Thursday 4 December 2014

Engels on History

At the moment I'm reading Daniel Bensaïd's book, Marx For Our Times. And yes, it is excellent. I don't know, I spent a ridiculous amount of time wrestling with Althusser and sundry poststructuralists 10-15 years ago when, unbeknown to me, there was already a strain of post-Althusserian French(ish) Marxism that had moved on and captured the critical, scientific spirit of historical materialism. Poor old Louis made this possible but, irony of ironies, wasn't able to accomplish that himself.

Bensaïd's book is especially good because of the demolition job it does on recent myths the likes of poststructuralism and Analytical Marxism have tacked on to Marx's voluminous beard. Teleology? No. Marx's Theory of History? No. People as appendages of classes? No. Marx was blind to other classes apart from the bourgeoisie, landowners and proletariat in capitalism? No. And on and on it goes. Written in an accessible style it comes highly recommended.

Anyway, the first 'critical Marxists' who had a historical materialist approach purged of Hegelian phantasms and all other metaphysical ghoulies were ... Marx and Engels in the first place, and quite early in their career too. For anyone still labouring under the assumption the dynamic duo held to a naive theory of history, here is Engels from *1843* absolutely nailing it:
History does nothing, it possesses no immense wealth; it wages no battles: It is man, real, living man who does all that, who possesses and fights: 'history' is not, as it were, a person apart, using man as a means to achieve its own aims; history is nothing but the activity of man pursuing his aims.
                                         (Engels, The Holy Family, in Bensaïd 2002, p.10)
170 years later some "Marxists" and its purported detractors carry on as if these words were never  written. 


Boffy said...


The quote from Engels is significant, and correct, but be careful with it. Remember alongside it, Marx's comment in "The Poverty of Philosophy", that Man in doing all those things, and in creating that history, does so under conditions not of his own choosing. Remember his quote in the same book that "Time is everything, Man is nothing. He is at most time's carcase." Written its true in relation specifically to the creation of value by labour, but nevertheless telling, especially when read in conjunction with Marx's comment in Capital I, Chapter I, that the individual actors on the economic stage are nothing more than the representatives of the economic forces that stand behind them.

Remember too, Engels most mature statement of what their theory was intended to convey in regard to history, in his letter to Bloch where rather like Marx's earlier statement he describes history as the outcome of a parallelogram of conflicting wills of millions of individuals, each of whose individual will is determined by a range of factors that only ultimately is conditioned by economic factors, and the result is

"Secondly, history is so made that the end-result always arises out of the conflict of many individual wills, in which every will is itself the product of a host of special conditions of life. Consequently there exist innumerable intersecting forces, an infinite group of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant product – the historical event. This again may itself be viewed as the product of a force acting as a whole without consciousness or volition. For what every individual wills separately is frustrated by what every one else wills and the general upshot is something which no one willed. And so the course of history has run along like a natural process; it also is subject essentially to the same laws of motion. But from the fact that the wills of individuals – who desire what the constitution of their body as well as external circumstances, in the last instance economic (either personal or social) impel them to desire – do not get what they wish, but fuse into an average or common resultant, from all that one has no right to conclude that they equal zero. On the contrary, every will contributes to the resultant and is in so far included within it."

The real class struggle, which emerges is a struggle between different forms of property, which arise as the consequence of this process, and of which human beings are the representatives as Marx describes in Capital. Its in that context that those human beings make history.

Phil said...

Thanks for that, Boffy. You may be pleased to learn I'm gearing up for The Grundrisse in the new year - I've just had a mini-binge on Marx's early works.

Boffy said...


Next year I will be publishing books giving a modern chapter by chapter interpretation of Marx's Capital, based on the blog posts I have been publishing over the last year or so. I'm also intending a similar treatment of the Grundrisse, but in order to be able to devote the blog more to shorter, current analysis of events, I may do that straight to e-book. I've also been somewhat delayed in publishing my novel, which I now hope to get out next year.

Your post started me thinking, and I have come to a conclusion about a snooker interpretation of history that fits quite well the idea that history is the action of human beings (the players) but whose actions are constrained by laws (physics and the laws of snooker), but which, even within the context of consistently rational choices made within those constraints, always result in different outcomes.

I might write that up as a blog post when I have time.

Ken said...

The parallelograms passage is painstakingly dissected by Althusser in 'Contradiction and Overdetermination', well worth a slow read.

The problem he would see with the famous 'History does nothing' passage is that it still sees 'man' as the subject of history. The Holy Family definitely precedes (even as it prefigures) the first clear formulation of historical materialism.

Anonymous said...

So who is Ronnie O'Sullivan?

BCFG said...

History is not just men pursuing their aims for the simple reason that when looking at history men do so in a particular way. I would say time is related to events, related to change but history is a product of human consciousness and not their actions. So humans can distort history for their own interests. It is a political subject.

Here is an example:

I once remember having a debate with Boffy on consumerism, I claimed there was a contradiction between the worker as a worker and the worker as a consumer, and that consumerism was a phenomenon that the left had to grapple with, because it was having a material effect on the workers consciousness. Boffy dismissed all this; he said Marxists had disproved this in the 1960’s.

Here is what I said,

“But the evidence shows that it does the exact opposite, that consumerism creates apathy and hedonism and atomises the working class. Where is your scientific method?”

Boffy responded to this comment by saying this:

“Your argument that workers are being embourgeoisified by consumerism was made by bourgeois sociology during the 1960’s and shown to be false by Marxist sociologists then. Your repetition of that bourgeois argument today is still false.”

You can imagine my surprise when I read this on Boffy’s website just the other week:

“It affirms Chomsky's point about neo-liberalism.

"Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless."”

For all Boffy’s self proclaimed predictive powers, he couldn’t see in 2009 what he now consider an obvious fact! Oh, and I could see it clearly. But you know what Boffy will still claim he was right all along, such is the nature of history!

Boffy said...

I remember that BCFG is a troll who posts under a variety of names. He has had to dig this one out, that he has not used for nearly five years, because to post using one of the names he currently uses here would have rather obviously linked them together!

But, in true troll style he takes a discussion about the nature of the historical process, and hijacks it for some other purpose, including as usual a distortion of what was actually being said in the two discussions he tries to link together in his amalgam.

That is why I do not bother engaging in discussion with trolls.

BCFG said...

My overall point is that you can’t define history as some form of objective process because by its nature it is something that is looked back on ex post facto. History is itself part of history, i.e. men pursuing their aims. And when men explain history they do so from all sorts of distorted positions, arrived through endless s social, cultural, political, theoretical filters. My example of Boffy was to illustrate this point.

Engels claimed that for Marx history was a process whereby man arrives at things that were unintended; he claims there are a multitude of individual wills and intersections. This might sound like an epistemological break to some but what I think Engels was getting at is that their previous theory of history was an abstraction that some people took too literally.

This is why I prefer dialectical materialism to historical materialism – the former attempts to establish a process that explains general human development, the latter attempts to explain specific human development.