetious. Thus, while Marx identified his chief character trait as ‘singleness of purpose’, Engels saw his own as ‘knowing everything by halves’. Marx’s idea of misery was ‘submission’, Engels’s, ‘to go to a dentist’. Marx’s favourite maxim, famously, was ‘Nihil humani a me alienum puto’ (‘Nothing human is alien to me’) while Engels’s was simply ‘not to have any’. Finally, even as Marx recorded ‘De omnibus dubitandum’ (‘Question everything’) to be his motto, Engels cheerfully noted his own as ‘to take it easy’.

‘The trouble with many of us today is that we often take Engels too literally.’

The trouble with many of us today is that we often take Engels too literally, forgetting his puckish sense of humour. We therefore think that, for much of his life, Friedrich Engels was indeed taking things easy. Of course we feel grateful that he supported – financially and otherwise – his more famous, and chronically indigent, friend through all of Marx’s years in England – support without which Marx would likely not have accomplished much of what the world knows him for today. We also readily acknowledge Engels’s invaluable contribution to bringing a great lot of Marx’s later writing – including books two and three of Capital – into print by acting as his editor and publisher. As for Engels’s theoretical work, however, we tend to see him as primarily an interpreter or explicator of Marxism, albeit as its most celebrated explicator, and seldom as an original thinker.

Indeed, Engels is sometimes presented as a ‘simplifier’ of Marx’s thoughts who, in the manner of many simplifiers, could occasionally provide even misleading glosses on the master’s writings. What a sad commentary this is on posterity’s reading of one of the intellectual giants of the nineteenth century, a man to whose judgement on so many theoretical questions the formidable Karl Marx himself deferred so often! (In an essay published by The Wire under the title The Crusader as a Chronicler: Friedrich Engels and the Working Class in England, I had indeed argued that Engels’s pioneering work on the condition of the early-industrial English working class was the first-ever application of the Marxist method to the study of society. And it predated Marxism as we know it today by many years.)

One hopes that, at the bicentenary of his birth, Engels will be delivered from under the crushing weight of misreading, misconception and oblivion. While abler commentators will hopefully survey the very wide area of Engels’s theoretical interests, I will restrict myself here to his essay entitled The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. Written in May-June 1876, this essay was subsequently collated as chapter IX of his treatise Dialectics of Nature, Engels’s unfinished – and in his lifetime unpublished – work on the philosophy of science and natural history more comprehensive in scope than his 1878 classic Anti-Duhring.

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The Part Played… was considered important enough to be published as a separate book, first by Progress Publishers, Moscow, and later by other publishers in several countries. Indeed, by positing a ‘unitary materialist paradigm of natural and human history’, this essay was a landmark achievement in its time of epistemology and ontology, and it has been treated as such by generations of natural historians, philosophers of science, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists. That Engels never got around to completing this remarkable piece – it breaks off literally in the middle of a sentence – on account of his other preoccupations, has probably denied us one of the most cogently-argued expositions of the materialist philosophy of nature. But that takes little away from what he has left behind – a brilliant illustration of the dialectical-materialist method of investigating natural history.              

‘The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man’ by Engels.

Engels begins by saying that labour is not only the fundamental source of all wealth (“next to nature, which supplies it with the material that it converts into wealth”), it is, in fact, “the prime basic condition for all human existence”. This is so because the human body – and with it, the human mind – has really evolved through the historical process of labour. Now, labour – even its earliest variant, which involved the fashioning of the crudest early tools – necessitated bipedalism, because only by freeing his hands could the anthropoid create the possibility of making those tools.

“The decisive (first) step in the transition of ape to man”, therefore, was taken when hominids learnt how to stand erect and move about only on their feet, and not on all fours, or even in the semi-erect posture that some primates commonly assume which calls into play at least partial use of the arms while ‘walking’. Bipedalism together with an increasingly more extensive use of the hominid’s hands in the crafting of rudimentary implements made those hands steadily more dexterous and versatile. And, in turn, these skills and capabilities continued to widen the gap between apes and early man. From this flows the pithy observation which is one of this essay’s highlights:

“Thus the hand is not only the organ of labour, it is also the product of labour.” (Emphasis by Engels)

But the hand, Engels reminds us, did not exist alone; it was only a part of an highly complex organism. “So what benefited the hand, benefited also the whole body it served…”. Among other things, this happened by way of the impact the hand’s development had on the emergence and evolution of human speech. Thanks to labour, man’s horizons expanded continually, and the new horizons suggested the advantages of joint or community – as opposed to individual – activity in furthering man’s mastery over his environment (for example, in hunting). Joint pursuits, in their turn, brought men together, fostering mutual support and coordinated action. “In short, men in the making arrived at the point where they had something to say to each other”. (Engels’s italics).

