Engels and Evolution

It is no great insight to point towards Engel’s admiration of Darwin and his desire to place his and Marx’s theory in the vein of scientific advance: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” However, I am curious about how this analogy functions for good ol’ Friedrich. In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels outlines how his scientific aspirations (“To make a science of socialism, it had to first be placed upon a real basis”) run up against dialectical materialism’s philosophical precursor: Hegelianism. After recognizing the “great merit” of Hegel and his revival of dialectics, Engels argues that Hegelianism is Darwinian, and vice versa. “Nature works dialectically and not metaphysically.” Nevertheless and as we all know–Hegel’s fatal flaw–he’s an idealist. “To him the thoughts within the brain were not the more or less abstract pictures of actual things and processes, but, conversely, things and their evolution were only the realised pictures of the “Idea,” existing somewhere from eternity before the world was.” But we, dialectical materialists, know that all past history is the history of class struggles. Bring on the real!

With Marx, we are told, “idealism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history.” He goes on, “Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes–the proletariat and the bourgeoisie” (emphasis mine). History is and always has been driven by class struggle, but Marx showed us that the scientific outcome of this history, the evolutionary leap upon which we (in 1880) are surely upon the precipice, is communism. At this point, with all the talk of inevitability, I’m starting to wonder why I’m spending so much time studying this stuff.

I don’t mean to be too harsh on Friedrich here, but the contradiction of this account stuck out to me quite blatantly as I was reading this week. How can Engels critique idealist philosophy on one page and then on literally the next page declare that Marxian philoosophy has discovered communism be the historically necessary outcome of class struggle? If communism isn’t contingent but inevitable, why was Marx’s philosophizing necessary?

Though he moves on without seeming to note this contradiction, Engels doesn’t leave this question totally unanswered. A few pages on, we are brought back to the analogy of the natural sciences. “Once we understand [natural forces], we [can] grasp their action, their direction, their effects, it depends only upon ourselves to subject them more and more to our own will, and by means of them to reach out own ends.” Marxism, then, is like a ‘hard science’ that allows the proletariat to objectify their social conditions and seize political power.

Leaving aside for now the critiques of this model of ‘hard’ sciences that would come after Engels’ death, I guess I’m curious about the precise point where he overreaches–communism, sadly, was not historically necessary. In this text, it seems to me that in his desire to fashion Marxism after Darwinism, he fails to see that Darwin doesn’t make guesses about where evolution is heading. If we grant class struggle as a, or even the, driving force of history upon a model like evolution, surely that doesn’t grant us the power to see where evolution might go next?

3 thoughts on “Engels and Evolution

  1. In thinking about this a bit more, I also wonder if there’s a bit of hopeful prophesying. I.e., ‘we can inspire the people through talk of inevitability.’ And then I immediately recoil in horror at the inevitability narratives around this presidential election. Those didn’t play out exactly as planned either.

  2. My own view on this is that choosing a revolutionary or radical subject position changes the reality in fact not theory. For example becoming a feminist means internalizing a feminist ontology and committing to the feminist project and does in fact change the material objective world.

    There is no place outside the revolutions from which to judge them. Once inside the revolution the inevitability is a consequence of the commitment. Etc. Just a quick stab, obviously whole shelves of material have been written on this.

  3. Stephen, your reflections reminded me of Rorty’s account of how Dewey tried to fuse Hegel and Darwin:

    ‘The problem with wedding Hegel and Darwin has always been that Hegel seems to say that human civilization just couldn’t casually be wiped out by a plague or a comet and that language-using beings just had to emerge from the evolutionary process so that the Idea could finish off Nature and get started on Spirit. He seems to say that there really is a power, not ourselves, that is more like us than it is like amoebas or squirrels—or, more precisely, a power of which we are better manifestations than they are. So the purely mechanical account of biological evolution offered by a synthesis of Darwin with Mendel, though commending itself to atheists, seems antithetical to a philosophy built, as Hegel’s was, around the idea of the Incarnate Logos.
    Teleological thinking is inevitable, but Dewey offers us a relativist and materialist version of teleology rather than an absolute and idealist one. Whereas Hegel held that the study of history brings over from philosophy the thought that the real is the rational, the Hegel-Darwin synthesis Dewey proposes must de-ontologize this claim and make it simply a regulative, heuristic principle. Narratives of historical progress are legitimized not by the philosopher’s explanation that the slaughter-bench of history is where the Incarnate Logos is redemptively tortured, but because we want historians to be able to discern what Hegel called “the rose in the cross of the present.” A historian should be able to tell her community how it is now in a position to be, intellectually and morally, better than predecessor communities thanks to its knowledge of the struggles of those predecessors. As the saying goes, we know more than our ancestors because they are what we know; what we most want to know about them is how to avoid their mistakes.
    Dewey would have been pleased by the fact that the twentieth century has spent increasingly little time talking about the nature of ultimate reality. In part this has been because the increasing prominence of Language as a topic, accompanied by an increasing recognition that one can describe the same thing in different ways for different purposes, has helped to make pragmatism, as a doctrine of the relativity of normative judgments to purposes served, more palatable. More important, perhaps, is that many different developments in our century—Freudian accounts of inner moral conflicts, ethnographic descriptions of alternative forms of social life, experimentalism in literature and the arts—have made it steadily easier for us to substitute Deweyan questions like “Which communities’ purposes shall I share?” and “What sort of person should I try to become?” for the Kantian questions “What should I do?” “What may I hope?” and “What is man?” ’
    —Rorty, ‘Dewey between Hegel and Darwin’

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