‘Friedrich Engels and Modern Social and Political Theory’ by Paul Blackledge reviewed by Kaan Kangal

Friedrich Engels and Modern Social and Political Theory

State University of New York Press, Albany, 2019. 278pp., $95 hb
ISBN 9781438476872

Reviewed by Kaan Kangal

About the reviewer

Kaan Kangal is an associate professor at the Philosophy Department of Nanjing University, …


Someone had to write this book, and I am glad that Paul Blackledge wrote it. Celebrating the bicentenary of Friedrich Engels birth, monographs of this sort are more than welcome. Blackledge’s two recent articles (2019a, 2019b) on Engels’ theory of politics and military affairs have signaled that Engels scholarship is still alive, but I did not expect that a book was also on the way.

The book introduces us into a ‘minefield’, as it were. It is no exaggeration to say that Engels’ readers are more divided than those of Marx. It is curious that one of the co-founders of modern socialism is remembered today with such mixed feelings. There are a number of controversies for which Engels is held responsible. He has been called a ‘metaphysician’, an ‘idealist’, ‘dogmatic’, etc. He has also been charged with reifying Marx’s dialectics and distorting the latter’s account of scientific method. Last but not least, he has been accused of misrepresenting the logical development of the categorial framework in Marx’s Capital. Overall, the ‘Marx vs Engels’ theme may so far have enjoyed more attention than Engels himself as an independent thinker, ambitious philosopher and socialist politician. Blackledge’s account can be read as an attempt to recover the neglected parts of Engels’ work, and to restore his place in the timeline of political history. This book occasions us to return to Engels, and returns Engels’ to our times.

Blackledge’s ‘Introduction’ covers Engels’ place in the history of the theory and practice of socialism from the angle of Marx and Marxism. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it opens with the so-called ‘Engels controversy’. The usual charge is that Engels distorted Marx’s ideas in one way or another, and this is usually believed to be the origin of other developments, such as Soviet Marxism (1-2). Georg Lukács’ early philosophical attacks against Engels’ dialectics of nature represents a significant turning point of non-Soviet Marxisms. To paraphrase Donald Clark Hodges, Lukács was also one of those who made ‘the young Marx … become the hero of Marx scholarship and the late Engels its villain’ (2).  Referring to an East German and a Soviet biographer (Heinrich Gemkow and Yevgenia Stepanova), Blackledge brings up the thesis of Marx and Engels’ “perfect agreement” according to which both men worked together in harmony for forty years. While Blackledge considers this opinion a reflection of “quasi-religious” ideology (6), he also condemns the attempt of the ‘anti-Engels camp’ (e.g., Norman Levine, Terrell Carver) to downplay the importance of Marx and Engels’ collaboration. The ‘perfect agreement’ thesis is interpreted as a distraction at best that kept most readers away from a closer scrutiny of Engels’ intentions, ambitions and tasks in the realm of socialist theory and political practice.

The first four chapters are devoted to Engels’ discovery and first theoretical outlines of the working class movement, his initial influences upon Marx, and both men’s joint attacks against their contemporaries (most notably in The Holy Family, The German Ideology and The Communist Manifesto). Born on November 28, 1820 in Barmen (now called Wuppertal), educated at a local pietist school, then at a liberal gymnasium, young Engels started his professional career very early when he left for Bremen to work for his father’s export agent and consul for the king of Saxony (21-22) before switching his location to Berlin at the end of 1830s, the center of Young Hegelianism. This was around the time when one of Hegel’s onetime close friend and roommate, Friedrich von Schelling, was appointed by the Prussian authorities to take up the philosophy Chair at the University of Berlin. He was asked to cross swords over the destiny of German philosophy, cut off the head of the Hegelian dragon, and bury his followers once and for all. No such thing happened, of course, but when Engels arrived in Berlin, there was much blood on the floor. That Engels was involved in this fight is evident from his lengthy pieces on Schelling.

Blackledge does not make entirely clear what pushed Engels away from his engagement with Schelling to his journey into politics and economics, but he does tell us that the man that Marx first met in November 1842 was already a communist (22). Though the first meeting was a ‘distinctly chilly’ affair (in Marx’s words), Engels’ ‘sober-minded’ work, hostile toward all sorts of ‘political romanticism’, proved to be a vital source of inspiration for Marx’s later “materialistic and realistic conception of revolutionary practice” (24). Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England was a highpoint both in young Engels’ intellectual journey and in the Marx-Engels relationship. This ‘brilliant essay’, as Marx called it, was concerned largely with the political economy and daily reality of the English working class, silently accompanied by the ‘moral economy’ of the ‘crowd’ (cf 23).

When writing The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels also read an early review copy of Max Stirner’s The Ego and His Own. In that work, Stirner had charged Feuerbach with a bogus materialism that inserted an unworldly conception of ‘man’ instead of demolishing the clerical idea of God. As late as November 1844, Engels shared his reading notes with Marx, warning him that their own analysis, too, should start “from the Ego, the empirical flesh-and-blood individual” (48). The ‘analysis’ of which Engels speaks was going to be fully articulated in The German Ideology, though that work could not find a publisher. However fragmentary, the work itself remains a significant document of the foundations of historical materialism, hence an invaluable resource for understanding a crucial period of their ‘self-clarification’ (in Marx’s words).

Commenting on this period, Blackledge sheds light on some of the keywords that capture the materialist conception of history. Elsewhere, he has forcefully argued that production is the conceptual core of historical materialism (Blackledge, 2006). In the present work, by contrast, he seems to have changed his mind: ‘production’ or ‘mode of production’ (54) figures as an umbrella term that encompasses practical agents of the social course of history. However, it is their material interests and needs that constitute the driving force behind the practical actions of social agents (51-52, 57). Production is subordinated to needs: “we produce [in order] to meet our needs” (53).