“Necessity created the organ: the undeveloped larynx of the ape was slowly but surely transformed by modulation to produce constantly more developed modulation, and the organs of the mouth gradually learned to pronounce one articulate sound after another.”

At the same time, hominids were adapting to major changes in their diet. Meat and fish introduced rich proteins (vital for brain growth), and these foods, together with the discovery of the use of fire, quickened the metabolism, affording greater nourishment while allowing man to spend more time not looking for or ingesting food. He was now able to inhabit new environments and, crucially, to domesticate animals, both as beasts of burden and as source of food. Man began to learn to live in diverse climates.

“By the combined functioning of hand, speech organs and brain, not only in each individual but also in society, men became capable of executing more and more complicated operations, and were able to set themselves, and achieve, higher and higher aims”. Agriculture was added to cattle-raising and hunting. Then came spinning, weaving, pottery, metal-working and navigation. Trade appeared next – followed by art and science. Thinking in the abstract began to coexist with concrete, objective-driven thought processes. Man was now set to develop the institutions of civilisation – nations, states and religions.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Photo: Aleks Ka/Shutterstock.com

Engels sees humans as being distinct from animals by their ability to manipulate nature in manifold and dynamic ways, rather than fit into a single ecological niche. And this ability arises out of human labour, which both helps the manipulation/transformation and adds further to the same ability by continuously enhancing man’s cognitive functionalities.

This, according to the well-known palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould, is the essence of what is known today as ‘gene-culture coevolution’, a process whereby genetic evolution and evolving cultural capabilities interact and interpenetrate to push both forward. Gould believes that all human evolution “stands and falls with gene-culture coevolution” and that “the best nineteenth-century case (for this process) was made by Friedrich Engels in his remarkable essay of 1876”. Gould considers Engels’s work a “brilliant expose’ of an advanced theory of human evolution” with the role of labour at its heart. The fact that his essay followed so soon after Darwin’s path-breaking work on evolutionary biology is a remarkable feat of scholarship and analytical rigour.

The Part… thus posits important questions of cognition and ontology, suggesting that human intellectual capability is not a function of any supposedly inherent superiority of the human brain over other mammals’: it is an outcome of the dialectical relationship between  man’s body and his cerebral organs. Again, the human capacity for articulating complex forms of language also evolved over time thanks to man’s phonetically dynamic and adaptable vocal organs, but these latter took shape and were refined over maybe hundreds of thousands of years. Thus, Engels challenges the then prevalent Cartesian worldview which was premised on the dualism of, and a clear demarcation between, body and mind. In doing this, he elaborates on what, early in their collaboration, he and Marx had noted in The Holy Family, namely that “It is impossible to separate thought from matter that thinks”.

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Another important aspect of materialist natural history is also elucidated in this essay, which, broadly speaking, is this: man is a part of nature, and the human agency in reorganising and reordering nature is part of a long historical process, “whereby the physical material of nature is incorporated into human systems of value through labour”. This conceptual framework underpins Engels’s belief that “humanity must transcend the ecologically destructive patterns of capitalist development” and progress to a model which works in harmony with nature. He clearly points to the danger of thinking of human material development as being in contradiction of nature, or in flat-out opposition to it:

“Let us not flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory, nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture, they were laying the basis of the present forlorn state of those countries. When the Italians of the Alps used up the pine forests on the southern slopes…they had no inkling that by doing so they were cutting at the roots of the dairy industry in their region; they had still less inkling that  they were thereby depriving their mountain springs of water for the greater part of the year, and making it possible for them to pour still more furious torrents on the plains during the rainy season. Those who spread the potato in Europe were not aware that with these farinaceous tubers they were at the same time spreading the scrofula.”

Elsewhere, again, he writes:

“What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees – what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!”

And the lesson in all this? Engels goes on to tell us that

“…(t)hus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly.” (Emphasis added.)

These observations speak to a highly evolved sense of what today is understood as sustainable development. They also give the lie to a common enough accusation against Marxists: that their vision of the social organisation of humanity is Promethean, which is to say that they visualize ‘limitless’ material progress for man. Science, Engels believed, is not enough. Maintaining the ecological balance “requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and with it in our whole contemporary social order”. The abolition of the capitalist mode of production is a necessary prerequisite for sustainable  — in today’s parlance, green — growth.

Even in its unfinished form, The Part… is a valuable contribution to natural history. As an effort to craft a coherent philosophy of nature, again, the essay is priceless. In 1939, the great J.B.S. Haldane acknowledged his debt to Engels’s exposition of biological evolution thus:

“Had his remarks on Darwinism been generally known, I for one would have been saved a certain amount of muddled thinking.”

A great tribute indeed to a largely self-taught polymath from one of the world’s leading biological scientists!

Anjan Basu can be reached at basuanjan52@gmail.com