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New Left Review I/106, November-December 1977

Gareth Stedman Jones

Engels and the Genesis of Marxism

Since his death in London in 1895, it has proved peculiarly difficult to arrive at a fair and historically balanced assessment of Engels’s place in the history of Marxism, both within the Marxist tradition and outside it. Engels was both the acknowledged co-founder of historical materialism and the first and most influential interpreter and philosopher of Marxism. Yet, since at least the break-up of the Second International, he has been persistently treated, either simply as Marx’s loyal lieutenant, or else as the misguided falsifier of true Marxist doctrine. The continued prevalence of these rather stale alternatives cannot be attributed to the lack of an adequate scholarly basis on which Engels’s career could more imaginatively be judged. On the contrary, Engels was magnificently served by one of the best of twentieth-century scholarly biographies, that of Gustav Mayer, the product of over three decades of research and a scarcely rivalled knowledge of nineteenth-century German labour and socialist history. [1] Gustav Mayer, Friedrich Engels, Eine Biographie, 2 Vols, 1932; reprinted Cologne 1969. Among other biographical studies of Engels, see A. Cornu, Karl Marx et Friedrich Engels, leur vie et leur oeuvre, 4 Vols, Paris 1954– ; H. Ullrich, Der junge Engels, Berlin 1961; sed, Friedrich Engels, Eine Biographie, Berlin 1970; H. Hirsch, Engels, Hamburg 1968; H. Pelger (ed.), Friedrich Engels 1820–1970: Referate, Diskussionen, Dokumente, Hanover 1971; W. Henderson, Frederick Engels, 2 Vols, London 1976. But Mayer’s work has remained little studied, indeed virtually unknown until its republication in the last decade. Because Mayer was not a Marxist, his research went virtually unacknowledged by Communist writers, even though he deliberately confined himself to a painstaking descriptive reconstruction of Engels’s life and work, and ventured few judgements of his own. He was also unlucky in the timing of his biography. The first volume appeared in 1918, at a time when the attention of German socialists was deflected by the end of the war and the splits of the November revolution. The second volume appeared at the end of 1932 and was almost immediately suppressed by the incoming Nazis. Even in the German-speaking world, the book almost immediately became a bibliographic rarety; and it was never translated, except in an extremely truncated version. It thus remained the restricted possession of a few specialized scholars in the post-war period.

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