Chapters 4-9 draw on the theoretical outlines of Engels and Marx’s communist politics and interventions in questions concerning international wars, national revolutions and class struggles from the late 1840s to the late 1870s. It is hard to tell what makes up the part that is characteristically Engelsian in these sections, as Marx is referred to almost as often as Engels. That Blackledge repeatedly speaks of ‘Marx and Engels’ rather than ‘Engels and Marx’ is quite telling in this regard (e.g. 108). What we know for sure is that Blackledge invites us to read this period of labor struggles through the texts penned by Engels, with Marx placed somewhere in the background. Blackledge usefully summarizes a great number of theoretical issues that are subject to various writings from The Communist Manifesto (1847/48) to the Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875).

Blackledge’s tenth chapter, ironically subtitled “(Mis)understanding Capital” (165), goes into Engels’ contributions to, and alleged distortions of, Marx’s theory of value. Blackledge appreciates Engels’ attempts to press Marx to finish his political economic ‘Gesamtwerk’, to carry out the painstaking job of organizing the messy mass of manuscripts that Marx left behind after his death, and to prepare them for publication. Having said this, Blackledge delves into the controversial aspects of Engels’ share in the popularization of Marx’s critique of political economy (articulated most vividly by Heinrich, Vollgraf and Jucknickel, Moseley, and Arthur). Blackledge agrees with the critics that Engels “greatly misunderstood Marx’s theory of value in a way that had profoundly deleterious theoretical and political implications for twentieth-century Marxism” (166). Yet he disagrees with Carver that Engels reduced “Marx’s thought to a crudely materialist caricature of itself” (170). Nevertheless, Engels did make some misleading remarks on Marx’s theory of value in that he claimed that “the law of value applies universally … for the entire period of simple commodity production” (Engels quoted 173). Perhaps unintentionally, Engels took a Proudhonian position in this line of reasoning which Marx had so devastatingly committed himself to burying in 1847. Blackledge argues that Marx’s law of value operates “in a system of generalized commodity production where labor has been separated from the means of production such that the ability to work becomes commodified as labor power” (173).

The eleventh chapter on Engels’ Anti-Dühring discusses Engels’ philosophical views on dialectics, political economy and morality. As is well-known Anti-Dühring quickly became an influential source of reference through which Marx’s dialectical method was learned by generations of socialists. On several occasions (in 1858 and 1868), Marx spoke of his urge to write a short treatise on dialectics to clarify the matters that concern the philosophical theory that informs his political economy. This was also the first manuscript that Engels was going to look for after Marx’s death. In any case, Blackledge’s account comes close to reading Engels’ own take on philosophy as an ambitious attempt to respond to that theoretical need. In Blackledge’s opinion, it is unreasonable to believe that Marx was uninformed about the concrete content of Engels’ writing, as this resulted largely from Marx and Engels’ collaboration and exchange of ideas on how to take down Eugen Dühring, one of Marx’s rivals in political economy and philosophical theory in German Social Democratic circles in the 1870s. Blackledge also draws attention to Engels’ theorizing on “proletarian morality” (184), a topic that so far seems to have enjoyed little attention in Engels scholarship. Although different class moralities have emerged from different sections of society, capitalism “created for the first time the basis for a universal interest” (184). Proletarian class struggle is simultaneously a sectional conflict against capital and a struggle, carried on by a specific social group, that represents a movement for the general human interest.

Finally, the twelfth chapter offers insights into Engels’ theory of women’s oppression. Blackledge proposes to view Engels’ later works on women’s questions such as The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State (1884) as a continued effort to elaborate neglected aspects of Marxist socialist politics. While August Bebel’s influential Women and Socialism might have additionally prompted Engels’ writing on this subject, Blackledge suspects that Engels’ main impetus came from his reading of Marx’s notes on Lewis H. Morgan’s Ancient Society (204). One should keep in mind that sexism was not uncommon among Social Democratic theoreticians such as Ferdinand Lassalle who claimed that “women should be kept out of the factories” (201). Contra Bebel, Engels argued that women’s oppression was not a universal characteristic of human history. Historically, “women had been in a position of rough equality prior to the emergence of agricultural communities” (203). Women’s oppression needs to be understood from the angle of the historical specificity of the material conditions of the societies in question. Engels went so far as to claim that the analysis of women’s questions cannot be limited to the issue of oppression, it should also encompass the issue of the “possibility of women’s liberation through the struggle for socialism” (203). What still calls for further scrutiny is whether Engels is justified to introduce what Blackledge terms a ‘dual systems approach’ Accordingly, patriarchal oppression of women and capitalist class exploitation are juxtaposed in a way that leaves open the question of the priority or primacy of the former over the latter.

Overall, Blackledge’s book proves a very useful source of reference for the students of Engels. Blackledge clearly shows that there are still many fields to be explored and various questions to be answered, from political economy and philosophical dialectics to women’s oppression and morality. In this regard, Engels rightfully earned a place for himself in the timeline of socialist theory and practice.

1 April 2020


  • Paul Blackledge 2006 Reflections on the Marxist Theory of History Manchester: Manchester University Press
  • Paul Blackledge 2019a Engels’s Politics: Strategy and Tactics after 1848 Socialism and Democracy vol. 33, no. 2, pp. 23-45
  • Paul Blackledge 2019b War and Revolution: Friedrich Engels as a Military and Political Thinker War & Society vol. 38, no. 2, pp. 81-97

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