Every science has a beginning. Every new science must come from somewhere. It is usually easy enough to discover forerunners and anticipations. What is more difficult is to pinpoint and clarify what is new and original to the science in its course of elaboration. It is clear for example that one of the basic propositions of Galileo—that the language of nature is written in mathematical symbols—is platonic in inspiration and can be traced back through a whole philosophical tradition. It is clear also that whatever it is that Galileo takes from Plato is transformed in the act of constructing Galilean physics, and that the end result is something authentically new which cannot be reduced to the sum total of its sources. A similar problem arises in the relationship between Darwin and Malthus. We know from Darwin’s own confession that the initial inspiration of his theory came from Malthus. Yet whatever it is that Darwin takes over from Malthus, is so transformed in the course of the elaboration of the theory of evolution, that we can quite consistently both reject the Malthusian theory of population and accept in broad outlines the Darwinian theory of the evolution of the species.

It might be thought that the answer can be found in what scientific innovators have themselves said about their discoveries and the new scientific procedures they have elaborated. But this is by no means a sure guide. Often scientists are unable to think what is authentically new in the scientific procedures that they have employed. They are of course aware of the novelty of their conclusions, but they are often unable to explain what it was that was novel in their manner of working on their raw material which enabled them to reach those conclusions. Often, in their search to identify the scientific method they have employed, they have recourse to pre-existing philosophic categories. But almost without exception, this resort only compounds the confusion: the new science thereby constructs for itself a false genealogy, its discontinuity with the pre-existing state of knowledge is flattened into a spurious form of continuity, and its new discoveries risk being obscured by the weight of philosophical ideology. We can give a very clear example of this in the case of Newton. When he attempted to explain his methods of investigation, in the Rules of Philosophizing, he expressed them in the terminology of Lockean empiricism. This translation of new scientific procedures into the terminology of common sense empiricism, far from facilitating scientific progress in the 18th century, placed a major obstacle in its path.footnote1

The essential point is that a new science in the course of elaboration, is rarely if ever able to step back and isolate what is authentically new and epistemologically distinct in its procedures, let alone draw the full philosophical consequences from its discoveries. The philosophical consequences of scientific discoveries are generally perceived only after a considerable passage of time has elapsed, and when they are perceived they generally turn out to be rather different from those which the scientist himself had imagined. Cartesian philosophy is quite distant from the platonic form in which Galileo expressed his discoveries. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason is rather different from anything that Newton envisaged in his Rules of Philosophizing. Hegel correctly perceived this lag between the birth of new sciences and the articulation of their philosophical consequences when he wrote that the Owl of Minerva takes wing at dusk.

The problem that I have just outlined, was Engels’ problem. Moreover, in Engels’ case, it was a problem that could not be left to the fullness of time for its solution. From the late 1870s, Marx’s work was beginning to become known in the European labour movement. It was already acknowledged as the correct socialist theory, although barely understood, by Liebknecht and Bebel, the leaders of the German Social-Democratic party. In the course of the next dozen years, groups and embryonic parties modelling themselves on the German Social-Democratic Party, and basing themselves on what they took to be the ideas of Marx, sprang up in every major European country—the Parti Ouvrier Francais in 1879, the Russian Group of the Emancipation of Labour and the English Social-Democratic Federation in 1883, the Parti Ouvrier Beige in 1885, the Austrian and Swiss Social Democratic Parties in 1888 and the Italian Socialist Party in 1892. The task of systematizing historical materialism and deducing its implications had become politically urgent. That task fell to Engels.

Needless to say, Engels’ formulation of historical materialism and the philosophy he elaborated to accompany it, have been of momentous consequence. For they marked the transition, so to speak, from Marx to Marxism and provided the formative moment of all the leading Marxist interpreters of the Second International and most of the leaders of the Third. As Kautsky testified towards the end of his life, ‘judging by the influence that Anti-Dühring had upon me, no other book can have contributed so much to the understanding of Marxism. Marx’s Capital is the more powerful work, certainly. But it was only through Anti-Dühring that we learnt to understand Capital and read it properly’.footnote2 According to Ryazanov, Anti-Dühring ‘was epoch-making in the history of Marxism. It was from this book that the younger generation which began its activity during the second half of the 1870s learned what was scientific socialism, what were its philosophic premises, what was its method . . . all the young Marxists, who entered the public arena in the early eighties—Bernstein, Kautsky, Plekhanov—were brought up on this book’.footnote3

The difference in atmosphere between the later 1870s when Anti-Dühring was written and the late 1880s is evident in Engels’ Ludwig Feuerbach of 1888. While Anti-Dühring had been designed as no more than a political intervention into an ideological dispute within the German Social-Democratic Party and was composed with some reluctance—‘It was a year before I could make up my mind to neglect other work and get my teeth into this sour apple’footnote4Feuerbach was written in a quite different spirit. ‘The Marxist world outlook has found representatives far beyond the boundaries of Germany and Europe and in all the literary languages of the world’, wrote Engels in his preface. ‘In these circumstances a short coherent account of our relation to the Hegelian philosophy, of how we proceeded, as well as of how we separated from it, appeared to me to be required more and more.’footnote5

How then does Engels characterize the general nature of historical materialism and the intellectual situation from which it emerged? The answer in Ludwig Feuerbach is fairly clear: a combination of a materialist world outlook, Feuerbach’s contribution, and the dialectical method of Hegel, Hegel’s ‘revolutionary side’. According to Engels, Hegel’s general system was in contradiction to his method. According to the dialectical method: ‘all that is real in the sphere of human history becomes irrational in the process of time, and is therefore irrational by its very destination . . . and everything which is rational in the minds of men is destined to become real, however much it may contradict existing apparent reality.’footnote6 Or in short: ‘All that exists deserves to perish.’footnote7 This was the revolutionary side of Hegel. ‘It once and for all dealt the death blow to the finality of all products of human thought and action.’footnote8 This is the implicit conclusion to be drawn from Hegel, but one that Hegel himself never drew. Because he had to complete his system in accordance with philosophical tradition, he rounded it off with a theory of absolute knowledge which dogmatically smothered the revolutionary implications of his dialectical method. This interpretation of Hegel, was, as Engels correctly points out, the view of the young Hegelian Left in the 1830s.footnote9