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.footnote1 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.

But the one-sidedness of most modern treatment of Engels was not solely or even principally the consequence of the mishaps of Mayer’s book. For, from at least the end of the first world war, assessment of Engels’s particular contribution to Marxism had become a highly charged political question. After a period of unrivalled prestige between the 1880s and 1914, Engels’s reputation suffered first in the revolutionary leftist critique of the failings of the Second International and subsequently in the non-communist or anti-communist critique of the excesses of the Third.

It was Lukács and to a lesser extent Korsch, in the revolutionary period following the Russian Revolution, who drove the first effective wedge between the theory of Marx and that of Engels.footnote2 In a respectful but ominous critique of Engels’s Anti-Dühring, Lukács from a radical Hegelian standpoint attacked Engels’s preoccupation with a uniform dialectic linking human and natural history, and in particular his distinction between ‘metaphysical’ and ‘dialectical’ science, on the grounds that it obscured the truly revolutionary dialectic within Marx; that between subject and object within human history. This criticism was not merely epistemological. For in Lukács’s eyes, the prestige of Darwin and evolutionary science within the Second International was intimately bound up with an undialectical separation of theory and practice, and hence the immobilism and reformism of its politics. Although Lukács’s critique had little immediate impact, and he himself later retracted it, it was a prefiguration of the form taken by many later attacks. Dialectical materialism—Plekhanov’s term for a Marxist philosophy and a general view of the world—was largely constructed from Engels’s later writings, and once this philosophy received the official imprimatur of the Soviet Union, it became difficult to differentiate an attitude to Engels from an attitude to the Communist positions of the Stalinist era. On the one hand, the publication of Engels’s unfinished manuscript, The Dialectics of Nature, in 1927, became associated with Stalin’s attempt to impose a dialectical materialist orthodoxy upon natural scientists. On the other hand, it was the social democrats, Landshut and Meyer, who first published a version of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in an effort to pit an ethical humanist Marx against a Leninist interpretation of Marxism. The alleged rift between the theories of Marx and Engels, first implied by Lukács, was further widened, no longer as an attack upon social democracy, but in defence of it.

In the post-war period, if cold-war commentators were happy to lump together Marx and Engels as the twin architects of a determinist and totalitarian system, the official spokesmen of the Communist Parties were equally insistent upon the seamless unity of the work of the two men, and intensely suspicious of any attempt to distinguish their individual contributions. Alternative interpretations of the Marxist legacy were largely developed by those who felt uncomfortable with either of these poles—a mixed bag of dissident communist theorists, Second International social democrats, radical Christian theologians and existentialist or neo-Hegelian philosophers. Their efforts, either to construct a Marx which challenged the authorized version, or to appropriate him to a pre-existing philosophical tradition, generally took the form of heaping onto Engels all the unwanted components of Soviet Marxism, from which they were so anxious to distance themselves.

The one-sidedness and distortions of the twentieth-century treatment of Engels are really only a measure of the immense and lasting influence that he exerted on the definition of Marxist socialism at the point at which it first began seriously to be adopted by the European socialist movement. This effectively happened, neither in the 1840s, nor in the 1860s, but in the 1880s and the immense burden of work and responsibility that this involved was virtually shouldered by Engels alone. Already in the last years of the First International, the brunt of the battle against Proudhonism and Bakuninism had fallen on Engels, and in the last ten years of his life Marx produced little of immediate public consequence. His answers to the queries of Russian revolutionaries on the relevence of Capital to the character of a future Russian revolution were hesitant and open-ended. They were not sufficiently decisive to be used by Russian social democrats in their struggle against the Narodniks, and were thus left unpublished until the 1920s.footnote3 Similarly, Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme was an unwanted contribution to the unity negotiations between the Eisenach and Lassallean wings of German social democracy in 1875. Little heed was taken of it even by the professed friends and followers of Marx in the social-democratic leadership, and it was only made public by Engels during the negotiations over a new party programme fifteen years later. The last joint attempt of Marx and Engels directly to challenge the running of the German Social-Democratic Party, the so-called ‘drei Sterne affair’ of 1879—an angry critique of the leadership’s toleration of an attempt from within the party to dilute the proletarian character of the spd—ended in an equally bitter blow to their pride. Their threat of public dissociation from the party evoked little response, and thereafter it became clear that direct and overt attempts at political intervention would be self-defeating, and that the London exiles would have to accept their honoured but remote role as founding theorists or have their political powerlessness publicly exposed.